Now that it’s finally 2020, it’s time to talk about what games I loved in 2019. Keep in mind that I’m just one over-the-hill nerd and I don’t have a staff of younglings helping me to achieve Total Coverage. As a result, I only play a tiny fraction of the games that come out in a given year. Moreover, I try to play a mix of AAA and indie stuff. The result is that there are probably a lot of really good games that I never got around to playing.
Also, I don’t always pounce on games at release day. You might see a few games in this list that actually came out at the tail end of 2018, but I didn’t get around to playing until this year. Given how much publishers like to fight over the Christmas shopping season, I have to allow a bit of slop in the dates or some games would never get a chance.
I’m not very good at putting games in order. The expectation is that the list should be sorted in the order of ascending quality, with the #1 spot going to some sort of “Game of the Year”. That’s a reasonable expectation as a reader, but the ordering of these things is inherently and inescapably arbitrary.
Hm. Do I give the #3 spot to Landmark Game That We Never Thought Would Get a Sequel? Or maybe I should put that one space below Niche Game I Was Personally Obsessed With? And hang on, shouldn’t both of these be lower than Smash Hit That People Are Still Making Memes About? Oh crap, I didn’t leave room on the list for Surprise Hit That Everyone Thought Would Be Terrible! And what about High-Profile Remake that’s Better than The Original, or Gem From Last Year That I Didn’t Get Around to Playing Until This Year! This is a mess. I need to start over.
So don’t give me a hard time about the ordering, okay?
#9 Donut County
In the eight years I spent making Let’s Play content with the Spoiler Warning crew, by far my favorite part was when we spent most of an episode throwing people out of windows and over ledges. The glee you hear in my voice during that episode isn’t exaggerated for comedic effect, I really was laughing that hard.
Like I said at the time, I do have this inexplicable predilection for turning foes over to the clutches of gravity and letting physics have its way with them. When I was playing Jedi Fallen Order this year, I spent a lot of time taking extra damage and generally fighting sub-optimally because I preferred to dart around until I was in a position to shove storm troopers over a ledge with the force rather than just killing them with my lightsaber.
Donut County is a game where you pilot a hole around a small town. The hole starts out just large enough to swallow bricks and old beer bottles, but it gets larger as you feed it more items. Pretty soon you’re swallowing furniture. Eventually you’re pulling in cars and houses. And more important than any of that: You get to gobble up the hapless townspeople.
The story frames this as a villainous act that must be undone by the end, but I wasn’t feeling that. If society says it’s wrong to fling an entire town into an abyss, then society needs to change.
Anyway, I had fun with this. The low-poly flat shaded art is delightful. There are some extra puzzle mechanics and a story about friendship and redemption if you’re one of those weirdos that needs more than throwing people into holes to be entertained.
A couple of entries ago I explained why I didn’t bother with Gears of War 5. During that segment, I talked about my love for mid-90s shooters. Dusk is an amusing game that recaptures the feeling of that bygone genre.
It’s got everything you’d expect from titles of that era.
- High-speed movement that allows you to weave through projectiles.
- Swarms of foes that go down easyCompared to modern shooters..
- A huge arsenal of outlandish weapons.
- A fascination with macabre scenery and occultish / satanic imagery.
- Incredibly varied levels that don’t attempt to re-create real spaces but instead sort of suggest a place / style / motif.
- Levels don’t flow from one location to another according to any logic, but instead you leap from one idea to the next like you’re caught in a fever dream.
- Garish colors.
- Items exist as glowing, floating icons, and you pick them up by sprinting over them.
- Jumping puzzles in a world where you can’t see your feet and your movement feels vaguely slippery.
- A mix-and-match approach to level design. Area A gives you lots of shotgun shells and three foes that rush you in tight corridors. Area B gives you lots of machine gun and two types of foes that snipe at you from rooftops, with a few suicide bombers on the ground to keep you on your toes. Area C is about using rockets to fight large swarms of fast-moving foes in an open field.
This game wears its influences on its sleeve. In the first level, bad guys shout both “Heretic!” and “Blood!” at the player. The on-screen text says “Groovy“This is known as one of Duke Nukem’s catchphrases, but he actually “borrowed” it from Army of Darkness. when you pick up the shotgun. The texture maps are low-res and there’s no anti-aliasing of any kind, which gives the visuals the weird “shimmering pixels” effect that was unavoidable back then and which modern designers spend lots of effort and processing power to avoid. Other than the 1080p resolution and some modern-ish lighting effectsThe lights are more dynamic, they cast softer shadows, and have less color banding than would have been reasonably possible in the mid-90s., there’s almost nothing to give away that this game didn’t come out in 1996.
On the other hand, the combat can get monotonous. This is a game you play in 20 minute bursts, not one you play for hours at a time. Hunting for keycards to progress through the level is obnoxious. Sometimes the levels are immense and bewildering, which might lead to several minutes of wandering around lost, trying to find the next batch of murders. The barks from foes are really repetitive. The difficulty is often really uneven. Sometimes ammo scarcity will force you to use the really boring weapons.
Then again… that’s what shooters were like in the 1990s. I have less patience for keycard hunts and labyrinthine level design these days, but that’s not the fault of the game designer. They set out to recapture the games of that era, and they did.
#7 Hitman 2
I was delighted when the 2016 Hitman rebootNot really a hard reboot, but they dropped all the modifiers from the name and made major shifts to tone and gameplay. That’s a reboot-ish thing to do. left behind the rampant idiocy of Hitman: Absolution and brought the game back to its open, free-form, murder-for-hire roots. The game took my #2 spot in 2016. In particular, I think the Sapienza level is the greatest Hitman level ever made, and ranks pretty high in my informal list of “best game maps of all time”.
This second Hitman gameIt’s actually the seventh game in the series, but whatever. doesn’t quite reach the heights of its 2016 forbearer, but it’s still a solid entry in the series.
Hitman 2 feels a little more restricted than the previous game. In Hitman 2016, I always felt like I was being pulled in six different directions. I’d be in the middle of trying to poison a guy when I’d find a clue about how to electrocute him, and I’d chase that lead to find I’d missed the window on the poisoning but now blowing him up was possible. In Hitman 2, I always felt more restricted. Instead of being pulled in six directions, I often found myself groping around, unable to find any route to the target.
Both designs have their merits. Hitman 2016 was a little more playful and open, while Hitman 2 was a bit more of a puzzle. I liked the first one a little better, but I suspect Hitman 2 was more satisfying for long-term fans who want to spend weeks playing and replaying the levels.
#6 Return of the Obra Dinn
This was technically a 2018 game that I missed. It was an indie darling last year and it even won some awards. It made my No-Show list last year, and I finally played it this summer. It wasn’t until I went to do this end-of-year retrospective that I realized I never got around to finishing it.
Back in the day, my wife and I used to play adventure games together. I’d drive, and she would sit in the co-pilot seat making maps or taking notes. We played old school Sierra adventure games, but also the pre-rendered slideshow ones like Myst and Riven.
Then we wound up with 3 young kids and it wasn’t feasible for us to sit in the computer room for an extended period of time without worrying that one of the kids was going to eat all the paste or set fire to the couch. Also, the genre sort of died in the aughts.
Return of the Obra Dinn isn’t an adventure game is the classic sense, but its puzzles scratched the same itch. Heather and I had a great time working on it until her jobs and my shifting sleep schedule prevented us from being able to play together.
The Obra Dinn is a sailing ship that departed on an expedition and returned empty. Your goal is to identify all 60 members of the crew and piece together what happened to each of them. The game is fascinating because it’s not a series of self-contained puzzles like you find in most games. Instead the entire game is one giant interconnected puzzle.
This also means it’s really hard to pick up where you left off if you step away from the game for a few months. That’s not a flaw with the game, it’s just the nature of this kind of puzzle. This game is a brilliant and unique experience, even if I didn’t get to see it all the way through.
#5 Risk of Rain 2
Like I said earlier in the year, the Risk of Rain games seem to adhere to this really unconventional design ethos that breaking the game is okay. I don’t know if this is deliberate on the part of the designers, but I really enjoy it.
The flow of the game goes like this: You appear on one of a half dozen or so levels with a fixed layout. Monsters begin spawning around you. You kill them to make money, you use the money to open chests, the chests spit out items, and the items boost your stats. More health! More fire rate! More damage! More criticals! More projectiles! Faster cooldowns! Faster movement! Higher jumping! Robotic minions! Bigger area damage! Foes detonate and kill other foes!
When you’re ready, you find the teleporter and activate it. This will summon a boss monster. Defeat it, and you can move on to the next level.
The thing is, there’s no cap on how many items you can collect, and no limit on how high their bonuses can stack. The items all have weird synergies, trade-offs, and side effects. It’s possible to buff your movement speed so much that you can’t control your character, or buff your rate of fire to such a ridiculous level that it slows down your computer. Granted, you have to go out of your way to do this, but the game itself won’t make any effort to stop you.
This means you want to farm items as much as possible. At the same time, the clock is always running and the monsters grow in power as a function of time. The longer you play, the more the challenge ramps up. Gather items too slowly and you’ll be overwhelmed. Gather them fast enough and… well, that’s the trick, isn’t it? Sooner or later you either break the game or it breaks you. The game is designed to unbalance over time, and the win state is when you’re finally able to tip the scales in your favor. From there you keep amassing power, seeing how fast you can vaporize swarms of boss monsters.
There really isn’t anything else like it.
This was a charming surprise. The game often looks like The Stanley Parable, makes vaguely threatening jokes like Portal, and has strange spatial puzzles like AntiChamber. The game isn’t quite as charming as Stanley Parable, not as witty as Portal, and not as bewildering as Antichamber, but it has its moments.
My one gripe is that they saved the best puzzles for last, and then the game ended before we’d really explored the idea. There a couple of puzzles where you can move and resize doorways. You can walk in one door and emerge from the smaller opposite side to find yourself in the same room, but now you’re 3 inches tall. I feel like there’s enough fun potential in that idea that you could make a whole game out of that sort of thing. Here it’s just two or three puzzles and then it rolls credits. Sad face.
Ah well. It’s fun, it’s clever, and there’s something to be said for a game that doesn’t overstay its welcome.
I’ll finish up this list in the next entry.
 Compared to modern shooters.
 This is known as one of Duke Nukem’s catchphrases, but he actually “borrowed” it from Army of Darkness.
 The lights are more dynamic, they cast softer shadows, and have less color banding than would have been reasonably possible in the mid-90s.
 Not really a hard reboot, but they dropped all the modifiers from the name and made major shifts to tone and gameplay. That’s a reboot-ish thing to do.
 It’s actually the seventh game in the series, but whatever.
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