With imminent next generation consoles and a bevy of new streaming and/or subscription gaming services hogging up the oxygen, it's been a relatively quiet year when it comes to big ticket game releases. But between new entries in cherished series, daring indie titles and the handful of heavy hitters that were not moved to 2020, there was plenty to play.
Here are our ten favourite games of 2019.
The story of Sam Lake and Remedy is one of originality and experimentation, necessarily bound and inhibited by the realities of video game production. But in Control the surreal, uncanny, twisted mundanity of Lake's writing and the raw aggression and inventiveness of Remedy's tech-fuelled take on the explorative shooter feel untethered, and together they create an inspired game. From the depth of its world-building and its gratifying combat to the unexpected twists of its story and a handful of unforgettable kaleidoscopic fighting sequences, this heavy but accessible neo-Lovecraftian tale delivers pulse-pounding, gravity defying combat and beautiful, otherworldly storytelling in equal measure.
Each new FromSoftware series subverts the template just enough to justify why it isn't called Dark Souls 4. Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice achieves this, appropriately, twice. With a samurai, the established shield-and-dodging combat system doesn't make sense, so the focus shifts to the clashing of steel blades. Anticipating the right strike feels like a rhythm game, the hidden Guitar Hero runway perceptible only through mastery. Traversal, likewise, is overhauled. With a grappling hook Wolf is nimbler than a knight, and the game provides chasms and Sengoku-era castles to scale. It's not FromSoft's best, but no game better captures the one-mistake-and-you're-dead tension of classic samurai films.
Many Game Boy games seemed impressive but in retrospect are bare, however 1993’s Link’s Awakening is almost the inverse. An offbeat and unnerving take on Zelda which pushed the series forward even as it crunched the gameplay of A Link to the Past into a handheld experience, this was a design so pristine and inventive it defied the bounds of gray and maroon plastic, living on in imaginations long after monochromatic graphics and 4-bit sound became passe. With a beautiful new look and some handy tweaks, Nintendo’s 2019 remake illuminates that design with a careful hand, leaving it almost wholly intact but with room to breathe.
Since returning to its traditional 2D fighting plane in 2011, Mortal Kombat has proven itself worthy of serious competitive (kompetitive?) play. With Mortal Kombat 11, the third game in the rebirth era, the format is now so refined it's daunting to ponder where the series heads next. With a fantastic roster that mixes fan favourites with worthy newcomers, thousands of cosmetic (kosmetic?) skins and items to unlock, insanely gruesome fatalities, and an unrivalled in the genre story mode — B-movie kung-fu trappings elevated by A-list presentation — Mortal Kombat 11 is the year's best fighting game. Bloody and brilliant.
Apple Arcade was one of the biggest stories in gaming this year, representing the iPhone-maker’s entrance into the industry proper, a bold new monetisation structure and an attempt to clean up mobile gaming’s reputation as a slum for gambling and greed. But while the bounty of games is rich in quality overall, Capybara’s Grindstone is the glittering, entrails encrusted jewel on top. Packing hilarious monster slaying, sweet music and the kind of loot grind you only get when designers are free to focus on your dopamine pathways rather than your wallet, this puzzle game will rewire your brain so you're seeing colour-coded paths and optimal floor-clearing strategies on your eyelids when you sleep.
By most measures Gears 5 is an unusual Gears of War. It's structured as a series of open-world hubs filled with barren spaces to parasail across. In Kait Diaz it has the series' first playable female protagonist. It's absurdly colourful, like a toddler crayoned over the TV; a strange aesthetic for a franchise that once upon a time invented new shades of brown. And, bafflingly, it dropped the "of War" from the title; almost certainly a decision made by a boardroom of 50-year-olds convinced teenagers would dig it. But when the bullets are flying and the chainsaws are revving, no shooter feels better.
It’s been a dark decade for Star Wars games, but thankfully developer Respawn’s first attempt is both an enthralling in-canon look at a shadowy time in the continuum between films and a rewarding game that plays like a greatest hits of 21st century action adventures, from Uncharted to Bloodborne. But with a heady side of lightsaber battles. New protagonist Cal and his droid buddy BD-1 are a great fit for the franchise, while the game strikes a fine balance between offering a faithful representation of existing elements and expanding the galaxy with new themes and locales.
Every few years Obsidian likes to pop up and show RPG heavyweight studios how they should make their own games. It happened to BioWare when Obsidian developed the sequel to Knights of the Old Republic; it happened to Bethesda with Fallout: New Vegas; and it's happened to both of them again with The Outer Worlds. Essentially colourful space Fallout with an anti-corporate streak, The Outer Worlds is more focused than most Western RPGs, which have a tendency to confuse quality with quantity. Whether you're liberating or enslaving the space proletariat, the lean design, sharp writing and gorgeous galaxy is a joy to experience.
At once a sublime turn-based strategy game and a wildly ambitious relationship-builder/graphic novel, Three Houses is the apex of Fire Emblem’s recent reinvention as a fantasy love/tactics hybrid, and some would argue the high point of the series’ entire 30 year history. Every one of the dozens of characters here has a story to tell, across three intermingled campaigns, through their deeds in combat as well as their personal arcs with various of their potential friends and confidants. The depth and complexity of the stories — and the quality of their telling — make the stakes incredibly personal when each battle could be some of your friends’ last, while the completely revamped battle systems make for cinematic and accessible strategy that retains the series' trademark tactical goodness.
Given their status as remakes, we debated whether Link’s Awakening and Resident Evil 2 were eligible for inclusion. We decided they were so good they had to be — technicalities be damned — and RE2 is easily the more impressive given it was rebuilt from the ground up in the new RE Engine. Lighting effects are creepier, zombies are freakier, stretched sinews are... stretchier. Beneath the modern gloss lies a meticulous, perfectly paced thriller that uses an enclosed environment to create tension masterfully. Twenty years later, the Raccoon City Police HQ and the relentless stalking of Mr X is still game design at its finest.
This article originally appeared in Digital Life, The Sydney Morning Herald's home for everything technology. Follow Digital Life on Facebook and Twitter.
As Lifehacker editors we write about stuff we like and think you'll like too. Lifehacker often has affiliate partnerships, so we may get a share of the revenue from your purchase.