So this is a bit later than usual because I got Persona Q2 for Christmas and wanted to give it a shot at the list. I’m not making particularly good progress with it though, and so rather than delay my list to some unknown date when I finally finish it, I thought it best to just write it anyway. As per usual there will be five entrants in the list and two honourable mentions. LET’S GET INTO IT.
1. The Sinking City
Taking the Cthulhu Mythos in general and The Shadow Over Innsmouth in particular as a jumping off point; The Sinking City told an intimate, ground-level story about the people living in Lovecraft’s world. Refreshingly the game directly addressed the racism present in the man’s work and confronted it through the presence of a protagonist who’s got no time for that bullshit. Its solid cosmic horror story was tied to engaging detective gameplay focusing on searching areas, talking to people and forming links between evidence and conclusions, leading to moral choices the right and wrong of which are entirely up to the player’s viewpoint. The evidence is the same, but the conclusions you draw are different. It was rough around the edges, but it made me feel like a detective struggling against the big and small of Lovecraft’s world, and that’s an experience worth celebrating.
2. The Surge 2
I didn’t review this so it can’t get onto the list proper, but having picked it up half price in the PSN sale and played it over Christmas, I enjoyed it to the point where I feel it deserves a mention at least. I didn’t care about the story, but the Soulslike gameplay was top notch thanks to its two USPs: finishers and battery power. The first is how you gain new weapons and armour: by targeting, damaging and severing enemy limbs, heads and torsos. The first time you do so nets you schematics to develop armour (or a ready to use weapon), every time after you get upgrade materials. It also adds an extra layer to the combat by making you weigh up attacking unarmoured parts of enemies for a quicker, easier kill but no items vs a potentially more drawn out and dangerous one that will get you closer to better gear. The second- the battery meter- is filled by attacking enemies and can be used to regain health as well as multiple other buffs and regen items, and can be stored to use for later. If you’re low on health, there’s always some close by as long as you can avoid being killed just long enough to get some good hits in. So it’s a Soulslike, but those two elements married to the usual satisfying souls combat make every fight fun and interesting, and even though I didn’t care what was going on I was constantly compelled to keep going. Since finishing it I’ve done a New Game Plus run and I’m planning to review the recently released DLC soon.
Game of the Year List:
A 2-D Metroidvania absolutely soaked in blood, misery and brutality. The world of Blasphemous is one of penance in that old school, Catholic way where everyone’s a total bastard and they have to apologise to God forever for even existing, which makes for great atmosphere and art design. The story is simple: you are “The Penitent One”; a silent, masked warrior on a mission to free the country of Cvstodia from the grip of “The Grievous Miracle”; a magical entity that’s responsible for physical manifestations of guilt, grief and penance alongside a monster or two. What makes the game worth playing is a core gameplay loop highly reminiscent of Castlevania: Symphony of the Night: satisfying 2-D combat, exploration and the all-important Metroidvania elements, as well as the gorgeously bleak, miserable tone and the art and soundtrack inspired by Spain and its history. I was looking forward to this one for a while and it didn’t disappoint.
Capcom had a good year in 2019, and this is the first of their triumphs: a remake of Resident Evil 2 that started the year off in grand style. Instead of taking the REmake route and changing the environment around the original’s same (albeit augmented) game mechanics, the Resi 2 remake instead opted for a complete overhaul of how the game played; making Claire and Leon far more capable in a fight with over the shoulder aiming and the ability to do so while moving, but making zombies tank bullets like, well, a tank. I really liked this approach to the undead; making them great slabs of meat driven forward by an insatiable hunger that can’t be stopped unless you burst their heads open, something that keeps the series’ balance between fighting and avoiding enemies intact. The R.P.D, now cloaked in suffocating darkness felt simultaneously familiar and new, and the game took the time to change a few small things for the better. Add in the now far more persistent Mr X pursuing you all over the station and Capcom have taken one of the best entries in the series and made it feel fresh and exciting again. Can’t wait to see what they’ve done with Resi 3 in April.
I love Devil May Cry. I have done since I played the original back when I was a bairn; I even loved DmC, and although not being too into it when it came out I came to love DMC4 when I played the PS4 port. DMC5 is everything I want in a DMC game; the combat is top notch, the story is simple but focused entirely on its characters; who are all likeable, especially newcomers V and Nico (the former quickly becoming my favourite of the three playable characters) and of course the whole thing ends with two excellent fights with Vergil. This was the other half of Capcom’s great year for me: Resident Evil 2 was a mood piece; creating an atmosphere of dread and panic in a beautifully designed environment filled with real threats and a general feel of overcoming a puzzle, even when the solution was just choosing the right inventory lay out or how to put down a zombie. DMC5, in contrast, is a character piece; the atmosphere is one of triumph as the soundtrack kicks into gear, your character says a cool line and you set about stylin’ and profilin’ all over whatever hell spawn thought stepping to you was a good idea. As much as I love the Resi 2 remake, inhabiting these characters was just so much fun, though what gives DMC5 the edge is V; the poetry-reciting, sleeveless leather coat-wearing, terminally ill human side of Vergil, with his unique fighting style and determination to see things through despite being hours from just collapsing. I love V, I love DMC5, I love Capcom and I love this hot streak they’re on.
Death Stranding is a weird one because so much of it seems antithetical to what might be considered a fun videogame experience. Sure there are harrowing fights with tar ghosts, clobbering human thieves with the cargo they’re hoarding and gun fights with Squad Leader Mads and the Skeleton Lads (pictured above), but so much of the game is loading up with packages, telescopic ladders and climbing ropes and then hiking over rough terrain to make deliveries. Having said that, I thoroughly enjoyed all the hiking over rough terrain to make deliveries, so the combat was just another string to the game’s master-crafted bow for me. Deciding what to take on a run, how to pack it onto protagonist Sam’s carrying apparatus as well as a potential vehicle, working out whether that vehicle will make it all the way to the destination, what weapons to take and whether to leave room for any lost packages you might find on the way; all of these factor into an on-going puzzle that targets the same part of my brain as Resident Evil. I even like the actual hiking itself, as weird as that may sound. The story was solid, the cast were all up to Kojima’s usual standard of interesting people who all stand out and the online component of building shared structures and leaving shortcuts for people was a brilliant idea. It even had a good emotional punch and some excellent visual design, particularly whenever Mads Mikkelsen is on screen. An original idea beautifully executed and a gripping, consistently enjoyable game to boot.
Sekiro is my game of the year. Having moved away from Dark Souls with the faster, more aggressive Bloodborne, Sekiro is faster and more aggressive still, and marks the high point for this entire mini-genre, both inside and outside of Fromsoft. The blending of attack and defence, the push and pull, give and take nature of the combat and emphasis on clashing swords and definitive strikes makes the hacking away at enemies in similar games seem clumsy by comparison. The game eschews keeping the plot hidden in lore and instead tells a story with a named protagonist with his own personality; a simple but enjoyable tale about personal definitions of loyalty and the lengths one will go to to help those dear to them, set against the backdrop of Sengoku era Japan. I like Wolf, I like his interactions with Lord Kuro; formal but with a hint of the familial. I love the setting and the forays into horror, but most of all I love the gameplay. Nailing parries, hearing that gorgeous sword clash sound effect and getting a deathblow, especially against some of the harder bosses, is a superb feeling; far better than any other Soulslike game I’ve played, and as a complete package Sekiro is easily the best game I played in 2019.
So that was 2019. 2020 has a lot to look forward to, my most anticipated games are Persona 5 Royal, the Resident Evil 3 Remake and The Last of Us 2, all of which I’ll be reviewing. See you soon.
By James Lambert