2019 marked the first, full year of Fanbyte. It was also my first, full year as a full-time employee of literally anything. After nine years as a freelancer (some of which was spent juggling multiple part-time jobs) I finally found a place where I belong. The team seems to agree, too, since they pay me a salary. That’s a weird word, is’t it? Sa-lar-y! I still can’t quite wrap my mind around the financial stability.
Besides being a time of change for me, professionally, it was also a pretty fabulous year for games. I got to see a lot of them as someone with the time and space to watch real-time development. Because that’s what Fanbyte usually does. We don’t just look at hot new releases and walk away; we continue to monitor how they and the people who play them evolve. It’s increasingly the way games are designed from the ground up. And so we decided to build a website (not entirely from the ground up, but close) dedicated to that kind of gonzo, long view.
Even so, you’ll notice a number of one-off games that really stood out to me. In addition to our desire for long-term escapes into “comfort” play with new content every few weeks, 2019 was also the year some of our collective cultural rage, fear, and pontificating finally crystallized. You’ll probably know which games I mean. Here’s my little stab and sharing everything those games did for me in this wild, wild year.
10. Mortal Kombat 11
Mortal Kombat 11 closed out my favorite fighting game storyline… well, ever… in satisfying fashion. That’s saying a lot! It’s just par for the course with Netherrealm, too. The studio makes fantastic plots in a genre that rarely ever bothers to try. And they attach those to some damn good fighting games that even I feel like I can play (for a time).
Crucially, the last installment of the reboot trilogy used nostalgia without putting it on a pedestal. A young, scummy Johnny Cage flew into the present, embarrassing his modern self with 90s sensibilities. Two versions of Jax — the cybernetic soldier who turns his arms into drills — went on to deal with PTSD. And Kitana finally got to confront her abusive stepdad in a gladiatorial arena full of mutants.
Netherrealm treats its universe from a cheesy, bygone era with an unnecessary degree of contemporary seriousness. Somehow that works. Somehow it doesn’t collapse under the weight of its own history. Instead, it wraps up the entirety of Mortal Kombat lore with a cheery bow and makes you feel good about hanging out with its ridiculous characters the whole way through.
9. Outer Wilds
This pick is likely no surprise to folks reading Game of the Year lists in 2019. Outer Wilds was a breakout darling for a lot of people. I liked it a lot, too! I put it so low on this list because, even though I will probably remember the game for the rest of my life, it’s also incredibly frustrating.
The controls are fiddly and sometimes just don’t make sense. Some of the puzzles are way too obtuse. And at one point the game “tricked” me into thinking I was wrong about one of its biggest puzzles, even though I had solved it correctly. That sucks. It felt like a defeat.
The fact that I still rank it among my top 10 gaming experience of the year, in spit of its fundamental flaws, says a lot. Outer Wilds has a wonderful and unique world that never becomes cloying. It’s melancholy without being misanthropic. All of that culminates in an unforgettable final act. Outer Wilds isn’t just a deeply clever puzzle game; it uses that cleverness to say something very poignant about what our lives ultimately mean. For that, I have to give it credit.
8. Resident Evil 2 Remake
I barely ever played Resident Evil games prior to RE4. But something about the series always made me want to root for it — even as sequels and spinoffs went completely off the deep end. In my mind, the survival-horror series always represented the health of the genre as a whole. If the biggest name mainstream horror games lost its way, maybe the spooky stuff was just destined to exist as (admittedly great) $20 indies on Steam forevermore.
Then Resident Evil 7 marked a return to form, while the Resident Evil 2 remake brought that return to the masses. The addition of Tyrant (a.k.a. Mr. X) ensured the slightly more action-y game always had a tinge of terror. It seriously feels like, just 14 short years later, Capcom has finally recaptured the magical, stylistic blend from Resident Evil 4. I can’t wait to see what it does to remix Nemesis next year.
7. Final Fantasy 14: Shadowbringers
You’re going to notice a trend on this list. A lot of old, great games got new, great expansions and updates in 2019. Final Fantasy 14: Shadowbringers was one of the best of the bunch. It’s the latest in a string of incredible expansions, actually, following off of Heavensward and Stormblood. As its own entity, though, it would still be one of the best Final Fantasy stories of all time. While Stormblood unabashedly tackled real-world topics colonization, Shadowbringers focused more on universe-hopping and character development. It still found time to decry capitalism while it was at it, though.
Forgive me if I say something similar in two or three years. I tend to say it about all the FF14 expansions. It’s always true, though. The development team just gets better and better at making this one, specific game — something that comes with the benefit of polishing your craft on a single project for years.
6. Fire Emblem: Three Houses
Three Houses is a big, wet, sloppy kiss of a game. You can see its seams everywhere, from the warped background art to how improbably easy it is on “normal” difficulty. I also take issue with the lack of romance-able queer dudes (even if Linhardt is the best). In spite of it all, though, the zany cast and memes that caught on like wildfire online got me to actually beat a game that is more than 100 hours long. I still want to go back, too. The promise of an entirely new story if I play Golden Deer (the Black Eagles will always be my real children) is enticing. There’s just a certain warmth to it — to both spending time with these characters that are much deeper than their anime archetypes let on, and to being “in” on the endless Twitter jokes people make about them.
5. Dragon Quest Builders 2
Dragon Quest Builders 2 should probably be higher on this list. I only wish I had had more time for it this year. This game is dense. It tries to combine the clockwork farming simulation of Stardew Valley or Harvest Moon, the free-form building of Minecraft, and a classic Dragon Quest adventure. And it pretty much succeeds on all fronts. It even removed the first game’s biggest problem: erasing all your hard work between levels. Now you get a home base to build from indefinitely, plus a whole host of wild new inventions (e.g. trains, hang gliders, and, uh, bathrooms).
If I had more time to fully invest myself in this world, and truly play around with its million tiny pieces, I could easily see it breaching my top three.
This is another game I just really wanted to root for. I adored Alan Wake back in 2010 — even as it got eclipsed and and subsequently punted into the moon by Red Dead Redemption. Pre-release coverage of Control made it seem like it could be another Alan Wake… or another Quantum Break. The better spirit won out, though, and we wound up with a fabulously handcrafted world, rather than a generic “third-person shooter with powers.”
The action itself can be a little bit fussy in Control. The boss fights in particular are a massive pain in the ass (I only managed to beat one because they glitched in place for the entire fight).
3. Monster Hunter World: Iceborne
Monster Hunter World was my favorite game of 2018. Its buffet of free updates and eventual expansion went on to make up one of my favorite experiences of 2019. There is no other game quite as open to totally different playstyles, intensely specific character builds, and a focus on multiplayer with absolutely no competition. It is both one of the most hardcore games I have ever played, and one of the friendliest. Every grueling, 45-minute war against a massive beast of horns, claws, and fangs with nothing but my armor and a big flute that explodes feels like an achievement. And nearly every achievement is punctuated by comically dressed fellow players spamming the thumbs up emote into chat.
2. Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice
Dark Souls and Bloodborne walked so that Sekiro could run. It cements the pseudo-related series’ tradition of establishing norms and tropes just to turn them on their head and whip you over the back with them. Dark Souls encouraged you to play carefully and block constantly. Bloodborne took away your shields and made you move all the time. Sekiro forces you to stay on the offensive. Enemies’ health bars are less important than their posture: a resource that drains when you attack and parry, but refills if you lay off. The forced aggression recreates the brutal tension of “Soulsborne” all over again — even if you thought you knew how to deal with From Software’s tricks.
Speaking of which, Sekiro doesn’t just limit its new ideas to gameplay. Its plot also subverts the themes of past games. Demon’s Souls and Dark Souls had you peck over the corpses of dead empires, slowly unraveling the hows and whys of their downfalls. Sekiro puts you smack in the middle of the end. You become an active participant in the destruction of nation that devolves from relative normalcy to myth and chaos. Even the bosses — like an immortal ape that gets back up to fight again after you hear the classic sound of victory — live in this liminal space. They are recognizable, but not quite right. They move and look like Soulsborne foes, but don’t follow the “rules.” Sekiro manages all that and still feels damn good in your hands.
1. Disco Elysium
I couldn’t have been more ready for a game like Disco Elysium. My child brain was too soft and plastic for Planescape: Torment in 1999. I missed the wave of isometric RPGs in that era almost entirely. But a modern, tremendously well-written take on the genre in 2019 hit me just when I was ready for something different and challenging. And Disco Elysium certainly is different.
The multilayered, constantly shifting detective story set in a world not quite like our own — against the backdrop of a communist nation genocidally brought into poverty by capitalist violence — slipped under my radar at first. Then it slipped past my guard. I wasn’t prepared for its mix of abrasive shrieking and genuinely heartfelt depictions of normal people on the brink of annihilation. It’s funny, tragic, terrifying, and special. It’s also got some seriously rough edges (and some questionable cameos). But the overall product is impossible to ignore.
Honorable Mentions: Judgment, Cadence of Hyrule, Mistover, Destiny 2: Shadowkeep, Indivisible, Phoenix Point, AI: The Somnium Files, Devil May Cry 5, Ace Combat 7, Dragon’s Dogma: Dark Arisen (Switch)