Each year, it gets harder to nail down my favorite games of the past season. Part of this is because there are just so many studios putting out fantastic games. The rise of live-service games plays a role here, too — each year, the living games I enjoy seem to get better and take up more of my life. I can’t think of a better time to enjoy games, and as my compatriots at GamesBeat have shown, this year has had such an amazing amount of quality — be it on PC (my favorite platform), consoles like the PlayStation 4 or Nintendo Switch (portable mode is a godsend for role-playing games), or my phone. Here’re my favorite games of 2019.
Note: These aren’t the games I consider to be “the best.” The most important factor is how much I enjoy playing them (and, increasingly, how much my kids enjoy watching me play them).
The Outer Worlds can be gorgeous. Obsidian Entertainment is one of my favorite studios. It’s made three of my most-played RPGs of the past 15 years — Neverwinter Nights 2 (and its expansions), and the two Pillars of Eternity games. The Outer Worlds is different from these. You’re running around a system of planets that are at the mercy of a group of greedy, power-hungry corporations. It’s a capitalist dystopia, but it’s a funny one. And it skewers a world in which plutocrats, not people, run things. It also comes with a good character-building system, and its loading screens show off fantastic pieces of art (some of which only show up based on your decisions). It wears its Fallout influence on its power armor (its makers include some of that landmark RPG’s creators). The Outer Worlds will also leave an important legacy for Obsidian: a fantastic finish to its run as an independent game studio.
Years ago, I wrote about how much I hated Pokémon when I tried Red, the then-new release for the Nintendo 3DS. But last year Let’s Go: Pikachu captured my heart. I credit part of this to my children, who love the TV series and the cards. Yet the game has plenty to recommend it. It’s cheery, and the way so many of its characters are supportive of you and each other is touching in an age where so many people seek to just tear everyone and everything down. It’s also fun to find all these new Pokémon, use the Dynamax power to turn them into giant monsters, watch them evolve, and explore the world. My favorite part, though, had little to do with the gameplay. Every time we encountered a new Pokémon, my kids would look it up in their books, helping me find its vulnerabilities and plotting how I should set up my team. Pokémon’s better when we’re playing like this, together.
There are fouler things than Imperial Stormtroopers in the deep places of the world. Respawn has created new worlds and characters in Jedi: Fallen Order. It nailed how I’ve long thought a Jedi should feel in a game. Using your Jedi powers and lightsabers to smash through legions of stormtroopers just feels right. Mixing in Metroidvania-like levels gives players plenty of places to explore, and I enjoyed going back to different worlds in key moments of the story (like your second time on Kashyyyk). But even more important, it creates a compelling, sympathetic character in the Second Sister, showing that a servant of the Sith can be more than an evil person with a lightsaber. My only quibble: I wish Respawn’s easier modes made it, well, easier to deal with some of the challenging platforming sections, not just nerfing combat.
This is a fantastic spin on Darkest Dungeon and Etrian Odyssey from Krafton, a small team inside the larger Krafton Game Union group. You start in a town, recruit a party, get quests, and outfit your crew. This is where it feels like Etrian Odyssey. But in town you open up different buildings as you accomplish quests, the first of Mistover’s many Darkest Dungeon influences. Food and light play a role in the exploration as well. Once you’re in a dungeon, moving around becomes more like a traditional roguelike. For every move you make, the monsters move as well. Combat is also strategic, as your formations and the abilities you choose matter on the battlefield. It’s a fantastic take on roguelikes, and it’s worth playing.
Grindstone is a clever puzzler in which you slay monsters by drawing lines for your buffed-up brawler. Capy Games’ Might & Magic: Clash of Heroes and Superbrothers: Sword and Sworcery are two of my all-time favorite mobile games. So when Grindstone hit Apple Arcade earlier this year, I had to check it out. And when it debuted, I spent about two hours playing it. It reminds me of Clash of Heroes in the way you line up enemies to slay. It’s a puzzler. You draw a line from your warrior through groups of baddies. It’s simple enough that young children can understand it, but it gets complex enough that it becomes a real challenge to accomplish every map’s goal. It’s fantastic, and I think it’s the best game on Apple Arcade.
Two years ago, I had no idea I’d love Magic. Now, I play it almost every day, thanks to Arena. It’s a fantastic adaptation of the granddaddy of all collectible card games. I’ve learned to play every color, and I’ve even had success beating tuned netdecks with creations of my own. I’ve become a better-than-average draft player as well, and when publisher Wizards of the Coast introduced Brawl, I not only found myself making decks in Arena, but with my growing cardboard-card collection as well. Earlier this year, Arena left its open-beta status. The game still has some problems. Most days, you’ll find someone on Reddit complaining about performance issues. Wizards’ monetization tactics are annoying — more than once now, it has introduced an idea (such as the 2-to-1 wild card crafting cost for Historic cards), then changed it after outcry from players. Right now, it’s charging 10,000 in-game gold for a month-long Brawl event, and while you do get one special card as a reward, it’s pretty much charging you to play what I and others consider to be Arena’s best format. That sucks, as Brawl should be a format we can play in a queue, not just in a friendly challenge, at any time. But despite these issues, Arena has proven to be the best way to play Magic when you can’t shuffle cards with your friends. And that’s pretty awesome.
Year 5 of Blizzard Entertainment’s free-to-play collectible card game might be its best yet. Hearthstone’s development team has been more active this year than ever before, introducing a flurry of prompt card changes to fix problems, better in-game events, its first new mode in years (Battlegrounds, which is pretty dang good), and a willingness to try new things (like the recent Wild event or Arena rotations). It’s even telling better stories with its expansions. Like Magic, Blizzard has stumbled some this year. During its Wild event, it didn’t do anything to address the power of Evolve Shaman, which drove many players (like me) away from Standard and into other modes, like Battlegrounds … or to spend more time with other games. And its handling of the Hong Kong situation was clumsier than a newborn calf trying to stand up for the first time. But even with those problems, Hearthstone feels more vibrant now than at any time since its first expansion. And that’s a good thing for Blizzard and its millions of players worldwide.
Even the quest lines have punny names in Dragon Quest Builders 2. I’ve never been able to get into Minecraft. I know it’s fabulous. My kids love it. But I like a little more direction, and I get this from Square Enix’s Dragon Quest Builders series. In the sequel, you’re building your way to defeating a great evil. It’s charming, and as you finish off quests, you open up more building materials and options. It has most of the fun of a Dragon Quest game, but with a sandbox openness. It’s neat, and it’s even more fun when you play with kids.
Disco Elysium is like no other RPG that came out this year … or in any recent year. This might be the trippiest RPG I’ve ever played, and I dig it. You play a detective coming off a bender, trying to solve the mystery of a hanged man left on a tree. It doesn’t have combat, really. You face decisions in conversations you have with the characters around you (and in your head). The system revolves around skill checks in conversations and reactions to the words you and others use, not weapons, warriors, or wizards. It’s fascinating, and developer ZA/UM delivers something I’ve rarely seen in my decades of gaming: an RPG where choice, not combat, matters most.
A Plague’s Tale: Innocence
I’ve been fascinated by this game since seeing it at E3 in 2017. It’s from Asobo Studio in France, and it’s about a 15-year-old girl and her younger brother surviving a horrible plague afflicting France. And rats. Swarms of rats. Millions and millions of rats. The pair must use stealth to escape an inquisition that’s after them … and may be at the center of the plague. It’s a terrific, terrifying story, and it has the bonus of capturing the repulsiveness of rats and magnifying it into a game that both fascinates and disgusts. It’s unique.
- Code Vein Etrian Odyssey: Nexus
- Iratus: Lord of the Dead
- Metro: Exodus
- MechWarrior 5: Mercenaries
- Path of Exile Queen’s Wish: The Conqueror
- Slay the Spire
- The Surge 2