Sometimes I play a lot of goddamn video games in a very short span. Most times, I don’t sleep very well. These two pillars of my personality tend to intersect over the holidays: when there aren’t many new releases and I look to my backlog for interesting things to write about. Maybe it was thanks to the decade ending, or because 2019 was a worldwide dumpster fire, but I felt the urge to splurge and escape into old games hard last month.
And so I took the time (mostly out of my sleep schedule) to beat as many 2019 games as I could in single sittings. I would get up, boot up, and button through from morning till… well, 2 or 3 o’clock the next morning. I did that for a number of games. I didn’t beat them all, but I did like quite a few of them! That’s why I wanted to make this list. Here’s my quick overview of all the backlog buddies I beat — or at least enjoyed my time with — this holiday. Take a look!
My friend and coworker, merritt, already summarized Gato Roboto very neatly. It’s a “where the fuck do I go” game (a.k.a. Metroidvania) that’s meant to be finished in two or three hours. It’s cute, funny, and lets you play as a cat inside a robot suit. There’s a goofy through-line about your owner — a square-jawed space marine — complimenting his good kitty, while becoming increasingly distressed by your destructive power. I only wish it delivered a bit more on that. The gameplay is the star here; every compact zone has a totally unique mechanic that Gato Roboto discards before they can overstay their welcome. Yet the surprisingly serious plot never fully pays off on any one gag or character motivation. I’m still glad I played it, even if it’s not my favorite “where the fuck do I go” game of 2019.
Valfaris has a stellar, heavy metal aesthetic as interpreted by the Sega Saturn. That really works, despite feeling forced in places (i.e. when your grimdark space hero starts headbanging whenever he gets an upgrade). But what’s really interesting about this 2D action game is its checkpoint system. Valfaris rewards you for exploring with special tokens that raise your max HP. Throughout the game, though, you can turn those badges into custom checkpoints.
Holding onto them makes future fights easier. Dropping them saves you time on backtracking when you die. You can even cash in up to three of them after each world for skill points that upgrade a wide variety of weapons (from a severed spider leg that heals you, to a heat-seeking lightning gun). This lets you dynamically adjust the difficulty beyond enemy health and damage values. As such, while Valfaris is often challenging, it only rarely feels punishing. One or two sections were still way too demanding for my taste, but the chunky combat ultimately won me over once I beat the final boss.
Remnant: From the Ashes
“Dark Souls with guns” is a tremendously uninteresting pitch. It also does a massive disservice to Remnant: From the Ashes, which is so much more than that four-word description. The third-person shooter does indeed borrow ideas from Dark Souls (and many other games), but is more than willing to break with tradition in favor of doing whatever it deems coolest in the moment. Its procedurally generated levels make it great for co-op; its boss fights are endless surprising; its story is better than it has any right to be. Just get past what seems like a very uninspired intro to discover what’s secretly one of the best games of 2019.
I like Death Stranding. That’s probably because I like games that dis-empower you and give you the tools to create your own solutions. That’s basically this entire game, but with the surprising relaxation of post-apocalyptic trucking. Before the break, I spent most of my time with it just jetting around, completing side quests, and unlocking new types of tools. During my break, I decided to push forward with the story a bit. That’s probably my least favorite part of it so far. I just don’t feel connected to the barely-there, mostly silent Norman Reedus. Although the rest of the performances do their best to sell some very one-sided dialogue.
I’m a lot cooler on Outer Wilds than some folks. It still barely made my game of the year list, after I beat it literally hours before turning in my top 10 for Fanbyte, but just barely. Its quantum puzzles are neat, but people seriously downplay how frustrating it can be. I eventually had to just look up two puzzle solutions at the end.
One just felt poorly explained. The other almost broke me. It turned out I had the right solution to one of the game’s biggest conundrums all along… but was thrown off the trail when the game “cheated,” by not adhering to its own rules. That’s kinda the whole point of Outer Wilds’ puzzles. Everything follows a certain set of physical laws that you can use to solve any mystery at any time. When I found a way to solve a puzzle that the game didn’t anticipate — a solution that should work according to those physical laws — the magic evaporated. I still like what the game had to say by the end, though, and that’s worth something.
AI: The Somnium Files
AI: The Somnium Files is a mystery visual novel in the style of Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors and Virtue’s Last Reward… sorta. It’s from the same director and developer. And it does have some of the same concepts. The “flowchart” that lets you track and swap between multiple timelines returns from those past games. But the gameplay goes for something more action-oriented, with timed puzzles. I didn’t love that part.
The joy of the Zero Escape series, and The Somnium Files itself, are all the gruesome story beats intercut with endless character commentary. Everything you click on or do in this game elicits a silly, snappy response from the cast (usually your detective protagonist or his A.I. partner that lives in his artificial eye). Making the puzzles timed makes drawing out all the slapstick and non sequiturs a real chore. The character development is extremely good, though, even if the headier sci-fi concepts don’t come together as neatly as in those other games.
Monster Hunter World: Iceborne
Monster Hunter continues to be my go-to “comfort game” these days — unseating the first Destiny as my favorite in the subgenre. Besides being flashy, goofy, satisfying, and endlessly surprising, Monster Hunter World also never asks me to compete against real people. I don’t think Destiny will ever stop asking me to get stomped by human players in the Crucible (something I very much do not enjoy). Whereas MHW just introduces all-new cooperative challenges for friends and strangers alike to overcome. This winter saw a holiday event with wacky new items to craft — like a Speedo that makes your body constantly oiled and muscular. It was a nice change of pace from the equally new Safi’Jiva Siege, where up to 16 players can cooperative to farm wildly powerful weapons.
Boy! Once you play the first hour of Void Bastards, you have basically played all of Void Bastards. The first-person roguelike makes a striking introduction with its 2000 A.D. art style and extremely Scottish humor. Then it repeats the exact same jokes, locales, enemy designs, and objectives for another 10 hours. What I saw was what I got, and what I got probably needed a lot more variety to stretch into an entire game.
SteamWorld Quest: The Hand of Gilgamech
I’m still on the hunt for the “perfect” deck-building video game. Slay the Spire devoured my life for a while, particularly once it hit Switch, but its art and tone never grabbed me. I fell off completely after banging my head against its massive difficulty spikes one too many times.
SteamWorld Quest isn’t nearly as hard. Neither is it as charming as I would have liked. I actually enjoyed the world of, well, SteamWorld Dig and SteamWorld Heist. But something about the writing this time felt half-baked — as if, in trying to write a full party of RPG characters, the game doesn’t give enough development to any of them. I did like the way each unit got its own deck of just eight cards, though. The tiny deck sizes made rearranging and experimenting manageable. That encouraged me to actually try new things. The linear story structure also meant my deck wasn’t determined by randomness (as in the roguelike Slay the Spire).
Digimon Story: Cyber Sleuth Complete Edition
After Remnant, this might be the most surprising game I played over break. Pokemon Sword & Shield really disappointed me last year, so it was nice to have another monster battling RPG on my Switch. I was smitten with the writing of the first game right away — which is much more than I can say for the threadbare plot of Sword & Shield.
Cyber Sleuth has a genuine air of mystery, with a modern day social media conglomerate covering up a rash of deaths and comas caused by its virtual world, EDEN. Digimon are presented here as sentient tools hackers use to help and harm people connected to this online province. That opens up all kinds of problems for you, the titular cyber sleuth, to solve. Just a few hours in I’ve already helped a game developer fix a bug being caused by one of the rogue programs. In another case, I took down a group of internet scammers. Then there’s the central, surprisingly serious enigma tying it all together.
Probably the most surprising thing, though, is that Cyber Sleuth is matter-of-factly queer — and understands how online spaces facilitate (or fail to facilitate) queer identities. Early on, someone playfully but genuinely asks a major NPC if she’s hiding a boyfriend or a girlfriend. Later, I encountered another hacker upset at how EDEN only let them select a male or female avatar. They didn’t feel comfortable with either option, so they hacked the system to let them swap between masculine and feminine bodies at will.
These moments are still very much in the margins. So far, the main plot of Digimon Story: Cyber Sleuth seems to be about overarching mysteries and colorful action. But it’s nice to see a game, especially one aimed at younger players, present queer characters so plainly. Plus it’s a pretty fun RPG!
This is still probably my all-time favorite Klei Entertainment game. The turn-based, cyberpunk, espionage roguelike was always too esoteric to become a smash hit like Oxygen Not Included or Don’t Starve. But dammit if it doesn’t nail exactly what it was going for. I only wish we got more Invisible, Inc. — in the form of a direct sequel, more expansions, or even just a Switch port. But revisiting the stressful spy game was still a treat. It also gives me hope for Griftlands. That roguelike deck-builder ought to scratch a couple different itches, as outlined in this list, but the early access version on the Epic Games Store hasn’t grabbed me thus far.
I bought the Switch version of this other turn-based spy game for like $4. The font was basically unreadable and my character’s scalp clipped through her own hair so bad that she looked like the back of Joe Biden’s head. I uninstalled it altogether after I saw the frame rate. I still want to give Phantom Doctrine a fair shot, but might wait for the PC version to be $4 as well.