Welcome to The Pulse, your lifeline on media and pop culture. We are nearing the end of 2019 and you know what that means, arbitrary awards season! That’s right, it’s that special time of year where every publication puts out their so-called definitive list of the best games, movies, shows, music, what have you of the year. But not only is it the end of the year, it’s also the end of the decade! So of course that means you have to do a top X of the decade list too, right? Don’t worry though, we’re not going to be doing that here….this month, that’s what January is for! Now then, as the title says, this week we are going to be counting down the best games to release these last 12 months, from Souls-likes to open world action games, RPGs and more, this is the “definitive” top 10 games of 2019!
A note before we get started, this list is based on both my own personal opinions and solely on the games that I played this year. There are several titles that would likely be on this list that I have not yet purchased or played through and so I do not feel comfortable including them. Additionally, I’m not counting ports or re-releases, think that point speaks for itself.
Top 10 Games of 2019
Well, this game certainly felt like it took forever to finally release eh? I will preface by saying that I am not a fan of Fire Emblem and I think it is a damned shame that IS has decided to focus on the franchise it can sell on waifu bait alone and abandoned their (IMO) far better strategy series simply because (and while I am paraphrasing, this really is the given reason) they can’t figure out how to incorporate waifus into Advance Wars. So thank the good lord for indie developers because Wargroove is about as close as we’re going to get to a new Advance Wars game for the foreseeable future and even if we do eventually get one, I shudder to think the direction IS will likely take the series. While it did have its issues at launch (and I admit I have not put too much time into the game since then), most (if not all) of that has been addressed via various patches and fixes since release, so credit where credit is due, I appreciate a dev team that listens to their fans and tries to fix things as quickly as they can. Wargroove is basically what you get if you cross Advance Wars with Fire Emblem, the latter mostly due to its aesthetic and use of more medieval fantasy tropes while the former largely shaped the gameplay. Now, I’m just not as into strategy games as I used to be, maybe I don’t have the time or patience for them anymore, maybe I just suck at them now in my old age (long gone are the days where I could play C&C or Starcraft and Warcraft with confidence, even Advance Wars I find myself struggling with lately), but I did have a pretty damn good time with Wargroove. It really did feel like someone else was as frustrated as I was at a lack of new Advance Wars and they wanted to put their own spin on it. It’s certainly no Black Hole Rising or Dual Strike or Days of Ruin, but it had all the charm and solid strategy gameplay I loved about the series and offered plenty of great content at a very respectable price.
9. Astral Chain
Can Platinum truly do any wrong? Ok, so Korra and Turtles kinda sucked so maybe they can. Oh yeah, and Star Fox Zero, but that one wasn’t their fault. Those few games aside though, Platinum has a pretty impressive track record. MadWorld remains my favorite Wii exclusive and I pray for the day it gets a port to modern consoles. The Bayonetta games are action masterpieces and I highly anticipate the release of 3 in the (near?) future. Even some of their licensed games, Transformers Devastation specifically, can be damn good. They’re easily one of the most reliable names in the industry today. So when the Switch had a surprise exclusive revealed that was an entirely fresh and new IP from ol P-star, yeah I got pretty excited. The more we saw of it, the more hyped I got. It looked like a weird mesh of Pokemon and Psycho Pass and while not exactly on the mark, it still feels like a somewhat apt comparison I think. Astral Chain sees you as a newcomer to a special task force that is uh..tasked with dealing with an unseen threat the general population is ignorant to the existence of. There’s some predictable and cliche anime twists along the way, but the narrative holds up well enough. The gameplay, as always from Platinum, is where Astral Chain shines and while it takes a few missions to really open up your options, once it does it’s really something special. Something I know some people didn’t quite gel with that I actually found refreshing was the blending of action set pieces and combat with investigation segments that have you feeling like an actual detective or police officer, I think they helped a lot with the pacing (at least for a first playthrough) and were a fun element that helped the game stand out compared to its peers. Overall I had a good time with the game and I am definitely looking forward to seeing more from the IP in the future.
8. Slay the Spire
So apparently I like rougelikes or rougelites or whatever the incredibly picky fandom of the genre wants to label games like Isaac and Slay the Spire. That not each run is guaranteed to succeed but even in failure you can accomplish something, be it learning the game better or unlocking more content and discovering new strategies, it’s a great system that makes the likely many losses you will suffer never feel frustrating. That each run is going to be different from the last, even if at times only marginally, helps extend the potential play value of the game almost infinitely so long as you’re having a good time. It never gets stale. So combine those elements with deck building and card games, something else I am a huge fan of, and Slay the Spire was a surefire hit with me. There’s a lot of strategy at play with how you construct your deck, different characters and relics offer a good variety of ways to approach deck building and different encounters are going to vary based on how you’ve set yourself up to deal with them. I’ve put quite a few good hours into Slay the Spire since picking it up earlier this year on the Switch and I still haven’t seen even a fraction if its content, I haven’t even truly finished everything I can with just one of the game’s characters and I am looking forward to trying out the new characters as well. Definitely not going to be a game for everyone, I understand that the rougelike elements and expectation of failure is going to be off-putting, but if you go in with the right mindset I think you’ll have a really good time.
7. Kingdom Hearts III
Oooh boy, I don’t know if I’m going to get more hate for having this low on the list or it being on the list at all. It is hard to think of a game more long-awaited than Kingdom Hearts III. Maybe Final Fantasy XV? Duke Nukem Forever was certainly longer from announcement to release, but that was more of a long running industry joke than something anyone truly was looking forward to by the time it finally came about. Yes, after over a decade of spinoffs, prequels, sorta sequels but not full on numerical sequels and rereleases and half chapters and Japan only mobile games and, dear lord did this franchise get bloated without ever making any real progress, it’s no wonder the story is as convoluted as it was going into the climactic final chapter of the Kingdom Hearts…”trilogy”. So did it deliver? Eh….I guess it depends on who you ask. Now, I was never as into Kingdom Hearts as some people I know, be it online or in real life. I always liked the franchise, I have very fond memories of the first game and being so hyped for it back in the day and how proud I was to finish it (I didn’t really play many RPGs like it at the time). I remember when Kingdom Hearts II was coming out and the internet decided to label the series as “emo” and sort of jumping onto that bandwagon for a bit before finally succumbing to my own love of the series and genuinely enjoying the second true installment in the series. Then we got nothing but the aforementioned spinoffs and everything else that wasn’t actually Kingdom Hearts III. I kept up with the franchise as much as I could without actually playing through most of the games (I did play them, but they were never my own copies and most I didn’t actually bother finishing), but I kept myself up to speed on the story (as best one could) and was certainly anxious for the real third game to finally arrive. So when it finally did and I finally had my hands on it (seriously, was an awesome Valentine’s surprise), did I like it? Yeah, quite a bit actually. It genuinely felt like a generational leap for the franchise. The worlds were bigger and more open to exploration, the visuals are absolutely gorgeous, the soundtrack is pure bliss, the gameplay is an evolution of the already solid combat and mechanics the series has built over the years and I just love how flashy and action-packed the fights can get. The story, well, it certainly wasn’t the satisfying conclusion to the trilogy we waited so long for was it? I totally get the frustration here, it felt like a bait and switch and it really just didn’t do anything to justify the convoluted mess to get to hit and it didn’t really resolve it or provide real closure. Maybe the upcoming DLC will fix things, I dunno. I also have to question some of the choices for worlds here, it really did feel like a heavy push for what was currently relevant to Disney (seriously, basically every Disney world in this game either recently had or was about to have a new movie or tv series). So many series staples were left out and they didn’t really take any chances with lesser known properties or long requested fan favorites. Plus, come on, if you were going to push modern relevancy you couldn’t give us the MCU or a Galaxy Far Far Away? Still, for all of its problems I really did enjoy the game. I remember having a stupid grin across my face when that opening cutscene finally played after all these years. I also think the Pirates world here was among the best worlds in the franchise, it was almost good enough to be a game all on its own and I wish more of the worlds did something like it.
6. Super Mario Maker 2
Who doesn’t like 2D Mario? Granted, Nintendo’s flagship franchise did hit a bit of a rut with the “NEW!” series, but that misstep aside the games are largely considered some of the greatest platformers in the industry’s history and for good reason. The Wii U (and later 3DS) would see the release of a fantastic little tool that would allow gamers to create and share their own custom Mario levels. With the Switch, Nintendo seemed to be shifting many of the Wii U’s best titles over to the larger userbase so as to not let those gems die unappreciated in a failed platform. So imagine the surprise when instead of just porting over the original Mario Maker we would get an entirely new entry with all new themes, parts, enemies and multiplayer elements that would allow us to create the Mario levels of our dreams. It is easy to use, quick to understand and offers a wide variety of officially made and user created levels to explore if you’re not feeling up to the task of creating levels yourself. It really is the perfect 2D Mario game because it has no end, even if the world decided to stop submitting new levels and the servers went offline, you could still create your own challenges and puzzles and speedruns and anything you can imagine. I was hooked on this game, I played it every day for a good while after release, either tweaking my own in-progress levels, looking to see if anyone had played my creations or trying out something new other people submitted. I loved popping into streams and putting in my level code to watch them try and beat my stages live. Nintendo really knocked it out of the park with this one, I’d say it’s a must own for any Switch owner.
5. Daemon X Machina
I dig giant robots, you dig giant robots, chicks dig giant robots. One of my most anticipated releases of 2019, the Switch desperately needed something like Daemon X Machina. A stylish mech action game with some serious attitude, gorgeous visuals, a banging soundtrack and awesome mech designs and customization. With solid gameplay that was tweaked and refined after much feedback from fans during the beta test, Marvelous delivered one helluva exclusive for Nintendo’s hybrid console and injected life into a depressingly underutilized genre. It’s not a perfect game by any means, the story certainly was..anime and sort of nonsensical and convoluted and just kinda there, but the gameplay really does hold up. It’s the Armored Core sequel we’ve been craving and it lives up to the pedigree. There’s a lot of options for customization, even if some are near strictly better than others (especially in online). While the PvP could use some heavy balancing (I do see that it has had some patches and adjustments since I last played), there’s still something fun about taking down a giant mech with a bunch of other players online and I really hope that Marvelous sticks with it and makes this into an ongoing franchise for the Switch or at least for Nintendo because we need this, we need our awesome anime mech games. Hopefully they can incorporate the PvP elements from the start and really flesh that out and balance it, bring in some more customization and weapon variety, make more things viable. Hell, make it into a tournament arc and I will throw my money at you. Just don’t let this franchise be a one and done deal.
4. Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice
I am unabashedly a Fromsoft fanboy. The Soulsborne series is far and away my favorite in all of gaming, I’ve picked up every single release either the day of release or very shortly thereafter (Demon’s Souls I got like, the Friday the week it came out) and outside of Demon’s Souls I got the collector’s edition, the collector’s guide books, etc. for all of them (save for some of the rereleases or DLC ones and such). Sekiro…I didn’t get around to until grabbing it on Black Friday this year. It wasn’t for lack of want, it was just bad timing on its initial release and I had to put it off repeatedly over the year because of other releases that I gave priority to (I generally favor new releases over picking up an older title, probably a bad habit, but I digress). While it would have been nice to have been as involved in the community when it was all fresh and new as I had with previous titles, I am glad to at least have finally gotten around to the game and it certainly did deliver. Now, I’m not actually finished with my initial playthrough as of this writing, though I am close. However I do think I’ve played through enough of it to give an at least somewhat informed opinion, albeit not a complete one. Is this Fromsoft’s greatest work yet? No, not really. I’d still rank both Demon’s Souls and Bloodborne higher for sure, not really sure how it stacks up compared to the Dark Souls trilogy though (note that I am one of those of the opinion that that particular trilogy actually improved with each subsequent release, so I am an outlier). It’s a very different game and needs to be approached as such, despite how many similarities it shares on the surface. You can get away with playing Sekiro like Dark Souls to a point, but once that point comes the game expects you to play Sekiro like Sekiro and it means it dammit. I do find myself more drawn towards the dark, European fantasy setting of most of the other recent Fromsoft titles (Bloodborne obviously being gothic, Victorian and Lovecraftian, which appeals to me the most out of all their works) over the more real-world, Japanese historic setting of Sekiro (though it obviously has its own mystical elements). I also prefer the roleplaying elements and weapon and build variety of the other titles versus the more focused, action-based and jack of all trades style of Sekiro’s core gameplay.
That said, Sekiro does easily have the best combat of any of Fromsoft’s Soulsborne games and the added stealth and general maneuverability (especially the verticality) open to you makes every encounter feel layered and gives a great variety to approach with, leading to a very fun and rewarding experience. Now, actual level navigation and even general combat does mostly feel easier here, you’re not likely to ever get lost, you’re probably never going to fall into some random hole (and even if you do, it’s not an instant death) and while certain enemies (especially later on) can be challenging, I just never felt like I really struggled with just getting through where I’m trying to go through here. The bosses and minibosses are where Sekiro shines though and where the vast majority of its difficulty will come from. While there are a few more interesting encounters, such as a giant snake, a shit slinging gorilla (with a few tricks up its sleeve that really caught me off guard), and some more supernatural encounters, I feel that the best fights have all been more or less straight duals with another swordsmen. This is where Sekiro’s combat absolutely shines, once you get into that rhythm, that dance, the clash of swords, deflecting, getting hits in where you can to lower your opponent’s vitality so you can better break their guard later on, it is so satisfying, so rewarding and getting that final deathblow leaves a feeling of true triumph. Do I think Sekiro is the hardest Soulsborne to date? It’s hard for me to say. I obviously struggled more my first time through Demon’s Souls than any other game in the franchise and I still feel that whichever you start with will ultimately be the one you find hardest as the greatest difficulty in any of these is that initial learning curve and need to git gud, unlearn your bad habits and develop good ones. Up until now I have always said that, setting that aside, if I were to say which single entry would likely be the hardest starting point it would absolutely be Bloodborne. If you were to ask me the same question now I wouldn’t hesitate to throw Sekiro into the mix because I know that even though Sekiro does want you to play the game it’s way and there’s certainly some relearning that needs to be done, if it wasn’t for my previous experience with From’s library I’d have struggled much much more than I currently am.
So yeah, I am absolutely loving Sekiro and I cannot wait to finish up this playthrough and check out some of the other endings and fights I may have missed because of choices I made.
3. Pokemon Sword and Shield
Boo dexit, boo lazy Gamefreak, boo boo! Got it out of your system yet? Good. Yes, there were some rather controversial decisions made during the production of the 8th generation of Pokemon, most notable among them the culling of over half of the current roster of Pokemon. Pokemon Sword and Shield, officially, contains only 400 of the near 900 total pocket monsters and outside of hacking (and even that is spotty at best in this case) there is no way to bring over the rest of the lineup, they literally do not exist within the game’s code (save for an additional 30 or so Pokemon that we are aware of thanks to dataminers). This, as expected, caused quite the controversy and resulted in a scorned fanbase that nitpicked every detail about the games and every statement Gamefreak released in regards to them. Personally, while I obviously am disappointed that not all of my favorites made it in (though a surprising few of them actually did), this whole dexit thing (yeah, real clever guys) was an inevitability and it probably should have happened sooner rather than later. I’m not going to delve too much into my feelings on this particular issue, it’s done and that’s all there really is to it. Sword and Shield are the first full length, traditional Pokemon RPGs for a home console. Yes, we had the Let’s Go games last year and while they are considered a mainline game by Gamefreak, they’re still not exactly “traditional” Pokemon games and are closer to a hybrid of the main series titles and the endlessly popular mobile spinoff. So did they pull it off? Well, it certainly feels like Pokemon on a home console. It really is ultimately more (or less I suppose if you’re in that camp) of the same and if you like Pokemon then you really should like these as well. There’s a lot of awesome new monsters to collect and gearing up your team for serious competitive play is easier than it’s ever (officially) been and while there are fewer Pokemon over all, the sheer variety available to you at any given time is probably the highest it has ever been in the series without taking trading into account, which gives you a lot of team options for the admittedly easy (but really, weren’t they always?) campaign. I’ve put more hours into Pokemon Sword than any other game this year, probably more than any other game since The Binding of Isaac even, and I am still not done (really do feel like this is the first gen I’ll actually complete the Pokedex in). Yes, there is room for improvement here, but Sword and Shield are by no means bad games and if you look beyond the smaller Pokemon count you really will have a great time, these are probably the best games in the franchise to date.
2. Days Gone
Talk about an underrated title. Days Gone was one of Sony’s big exclusives for this year, arguably its biggest true exclusive (since Death Stranding will be releasing on PC next year) for 2019. Why then did it release to so little fanfare and mostly middling (if not outright negative) reviews? I normally try to avoid getting too political on here, I don’t think this is the time or place for that, so I won’t mention how certain reviews seemed very skewed towards certain biases in the industry these days or how wrong some of theme were in assumptions they made that showed they either paid no attention to what the game tells them or their knowledge of real world biker culture. I will however mention that many reviews seemed to come from sources that didn’t bother to actually finish the game or from people looking to unload all of the criticism they’ve built up towards the open world genre and its tropes that they were too afraid to actually make towards bigger franchises such as Zelda (looking at you Breath of the Wild), Assassin’s Creed or Red Dead Redemption and Grand Theft Auto, because so much of the negatives piled on Days Gone are just as, if not more, applicable to those games. Is Days Gone perfect? No, of course not, and it certainly does share many of the genre’s usual issues as well as mix in its own flaws such as a general lack of interactive NPCs that aren’t just quest givers or the one or two merchant types you see per camp. Perhaps this is due to the post-apocalyptic nature of the game and its setting in the heart of Oregon’s Farewell Wilderness, most of what you interact with is going to be infected humans or other beasties that aren’t going to be too interested in talking or setting up shop. Still, it would be nice if there was a bit more to the camps than stopping by for repairs, ammo or to turn in or start a new quest. Not to say they’re completely desolate, but really it’s only one camp in particular that feels alive and has a bit more going for it and even then you can only listen to the same nightly concert and idle chitchat for so long. So, what good does Days Gone actually do? First and foremost, I have never wanted to visit Oregon before in my life, but after spending a good 40+ hours playing Days Gone I’d love nothing more than to hop on a bike and cruise around the wilds myself because damned if SIE Bend Studio didn’t do a wonderful job of recreating their backyard. This is easily one of the best realized open worlds I’ve ever explored, it is just gorgeous. The weather effects are absolutely phenomenal too, from watching snow pile up to rain turning dirt into muck, each with their own impact on gameplay elements, it’s really quite something.
The core gameplay itself is also fairly solid, it does take some time to really get going (this will apply to the narrative as well), but after a few bike upgrades and getting some better gear it starts to fall into place. Combat is entirely serviceable, it’s not the best and shooting at times did take some getting used to, but once you get it down you’re good. Hordes are probably where the gameplay shines brightest, especially before you know how to properly take them on. There’s few things more exhilarating than running or biking away from a literal sea of zombies (well, technically they’re not zombies, but let’s not play semantics here) rushing and climbing all over the place to get to you. The “finale” horde you face that’s infested an old saw mill near the game’s climax is particularly impressive, challenging and offers a whole slew of ways to go about the encounter. The survival elements are light and mostly boil down to needing to keep your bike gassed up, conserving limited ammo and crafting resources, on higher difficulties this comes more into play, but there were definitely times on my playthrough on normal that I was feeling it.
I’m not going to touch on this point too much, both because I don’t want really want to spoil things here and because I will be going a bit more in-depth on it at a later date, but the narrative is where Days Gone truly shines. What starts out a bleak and depressing post-apocalyptic story turns into a tale of hope and redemption with some really likable and well written characters, a beautiful soundtrack (seriously, give Days Gone Quiet a listen, that song brings the feels and so perfectly delivers the game’s message in a very poignant way), a few good twists and a solid setup for a sequel (albeit one that does feel a touch counter to what the game’s been trying to say, but I digress). I know Red Dead Redemption II got a lot of praise for its story and while I can’t really say that Days Gone necessarily compares (I think it’s closer than not though, for what it’s worth), it’s a shame that it ended up just sort of glossed over and forgotten. So please, I implore you, give Days Gone a chance, it is so much better than the mainstream reviewers would have you think it is.
1. The Surge 2
If you’ll allow me to take the lazy way out for a moment and recommend reading through my full review of The Surge 2 for my full thoughts and opinions on Deck13’s latest and greatest right over here. This shouldn’t come as much of a surprise for the top spot. 2017’s The Surge is one of my top games of all time and this year’s sequel is an improvement over it in almost every single way. With a bigger world to explore, more bosses, more weapons with a heavily revamped and improved combat system, more awesome armor to collect and construct and a much grander narrative tying it all together, The Surge 2 is everything a sequel is supposed to be and then some. With a slew of free content updates already released and a brand new story expansion hitting next month, the best just keeps getting better. Don’t sleep on this one, it offers just the right amount of challenge to be rewarding without ever feeling frustrating and the combat is among the best in the genre (I’d argue only Sekiro and maybe Bloodborne even come close).
I just want to thank you all for sticking with me over the last few months here on The Pulse and The Grand Geek Gathering. It has been an absolute honor getting to write for you guys and I am so excited for what 2020 has in store, we have a lot of things to count down in the future and I hope you will join me as we do. Have a safe and happy new year, peace and love geeks.