Gaming: 2019 in Review

I always enjoyed lists for how easy they were to write, and the short-form meant that I could try and just write quickly and publish without lots of time letting something I write sit and stew, so it feels like a pretty good place to begin with me getting back into the swing of things. So, here we go. It’s been quite a while since I gave Torchlight 2 a game of the year nod, but let’s see what it’s like, writing about games seven years later.

As a quick aside, I didn’t really play quite a bit that came out this year, and I have a backlog bigger than I ever would’ve expected myself to have, going into my late 20s. For the grand majority of the year, I was running two D&D groups while having a full-time job and owning a home, so free time for things I wanted to try with no guarantee of being interested in was scarce. So without further adieu, completely arbitrary categories for my games of 2019!

Best Game I Didn’t Like

So, yeah, pretty straight forward. A lot of games came to prominence this year, and a lot of them I didn’t play, but for ones that I really acknowledge are good, but didn’t like? That’s a category that I feel is worth discussing, or at least dumping some words on. But not a lot– after all, these are games I didn’t really like!

Honorable Mention: Call of Duty: Modern Warfare. It was, well, certainly a Call of Duty game. After the ‘main line’ games continued to ramp up the absurdity from unexpected terror attacks to pseudo-mech-suits and Kevin Spacey, it felt like it would all fold in on itself. Unfortunately, in doing so it completely fucked the naming scheme. This isn’t to be confused with Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, which is a completely different game, one that also got a remaster a couple of years ago. Onto the game! It’s… good? It’s Call of Duty, you know what you’re getting into. It doesn’t have the absurdity of some of the past titles, and seems to kind of ‘reset’ the gameplay, but it’s still good. It’s just… another Call of Duty.

Honorable Mention: Slay the Spire. I love roguelike/lite games in almost any genre. I like card games. I think. I enjoy them as an ancillary activity in larger games. Final Fantasy, The Witcher, etc. had good card games as side activities that I enjoyed doing. But I found out that I don’t really like Slay the Spire. I think it’s really unfair that I don’t like it, but in the months before it came to early access, I was playing a similar game, Monster Slayers, which seemed to scratch that itch. I can’t place my finger on exactly why one seemed to catch my fancy and not the other, but that’s how it sussed out.

Honorable Mention: Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice. This would probably be the winner if I played it more, but I didn’t. It’s a very fast-paced Souls-like experience, and I don’t like Souls-like games. I played about 45 minutes on a friend’s PS4 in order to give it a fair shake, but in the end it was just… still not for me.

Winner: Resident Evil 2. I bought a new video card at the beginning of the year, and it came with a CD key for Resident Evil 2. Which I had zero interest in ever playing. I played the original back in the day, knew the story, and had no interest in playing it all over again. But it was free, so I did, aaaaand, well… I didn’t really enjoy it. Obtuse puzzles were fun when I was a kid, but now it just feels like busy work. Managing ammunition, inventory space, and your life was something that I felt compelled to do at one point in my life, but now I’m more interested in how it impacts the story, which it really doesn’t. Not to say it gets in the way, it just… feels unnecessary. The game is beautiful, the gameplay is fine— it just never seemed to hook me.

Seeing old pre-rendered locations of the PS1 in beautiful new graphical fidelity is a fun twist for a little while, but eventually the drab hallways blend together and the jump scares are more startling less scary. The horror isn’t so much horror as it comes off as ‘well, here goes another 4 bullets and some durability on a knife’, which doesn’t feel like something the game wants to evoke from me, but it does.

Best Game That Didn’t Come Out This Year

A category that is the antithesis of Game of the Year awards! Actually, I’ve seen these as a bit more popular over the last few years, where people discuss games that they didn’t get to in years past. It’s a strange category, I think, but one worth speaking of, if for no other reason than flexing my inability to not write even more. There are a LOT of honorable mentions, so they’re not getting more than, well, a mention here.

Honorable Mentions: Depth, Grim Dawn, Pokemon Black & White (and Black & White 2), Terraria

Depth is still a great game to play with friends. The asymmetrical nature of it means that you can talk shit while playing as a shark. It’s hammy, over the top, and embraces it for every second of gameplay. Why the developers decided that the followup should be a fucking PUBG-clone underwater is beyond me, but it’s a huge disappointment. The 5th generation of Pokemon games have been my favorite since they came out, but having a few friends and a randomized rom gives it a whole new level of fun. I believe at one point six of us were sitting in a Discord call, streaming our screens and comparing what Pokemon we caught while all following Nuzlocke rules. It might not be properly cooperative, but it sure felt like I was going on that adventure with them. Terraria? Still getting updates, still feels great, still has an incredible sense of progression and power gain, and still has an extensive modding community to bolster just how much of the game you can get out of it. And lastly, this year I’ve played a lot of ARPGs. Diablo 3, Torchlight 2, Van Helsing, Titan Quest– probably a lot more that I can’t even think of while I’m writing this. But none of them gripped me quite like Grim Dawn. As a mechanical sequel to Titan Quest, it was nearly perfect. Just about every gripe I had about Titan Quest, every little bump, was smoothed out. The setting was… dark and drab, very much in the same vain as a Diablo, but I think I actually preferred the fantastical worlds of Titan Quest. But the gameplay– I think Grim Dawn just about perfected the mechanical ins and outs of an ARPG, and I have no idea where the genre can go without some significant leap in technology or a breakthrough or additional mechanic being discovered.

Runner-Up: Tyranny. Another year, another week dedicated to playing through a CRPG for the 50th time. A bit hyperbolic, but Tyranny is just. So. Good. The gameplay is… I’m not going to say it’s incredible, but it works. It’s a classic RPG in the vein of Baldur’s Gate or Neverwinter Nights, which is to say that the combat only has to make sense and have the ability to drive the story. Which it does. So very, very well.

Now, the strangest thing about Tyranny is that it sits somewhere on the line of the plot and the setting carrying it. The setting is wholly unique, which pushes the plot, but at the same time– this same plot in a different setting probably wouldn’t work. You play as a lieutenant in an army of evil that has won. The war in Lord of the Rings is over, and now Sauron is here to shitstomp Hobbiton, the last bastion of free people. But he’s not doing it himself. So you play as this lieutenant, and you’ve already won– victory isn’t really in question, the stakes are only over how you handle the orders given to you, and how you interact with those around you.

The less I say, the better, because this is a game that I feel everyone who likes RPGs or good stories should play. It’s an inspiring fantasy game with an inspiring fantasy setting. Some of the companions leave something to be desired, but that’s not the core of the game, and what is front and center is displayed so proudly and with so much grace that it alone can carry the game to something far greater it should be able to.

Winner: Final Fantasy 6. Hoo boy. I will probably write more about this eventually, because it deserves more than a blurb. Fun fact: Until this year, I had never actually beaten the game. I would get somewhere roughly up to the halfway point and peter off as the game opened up and gave me less direction. But playing it with a friend helped considerably in taking those dull, story-less parts of the game and at least making them into more of a joke.

This game did a lot for the series, I think. It feels like the first one that was more than the sum of its parts. An overtly insane, iconic villain with a penchant for assholery of the highest order and a rag-tag group of heroes is about the gist of the game, but it doesn’t really do it justice. Most of the party members have their own characters arcs they go through during the course of the game. Seeing how all of these people initially band together, what drives them– it’s compelling, but also fairly bog standard for a JRPG. Given the birth of FF6 on the Super Nintendo, it doesn’t exactly have a massive script with sweeping amounts of dialogue to flesh things out. The whole game was forced to keep things brief– and for the best, really. You can have too much of a good thing, and Kefka would be a prime example of that.

But back to character evolution. Normally – especially in JRPGs – failure is a temporary setback where something that has become fairly cliche happens– be it the villain getting the upper hand, an ally making a sacrifice, or the ‘true’ villain making themselves known. In FF6, failure is just that– complete and utter failure. The second half of this game examines how these archetypal characters pull themselves together after what amounts to a traditional ‘game over’ in most other games. What drove them to save the world, what made them who they were– it’s gone, and now they have to find a new meaning and drive. And it’s a compelling way to handle the narrative. Without doing any more to spoil anything (on this 25+ year-old game), it’s legitimately interesting, even through the lens of a classic Final Fantasy translation and the limitations of the SNES.

Though, for all the things that FF6 did, the thing that surprised me most in playing through it with fresh eyes was how much inspiration Final Fantasy 7 took from it. Technology running amok and the harm it’s doing to the planet, the pseudo-steampunk technology, the traitor-turned-hero– it’s honestly mind-blowing how similar they are. But even more surprising is the fact that, despite the jump in console and graphical fidelity, at no point is Final Fantasy 6 anywhere near as dull as 7, mechanically. So, yeah, this is a game that feels like the ‘easy’ ‘hipster’ pick for best Final Fantasy, but it legitimately might be.

In 2020, I Promise I’ll Play It!

A category for games that for one reason or another I can’t currently play, but I’m anticipated enough that I’d like to.

Honorable Mention: Death Stranding. Excuse? Not on PC yet. I mean, it’s incredibly divisive, every review seems to be the opposite of another, and I still can’t figure out if I’ll like the game or not. But it damn sure looks interesting enough that I’m going to have to try it. I’ve seen people who liked American Truck Simulator or the mundanity of Elite Dangerous speak favorably of the simplistic, simulator-esque nature of the gameplay and the story taking a backseat. And while I never put major hours into either of those former games, I thought if I found the right one, I could definitely sink hundreds of hours into a business game. Hopefully this is the one.

Honorable Mention: Beat Saber. Excuse? I’m not investing in VR until the market settles. I love looking like an idiot. I really like dancing. I really liked Guitar Hero and Rock Band back in the day. The little I’ve played of anything on VR, I’ve kind of enjoyed. So when the day comes that I feel VR isn’t taking constant leaps and bounds every year with new major technology is the year I’ll jump in. And I’m super excited to try beat saber when that day comes.

Runner-Up: Red Dead Redemption 2. Excuse? I can’t stand Rockstar’s incessant need to ‘double-dip’ and stagger releases. The first one never came out on PC, so despite my love of cowboys and absurd open world inanity, I never played it. Hopefully in time RDR2 will get a significant price cut that can let me justify investing in it, because my self-righteous vote-with-my-wallet attitude frustrates me sometimes. Like now.

Winner: Disco Elysium. Excuse? The Witcher TV Series has been out for over 7 days as of writing, and I’ve only seen one episode so far. Yeah, I love CRPGs and games with great writing. Disco Elysium is literally at the top of my list of games to play, but it came out of nowhere and something that dense deserves a fair shake with my undivided attention, which I haven’t been able to properly muster of late. I started to play it right around Thanksgiving, but realized it deserved more respect than ‘being in a Discord call with some friends’ while I played it.

Game of the Year

Honorable Mention: Wargroove. I played precious little of the Advance Wars series when I was a kid. I had a friend who was obsessed with it, and we had that weird connector to play GBA games on your Gamecube on your TV, and that’s the extent of what I know about Advance Wars. But something about Wargroove really stuck with me. I think the biggest problem the game has it that there isn’t more of it. While it doesn’t reach what I believe could be its full potential, it consistently seems to wear its pride on its chest and show off its love for the games that inspired it. So even when the game feels like it’s falling short (there are some early missions that feel incredibly slow), the sheer genuineness of the game shines through.

Honorable Mention: The Division 2. It’s The Division… again! Ostensibly, they’ve taken everything from the first game, and used that as the baseline for the second game. Given the fact that around the time I reached max level in the first one, I quit, I can’t say for sure. They feel very similar. If you like looter shooters, it’s slightly more fun than the Borderlands series, but a lot more graphically impressive to look at. Outside of the first Borderlands, I can’t say the games have had anything really interesting to their setting, so yeah– you go The Division 2, you’re slightly more fun! Put that on the box and sell it. But really, it’s about as good as a looter shooter can get without overtly changing major mechanics to the game while still being recognizable as, well, the game it’s set out to be. I hope one day we get something akin to this, but for a more ‘shooter’-focused crowd.

Runner-Up: Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night. We have achieved Castlevania nirvana. For what feels like the majority of my life, and the entirety of my adult life, every indie developer has made their own tribute to Castlevania: Symphony of the Night. But now, we’re getting the real thing. Bloodstained is, in pretty much every aspect, a direct mechanical sequel to that game while still allowing room for more growth. The obvious technological limitations aren’t what they once were, and that has allowed them a lot more room for how they’ve designed the castle and abilities of the game. It’s beautiful to just… have this thing, which is everything people have been yearning for. It’s not the prettiest game, but honestly? I feel like the slightly frumpy models and animations add a bit to the throwback charm of yesteryear. When it comes to the Metroidvania genre, I have a feeling we’ve reached the top of the mountain with this one.

Winner: Octopath Traveler. I love you. That’s what I’m saying to the game, but that’s also what Octopath Traveler is saying to the JRPG genre. In the land of exceedingly rare is the JRPG which focuses on gameplay over story, but that’s what ‘ol 8-ways did. At least, with presentation. The story for each of the characters varies from ‘acceptable’ to ‘very good, bordering on great’, which is something of a feat for a JRPG, given how the grand majority of them seem to worry more about tropes and having all of the dialogue in them.

When I started playing Octopus Trivago, it was around the time I was running some emotionally heavy D&D sessions, and just wanted something I could relax with. And this game seemed to have that figured out. If I didn’t know any better, I’d say it was tailor-made for me. A lot of people hate the grind of the JRPG, seeing it as a massive blight on a genre that should’ve evolved past it (look no further than Pokemon to see that a lot of developers seem to be feeling the same way), but the idea that you can find ‘loopholes’ or be dedicated enough to just overpower the absolute shit out of your enemies is something I’ve always enjoyed, much in the same way some people enjoy a trucking simulator.

So before I gush, I’ll go over the basics: The voice acting is sparse, but does what it needs to. Much like the actual story, it varies, but none of it is bad and a couple of the characters are downright great. The graphics feel like a living shadow box and will probably be timeless in the same way late-era SNES games are. I’m sure in 20 years I could come back to Octagon Triangle and still enjoy looking at it. And the gameplay is buttery smooth. The combat is almost like a puzzle, with the mechanic of finding an enemy’s weakness meaning that, with enough research and grind, you can kill things more efficiently because of player information, not just statistical upgrades. It’s great. It makes grinding a bit more interactive and a lot more… dare I say, fun?

The biggest bugbear for Octave Transgression is that the stories feel so disconnected. Much like the second half of Final Fantasy 6 (which, coincidentally, I played and beat about 2 or 3 months after this game), the game is completely open-ended, only gating you off of locations based on your own ability to defeat the enemies within– along with the occasional sealed-off area for a story beat. There are legitimately eight separate stories being told in a fairly disjointed manner, where the party never feels like a completely cohesive unit that spends time together. So if you’re into a JRPG for the lengthy character interactions (something the Tales series pushes to the forefront), that’s… not what Octane Trailblazer excels at. The pure open-endedness is both a boon and a bane on this game, but that’s really where it makes its mark.

In true JRPG fashion, the gameplay and story rarely mesh perfectly (there are multiple scenes I can remember of a character lamenting either loneliness or being in need of assistance, seeming oblivious to the entourage they have at their side). It gets a bit better as the game goes on, but never truly reaches the peaks that it could. While there is samey-ness to a lot of the game, that repetitiveness seems to only reinforce the core gameplay of getting stronger to get more story. A story that’s worth getting stronger to enjoy. And to a lot of people, these can feel like serious drawbacks to a game, but it seems like a love letter to a certain style of JRPG, and it fits everything I love in one to an absolute T.

I would love nothing more than to have a proper (non-mobile) sequel that fixes some of the gripes I have with the game, but they’re gripes that I can only really speak of in an objective manner. In my opinion, these are things that enhance the experience, rather than diminish it. So while it’s not something I could recommend to absolutely everyone, it’s something that I’ll cherish as a lost piece of my childhood for a very long time.

In Closing

I wish I played more games that came out this year and could write a more exhaustive list, but this wasn’t a year of games I was incredibly interested in. Even beyond those I listed, there are some that are on my ‘to-play’ list for next year, and even more that I’m sure I’m not expecting. Even something as major as The Outer Worlds– I installed it, the Xbox Game Pass for PC ran out, and I uninstalled it before ever playing it. I don’t think I ever even ran the game. So I’m hoping that, with my return to writing, I’ll be spurned into dragging myself back out of my bubble and writing proper about more games than I have in the past, and especially more than I have for 2019. Which was still a pretty great year for me.

After all, Branching Dialogue is back.

Posted by Robert Wall


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