Every year, we here at The A.V. Club’s Games section get together in December to reflect on another big bushel of days gone by. (Although not Days Gone; that one didn’t crack our list.) Games are discussed, highlights are mused, feelings are explored. Numerical rankings are eschewed—they’re great, we love them, if you’ve got one, please share it in the comments—on account of them not being exactly our style. Instead, we’ve assembled a list of those games that stuck with us for whatever reason in 2019, and one strong, specific reason why we liked them. Some of these games appeared on our mid-year list; most of them didn’t, as 2019 continues to toss up welcome surprises in its latter half. If there’s a theme to the list, meanwhile, it’s that these were the games we just couldn’t get out of our heads. Whether walking through the wilderness of the United Cities Of America, trudging the streets of somber Revachol, or just obsessing about a beloved K-pop group, these were the titles that took up residence in our brains and refused to vacate in 2019.
As always, feel free to offer up your own entries in the comments, using our beloved “I liked X because Y” format. We’re looking forward to seeing what your gaming in 2019 was like.
I liked Apex Legends because it’s the first online shooter in a long time that I want to stick with for as long as possible. I play Call Of Duty every year, I tried Overwatch for a while, and really enjoy PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds when I’m in the right mood to handle something so uniquely stressful, but none of them have really clicked with me in the way that Apex Legends has. It’s a game I want to keep playing for as long as I possibly can, learning the new characters as they’re introduced and keeping up with the ways that the developers at Respawn try to shake things up. My big concern earlier in 2019 was whether or not Apex would be able to hold onto its early buzz with meaningful updates throughout the year, and Respawn has definitely pulled that off. My favorite thing that they’ve zeroed in on is the game’s personality, moving past each character’s specific gimmick in favor of skins and voice lines that lean more into who they are than what they do. [Sam Barsanti]
I liked BTS World because it was an impressive bit of fan service that didn’t make me rotate my phone. If you’re planning on creating a mobile game that centers on arguably the biggest boy band on the planet, the pressure to create an experience that will satisfy its fandom has to be immense. Instead of buckling, Netmarble, South Korea’s largest mobile-gaming company, teamed up with BTS to make an immersive simulator that shines a very human light on the band and its arduous path to success. As you stand in as the group’s manager and navigate its rise to fame, it’s hard not to marvel at the amount of time that both the developers and BTS must have dedicated to this project in an effort to make it as realistic as possible. Mounds of taped footage, voice work, side stories, and music work together to help players get a full sense of how their efforts “affect” this very real group of men. (There’s even one instance involving a simulated video call that had me unconsciously fixing my hair.) And while not having to switch my phone to landscape mode might not sound like a major deal, it does speak to the overall user-friendliness of an interface that allows you to slide in and out of the game with ease. BTS World is a thorough thank-you to the BTS ARMY and some first-rate fun for even the most casual of fans. [Shannon Miller]
I liked Control because it made me happy to see an under-appreciated studio get a win. Remedy—the studio behind Control—made the old Max Payne games and got a huge push from Microsoft for the overly experimental Quantum Break, so it’s not like the developers have been languishing in obscurity. But it seemed like Remedy’s last few games struggled to hit that level of general recognition that they’ve deserved. With Control, it’s like seeing a band you really like stick to it for a handful of albums and then finally hit the charts with a record that is not only surprisingly popular but that also fully embraces the charm and personality that made you like the band in the first place. Control is just as weird and clever as other Remedy games, like the criminally underrated Alan Wake, but the studio finally managed to put that weird cleverness together with a game that feels good to play, has a strong story, and just looks really neat (instead of just having maybe two of the three). [Sam Barsanti]
I liked Death Stranding because I can’t stop thinking about it. I played a ton of Death Stranding in a relatively short period of time for the review, and being unable to really talk to anyone about some of the ridiculous shit in it forced me to sit with it in a way that probably wasn’t good for me. When I was playing Death Stranding, I was trying to process what I was seeing: the headless giant made of ink, the multiple full-length credits sequences, Norman Reedus’ character saying that a cool motorcycle should be on his AMC motorcycle show. When I wasn’t playing Death Stranding, I was trying to figure out how to articulate my thoughts on it. Was it fun? Not really. Did I enjoy it? Somehow, yes. It’s silly and stupid and pretentious and stylish in all the best and worst ways simultaneously. I wish more games were like it, and I also wish no games were like it ever again. [Sam Barsanti]
I liked Disco Elysium because it made me feel everything. ZA/UM’s beautiful, brilliant, bold, funny, heartbreaking detective RPG seemed to arrive fully formed in my life, like Athena emerging from the head of a deranged, smiling Zeus. It’s my game of the year in a walk, slotting neatly into my personal canon alongside titles like Chrono Trigger and Planescape: Torment, the latter of which it resembles, and sometimes even surpasses. As an amnesiac detective wandering through an alternate universe version of France, I committed acts of vandalism, argued with my inner gym teacher, traced bullet paths, talked open a locked door, contemplated my copotype, investigated a hole in the world, and was almost killed by an incredibly uncomfortable chair. Disco Elysium feels like it was derived from nothing, in the best way possible; it doesn’t feel like a reaction or a reference to the current conversation, but the beginning of a new one all on its own. It made me feel happy, miserable, touched, and more; it possesses that rare quality of grace, an acknowledgment of the sublime goodness of humanity that can only be stumbled into when you allow its evil to be fully contemplated as well. It’s good, is the point I’m making here. [William Hughes]
I liked Elsinore because I’m a sucker for a good time-loop story. And you could argue that Golden Glitch’s innovative adventure game is a great time-loop story, given that it’s adapted from Hamlet, which, you know, is pretty well-regarded in literary circles. Elsinore earns its place among great time-loop games not through its Shakespearean influences, though, but by pushing just how far the limits of its famous story can go before breaking. Do you want to have playable character Ophelia kill off Hamlet, seduce his uncle, and rule Denmark? Go for it. Run off and be a pirate? Why not? Just straight up kill everybody? Hell, that one’s practically canon. Elsinore is sometimes a little clunky, but its innovative approach to keeping track of the schedules of the play’s various characters, and its thoughtful meditations on fate, destiny, and doom—topics Shakespeare himself could only have approved of, despite the unfamiliar format—are worth revisting time and time again. [William Hughes]
I liked Heave Ho because it’s one of the funniest couch co-op games I’ve ever played. The basic premise is simple: You and up to three friends have to toss yourselves around an environment to reach an exit point, making Barrel Of Monkeys-style chains and throwing each other through the air. The catch is that the only control you have over your little guy is moving the arms around and grabbing things with either your left or right hand, which is why you have to do a lot of throwing and catching and praying that you can make an impossible leap. The platforming puzzles are fun and clever, and Heave Ho very smartly takes away any real punishment for failure. If you miss a jump, your character simply explodes offscreen, showers your friends in cartoony viscera, and then comes back for another try. This makes failing funny, which keeps Heave Ho from becoming frustrating, which makes it easy to want to keep playing. The only real barrier to that, if you’re playing on Switch, is the crushing finger pain from having to hold down those shoulder buttons for an extended period of time. [Sam Barsanti]
I liked Outer Wilds because it made me feel the thrill of space exploration. 2019’s best space-set video game with “Outer” and a word that starts with “W” in its title isn’t afraid of killing you, or eating you alive, or sending you hurtling into a sun. (Twenty-two-minute time loops are handy that way.) It’s also not afraid to show you something incredible, though: sand flowing between two twin planets; massive storms sweeping across an ocean’s surface, cities suspended above the heart of a planet. Or even just the solar system itself, as glimpsed from the window of a ramshackle wooden spaceship. Or not—remember not to fall into any random black holes, kids, unless your spacesuit’s got plenty of air. [William Hughes]
I liked Resident Evil 2 because it was the ideal distillation of classic survival horror. I played the original Resident Evil games when they were new, and though I was a dumb kid at the time, I can pretty confidently say that none of those first three games are as good as the Resident Evil 2 remake. It has the excellent sense of place that people loved about this series and the endearingly byzantine puzzles that we all tolerated/enjoyed, but it also has a more modern, player-friendly sensibility that makes it feel good instead of just scary. Really, it’s the best kind of remake in the way that it captures an idealized version of Resident Evil 2 that fans have in their heads, rather than the literal version that won’t have aged particularly well. If we’re lucky, Capcom will do a whole series of remakes and then promptly run it into the ground just like the first time around. (They’ve already announced a new Resident Evil 3.) [Sam Barsanti]
I liked Sekiro because it made parrying sword strikes feel as natural as breathing. There were a lot of games peeking over FromSoftware’s shoulders at the Dark Souls playbook this year—Remnant, Code Vein, The Surge 2—all to pretty mixed, sometimes even meh, effect. But From itself charged boldly ahead, revamping its latest entry for a focus on stealth and the satisfying feeling of an enemy’s attack deflected. Shadows might die twice, but players died a whole lot more, with Sekiro’s difficulty kicking off a fresh argument about the role and desirability of customizable difficulty in games. (Short version: It’s pretty much always a desirable trait.) But when the game goes right, it sings like few other entries in the genre; there’s nothing quite like parrying a headless ape at just the right moment to land the final, perfect (un)killing strike. [William Hughes]
I liked Slay The Spire because it let me see what was coming next. Seeing the future in a turn-based game is a powerful tool, for players and developers alike. In the hands of players, it allows you to dodge otherwise certain danger, while for game designers, it widens the limits of what those dangers can be. Slay The Spire gets that, with enemies that will tell you exactly what they’re going to do to you, and only a single turn in which to pull together a hand of cards to defy them. The game builds its appealingly replayable nature from those cards, challenging you to find new builds, strategies, and coveted infinite loop combos. But the brilliance is more elemental, leveraging the power of foreknowledge in order to push players’ problem-solving talents to their limits. [William Hughes]