The 10 best games of 2019

Wednesday, January 15, 2020 - 4:27am

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Courtesy of Cassandra Mansuetti

The terribly crazy year that was 2019 has come to a close, and though most are glad to have it in the past and see what the new decade brings, it would be a shame to not muse on the strange and wonderful year it was for gaming. From the revival of classic franchises to the success of numerous indie darlings, as the year comes to a close, let’s take a look at the best gaming experiences it had to offer. Here are The Daily’s picks for the best video games of 2019.

10. “Mortal Kombat 11”

For a franchise that revels in gore and spectacle, who would think that slowing things down would make for a better game? This is exactly what “Mortal Kombat 11” does. By taking everything down a notch, “Mortal Kombat 11” delivers the best fighting experience I’ve had in years. So long to the days of button mashing and cheap wins. I now feel like I can have a fair fight with my friends. Add back the signature gore and bloody finisher moves and you’ve got a game that provides desensitizing masochistic fun for everyone in the family. I’ve lost count of how many arguments I’ve settled with “Mortal Kombat” this year.

— Eli Lustig, Daily Arts Writer

9. “Call of Duty: Modern Warfare” 

I never thought I’d see the day, much less be the one to report it, but “Call of Duty” has made a comeback. For about a decade, “Call of Duty” was a washed up celebrity, showing up every year, managing to turn a couple heads, but at the end of the day, still irrelevant. After experiencing cookie-cutter game after cookie-cutter game, people were tired and any fan who wasn’t a prepubescent boy would agree that “Call of Duty” had seen better days.

After taking a much-needed break and not even including a single player campaign in the last installment, Activision has returned with a game that is so rich in visual detail it scares me. “Modern Warfare” looks and sounds like real life. Creeping through a terrorist hideout with night-vision goggles and silenced weapons might sound like standard video game affair. Yet the creaking of the floorboards, the quiet ding of bullet casings falling to the ground, the shortening of breath as your character is about to open a door — these tiny details accentuate every experience, making “Modern Warfare” the most realistic game I’ve played in 2019.

— Eli Lustig, Daily Arts Writer

8. “Untitled Goose Game”

We live in a world on fire — metaphorically, politically, actually physically — filled to the brim with so many global anxieties that even the simple act of playing a video game can stress us the fuck out. It’s no surprise then that some of the best games this year were the ones that fulfilled our common desire to forget about our relentlessly demanding lives and blow off all the steam they create, if only for a second. If “Untitled Goose Game” was released twenty years ago, it would’ve made but a blip on the gaming world’s radar, but its widespread acclaim and popularity in 2019 is quite revealing to the truth that we almost never get to take a break now.

Oh, to be a stinky goose who exists to cause problems on purpose. It’s a game where you can only waddle and honk and flap your wings and pick up stuff with your beak, but it’s so much more than that. But it’s also not. You can read “Untitled Goose Game” in a lot of ways — as a love letter to Kojima-esque stealth games, as a Marxist critique of modern society, as an excuse for us to imbue meaning into our meaningless lives —  but the fact that it is so open to whatever you want it to be speaks to how much we needed it. Who knows if we’re living in a simulation or not; it’s 2019, nothing makes sense and a game about a little goose injecting chaos into a sleepy English village is pushing the envelope on moral philosophy.

Go ahead, steal a bespectacled kid’s toy airplane and force him to buy it back from the local shop, or don’t. Even if we can’t bring ourselves to decide, no worries: The goose will always be on the loose.

— Cassandra Mansuetti, Daily Digital Culture Editor

7. “Mordhau” 

“Mordhau” is a competitive, first-person medieval warfare game with a skill ceiling so high, I could get a Masters degree in it. This indie darling not only managed to capture the attention of the Steam community, but also all of my free time. The thrill of charging into battle among 60 plus players, shields ready and swords primed, is a thrill second to none. The best part of this game is its complex and difficult but rewarding combat. “Mordhau” is a game of infinite approaches. By utilizing slashes, lunges, feints and blocks, combat turns into a dance. You’ll probably get sliced to bits in your first couple hours, but stick around for a while and you’ll be a master knight, wielding Excalibur as your sword.

— Eli Lustig, Daily Arts Writer

6. “Devil May Cry 5”

While it may be a big-budget return to form for a legacy action game franchise which had seemingly lost its way after a misguided 2013 reboot, at the end of the day “Devil May Cry 5” is the video game ten-year-old me daydreamed about. There is a sword that revs up like a motorcycle, a character that employs a demon panther and eagle to fight for him and a dance sequence following the acquisition of a hat/weapon that puts the King of Pop’s best routine to shame.

Like yes, there is a story that satisfyingly adds to the established narrative of an almost twenty-year franchise, but “DMC” is one of those rare games that can play both the serious and screwball role, often at the same time. The game’s bread and butter is its ridiculous, insane and satisfyingly slick combo system, which opens the door for inventive flurries of attacks that would feel at home alongside the fight choreography of “Naruto” or “Dragon Ball Z.” “Devil May Cry 5” knows exactly what it is: cool as hell. You don’t want to get left in the dust as it skateboards into the sunset on a rocket-powered robotic arm.

— Cassandra Mansuetti, Daily Digital Culture Editor

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Obsidian Entertainment

5. “The Outer Worlds”

“The Outer Worlds” is proof that video games have transitioned into an age of intertextuality. The relationship between “The Outer Worlds” and video game classics is one of homage and reverence. It’s fitting that this game was released in 2019 because veteran gamers will find that “The Outer Worlds” is a nostalgia trip through some of the best games of the decade.

Developed by some of the brains behind the Fallout series, “The Outer Worlds” plays very similarly but also borrows creative mechanics from other successful games. Blasting your way through an art deco inspired galaxy controlled by corporate oligarchy is, well, a blast. Despite its many allusions to classic video games and sci-fi, “The Outer Worlds” manages to tell a story with political relevance while still keeping things lighthearted. “The Outer Worlds” puts video games in the context of cultural history and reminds old-time gamers how far the medium has come.

— Eli Lustig, Daily Arts Writer

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Hempuli

4. “Baba is You”

It’s perhaps an objective truth that no one will ever be able to make a more perfect puzzle game than “Tetris.” Universally simple and endlessly replayable, even your computer-illiterate grandma could pick up a Game Boy and know exactly what “Tetris” is about and how to play it as soon as the first block drops from the top of the screen. I could write a whole article about this (I actually won’t and would rather you watch Matthewmatosis, one of the best video game channels on YouTube, concisely sum up said hypothetical article in six minutes) but that’s not my point. It wouldn’t be controversial to say the best puzzle games in recent years, like “Portal 2” or “The Witness,” still exist in the shadow of “Tetris” Peak, gracefully attempting but ultimately failing to summit it. Instead of launching yet another futile expedition, “Baba is You” just moved the whole damn mountain.

“Baba is You” starts as simple as “Tetris,” quite literally telling you everything you need to know: “Baba is You,” “Flag is Win,” “Rock is Push,” “Wall is Stop.” Simple enough, right? Well, yes, until you realize that these simple three-word facts are only facts if the player wants them to be. Each word is morphed into a block that can be moved around however you see fit. Want to push the flag instead of walking through it? “Flag is Push.” Want to be a wall and just vibe around? “Wall is You.” So on and so forth, as you clear more and more levels and the game throws keys and lava and crabs into the mix.

It’s one of the smartest core video game mechanics in recent years, and “Baba is You” succeeds because the puzzle is not just finding a way to get to the end of the level, it’s pushing and pulling and morphing the rules of the level so the end gets to you. The game isn’t any pushover, but prevents itself from being frustratingly hard thanks to a handy Ctrl+Z-like feature and its inherent silliness. Still, “Baba” never fails to make me feel like a MD-PhD in puzzles through the tiny victory of completing any given level.

Sure, I could look up the optimal solution to each level that takes the least amount of moves possible, but where’s the fun in that? The best part of “Baba is You” is that there’s never just that one optimal solution. You don’t find the right way to do it, you find your way. And even if your way is hilariously stupid, no one can deny it got you over the finish line.

— Cassandra Mansuetti, Daily Digital Culture Editor

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Adamgryu

3. “A Short Hike” 

While we all love video games because they let us inhabit and explore worlds where our wildest dreams become possible, where we can slay dragons or quest after legendary lost treasures, sometimes all we need is a good game that shows us the beauty in the ordinary, letting us take it in at our own pace. “A Short Hike” is exactly what the title says it is, and I love it for that. 

You’re a bird named Claire on vacation with your family, and you want to climb to the top of the mountain to get some decent cell service. Aside from some small bits of narrative, there’s no greater story than that.

Though the game has a clear objective, it doesn’t really care how or when you decide to do it. You can walk up the mountain by taking one of many trails or by forging your own path. You can go swimming or play some random kid’s wild new game “beachstickball” or help a character find their missing headband. You can sit by the campfire and take your hands off the keyboard for a minute. The pixel art is a joy to marvel at, and it exudes the same charm as one of Nintendo’s finest outings: It’s what I imagine the villagers in “Animal Crossing” do when you’re not around.

“A Short Hike” is like your favorite dessert — it may only be a small treat that you can finish in a couple minutes, but it’s made better if you take it slow, savoring every bite. It’s the special chocolate cake you always asked for on your birthday, a flavor you could never forget. “A Short Hike” leaves your heart full as much as that cake did your belly.

— Cassandra Mansuetti, Daily Digital Culture Editor

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FromSoftware

2. “Sekiro: Shadow Die Twice”

Controversial? Yes. A new beginning? Yes. Mentally strenuous and engaging? Yes. A game for everyone? No. “Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice” is a masterpiece of gaming because it does not compromise.

After concluding their critically acclaimed series “Dark Souls,” developers FromSoftware had a vision and stuck to it. That vision is “Sekiro”: the 15th century Japanese-themed stealth action adventure that left gamers either glued to their screens or screaming at it. “Sekiro” is hard. Very, very hard. But it’s exactly this struggle that allows the player to appreciate the craft and sophistication that went into this game. “Sekiro” does not accommodate for its audience, the audience must accommodate to it. To endure it is to admire it. “Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice” is committed to an artistic message. It is that commitment that makes it the best game of 2019.

— Eli Lustig, Daily Arts Writer

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Intelligent Systems

1. “Fire Emblem: Three Houses”

There are a million things I could say about “Fire Emblem: Three Houses” — how it perfects the standard gameplay of the series to make it more accessible for new players without sacrificing difficulty and depth, how you can play the game four different times and experience four distinct story pathways all totaling up to hundreds of hours of content, how the game got me to buy DLC just so I could pet cats — but I think the best testimonial I can offer is how firmly it has embedded itself into my brain. Ever since I first booted up the title screen, I can’t stop thinking about “Fire Emblem: Three Houses.”

The quick and dirty summary of “Three Houses” is that you play as a mercenary-turned-professor at a medieval military academy, smack dab in the middle of a continent on the brink of war. Over the course of many years, you follow the professor and their students (from one of the titular three houses you choose to teach, each representing a certain slice of aforementioned continent), and how you and these students grow, change and challenge each other.

Even though you can kind of facetiously boil it down to “be gay do war crimes,” the classic video game suspension of disbelief kicks in and allows you to fall for the most loveable group of idiot students you’ll want to both strangle and hug as you remind them that everything is going to be alright. Though the gameplay and quality of life improvements to the franchise are top notch, the character design does the real leg work here, imbuing these kids with some of the most intimate and relatable stories, despite the overarching narrative ultimately being a tale of knights and kings and war.

“Three Houses” is a phenomenal game, and one made made all the more special because of the life it has taken on outside of my Nintendo Switch cartridge. I can’t go five seconds scrolling through my Twitter feed without seeing some fanart of characters pulling pranks on the professor, crushing on each other or having a wholesome holiday celebration. I would die for Marianne, and I want the chibi charm I have of her on my backpack to make that fact known to the world.

Despite “Fire Emblem” being one of Nintendo’s most established franchises I had only played half of previous installment “Awakening” before picking up “Three Houses,” so if you went back to the summer and told me I would be so in love with this game to the point of drawing my own fanart of my favorite characters, or hypothesizing with my girlfriend and roommate about how the students of the Blue Lions house would squabble and gossip with one another on a class road trip, I don’t think I would’ve believed you. With fulfilling tactical gameplay, a painfully real story and an incredible cast of characters, “Fire Emblem: Three Houses” is my game of the year and it should be yours too. The fact the fanbase has stayed strong with a steady pipeline of memes and art months after the game’s release really tells you all you need to know.

— Cassandra Mansuetti, Daily Digital Culture Editor