2019 was a very strange year for games, and that sense of adventure is clear in our list of the top 50 games of the past 12 months.
While next year will have new consoles and likely many new entries in huge, tentpole franchises, this was a year with many experiments and unexpected surprises. Outer Wilds mixes the expected influence of the past few years into something completely new, while The Outer Worlds brought familiar design into a brand-new galaxy that served as a pointed critique of capitalism.
There was a Star Wars game that could be mistaken for a Tomb Raider game. There was Kind Words, which was always there for you if the news became a little overwhelming. And who could forget whatever the hell Untitled Goose Game is? This was a year in which it was possible, if not exactly easy, for strange, exciting new ideas to make an outsized dent in the zeitgeist.
Don’t worry too much about the ranking. It’s a fun and light exercise. Ultimately, we recommend all of these games. That’s why we’ve included a bit on what makes each one special: So you can find the best games of 2019 for you.
Here it is, our list of the top 50 games of 2019. For a deeper look back at our top 5, check out our dedicated GOTY 2019 hub. If you’re looking for something more platform-specific, check out Polygon Essentials, a collection of persistently updated lists of the best of the best games for each platform — from the hardware’s launch to its end of production. To see a collection of other titles we recommend that might not have made the Essentials lists, check out Polygon Recommends.
50. Pistol Whip
Pistol Whip is a rhythm/action VR game in which you murder your enemies to the pulsing beat of an amazing soundtrack. It’s a killer workout, as well as an effective way to blow off some steam if you’re stressed out, with enough options that change the scoring — and even the feel of the game, in some cases — to make sure it’s worth playing through each song multiple times. An instant VR classic, from a studio that clearly understands the medium.
49. Hypnospace Outlaw
Set entirely in a late-’90s GeoCities-like online hub, Hypnospace Outlaw is a flawless piece of historical fiction, a savage work of contemporary satire, and a genuinely tricky puzzle game. It’s a funny piece of work that’s nostalgic about the past without getting too misty-eyed.
The game tasks me with working as a community enforcer, administering a code of behavior across its ugly, bizarre user-created pages. These websites are populated by a diverse cast of internet archetypes extant in the ’90s, as now. Copyright infringers, virus makers, hackers, scammers, and trolls must all be taken down through deduction, investigation, and lateral thinking.
Experimentation is the key, and there are times when solutions seem maddeningly elusive. But all the while, Hypnospace Outlaw prods and nudges us to think about our digital lives, now and in the past.
Available on Windows PC, Mac, and Linux.
Get it here: Steam
Islanders is a vacation hidden inside a video game. Its cute, low-poly style is easy on the eyes, its sound effects and music are chill as hell, and you can play the turn-based game at a leisurely pace. You don’t have to worry about catastrophic weather events or having enough food for your villagers; just take your time to plan out and build a flourishing island village.
Playing Islanders feels like someone took the city-building genre apart brick by brick and rebuilt it using only 10% of the pieces. It’s minimalist, but it’s not simple. A plus/minus scoring system gives you points every time you place a building; a jeweler gets bonus points for being near gold mines and mansions, while farms get bonuses for being near mills. Islanders isn’t strict about where you can place your buildings, but this system keeps things in check, encouraging you to create patterns and groups. It’s an elegant setup that balances the player’s freedom without harshing the game’s chill vibes.
Available on Mac and Windows PC.
Get it here: Steam
47. Tom Clancy’s The Division 2
The Division 2 was a breath of fresh air near the beginning of the year, despite being yet another extremely online third-person shooter. The game looked amazing on higher-end gaming PCs, it had a solid launch without many technical issues, and it was designed in such a way that it was clear the team heard players’ complaints about the first game. It felt like ordering an old favorite at a restaurant, and finding it cooked nearly perfectly.
46. New Super Mario Bros. U Deluxe
New Super Mario Bros. U Deluxe may have a ridiculous name, with its bookended superlatives and a now-out-of-place U, but the game’s release on Nintendo Switch offers a much larger audience the chance to play what some consider the greatest Mario game of all time. Even if you don’t agree, you have to appreciate the value of this package: Deluxe includes two full Wii U games — New Super Mario Bros. U and New Super Luigi U. Both side-scrolling platformers were great on the underperforming Wii U, and they’re even better here.
As noted in our full review of the game, New Super Mario Bros. U Deluxe thrives on iteration. There are 30-plus years of Mario platforming craftsmanship in here that can be appreciated by both longtime Nintendo fans and newcomers. It’s a masterfully designed Mario game, made slightly better by its ability to be played anywhere on the Nintendo Switch.
45. Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night
The man who helped keep 2D Castlevania games alive — and is partly responsible for the “’vania” half of a beloved genre — rallied fans to help him bring Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night to life.
A spiritual successor to Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, Koji Igarashi’s crowdfunded project faced serious delays and a worrying shift in developers, and it had some technical issues at launch. But the end result was a solid, playable homage to the Metroid-inspired Castlevania games of yore. It’s pure comfort food, and Bloodstained not only lives up to expectations, but exceeds them in many ways, offering depth, a massive list of things to discover, and, above all, a return to form for a master of Metroidvania design.
44. Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order
Two years ago, it felt like Star Wars was a video game franchise in crisis. Remember all that stuff about the end of narrative-driven, single-player-only games? That Star Wars was a lumbering dinosaur of the era of licensed games, and the best developers wouldn’t touch the franchise with a 10-foot electro-baton?
Yet here is Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order, a game that is many of the things people said couldn’t be done anymore. Narrative-driven? For sure. Single-player-only? Not so much as a whiff of co-op. By the best developers? Well, that’s a different argument, but Respawn Entertainment has already delivered some amazing games in its relatively short history.
That might be the biggest surprise — and lesson — inside Jedi: Fallen Order’s appeal: that no one except Respawn thought that, hey, running around and exploring things in the world of Star Wars instead of sabering it all apart, and playing it as a high adventure instead of a cosplay convention, might be a pretty amazing experience, too. It’s a surprising twist, although it makes sense in retrospect, but the important part is that we now have another very enjoyable, story-based game set in the world of Star Wars.
—Owen S. Good
43. Kind Words
2019 has been a tough year — politically, personally, you name it. Tech exacerbates this problem by incentivizing engagement; the angrier we are at each other, the better the numbers will be for services like Twitter. The mere act of talking to another person on social media is exhausting enough that I almost never try anymore, which makes coming to an understanding nearly impossible. Sometimes, I fear I’m becoming a coarser person just so I can come out the other end vaguely intact.
But to play Kind Words, you need to be vulnerable. You need to trust that when you write a letter and send it off into the void, the players receiving it on the other end will be gentle with you. And then you need to feel a duty to pay that tenderness forward by responding to people you’ll never get to meet. Choosing kindness in a world that demands we constantly bare our teeth is the most subversive thing I can imagine.
Available on Mac and Windows PC.
Get it here: Steam
42. SteamWorld Quest: Hand of Gilgamech
Indie outfit Image & Form has made a name for itself by building a lively steampunk universe spanning multiple genres. With SteamWorld Quest, the Swedish developer takes a shot at fantasy RPGs, a genre laden with tired tropes. Turns out, adding some nuts and bolts does wonders for reinventing worn-out concepts like knights and mages.
But SteamWorld Quest’s biggest draw isn’t the aesthetics or charming robots. As with other SteamWorld games before it, Quest takes a core mechanic and builds an elegant machine on top of it. In this case, the base game is a turn-based deck-building RPG where every move must be weighed against its total cost to perform. From there, Quest adds wrinkles such as status effects, combos, and cooperative attacks — all of which work together to make for a complex game where every battle feels like a satisfying new puzzle.
Available now on Nintendo Switch, Windows PC, Mac, and Linux.
41. Untitled Goose Game
It’s almost as fun to experience Untitled Goose Game as a meme — or, maybe more appropriately, as a big mood — than as a game. Who doesn’t want to step out of their mundane existence doing whatever it is they’re supposed to do in order to turn into an agent of chaos whose only goal is to be a bit of an asshole?
Which isn’t to say that Untitled Goose Game is a bad game — it excels as the rare single-player party game that’s as fun to spectate as it is to control — but that we needed a bit of benign madness this year, and holy hell did Untitled Goose Game deliver exactly that.
40. Dragon Quest Builders 2
Dragon Quest Builders 2 is a mashup of The Sims, Minecraft, and, expectedly, Dragon Quest. It has a fun RPG storyline about going on an adventure with your buddy Malroth, who lost his memory. To help all the people you meet in the game, you have to use your expert building skills, which is definitely the fun part.
The game takes the creative aspects of Minecraft and makes them better by adding actual furniture items to customize without having to fiddle with blocks and plates. I loved setting up the NPCs to farm for me, or having them work in a bar to help feed their fellow residents. I was pretty much able to create anything I wanted with ease, and I had a great time doing it.
Also, there are Dragon Quest Slimes in this game, and I’m not sure what else you could really ask for.
39. The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening
I never had a Game Boy as a child, so I missed the original Link’s Awakening. The art has been transformed from the Game Boy’s flat style to a gorgeous, plasticky toyland look with depth and a tilt-shifted perspective. It can be controversial to totally change a game’s art style — often, remastering something to make it look “better” changes the core feeling of the game — but the facelift given to Link’s Awakening works. Just looking at it makes me happy.
It’s also still a step-by-step progression through a cleverly gated world, where intricate fetch quests rule the day. In our review, Russ Frushtick called it “a perfect introduction to even the youngest would-be Zelda fans.” Even so, it posed some challenges to my dumb ass. There are random difficulty spikes that are frustrating, if infrequent. But on the whole, Link’s Awakening is a pleasant, attractive showcase of a classic.
—Simone de Rochefort
Eastshade takes you on a journey to a medieval fantasy island with mysteries to solve, bear people, and ancient civilizations. The beautifully rendered open world is full of lively forests, massive stone cities, and icy caverns for you to explore. You’ll meet a cast of intriguing characters, from the reclusive architect to the suspicious apothecary, and you may have to find or craft items to complete their quests. But what makes Eastshade extra special is that you’ll do all of this without an ounce of combat.
Instead of fighting your way through Eastshade, your character is armed only with a paintbrush and canvas. Your ultimate goal is merely to make some pretty landscape paintings and enjoy a respite from fantasy big city life.
This means you can explore at your own pace, free from the fear that a giant spider or gang of dark elves will ruin your excursion to paint a mountain peak. No quest is ever solved by simply killing someone or skinning 10 wild boars. Instead, you’ll be investigating the island’s ecology, solving a mystery, or just finding the next spot to set up your easel.
37. Astral Chain
Ever wanted to try an action game like Bayonetta or Nier: Automata, but found the difficulty intimidating? Astral Chain is the answer. The default difficulty mode favors story over challenge; the more difficult “Pt Standard” option, also available from the start, provides plenty of items to keep my character’s health maxed and their powers buffed.
Though it feels intuitive, it looks like a flashy sci-fi anime in motion. Animations turn simple moves into choreography. My cop doesn’t leap; she cartwheels. My Legion doesn’t dodge; it backflips and pirouettes. The action is decadent, sumptuous. Which isn’t to say that longtime action fans won’t have enough to do. The game has depth — just not at the expense of accessibility.
Like Chelsea Stark said in her review, Grindstone is a game about managing greed. In Capy Games’ intricate color-matching game on Apple Arcade, players must meet a few objectives to beat a level. But it doesn’t stop there; the player is free to continue playing that level until they choose to exit. If you stay, you can potentially collect more precious grindstones, the in-world currency, but the longer you try to maximize your payout, the higher the risk becomes as well.
Without microtransactions, Grindstone is a perfect balance of risk and reward. Should you run out of grindstones, which are needed to buy more hearts for health, you are forced to earn more. There’s no way to just spend real-world money to replenish your supply. That’s a rarity for mobile games, sadly.
The good news is that levels in Grindstone progress slowly; Capy Games takes the time to teach the player what they’ll need to know to successfully make it through each level. I often found myself overconfident in my ability to overclear a level, only to lose it all in the gamble to get more. Even after beating the game and clearing all level objectives, I still find myself coming back to Grindstone. I don’t certainly don’t need any more grindstones — I have thousands — but it never quite feels like enough.
Available on iOS.
Get it on Apple Arcade
35. Slay the Spire
Slay the Spire is a collectible card game that somehow fits into a single-player adventure. The genres blend flawlessly, with each battle acting as a puzzle and each new card offering an additional tactical option.
Acquire too many cards, and you’ll never draw what you need. Collect too few, and you may not have the tools you need to move ahead. It’s a constant balancing act that all but demands one more round after your most recent failure.
A successful run just means that it’s time to start again with a new character, while learning new strategies. Don’t be surprised as the hours melt away; Slay the Spire is a relatively easy game to explain, but it requires focus and dedication if your goal is mastery.
34. Sky: Children of the Light
Part social space, part vessel for positive online interactions, part microtransaction experiment, Sky: Children of the Light at its core gave us what we wanted most: more Journey. But, for now at least, it’s a mobile-only social space, on iOS devices instead of game consoles.
Thatgamecompany’s follow-up to 2012’s best game looks, moves, and feels remarkably close to its predecessor, with just enough additions — like flying — to feel fresh. The ability to revisit familiar mechanics got us in the door, while the elaborate living world kept us sticking around.
Available on iOS.
Get it here: Apple Store
33. Pokémon Sword and Shield
You know what’s wild?
Pokémon became a cultural phenomenon despite being largely relegated to handheld devices. With the release of Pokémon Sword and Pokémon Shield on the Nintendo Switch — a console that makes sharing screenshots and videos easy — it’s clear that Pokémon achieved this feat with one hand tied behind its back.
Now that Pokémon has joined the 21st century, everyone seems eager to display their affection for their digital pets, which in turn has transformed Sword and Shield into a social media phenomenon. It helps that the cadre of new monsters joining the existing crew are so well-designed that they instantly feel iconic.
I could sit here and talk about how much I’ve enjoyed new features like the Wild Area, or talk shop about the best new characters. But truthfully, I’ve spent the bulk of my time with Sword and Shield just hanging around in camp, watching my babies play and frolic. I’m catching monsters who are garbage in battle just so I can see how they walk and interact with each other. I’ve got 20 years of love built up for my buddies, and yet it feels like a revelation to see them come alive in Sword and Shield. Now if I could only get everyone on my team to get along with each other …
32. Gears 5
Did we really need a new Gears of War game in 2019?
I would have assumed the answer to be “no,” but The Coalition updated the staid, stop-and-pop design of the previous games with an open world, a robot filled with personality, and some of the most extensive graphics and accessibility options I’ve ever seen in a game this visually thrilling.
It might have felt like the world of gaming left Gears of War behind. But Gears 5 proved that the creative team in charge of the property has what it takes to keep the world of the COG and Locust current. And in many ways, the studio surpassed the expectations of a sequel in such a well-known franchise. Gears 5 is marked by an attention to detail and level of genuine care that sometimes feels rare in gaming, even among AAA franchises.
It was a bright spot in 2019 for anyone who likes loud explosions in games that deliver heart as well as a workout for their sound systems, and it will likely be a showpiece for high-end gaming PCs for the next few years.
31. Super Mario Maker 2
We’ve all seen the masocore levels, the Rube Goldberg contraptions, the homages to and recreations of other video games. They were in Super Mario Maker four years ago, and the sequel wouldn’t be on this list if that’s all it brought to the table.
But Super Mario Maker 2’s full-on story mode not only teaches the user the fundamentals of its approach to level design — it gives the player a reason for doing all of this stuff and hopefully inspires a new generation of level designers to at least give it a try. Sure, Super Mario Maker 2 has plenty of tutorials, but they’re boring, because they’re instructive. They’re the what. Story Mode is the why. “While playing these levels, my dullard brain has become awash with ideas for levels I might create,” said reviewer Russ Frushtick. “What would happen if I removed Koopa’s clown car, filled the stage with water, and added a fire-spitting Yoshi?”
—Owen S. Good
30. Lonely Mountains: Downhill
Please don’t barf when I say this with aching sincerity: Lonely Mountains: Downhill is the video game equivalent of a haiku. As game publishers build elaborate 3D worlds the size of small states, and blanket them with side quests, collectibles, and text logs larded with lore themselves, what a relief it is to find a game so singularly minded. It does what it says on the tin.
I am alone on a mountain, and my goal is simply to make my way downhill on an off-road bike. I have the option to meet other goals, like beating time limits or limiting my number of crashes. Or I could just work my way downward at my leisure, finding alternate paths, setting my own tempo. It doesn’t look realistic — the chunky, low-polygon aesthetic is cute enough — but it feels right. That’s why I keep visiting the game every few weeks. For all the flashy visuals and scope of AAA games in 2019, no game transported me like this little trip down a hill.
29. Remnant: From the Ashes
“Dark Souls with guns” is the pitch that got me to try Remnant: From the Ashes. And it’s certainly that — the combat is impressive with some of the same reliance on precision timing and strategy, along with the challenge that Souls games are known for.
But it’s the variety that has kept me playing after I gave it a shot. There are dozens of enemies that require their own tactics to fight, all kinds of different environments to explore, and new weapons to find, unlock, or upgrade.
While it would seem that the idea of bosses with ranged attacks would quickly get old — how many different ways are there to dodge stuff that bosses shoot or throw at you? — developer Gunfire Games finds ways to make every one of the game’s bosses feel unique and fun to take on, even on your second playthrough. Or your third, in my case.
Oh yeah, it’s also a great co-op game. Make sure to bring a friend!
28. Void Bastards
Void Bastards is able to turn some of the tropes of well-known indie games into strengths. The cel-shaded comic book aesthetic suits the game’s zippy sci-fi tone, and the procedural generation gives players something to both dread and hope for every time they dock with a station with no fuel in their tanks.
But the real excellence of Void Bastards may come from the abilities of your character, along with their disposable nature. You’re a space convict under the command of a rather bureaucratic AI, and if your adventure with them ends in your demise, the AI simply “rehydrates” another prisoner’s body for you, one with a totally different set of advantages and drawbacks.
Actually, this is pretty creepy once you think about it.
Players can therefore take risks without (too much) punishment, and play for keeps without the fallbacks of a save file or a simple respawn. Toss in some engaging crafting, scavenging, and first-person shooting, and you have a winning, fresh take on the staples — not the tired clichés — of solid game design.
—Owen S. Good
27. Telling Lies
Sam Barlow’s Her Story — Polygon’s game of the year in 2015 — didn’t exactly revive the genre of full-motion video games (narrative adventures featuring recorded footage of real actors). After all, it’s not like a bunch of them hit the market in subsequent years. Maybe that’s part of why Barlow felt he had to one-up himself with Telling Lies.
While relying on the same basic concept of having the player pore over videos found by creatively querying a law enforcement database, Barlow’s new game expands on his previous work in every single way. Instead of one main character, there are four (and they’re played by Hollywood talent such as Logan Marshall-Green and Kerry Bishé). And the clips themselves are significantly longer than in Her Story, some as lengthy as nine minutes.
More importantly, Her Story focused on a single mystery, while Telling Lies packs a sizable cast whose interwoven stories have one key element in common: deception. It’s this complex, layered narrative design that makes the game so captivating, and almost requires you to scribble notes in order to keep track of the sprawling plot as you slowly piece things together and try to distinguish truth from fiction.
You spend hours with these characters and feel like you come to understand them — until you stumble across a single recording that leads you down a new path and threatens to turn everything you think you know on its head. And the setup is crucial, too: Most of the clips are one-way recordings of video calls taken with webcams, which lends Telling Lies a voyeuristic feel that also touches on 21st-century questions of privacy, technology, and politics. It’s a dazzling, confounding, and thrilling work.
26. Tetris 99
In 2018, developers Resonair and Monstars reinvented Tetris with Tetris Effect. It was nearly perfect, especially when played in VR. Who would have thought that Tetris could be refreshed again in 2019, and so successfully?
Developed by Arika and published by Nintendo, Tetris 99 is a new take on the decades-old game — mashing the tile-matching puzzle experience with a modern genre, battle royale.
A Tetris battle royale sounded more like a joke than anything else when it was released on Nintendo Switch this year, following just about every other major franchise by crafting a battle royale mode onto existing design, but the 99-player free-for-all was good. Really good.
Tetris 99 is still Tetris; you fit your blocks together to clear lines. But the switch here is that you’re also battling against other players, throwing your garbage bricks their way in an effort to push them over the edge as you try to climb higher on the scoreboards and survive longer than your opposition. To win, you’ve got to be the last player standing, which is a harder feat than it sounds.
25. What the Golf?
Even if you’re tired of physics gags, What the Golf? will make you laugh. It’s golf … to a point. Golf balls are far from the last thing I putt in this game, and every level ends with a stellar pun.
“Each time I feel like I know what’s coming next, I’m treated to a surprising swerve into unexpected territory, where the rules of space, time, and narrative have been sucked into a ribald black hole and spat out as something unrecognizable,” Colin Campbell wrote in his review. It’s difficult to say more without ruining the jokes, which I really don’t want to do!
—Simone de Rochefort
24. Disco Elysium
Disco Elysium feels like playing a tabletop role-playing campaign with a DM who got into the game through 5th edition tabletop podcasts, and who doesn’t mind getting very silly with things. There’s no reliance on established lore and settings, but there is a much heavier focus on role-playing a consistent character through an interesting story.
Combat is minimized as much as possible, reduced to narrative choices about whether to pick a fight. The game’s core loop is more about understanding who your character is and playing them truthfully, rather than building them to win mathematically.
23. Cadence of Hyrule: Crypt of the NecroDancer Featuring The Legend of Zelda
Cadence of Hyrule is a Legend of Zelda title built using the bones of Crypt of the NecroDancer, a game in which players crawled — or rather, hopped — through dungeons to the sound of the music. But Cadence of Hyrule isn’t only a rhythm game. Just about everything you’d expect from a Legend of Zelda experience exists here … it’s just all moving to its own beat.
Cadence of Hyrule seems like a bizarre mashup at first. And yet, from the moment I start playing, it all makes perfect sense. The game blends its elements together so gracefully that it never feels like a spinoff or a cheap imitation of the two games from which it sprung.
Available on Nintendo Switch.
Get it here: Nintendo eShop
22. Final Fantasy 14: Shadowbringers
Final Fantasy 14’s Shadowbringers expansion gave longtime players of the MMO a fulfilling and emotional experience. Scenario writer Natsuko Ishikawa managed to create an intense story where the tables have been turned in interesting ways.
Too much light has flooded the new world you explore, forcing you to carry the title of Warrior of Darkness, a contrast to the Warrior of Light title your character has been carrying since the beginning of the game.
Ishikawa’s excellent portrayal of vulnerability and fighting for what you love shows through in both of the expansion’s characters, Emet-Selch and The Crystal Exarch, and the experience remains one of the few things that has ever made me cry in a video game. The colorful new areas, delightful music, and new bosses complement the story while making the expansion exciting, even for players who opt to skip all the cutscenes.
21. Card of Darkness
Most puzzle games on mobile, like Candy Crush and Two Dots, have been designed around their free-to-play pricing structure. To that end, some levels are made intentionally harder, requiring a bit of luck (or a bit of real-world money) to complete them.
Removing that free-to-play model and in-app purchases means that a puzzle game must stand on its own merits, not in terms of how much money it can suck up from frustrated players.
Such is the case with Card of Darkness, which offers a bizarre blend of RPG mechanics with the basic design of solitaire. And yet, while it feels quite hard at times, it never feels unfair. Victory is always within reach, usually requiring a new strategy or character build to get the job done.
And if you keep failing? Sorry, but your wallet can’t save you this time.
Available on iOS and Mac.
Get it on Apple Arcade
20. The Dark Pictures Anthology: Man of Medan
Until Dawn was one of my favorite games of the decade, so I was on board — pun most definitely intended — when developer Supermassive Games announced that it was bringing the same formula to a mysterious ghost boat.
The Dark Pictures Anthology: Man of Medan — the first game in what’s supposed to be an ongoing horror franchise — takes the same decision-driven, character-based horror experience that made Until Dawn special and successfully transposes it onto a new and extremely creepy setting. Man of Medan is a spooky, and sometimes hilarious, experience, especially if you’re playing one of the two fantastic co-op modes.
19. Wilmot’s Warehouse
The final boss of Wilmot’s Warehouse is actually my own brain.
It’s a game about organizational systems, which is fun for a very specific type of person. I play as Wilmot, and I accept deliveries of tons of colorful and intentionally vague items. My job is to arrange them in a huge, empty warehouse, and then retrieve them for co-workers who have specific orders. When I tell people this, they either think it sounds amazing, or like the most stressful thing imaginable.
Wilmot makes me glad. He’s a tiny white block with a smile on his face, unlike me when I am organizing things. I drown in camels, and teeth. I howl with rage when I remember I moved the yellow and purple moons from the “yellow and purple items” section to the newly formed “science” section (along with white and red moons, microscopes, and the spray paint can that I thought was a lunar lander).
But underneath my yowling is an undercurrent of delight. I love this game — I love organizing things, I love figuring out what makes sense to my diseased brain. I love the art, which cleverly obscures the identity of objects without feeling like it’s playing a cruel trick on me.
The only cruel tricks, it turns out, are the ones I play on myself.
—Simone de Rochefort
18. Devil May Cry 5
Devil May Cry 5 is a toy box of violent, ridiculous, incredibly satisfying juggle combos. Sure, Capcom wrapped a story and thick sense of style around that (and it clearly put in a lot of effort on the narrative and characters this time out). But it’s the playful combat that makes it work — to the point that the game would probably work just fine if it all took place in one big room, which is more or less what the DLC does.
These are the kinds of mechanics that could only come by building upon decades of iteration, and we’re lucky that Capcom’s been putting in that work for so many years.
My favorite gaming memories of 2019 didn’t come from Mordhau’s large-scale sword, mace, shield, or arrow battles to control swaths of the countryside, but from the low-key dueling server a friend of mine ran for a month or two after the game’s release.
Mordhau forces players to learn precise timing; memorize the effectiveness of each attack against each defense, adjusting for the weapons being used by both parties; and seems to punish anyone whose focus wanders for even a second. The skill ceiling is high for a game that spills this much blood onto the dirt.
And those skills are put to the test when players take turns brawling to the death in the middle of a server filled with those waiting on their turn to fight, or just interested in watching. You either win or you learn something that would make you a little better the next time you fight.
As with all the best competitive games, the most effective way to learn Mordhau is to throw yourself into it and study your opponent’s moves. But winning a victory in single combat is easily the sweetest reward in gaming this year.
Available on Windows PC.
Get it here: Steam
16. Manifold Garden
It’s not easy to describe Manifold Garden, but I’m going to give it my best shot. Manifold Garden is an architectural puzzle game with physics-based geometry. If we try to defuse the jargon, that means the player must unlock areas of the game by moving blocklike keys to their specific receptacles — a blue block, dangling from a geometric tree, will need to be plugged into the correct receptacle to open up a gate. It’s not as simple as plucking a block from the tree and walking it over to the gate, though; Manifold Garden’s M.C. Escher-inspired world is itself a puzzle, one that’s only solved by switching between different dimensional planes.
The sheer scope of this project and what developer William Chyr calls its “impossible geometry” is stunning. And that makes sense: Chyr worked on Manifold Garden for seven years before its surprise launch on Apple Arcade and Windows PC.
It’s often hard to even comprehend the complexity of the different levels as they loop into infinity, much less figure out how to solve them. It’s a complexity that often gives me anxiety — the idea of chasing something through a looping world, the destination always just out of reach. But like I wrote in my review, Manifold Garden doesn’t go on forever. The loops are designed to be tools, and to escape, you must embrace them, not run from their implications.
— Nicole Carpenter
15. Total War: Three Kingdoms
For those of us who’ve ever fantasized about being an ancient or medieval warlord, Total War: Three Kingdoms is one of the best games yet released. It’s complicated, intricate, and difficult, yet it manages to hold together convincing simulations of human dominance and the struggle for power.
The Total War series’ trademark, large-scale real-time warfare, is at its best here, balancing rock-paper-scissors units with heroic generals, smart tactical options, and interesting RPG-like upgrade trees. There’s also a solid economic sim that underpins resource management.
But the game’s biggest boon is its cast of characters and the way it deals with human interactions though diplomatic activities, and the delicate handling of underlings, family members, and mercenaries.
Available on Linux, Mac, and Windows PC.
Get it here: Steam
14. Teamfight Tactics
Auto battlers have spread across the strategy game landscape over the last year. But while Dota 2’s Auto Chess mod may have been the first to really catch on, Teamfight Tactics is the one that feels like it’s here to stay. Technically, this isn’t a new game, but a mode for League of Legends — at least for now.
The game challenges players to build teams from a large pool of potential units, with special emphasis on making teams where all the units work well together and give each other specific bonuses if they work well together. It offers dozens of units that change every few months, and it’s complicated to learn, but there may not be a better strategy game this year once you get the hang of everything that’s going on.
Available on iOS, Mac, and Windows PC.
Get it here: Riot Games
13. Fire Emblem: Three Houses
Technically, Fire Emblem is a hardcore tactics franchise where your choices have a reckoning — death can be permanent. And sure, Fire Emblem’s strategy element is pretty good, but that’s not why I play. Hell, some fans turn permadeath off. The people making these games have caught on: In Three Houses, you spend way more time managing the day-to-day lives of your students, from what they study to who they socialize with, than you do in battle.
The game does this purposefully, so it can twist the knife later by making you choose a side. Dear friends become enemies. Even the most idealistic characters get worn down by the harsh realities of war. Three Houses is a vicious game. No wonder the internet memes for it are incredible — fans are trying to nurse each other through the hurt.
12. Apex Legends
The best surprise of the year came from one of the biggest publishers in the world. Apex Legends, the first project from Titanfall developer Respawn Entertainment since its acquisition by Electronic Arts in 2017, is technically part of the studio’s space-marines-and-mechs universe. Yet in a move that’s unusual for a risk-averse corporation like EA, Respawn not only sprung the game on the world without any promotional cycle, but also downplayed its Titanfall origins.
That made sense from a truth-in-advertising standpoint — there was bound to be skepticism about a new battle royale title considering how saturated the genre was getting, especially since there are no actual titans in the game — and it also allowed Apex Legends to stand on its own as the terrific product that it instantly was.
The action in Apex Legends evinces Respawn’s decade of expertise making fast-paced first-person shooters featuring a sublime fluidity of movement. Moreover, the studio distinguished itself with innovations that emphasize and encourage teamwork in a genre that, to that point, had mostly been focused on solo play.
Chief among them is an ingenious ping system for quick communication with teammates. And the revival and respawn mechanics of the game’s three-person squads create opportunities for last-ditch gambits and thrilling long-shot comebacks. The only major knock against Apex Legends is that Respawn and EA are still figuring out the right way to balance the microtransactions and level grind, but then, that’s an issue with all kinds of ongoing games.
Respawn made a bigger splash nine months later with Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order. But Apex Legends remains the better game.
11. Sayonara Wild Hearts
Sayonara Wild Hearts is less of a rhythm game and more of a rhythm experience. There’s an edge of disappointment in that; I had looked forward to a little more game originally. Oh well! Sayonara Wild Hearts is a gorgeous, neon trancescape where the main character zips and zooms through cities and deserts and dreams. The primary vehicle is a motorcycle, but sometimes it’s a springing deer, and other times it’s a speeding, drifting car.
But the music is the highlight, and yes, you can stream it on Spotify. In our review, Jenna Stoeber noted that “the bubbly indie-pop tracks heighten the overall feeling of playing through an animated music video.” She’s spot-on: Sayonara Wild Hearts goes out of its way not to disrupt your psychedelic music journey too much. It may not really be a rhythm game, but it’s a worthwhile journey.
—Simone de Rochefort
10. A Short Hike
There is a surprising amount to do in Adam Robinson-Yu’s indie exploration game, A Short Hike, and yet I never feel pressured to do much of anything. Playing as Claire, an anthropomorphic bird, I can hike, climb, and fly around Hawk Peak Provincial Park’s trails … or not. There are marked trails to follow, where I’ll encounter other animals enjoying their day — some are trail running, others are fishing or painting or playing A Short Hike’s version of volleyball.
I can choose to interact with these characters or I can not do so, while exploring and gathering feathers that are needed to reach the peak’s summit. Nothing is especially hard, and that’s part of the draw. It is exactly how it’s described — a short hike, though one that’s sparked by a need for cell service and spun off into a detailed, surprising world.
My first instinct when playing the game was to rush up the mountain to get cell service, then find my way back down and explore. I could play that way, but A Short Hike eased me into the slower pace, encouraging me to talk to other characters and seek out the game’s many spaces. Because of the unwieldy controls — perhaps by design, to slow me down — I found myself wandering off of cliffs and gliding back to where I began. It never felt tedious, though, which is a feat; often, the ground I thought I had already covered revealed something new.
9. Resident Evil 2
We’ve been playing re-releases and remakes of the original Resident Evil for two decades, but the game’s vastly superior sequel didn’t get a proper top-to-bottom overhaul until 2019, when Capcom put what seems like every resource it had into Resident Evil 2’s remake.
The reimagined Resident Evil 2 is survival horror game that manages to feel both modern and dutifully faithful to a video game released in 1998 — a game that was both a near disaster and a nascent polygonal action-adventure, when developers were still figuring out how to navigate and explore three-dimensional spaces. But gone are the tank-style controls and fixed camera angles of the PlayStation original; what remains is a game that still terrifies, controls wonderfully, and looks both gruesome and glorious.
The good news is that a sequel is already on the way.
8. Death Stranding
Despite all of Hideo Kojima’s overly complicated plotting, ridiculous character names, Monster Energy advertisements, and a digital poster for Ride with Norman Reedus on AMC, there’s something both unique and relaxing about Death Stranding. Highbrow concepts like one’s Ha and Ka — the ideas of spirit and body — bump up against grenades made from Reedus’ poop.
The challenge of Death Stranding itself comes from carrying packages between different points on a large map, which makes the game a little like the ultimate fetch quest. But you’re also impacting the world around you with contraptions to help yourself and others accomplish that job, while taking advantage of the invisible work done by players you’ll never meet as you come across their ladders and paths. Kojima wants to help the world stay connected, and helped create a game in which that’s both part of the story, and part of the actions of the players.
Kojima said he was out to create a new genre of video game and, somewhat surprisingly, he might have done exactly that.
7. The Outer Worlds
Only the Obsidian of Fallout: New Vegas, Pillars of Eternity, and even South Park: The Stick of Truth could make the 20 hours or so of The Outer Worlds seem to fly by so quickly. The biggest risk this studio took might have been with the comparatively brief time it would give its fans with all the things they enjoyed.
Our view is that it’s “just right” in length, however. The Outer Worlds packs the best of modern role-playing games into a world and a story that respects the player’s time. For a game presenting such a strong point of view — particularly relevant in present times — anything going long might feel preachy and tiresome, even to players who already agree with the basic premise that capitalism has some pretty significant downsides.
The Outer Worlds offers an experience that’s familiar to fans who wanted more of the formula that Obsidian has all but perfected, without the baggage of a licensed property or the pressure of creating a sequel. The result is something that feels familiar, but takes place in a new world, with new characters. It feels like slipping into a coat that fits perfectly, but that you don’t seem to remember picking out.
—Owen S. Good
6. Luigi’s Mansion 3
Luigi’s latest adventure has a lot going for it, from great puzzles and boss fights to inventive environmental design. But where it really soars is in its basic, run-of-the-mill vacuuming.
As with all of the Luigi’s Mansion games, the vacuum is the primary way to interact with the world. But in Luigi’s Mansion 3, the developers have really leaned into the idea that an old haunted building (a hotel, in this case) would be filled to the brim with trash to suck up.
And goddamn does it feel great to suck up that trash. Walking into a room filled with books and billiard balls, with trophies lining every wall, means you have all the opportunity for play that you could ever want. And thanks to the rumble on Nintendo Switch, you really feel every piece of detritus as it makes its way through Luigi’s backpack. It’s weird to think of sucking up random items in a haunted mansion as a joyful act, but here we are.
The simple 30-second loop of clearing rooms never gets old, and turns an otherwise well-made puzzle game into a cathartic cup of warm cocoa at the end of a long day.
5. Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice
Developer FromSoftware spent the last decade making games so absurdly difficult that its popularity is a bit difficult to explain. Demon’s Souls begat the Dark Souls trilogy, which spawned Bloodborne. Every game was a riff on a formula that brought the quirky Japanese developer closer to mainstream success.
In 2019, with Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice, FromSoftware took a hard turn, replacing medieval European fantasy and Gothic horror with feudal Japanese fantasy.
It’s a riff on the formula that the studio created and popularized, but it’s also something new — a fast-paced, action-focused departure from its more deliberate and esoteric forebears. It eschews role-playing classes, so everyone plays as the same titular character. Skills for your constant blade replace the bloated menagerie of weapons and armor in previous titles. The story is straightforward, not something that requires reading vague item descriptions and then watching YouTube videos just to almost kind of understand it.
Sekiro is FromSoftware’s sensibilities refined and focused. It’s as beautiful as it is brutal, and the sweetness of victory is still strong enough to make the frustration of frequent failure worthwhile. It is also unambiguous proof that FromSoftware isn’t a one-trick pony.
4. Baba Is You
Baba Is You is a two-part puzzle game. Its second half is straightforward: Players need to touch a goal to finish each level. But it’s everything that happens before that which makes up the real puzzle to be solved.
That’s because solving puzzles is not only about understanding the rules, but breaking and rewriting them in order to make your quest possible. Baba Is You is a delight because you have so much power in each challenge, but that power doesn’t mean anything until you learn to use it skillfully, and with purpose.
Devotion is not just one of the best horror games of the year, it’s among the best overall games of the year. Its quality makes it noteworthy, but the fact that it can’t be purchased or played now, despite how poignant it is, also makes it a tragedy.
Set in 1980s Taiwan, Devotion’s story is centered on a family of three: a father, Du Feng Yu; a mother, Gong Li Fang; and a daughter, Du Mei Shin. The game’s horror is not paranormal, not in the traditional sense. Instead, dread accumulates in the family apartment over the years, settling like dust into quiet corners of domesticity, only to be kicked up by Mei Shin contracting a mysterious illness, and Feng Yu’s growing paranoia, fueled by his blind faith in a folk deity called Cigu Guanyin. He learns to both fear and revere the god, encouraged by a cult leader disguised as a mentor.
The player experiences Devotion’s world — which is an apartment building, though most of the game takes place in a single apartment — in blocks of time that shift and move from year to year. Devotion, like P.T. before it, is built on loops; you’ll sometimes walk down from one hallway to another, only to find yourself still in the same place, but in a different time. While the apartment only has five rooms, the game brings you to those rooms at different times in the family’s history, creating a nonlinear swirl of decay. The apartment lobby operates as a sort of hub world, but for time, allowing you to choose the year in which you’re visiting the apartment. Devotion’s puzzles require you to bring items from one time frame to another, which sometimes means taking part in the banal act of unpacking boxes but could also mean going through the steps of making a ceremonial wine bath for Feng Yu’s troubled daughter — something he believes is the only way to cure her.
Devotion’s apartments become stranger, and more otherworldly, as the years progress — a demonstration of Feng Yu’s blind faith influencing the world around him. Where there was once a pot of tofu stew cooking on the stovetop, a pot of ceremonial wine now brews. The photos that once hung undisturbed in the bedroom have since been desecrated, with crosses scratched over the eyes of each family member.
What might have been a slow descent into madness is instead thrown into stark contrast as you jump from year to year. This is how the fear spreads across the game: Repetition sets our expectations in place. You think you know what each room should look like, and then right as your guard is lowered, you notice a change. And then another. And the horror ascends from there.
Control offers a world that is seductive, powerful, and internally consistent, but developer Remedy Entertainment is able to stretch the tension of entering that world without any kind of instruction or illumination to its breaking point.
By the end of Control, you will be an expert on this strange existence. There’s no “weird for the sake of weird” here. It all makes sense, once you learn the language of the world. That’s a true rarity in video game storytelling, where complex plots are often burdened by so much excess exposition and so many complications that it all turns into a meaningless soup by the end. Control, instead, feels like a carefully prepared meal being fed to you methodically, until you develop a taste for it.
And occasionally, the chefs are puppets.
1. Outer Wilds
Outer Wilds’ narrative is delivered in drips across each planet I visit, and I’m careful to choose one goal for each of my 22-minute time loops.
As I learn more about, well, everything around me, I’m exposed to some of the greatest wonders of science fiction. My stomach damn near left my body the first time I fell, feet kicking, through a black hole. Or when my ship was catapulted through the atmosphere by a terrifying waterspout. Or when I accidentally tinkered with ancient alien technology long enough to unexpectedly warp to another planet’s surface, not knowing where I was, or why someone would want to travel to that location instantly. So many discoveries and surprises answer my old questions, while unfolding an additional layer of hidden secrets beneath.
Outer Wilds delivers so many moments that are beautiful and perfect, even though I only want to hint at most of them. Even when I thought I’d pieced together the Nomai’s fate, or understood why I was stuck in this interstellar Groundhog Day, Outer Wilds still hadn’t showed me all its secrets. My jaw didn’t just drop while playing Outer Wilds — in some sections, it felt like it may have just stayed on the floor permanently.
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