I thought it best to join in with the crowd, write some words about this year’s games and which have struck a chord with me. I think it goes without saying that this is based purely on what I’ve experienced directly. ‘But Dan, aren’t you posting this a little early?’ I hear some of you shout… yes, probably. Although looking at my December pile of games, the only games possible of getting onto this list are Wattam and Pokemon Shield (the latter is unlikely, I have some opinions!). So I thought, why not now, eh?!
Sadly, this year I didn’t get to play as much as I would have liked, although I could probably say that every year. But, 2019 carried a lot of weight for me elsewhere – in my private life and in my career. I spent a lot of time playing Fortnite for one thing and when I wasn’t playing it, I was watching content on Twitch or YouTube, meaning my gaming was pushed to handhelds and mostly games that required little focus.
Snatching time for longer games always squeezed between projects and even then, a lot of the time I had often fell to the familiar due to its comfort… but that’s a post for another day.
With that in mind, I began hammering away at my laptop and this is what I came up with…
NOTE: Links in the game TITLE are pieces by me. Other LINKS point to writers I enjoy or articles/reviews I think are noteworthy. Also, at the bottom of this blog post, you’ll find GotY lists from some other freelancers, which I’ll add to over time.
Sayonara Wild Hearts – (Switch) – I probably think about this game every day. Which is odd, as I’ve only played it start to finish three times – Once on Switch, then on iPad to see the differences in controls, then back to Switch. Of course, some levels I’ve replayed for the bops. I feel sorry for people who won’t play this ‘game’, and yes, I put the word game in inverted commas because really, it’s an interactive album. One that is either very easy to play or as hard as you want it to be, depending on what you want from the game. If you just want beautiful visuals with a superb soundtrack, then seek this out. I really must get this OST on vinyl. You can read this REVIEW from my good friend Donlan, as his words were amazing. There’s also this terrific REVIEW over on Twinfinite too!
The Outer Wilds (PC) – Not to be confused with ‘Fallout-em-up’ RPG The Outer WORLDS… I picked this up based on other people saying how great it was. They were right! The idea of a Groundhog Day in space is just sublime, but the concept of this impacts each death and subsequent exploration. Dying with knowledge, much as you would see in a Rogue-like pushes the player to more dangerous techniques, or more distant specks of the galaxy. I love the aliens, the atmosphere, the music and sound design is gently moving. The exploration is entirely pure, letting you inspect anything you choose to and piece together a wonderfully deep lore drenched story. Jake Green put down some cracking words in his REVIEW for the game!
Death Stranding (PS4) – Probably the most divisive game of the year, Kojima brought us Death Stranding with his usual Kojima hype. The internet went mad at the first reveal of the game and we spent months wondering just what the fuck it actually was. Now it’s out and people either love it or hate it, personally I love it but for one reason above others – it makes the mundane and small feel as important as the main plot. Maybe because, as a friend of mine noted, it’s because the game constantly validates and praises you throughout. A discarded package feels as special as reconnecting this broken version of America. I found more moving moments wandering through rugged countryside vistas, plotting my way across treacherous terrain, than with a lot of other games this year. The story is still decent, but it’s typical Kojima, filled with intricacies that seem overly complicated. Play it for the journey, rather than the destinations. While I may not agree with Kirk Mckeand on everything in his REVIEW, I have to link to it, because it’s just a great read!
Disco Elysium (PC) – I’ve written many words as to why this game should be played by everyone. Disco Elysium is perhaps the finest example of narrative design released in gaming for a long time. Not only is it clever, but it’s charming, witty and does everything possible to truly create a character for you within its world. While the post-war surface looks cold and uninhabitable in places, it’s rich in personality and flair. Like an oil painting come to life, with a grizzled noir plot underneath, it ticks so many boxes. Play it as a nice guy with stereotypical amnesia, or a bastard fucking drunk, either way it’s entertaining and full of surprises. When I look for a game that wows me, I look at the way I play; how many hours I sit in front of it. Hours and hours could pass by while playing Disco Elysium and I’d never notice, because I was absorbed. I honestly cannot wait to see what this studio does next. I wrote a piece about the design of the art and animation HERE.
Grindstone (Apple Arcade) – As much as I love EDGE magazine, it really frustrates me that their reviews don’t feature bylines. I’d like to shake the hand of whoever wrote their Grindstone review in a recent issue. I already had the game downloaded on my iPad, but was always looking over it for something else (What the Golf? is a belter!) and their review urged me to play it. Now, over a hundred levels in, many hours donated to the cause of getting through the puzzle style levels, I can say I’m obsessed. The bold cartoon art is fantastic, the mechanics are inspired and it can easily fill five minutes or five hours, never getting boring. Every night, as I settle down in bed, I grab a few levels of Grindstone, sometimes staying up past 2am because of that ‘one more go’ factor. The idea of creating and upgrading power-ups is perfect in making Grindstone feel more like an RPG. But it’s tough to describe the game without thousands of words. So here’s a video of it in action…
Superliminal (PC) – I cried at the end of this game. I didn’t sob or bawl, but a tear escaped and trickled down my cheek. I can’t really say why without spoiling the entire game, but there is a definite message which sucker-punched me out of nowhere. You can read my review in a future issue of Wireframe magazine, but for now, Superliminal is a puzzle game about perspective. Depending on how you look at certain objects and from which angle you approach, the objects will grow or shrink or multiply in order for you to move to the next room. As the game progresses, things move through Portal territory and into a much more trippy head-fuck experience. Think Escher, but in 3D and on acid. I played it in one sitting and haven’t stopped thinking about certain sections since I finished up. It will be a game I replay every once in a while for years to come. It’s an EPIC store exclusive at the moment, but don’t let that hold you back from playing it.
Blasphemous (Switch) – This has everything I could possibly ask for in a game – tough difficulty, stunning pixel art, oozing blood and heretical imagery. I’ll admit, Blasphemous is tough as nails at some points; one boss in particular took several hours and me almost snapping my Switch in half. However, the level design, religious backdrop and animation are all absolutely stellar. It’s not a game for everyone; while it leans into the Metroidvania (I hate that fucking word) style of gameplay, you’ll find a more straightforward comparison in Salt & Sanctuary (you thought I was gonna say Dark Souls, right?). It’s not a quick and easy game to play through, but it’s incredibly satisfying when the action slots into place and you finally ace a section. My mate Darren wrote the REVIEW for Nintendo Insider, read his thoughts.
Lonely Mountains: Downhill (PC) – I’d first seen this game doing the rounds on Twitter through gifs of gameplay, mostly published by the devs. It hooked me from the visual style, an almost vector based geometry personalised as a daredevil rider. The game distils the purity of scrambling around on a bike as a kid, but with some more heart-in-mouth moments. From the beautiful backdrops, to the sumptuous sound design – there’s no music, just the sounds of the world – Lonely Mountains whisks you away from your gaming chair or sofa and onto the craggy cliffs and desert canyons, gravel scattering under your tires as you attempt to shave seconds off your best times.
Honourable Mention – Fortnite (PS4) – I couldn’t put this in my main entries for two reasons, firstly, are we really saying that Fortnite rebranding as Chapter Two counts as a new release? Also, while I love Fortnite and everything it has done for my career, it’s not a game I would shout about from the rooftops. Do I play it a lot? Yes. Has it brought me and my kids closer? Damn right. But is it an amazing game which has defined 2019 for me, in the same way as the games above? I enjoy it a lot, but it hasn’t moved me, or changed my outlook on what a game can be. Hence the honourable mention.