Game of the Year 2019

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.

Honourable Mentions:

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: 

5. Blasphemous

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. 

4. Resident Evil 2

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.

3. Devil May Cry 5

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.

2. Death Stranding

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.

1. Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice

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

Game of the Year 2018

So then, 2018 was a long year, eh? As Jim Sterling pointed out in his shittiest games list Metal Gear Survive came out this year, and to me that seems like a good decade or so ago. Seemingly to balance out being longer and more peppered with infuriating bullshit than a Lars Von Trier film, 2018 also had a lot of good games. In keeping with the layout I’ve had going since 2016, the list will be two honourable mentions, and then a list of my five games of the year in reverse order. So, let’s get into it.

Honourable mentions:

Note that as a one-off, because both of my honourable mentions were incredibly strong and equally deserving of a place on the main list, I’ve decided to give them both pictorial representation.

1: God of WarImage result for god of war Baldur

After six games (seven if you count the mobile one) about an unsympathetic, shouty dickhead whose killing sprees were less and less justified this instalment completely shifted gears. Kratos is now a sombre, calmer figure on a journey to honour his dead wife and bond with their Son, a relationship that may appear dysfunctional but beneath the surface is clearly one of love and respect. The switch to Norse Mythology brought with it gorgeous environments and interesting new lore, the over-the-shoulder camera made combat more intense and the whole thing felt like a proper journey, made even stronger by that central relationship between Kratos and Atreus; acted beautifully by Christoper Judge and Sunny Suljic. It’s a touching, dramatic story about accepting your faults and trying to change, of parenting, relationships and what you pass on, or keep from, your children. All happening alongside excellent Metroidvania exploration, meaty combat and the aforementioned great performances. Somehow, much like Resident Evil last year, a series with nowhere to go found a way forward and powered through like a steamroller.

2: Marvel’s Spider-ManImage result for spider-man ps4

If you’re surprised this isn’t on the main list, rest assured I hear you, but it was a really strong year, and as excellent as Spider-Man was there were five games I liked more. Excellent it was, however. It’s easily the best Spidey story I’ve ever seen, the new takes on established characters were good, particularly Journalist Mary Jane and her surprisingly good forced stealth sections, as well as the personal link between Peter and Otto Octavius. Its gameplay was to the webhead as Arkham was to Batman, making you really feel like the character, easy to do cool things but also rewarding skill. Also the webswinging was ace, which is a big deal as these things go.

Game of the Year List:

5: Yakuza 6: The Song of LifeImage result for kiryu ukulele

It was a bumper year for Yakuza team, as it has been for some time now. Fist of the North Star was good, Kiwami 2 was flawed but still solid, but Song of Life was a thoroughly excellent entry and the clear best of the three. Kiryu’s final act was, smartly, just another adventure in his storied, punchy life. No MGS4-style “The gang’s all here” wrap up, just a man on a mission in uncharted territory, strengthening existing bonds and forging new ones. Smooth, streamlined combat, a touching story about the nature of family and the lengths one will go to for their loved ones and, of course, an end to Kiryu’s run as Yakuza protagonist. This was the entry that finally drew me into going for substories and trying out all the minigames, and despite somehow feeling restrictive in Kiwami 2 the combat system’s debut here worked really well. It was extremely close between this and God of War in fifth place, but Japan’s toughest Hot Dad bowing out is too important to both me and video games to deny a place on the list. Sorry Kratos, but my heart belongs to Kiryu-San.

4: Dragonball FighterZ
No automatic alt text available.

I went back and forth between two fighting games in 2018: Street Fighter V AE and Dragonball FighterZ. The latter is a combination of great fan service like the JoJo games but with far better gameplay, reminiscent of Skullgirls and, fittingly, Persona 4 arena. It’s easy to pick up and play as fighting games should be, exciting, fun AND enables a Goku Black/Bardock best boy tag team. Its quick matches, full-on sense of spectacle and making it easy to pull off massive attacks straight from the anime/manga, all wrapped up in a gorgeous visual style make it an absolute gem in terms of fighting games, Dragonball games and anime games. Now I just need Arc Sys to make 2-D JoJo fighting game.

3: Detroit Become Human
Related image

I know, I know, I’m as surprised as you are. I’m a vocal critic of both the man and his works, and Cage’s influence here is definitely an issue when the clunky racism allegory rears its head, but for the most part it’s an engrossing, well-acted story about likeable characters, and choice-based player interaction with that story that can have genuinely catastrophic effects. Stylish, slick and genuinely engaging, with a great visual style. It’s just bloody good, and I have no regrets about putting it on this list. Credit where it’s due; I really like Detroit, despite its flaws, and it really was one of the best games I played all year. I doubt David Cage had anything to do with it though: I reckon 2018 was where the rest of Quantic Dream and the cast made something so good even Cage’s awful bullshit couldn’t derail it. Side note: between this, Yakuza, Spider-Man and God of War it was a great year for Playstation exclusives.

2: Far Cry 5
Related image

To borrow a phrase from the DMC5 entry of my E3 2018 list: A silver medal so strong it could blot out the Sun and so, so close to the gold. I love Far Cry 5: its world, its characters, especially the Seed family and double-especially Joseph Seed, the music, the story and what I maintain is the best ending to a game ever. It’s a game that, through its memorable interactions, amazing original soundtrack and the series’ great driving mechanics married to beautiful North American scenery has been firmly stuck in my brain since finishing it. Unfortunately, it’s Resi 7 all over again: had a certain other game not been released, Far Cry 5 would be my game of the year hands down. But of course, that game was released, and it was…

1: Red Dead Redemption 2
Image result for arthur morgan

…the best game ever made, taking the role previously held by its predecessor. Of course Red Dead 2 is my game of the year, it couldn’t not be. It’s an absolute masterpiece, the kind of game that comes around once in a blue moon, draws in massive swathes of the earth’s population and stays in its collective minds for years to come. So a Rockstar game then, but even among Rockstar games it’s miles ahead of even its second best game (The Warriors, if you’re wondering). Arthur Morgan and his story of the world being a cruel, unforgiving place in which the people you love will reveal their true colours as crushing disappointments and your life will slowly fall apart before your eyes like rotten meat off a corpse is a captivating emotional gut punch. I’ve done a second playthrough where I took my time to do stranger missions, go out robbing and spend time milling around camp and it really is just fantastic. Oddly enough my time with Persona and Danganronpa made me appreciate socialising with Red Dead’s cast all the more, and the way it develops them and gives them all personality and texture augments everything else about the game; its a journey you take with all of them, not just Arthur. I’ll stop there before I ramble on for another thousand words or so, but I cannot stress just how good Red Dead 2 is. It’s the best game ever made and my game of the year 2018. That’s the way it is.

Finally, a quick shout out to Ryuji Goda, the best Yakuza villain, and how gorgeous he looks in Kiwami 2:

Image may contain: 1 person, text

Image result for ryuji goda

Image result for ryuji goda

Yowza. The Jingweon did him dirty and stole all his screen time, the bastards.

Anyway, that was 2018: a great year for video games and the most trouble I’ve had picking my list for a while. Really looking forward to at least the start of 2019: Resi 2 Remake and DMC5 hopefully acting as a launch pad for another year of good games. The former will be my first new review of the year, so I’ll see you then.

By James Lambert