Alex O’Neill’s Top Ten Games of 2019

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So if you’ve heard me on this most recent season of Leaderboard, or listened to my show, Irrational Passions Podcast, you’ll know I’m no stranger to top 10 lists or trying to describe those ten special games from the year in a way I hope translates my genuine feelings. Even still, 2019 is a year full of many great games; games I finished and had a great time with, like the Link’s Awakening remake, Luigi’s Mansion 3, A Plague Tale Innocence, and many more didn’t end up on my list because there were just too many great titles to choose from. I decided to follow my heart with a lot of these mentions.

Now, if you’re one of those folks that think 2019 wasn’t jam-packed with very good video games, I’m not sure what to tell you. There are off years for everyone, but I’d like to think this year brought a little something for everyone. Certainly, it must feel an appetizer to the coming spectacle that is 2020, but here I have ten games that I think are pretty stellar from this year, with one little extra honorable mention, in true Leaderboard style.

Honorable Mention: Tales of Vesperia Definitive Edition

To respect the true authority of definitive top ten lists, I can’t in good conscious insert a game from 2010 on my list, but it’s important enough to me that it’s still worth mentioning!

If you haven’t heard, Tales of Vesperia is the raddest JRPG this side of 2008, and it’s one of my favorite games of all time. For years (literal years) exclusive content added in a re-release of this 360 title on PS3 in Japan had never come stateside… until January of this year. The “Definitive Edition” of Tales of Vesperia includes two new party members, tons of additional scenes that clear up and flesh out the world, and improves upon one of the greatest JRPGs you can get. 

Plus, it’s on everything

If you’ve never played one, Tales are action JRPGs full of anime and melodrama, and while Vesperia falls into many of those traps, it cleverly circumvents those trops by defying your expectations. The way the characters, the combat, and the plot evolve as you explore the world are masterful, and any old-school RPG fan owes themselves this experience.

Number 10 – Destiny 2 Shadowkeep

To be fully honest, this game would and some might say should be higher, but I really don’t want to be the guy who has Destiny 2 at number three on his list every year, and with the original release and last year’s expansion Forsaken, Destiny has left a very lasting, multi-year impression on me.

So Shadowkeep! It’s the best I think Destiny has ever been for me. The lore, the story, the way they rolled out content over the first season, wrapping up just as I’m writing this, has all been some of the best-handled “live game” experience I have had, even including Apex and Fortnite. Bungie has clicked with its Destiny community, proving they know what that community wants,  and I’ve become a proud of that fanbase. The way Bungie keep delivering on very good Destiny to play is really impressive. 

There is a lot of room to grow and improve, but Shadowkeep adds some awesome worldbuilding to Destiny, while revisiting some of my favorite parts of the original Destiny, and creating a growing story that is building and evolving into something special. Never been a better time to play.

Number 9 – Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night

So fun fact, while I am an infamous and well known lover of Metroid and most things Metroidvania, I’ve never successfully “clicked” with any Castlevania game. Even the great Symphony of the Night couldn’t fully connect with me, but I’m happy to say Bloodstained found exactly what I needed. Maybe it’s the hub area, the clever dole-out of powers, or magnificently classic presentation, the result is a really great Castlevania-like game that got me more interested in the series.

Most of my time spent with Bloodstained was grinding material drops from monsters to help craft just the right weapon. That right weapon, like the katanas, may have secret commands to them that are executed like classic fighting game moves. These, combined with the right ability set can make for a devastating loot collecting machine, or maybe a boss-crusher build. Either way, all the meta levels to Bloodstained and buffet of build-choices made it just a fun, grindy game, and maybe I’ll play some Castlevania sometime.

Number 8 – Cadence of Hyrule

Now, I have to disclose here that I have zero rhythm. I couldn’t keep a beat if my life depended on it. I played the entirety of Cadence in “no-beat” mode, where you don’t need to move to the music. I love the idea, the execution of it, and in the times I tried it out, it adds a huge layer to the gameplay. But I couldn’t keep the rhythm, and I think it’s important to know as reference for my general feelings on Cadence as a whole.

I still loved Cadence of Hyrule, and I feel like an indie-Zelda is the kind of thing I’ve been wanting forever. We get two of them this year, since I think Link’s Awakening’s remake totally fits that bill too, I decided to include the new goodness that is Cadence of Hyrule on my list instead. 

The whole vibe and aesthetic in this take on Hyrule is just exactly what this summer needed. The music, the different regions, the simple puzzles, and the amazing sprite work all made Cadence a pleasure, even if I couldn’t play it the way I feel it was intended to be played. As a more simple, adventure based roguelike, it may not have had as gripping mechanics for me, but it was still a fun time from front to back, especially when you got the best weapons and could tear through swaths of enemies. 

Number 7 – Sparklite

Sparklite reminds me of a Rogue Legacy or Spelunky, it just gets it right. Since you may not have heard of it, it’s a successful mesh of Link to the Past-style Zelda, and run-and-advance rogue-lite á la Rogue Legacy

The result is an adventure game, where every death lets you re-examine your gear and loadout, and set off on a totally reset overworld to try all over again. It may sound exhausting, and the world is by no means small, but Sparklite frequently introduces to you short-term goals to seek out per-run in each of its five distinct regions. The result is the constant feeling of good progress, in spite of death-related setbacks. It’s a really refreshing take on action adventure, especially given what it’s modeling itself after, and everything just works in Sparklite.

Included with this very satisfying gameplay loop is just some of the jolliest music and visuals you’ve seen all year. Sparklite uses a ton of autumn colors to great success, and it’s tunes remind me a ton of Wind Waker and the island vibe it gave off. 

Number 6 – Man of Medan

I just absolutely loved Man of Medan. I know it came out to be a big disappointment for a lot of folks who were really into Until Dawn. The lame mcguffin of the story, the smaller scope; they detractors, certainly, but let me tell you… that co-op is real good.

Playing this game totally blind, knowing nothing of what’s coming with a friend online together is the absolute best way to experience Man of Medan. But even still, playing with my good compatriot Jacob Bryant for my first time through, his second, was full of twisting turns and surprising new scenes. Each attempt could also result in you playing different sections as different characters, interacting with and influencing the other side of the experience in a totally new and sometimes mind-blowing way.

I ended up playing through Man of Medan over four times with different friends, having a great time seeing their reactions and trying new things in the story. The “Dark Pictures Anthology” that Supermassive is building has me very excited for more choice-driven teen horror games, the most weirdly specific genre that I am absolutely all about.

Number 5 – Pokémon Shield

Two years in a row I have hesitantly bought into a Pokémon game and two years in a row I’ve found myself super into it.

I thought Let’s Go Pikachu was more an outlier, given how different it is from the rest of the series, but I was blown away how into Shield I still got. The right things carried over, like EXP share for all and seeing Pokémon out in the wild. 

I ended up unable to put down Pokémon Shield, and moreover, I actually caught a ton of Pokémon this time around. Normally, I’ll find maybe eight Pokémon I love, never really expanding out of that, but the new designs for Generation 8 were so great, plus how the experience is shared around really got me out of my comfort zone, in a good way! I had a rolling team of 12 or 13 Pokémon that I was swapping around through the end of the story. For the first time ever, I consider myself a Pokémon fan, and that’s awesome.

Number 4 – Death Stranding

Okay, so I’ve been thinking about this a lot, and while I have a ton of problems with Death Stranding, for sure, but to put it really simply, I’d like to hope that for anyone who plays a ton of video games, Death Stranding will stick out to them. Mechanically, it’s just a very different game. In my mind, it’s challenging to the mentality of open world games and what you’re doing the whole time, but moreover challenged me to contribute to other players’ experiences constantly.

I loved the world spread out in the United Cities of America. I loved the cooperative feeling I had every time I shared one of my tools with a locker, or left a bike behind for someone to get out of a bind themselves. Seeing the world evolve and change, basically in real time, blew me away every time I felt the ripples of a cooperative ecosystem evolve around me. Roads completing, ziplines connecting; the world became a living, shared thing, but not because of explicitly because the world was told to be, but because players shaped it to be that. To think back to this happening on a surface level almost ten years ago in Journey, and how much of an impact that game had on me, to today with Death Stranding encapsulates how far game design has come. It may be completely uninteresting to many, many people, and I totally get that, but the significance of this experience for me has become something really special. 

While I think ultimately the story of Death Stranding is a little unsurprising (a wild thing to say, but almost unsurprisingly true), each character brings a lot to the table, especially on the performance front. Each individual is shackled by this world, the isolation it causes, and their own trauma. Working through that with each major player felt like a connected story about the human condition, and whether intentional or not, I appreciated the hell out of it. 

Number 3 – Control

I’ve been waiting years for y’all to figure out how good Remedy is, and y’all didn’t even buy it?! What the fuck.

It’s not even in the top twenty best selling games of September, as dictated by the NPD group in North America only, per Mat Piscatella?!?!

Well… shit.

Listen, Alan Wake was amazing, and to be fair, Remedy’s titles since did not hit the same bar that Alan Wake did, I feel. Control, on the other hand, is all of what Alan Wake understood and more. Jesse Faden’s hypnotizingly horrifying journey into the heart of the Federal Bureau of Control is stellar, front to back. Control’s combat is a never-ending gauntlet of using every single thing at your disposal to survive, sometimes for better and sometimes for worse. Even still, combat ties everything together, linking the moments of the story like a battlefield. Between any fight for survival is the freedom to peer around every corner in search of secrets from the FBC. The world made up around the FBC and Control as a whole are amazing, and Remedy’s best yet.

I had some mix on Control at first, but by the end of it I was absolutely in love. Please, play this game. 

Number 2 – Kingdom Hearts 3

Okay, yes, I am here to tell you that in spite of everything you’ve heard, Kingdom Hearts 3 is… well, it’s actually quite good I feel, and it was a very powerful and important game for me this year. 

I can’t express how big a moment this was for me at the beginning of January. Sitting down and talking about it with my fellow Kingdom Hearts 15-year committed fans, tells me very clearly this game was made for us. To be fair, I don’t think KH3 really makes any buts about that. It’s a game trying to do maybe 100 different story threads, and nails about three quarters of them. The remainder certainly take a hit, and not every moment of KH3 is perfect, but the final package absolutely still nailed it for me.

The direction of over the top magic and destruction of the combat, all the evolutions on the basic attacks we’ve seen since Kingdom Hearts 2, and the perfected Disney Worlds of this adventure makes it just a sheer visually feast, not to mention how fun it all is. Being able to walk around Arendelle’s mountain in the Frozen world is a *very big deal* to me. But moreover, all the Disney worlds make KH3 more than any other Kingdom Hearts game before a true trip to Disney World, and I loved every second of it.

Number 1 – Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice

Even in spite of all that Kingdom Hearts gave me emotionally, nothing held a candle to the three back-to-back full playthroughs of Sekiro: Shadow’s Die Twice that I embarked on this March. If Kingdom Hearts is a visual and emotional feast, then Sekiro is a mechanical and exploratory one. 

My investment into the evolution of From Software’s Soulsborne formula has run deep, and nothing clicked with me as much as Sekiro did this year. Every boss became an endurance test that pushed me to my limits at almost every turn, forcing me to evolve and change, demanding more and more as the game goes on. I’m no parry-god, so I always struggled with getting the rhythm down on fighting the biggest and most vicious bosses, translating to no part of Sekiro being too easy for me. Instead, I’d just have to get better as I played; if rhythm wasn’t my strength, I made the prosthetic arm, my acrobatics, and more cunning tactics my strengths.

Just in the From Software-verse, having a game that you can jump in totally changes the exploration of the world. From Software has taken the lead on some of my favorite game and world designs of the last decade, and Sekiro takes that into what feels like a new dimension with its verticality. It completely altered how I approached and thought about their already world-glass level design. 

Everything fired on all cylinders with Sekrio, and nine months later I still find myself wholly captivated by the experience. I will never forget playing it, and whatever From Software does next I am even more all-in on.

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Thank you for reading my list! And thank you to OKBeast for letting me put on here! If you want to follow me @ALFighter27 on Twitter for more of my friendly-takes and positivity, I also do a bunch of stuff running IrrationalPassions.com, and would love it if you gave it a look! <3

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