Best of 2019: Top 15 Games

Your mileage may vary on 2019’s strength as a videogame year. As I daresay my consoles list would suggest, that mileage will probably depend on whether you have a Nintendo Switch, but not just because that console enjoyed more exclusive new releases than any other this year. Much like the improved Xbox Game Pass, the Switch offered a raft of opportunities for time-poor players to enjoy older games in a new form. This definitely contributed at times to a feeling that I was helplessly drowning in stuff to play, but I do have friends who look back on 2019 with more laid-back attitudes and shrug. It wouldn’t have helped that the heavy-hitting North Americans largely sat 2019 out, taking up only two slots on my list; this was a year utterly dominated by Japanese and European developers, after all, with a strong line-up of perfectly toasted indie treats along for the ride.

To help me cut down this list to a usable 15, I always use the same rule: A game can make it on if I played it for 5+ hours or finished it (whichever comes first), unless it’s a multiplayer-focused game; then I just need to have played it once. I feel like this has always served me well as an indicator that I’ve given a title a fair shake, but it once again disqualifies a bunch of fantastic games that make me wince just typing them out: Luigi’s Mansion 3, Man of Medan, The Outer Worlds, Devil May Cry 5, Baba is You, Gears 5, Star Wars: Jedi Fallen Order. If you don’t see a game either on the main list or in this paragraph, you can safely assume I just did not rate it highly enough or lacked the interest / awareness to try it.

Parentheses indicate where I played each game.



This list represents my opinion only. I am not asserting any kind of superiority or self-importance by presenting it as I have. My opinion is not fact. To agree with me 100% is rarer than an EA game without microtransactions. Respectful disagreement is most welcome.




15. Rage 2 (XBO/PC)

2019 was positively laced with games that one might call 7/10 experiences; titles that do plenty right but have a noticeable permeating flaw or simply don’t do much to distinguish themselves (see the honorable mentions for a few examples). Many count Rage 2 among these, but I feel like it’s got plenty enough going for it to carve out a unique voice. The environments – especially outdoors – are absolutely stunning at times, thanks to Avalanche’s gorgeous Apex Engine; the popping colours in the most intense firefights are instantly identifiable to this game; and the gunplay is well fitting of Doom developers Id Software. Rage 2 was knocked by critics and audiences for repetitive open world design, but I often feel like modern criticism is too quick to undercut the importance of well-designed movement flow. Actually playing Rage 2 feels amazing moment-to-moment, gun-to-car, which is the main reason it makes my GOTY list in 2019.


14. Atelier Lulua: The Scion of Arland (NS)

Having watched this tireless lower-budget JRPG franchise quietly release a new entry or two every year for, well, a long time, 2019 was the year I finally gave the Atelier series a go after a YouTuber on my feed mentioned it had finally removed the restrictive time limit. Lulua contains a bunch of references that skipped me, but it packs in fun mechanical systems built on resource management, combinations on recipes on combinations, and a dose of relentless positivity; all delivered through crisp, colourful menus. Sometimes in life that’s all I want from a game. For a couple weeks across May-June it was my go-to train game. If you enjoy a good JRPG grind once in a while it might be time to pick up the series. I’d start with the other 2019 game, though: Atelier Ryza: Ever Darkness & The Secret Hideout. That one is an actual series reboot with a new engine, more unique battle system and slightly better reviews; I just didn’t play enough of it to qualify for this list.

13. Super Mario Maker 2 (NS)

The first Super Mario Maker for the Wii U was a real good time with friends. I have great memories from sessions passing the controller around as the game cycled between random user-created online levels, throwing us through cakewalks, weird messages and near-impossible gauntlets. But I didn’t have the time nor the creative impetus to make and share my own levels, so it was a limited experience for me. The second game has everything that made the first one so good, but now crucially also packs its own 100-level structured campaign, featuring a cute overworld where you are tasked with paying for a castle rebuild via coins collected in a suite of manic levels. Super Mario Maker 2 kept me playing for months thanks to this much needed dose of scaffolding paired with the inherent appeal of a portable system. Then my friends got involved, and the game was once again an old-school, controller-passing treat.

12. Borderlands 3 (PS4)

What a wondrously addictive, frustrating thing the new Borderlands game is. Poorly optimised with lagging menus, uneven presentation and the lack of a compelling villain, it doesn’t quite reach the heights of the last generation entries – or the Telltale game – in my humble opinion. But there’s so much to like about the game. It has perhaps the best skill trees in the series, with genuinely mix-and-matchable skill point allocations and fun build possibilities. There are quality of life improvements worth celebrating, like the ability to juggle quests with a single button and ping any object in the world for straightforward communication. The range of new gun types is fabulous; the potential for customisation sky-high. As of yet there are somehow no microtransactions to be found within. It nails down the feeling of a Borderlands game while occasionally looking much better than the series ever has. I hope it eventually irons out into a more polished prospect, because it does better than most of its modern shooter colleagues at delivering on expectation.

11. Astral Chain (NS)

The greatest piece of evidence yet that Platinum Games can show ambition outside their normal wheelhouse and still kill it. The 2010s began with twin blasts of fresh air Bayonetta and Vanquish, and while the company was technically formed at the end of the previous decade, this was truly Platinum’s coming-out party. It’s easy to forget just how unfavoured Japanese game development in general was at the time; HD adjustment struggles, the optimisation issues with the PS3 and Nintendo’s general disinterest in the third-party hardcore crowd in the Wii era all contributed to some pretty dark days. But Platinum’s sharp action chops were a leading light for a once-proud segment of the industry that gradually found its feet again by the time we rolled into the decade’s second half.

Meanwhile the Platinum people discovered that success comes with compromise, as for every Metal Gear Rising / Wonderful 101 / Bayonetta 2 there was a Legend of Korra / TMNT: Mutants in Manhattan / Star Fox Zero. Either way, it was action-heavy stuff all the way, for better or worse. But then their output slowed right down and out came Nier Automata in 2017, which blew a whole bunch of minds as more mind-screwy RPG than action game. Anyway, that’s your unnecessary history lesson. Astral Chain may lack the vision of the inimitable Yoko Taro, but it represents another step forward from Automata in terms of mechanical depth and sheer scope. Most of your time in Astral Chain isn’t even spent in combat – excellent as that combat is – but solving police cases great and small, customising your character(s), checking in on menus and marvelling at the soundtrack. It’s a big experience that takes a while to settle you in, but it’s worth it.


10. Yoshi’s Crafted World (NS)

My favourite 2D platformer since that deadly one-two punch of Rayman and DK five years ago, Yoshi’s Crafted World is an artistic marvel from a studio who knows quirky craft aesthetics like the back of its proverbial hand. But that setting isn’t simply window dressing – It allows for a refreshing take on replay value. Each stage in the game can be flipped and traversed backwards to hunt a different set of collectables, thus revealing the simple household objects and hidden bundles of tape used to make up this iteration of Yoshi’s environment. Those collectables are no joke, either, especially if you aren’t playing the game in co-op for a more steady projectile egg supply. Crafted World is no Tropical Freeze when it comes to difficulty, but it’s far from the Kirby-class cakewalk some would dismiss it as, and it’s got personality and variety to burn. Don’t sleep on it.

9. Call of Duty: Modern Warfare (XBO)

Well I never. A Call of Duty title on my game of the year list, in this day and age. Indeed, despite all signs pointing to another step down the slow road of COD’s demise – steadily declining sales, pressure from the battle royale and free-to-play markets, the implied desperation of rebooting a sub-franchise you just recently remastered – 2019’s Modern Warfare saw the king of the first person shooter end the decade as it began: At the top of its game. An astonishing new engine gives the series’ visuals a noticeable step up, playing tricks with light that occasionally dropped my jaw (Just as well, because that install size is ludicrous). The much-bemoaned year off from single-player campaigns somehow came to an end with the best one since the first Black Ops, delivering masterful thrill pacing and variety with intimate stakes. To top it all off, the dream of true cross-platform Call of Duty multiplayer is at last a reality thanks to Modern Warfare, meaning I can play on my controller of choice alongside any of my friends. The future looks bright again. What a comeback.

8. Control (XBO)

Remedy returned at last in 2019, and they sure brought a game with them. Adding even more weird texture to the Alan Wake and Quantum Break universe, Control ditches the unique structural hooks of the previous two Remedy games in favour of reasonably straightforward action gameplay – well, as straightforward as a single transforming gun and a set of telekinetic powers can get – in order to go full on strange with the setting, characters, story, background lore, humour, visuals and sound design. And what visuals! What sound design! Fractals and folding walls, bleeding textures, distortion on tap, that newfangled ray tracing (if you have the PC for it), and buckets of red, white and grey define the striking look of the enigmatic Oldest House that protagonist Jesse Faden must explore. The dynamic whistle sound that accompanies a burst of telekinesis makes the action feel amazingly powerful. The huge bass and sparing shrieks accompanying every visit to the Oceanview Motel ended up legitimately scaring me more than anything else I played this year. The boss fights are strategic and fun. The choice of closing credits song is my favourite in a videogame, ever. Only a pair of massive difficulty spikes late on, some persistent technical issues with menus and a lack of HDR support keep this gem out of my top five.

7. Pokemon Shield (NS)

Lightning rod for online discontent or not, for me the eighth generation of main series Pokemon games are just what the doctor ordered. Sidestepping the heavy cinematic approach of Pokemon Sun and Moon in favour of picking up where the sixth generation left off à la unimpeded social focus and general streamlining, Shield strips out a ton of obstructive series traditions entirely, such as HMs and almost all mandatory dungeon puzzles; while keeping up a similar average play time thanks to the vast, open, multi-purpose Wild Area. It rebalances the level curve safe in the knowledge that every player will be earning EXP at the same rate, which cuts down on tedious curb-stomps significantly. Despite a light overall plot, a few new supporting characters unveil fun and interesting lore as you travel through a visually diverse region towards the endgame, which is far and away the smoothest, quickest and most accessible it has ever been to players of all skill levels.

But above all, the game introduces my favourite set of brand-new Pokemon / regional variants in three, maybe four generations. This batch is full of design winners with unique type combinations, fun stat spreads and abilities – not to mention much better speed all around than the Alolan gang. It’s definitely disappointing that the Dynamax mechanic hasn’t quite shaken out as well-balanced as it initially seemed in competitive play, and Team Yell is maybe the most underwhelming evil team in the series. But I had to stop myself playing this one at just shy of 60 hours out of a necessity to finish other games, or else I might not have even written this list.

6. Death Stranding (PS4)

I’m still trying to work out exactly how to explain why I like playing this game, and I may still fail to get the point across. Death Stranding is one of the most genuinely divisive games I’ve seen, played, discussed or heard discussions about in a hot minute. It’s pretty much exactly what you would expect from an untethered Hideo Kojima, for better or worse. It’s hard to imagine anyone else claiming to start a new genre of videogame at the end of this millenium’s second decade, but here we are, my friends. Death Stranding may be a cutscene-heavy cinematic odyssey about abstract concepts like the nature of human society (which I really latched onto), but it is still definitely a game, with systems upon systems full of resources to manage, routes to plot out, online assistance to share, and occasionally horrifying bosses to fight. It’s just that all of this is applied to the principle act of… hiking. A lot. So yeah, from a distance it looks absolutely confounding, and up close if you don’t buy into the apocalyptic immersion there isn’t a lot of action to distract you. But there ain’t nothing else like Death Stranding out there, and I welcome it.

5. A Plague Tale: Innocence (XBO)

I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to call this one of the most gigantic surprises of my gaming life. Coming from little-known French developers Asobo Studio (who worked on ReCore, which I also liked), A Plague Tale: Innocence was one of the notable gaming dominoes strategically placed throughout the year by publisher Focus Home Interactive to try and make a name for itself. It worked. Only on rare occasions do the budgetary limitations of Asobo and their partners shine through the cracks; the vast majority of the time this game looks and feels premium. A propulsive single-player story with linear stealth mechanics and a side order of crafting mechanics bring to mind descriptors like “a medieval Last of Us“, especially given the wonderful motion capture performances that bring humanity to the horrifying. Of course it isn’t quite in the same league, but the amount of legwork it does to earn being in the same conversation is clear as day. I continue to regret that I found out about it so late; that I was so unprepared for its sucker punch. So I say to you, dear reader, go play it!

4. Dragon Quest Builders 2 (NS)

DQ Builders 2 is one of those rare beasts: A brilliant videogame I do not want to go back and play again. Not because it’s depressing or harrowing, or because it has a one-and-done story, or because it’s a multiplayer game from which my friends have since moved on. Nope, it’s just that disgustingly addictive. Minecraft is surely the defining game of the decade and to this day I’ve entirely managed to avoid playing it, because I’ve been terrified of the hooks buried deep in its creative mechanics. But this game right here snuck in and got me right at the end of said decade. The short sales pitch for Builders 2 is basically Minecraft but with structured story / quest goals, which is kind of both a more and less dangerous delivery mechanism for that cube-based building goodness. It’s easier to set milestones and divide up the time you spend, but you’re also constantly levelling something up, which feeds that dopamine centre in your brain. The Switch version is shockingly uninhibited too, and the community of characters you grow is so adorable…

OK, maybe I’ll just do a couple more missions in January.

3. Wargroove (NS)

Oh, Wargroove. You sweet, wonderful talisman of all that is great about the modern videogame landscape. Nintendo spent the entire decade doing a whole lot of not making a new Advance Wars game, so in swept Chucklefish to fill the void. Using a bunch of that Stardew Valley money and a whole lot of development time, they set about replicating the look and feel of the celebrated candy-coloured tactics franchise, but crucially once they got close enough they started to put their own unique spin on things too. Despite its medieval skin, Wargroove has land, sea and air units, hero-specific combat abilities akin to CO Powers, an extremely AW-esque user interface and a banging set of theme tunes. The classic feel is there. But the game also introduces bases that fight back, unit-specific critical hit conditions and a mind-bogglingly in-depth set of cross-platform shareable creation tools. Make a level or make a whole campaign if you want. Wargroove is a landmark lesson in how to eat a major publisher’s lunch by crafting an homage that’s in some ways better than the source material. And there’s still substantial new content coming to the game next year. How good. Now make a new Advance Wars please, Nintendo.

2. Resident Evil 2 (PC)

Releasing at the end of January as part of that ridiculous early-year flourish, the 2019 version of Resident Evil 2 is a complete reimagining of the iconic original; different enough to stand on its own two shambling feet – and be nominated for the highest honour at the Game Awards. RE2 boasts an incredible visual presentation standard, a shockingly effective new use for the classic Tyrant enemy, and a gameplay flow that ensures every single enemy is always a threat. Indeed Leon and Claire’s gorgeously terrifying police station adventure was at the top of my personal game of the year list for the entire first half of 2019. While several big releases come July and beyond did their best to topple it, I went back to do a second playthrough in August (Claire’s) and it climbed back up the list. On top of everything else it achieves, the claustrophobic adventure game DNA at the game’s heart makes Resident Evil 2 one of the most replayable experiences in recent memory. Come year’s end, only one challenger managed to outshine it in my eyes. Which was, of course…

1. Fire Emblem: Three Houses (NS)

If there’s one Nintendo franchise that has well and truly solidified its influence over the past decade, it’s Fire Emblem (Well, maybe Splatoon counts too but only as a technicality). When you look at the timeline, the tactical juggernaut’s rebirth, redefinition and unprecedented ensuing success really is something to behold. But for me the relationship has been uneasy. After giving a couple of hours to Awakening, dipping my toes into various older games in the series here and there, then eventually managing to finish (one route of) Fates, I thought I had worked out the appeal of the Fire Emblem series – even if I found parts of the formula dragged. But then Heroes distilled the series to its wonderful core and Shadows of Valentia went old-is-new-again crazy with fancy unique mechanics and truly first-rate presentation. I found myself thoroughly tuned in to the series’ HD debut on the Switch despite each delay.

The wait was worth it.

Fire Emblem: Three Houses builds on Echoes far more boldly than I could have imagined, employing the assistance of the Omega Force team from the Fire Emblem Warriors game to craft truly versatile character models and support a fully explorable, real-time 3D environment; not to mention a tiered zoom-in feature that makes any battle look just like a Warriors game because hey, why not? It kills the weapon triangle, buffs magic, re-orients combat progression to serve character development more closely, and shows the time-travelling child system the door. It gives you the vast majority of the characters with whom you can bond on the battlefield from the very beginning and makes you their teacher, therefore fostering a sense of camaraderie and community unlike anything seen in the series prior. Character backstories are fleshed out through flavour text, monthly dialogue options, paralogue missions and myriad support conversations at a luxurious pace enhanced by the best voice acting cast ever assembled for a Nintendo game. Gameplay serves story and vice versa; Three Houses is just straight-up a Persona game at points.

Four vastly different story paths ensure that twists and turns abound, but perspective is the real thematic strength on show. This is a story unafraid to serve you a bitter pill with every moment of triumph and hope, as friends become enemies, former tea companions get cut down by your hand and the twin spectres of imperialism and institutionalised corruption do their best to snuff out the joy of human connection. Thanks to a huge reduction in fanservice and sparingly-used fantastical elements, the tragic story threads feel relatable and cutting in ways few game narratives ever have to me. The same goes for the triumphs, especially the personal victories individual characters encounter via their relationships with others.

If it seems like I’m being overly dramatic here, that’s only because I took 117 hours to finish just the Blue Lions story route, having recruited almost every possible student to my cause and invested far too much time training and developing each one both on the battlefield and off. And if it weren’t a near-impossibility for someone like me, I’d be starting another playthrough right about now. On the standard difficulty, this is not a challenging Fire Emblem game by any stretch of the imagination. It does not run all that well either, and is sadly one of the least portable-friendly Switch games in Nintendo’s first-party library. But Three Houses allows more potential for customisation and differing play styles than the series ever has. Its music is phenomenal. The avenues for discussion it presents are bountiful. The character classes are sick. By all accounts it’s got one of the best New Game+ systems out there. It won the new “player’s voice” award at the 2019 Game Awards, despite failing to land a nomination for the biggest award of the night. But as surely as a pegasus-mounted Ingrid will dodge an enemy attack, Fire Emblem: Three Houses is my 2019 game of the year.


Honorable Mentions

Pokemon Masters (Mobile)

A modern mobile game with a modern monetisation strategy that actually stuck with me. It’s got fun mechanics, sure, but don’t underestimate the power of fluid animations on character models who all look like they’ve demolished a pair of coffees already when you’re checking in bleary-eyed on a train platform before work in the morning.

Daemon X Machina (NS)

I’m not really a big mecha guy, but I do like cool menus, responsive controls, Japanese pop culture excess, and good solid multiplayer. Daemon X Machina delivers on all these fronts. A narrative masterpiece Machina is not, but at all times it makes sure there’s a lot happening, which keeps you engaged if you’ve bought into the concept even a little. A real shame about that release timing…

AI: The Somnium Files (NS)

I only wish I had played deep enough into the story of this twisty half-visual-novel to place it on the main list with confidence, but its release timing also sucked, so I’ve only played just enough for this slow-opening, timeline-hopping sci-fi mystery to start peeling back the covers on its real mind screws. The elevator pitch? It’s the guy who did the Zero Escape games, but with an actual budget and a teensy bit less existential dread.

Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3: The Black Order

The most fun I had in co-op gaming all year, the late-arriving third Marvel Ultimate Alliance game is pure dumb fun 80% of the time, with the odd challenging fight and some light skill tree / team synergy management thrown in. The HD Rumble implementation is a surprising plus, too. I can wholeheartedly recommend the game to anyone looking for a colourful, bombastic action experience to play locally with friends.

Crackdown 3

Speaking of dumb fun and co-op, you should probably be having a look at this one too if you’ve got an Xbox One or decent PC. I doubt the campaign could get more unapologetically ’90s in its design if it tried, but therein lies the fun, friends. Switch off your brain, switch on your HDR displays, and you’ll be in for a good time.

Oh hey, it’s 2019, so



(Well, my favourites anyway)

10. Halo Reach

9. Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain

8. Dragon Quest XI

7. Tomb Raider

6. Fire Emblem: Three Houses

5. Pokemon White Version 2

4. Danganronpa 2: Goodbye Despair

3. Portal 2

2. The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild

1. Persona 4 Golden

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