Michael Higham’s Top Ten Games of 2019

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Over at GameSpot, where I serve as an editor and occasional video host, we put a lot of time and effort into our best of the year awards and all that. The annual deliberations that take place allow us, as a collective, to celebrate and uplift the games that make our year special, but we also get to hear just how passionate each of us are about certain things. With our editorial kings Tamoor Hussain and Jordan Ramée wonderfully breaking down the masterful work by From Software for Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice, and the overall love for that game as a group, we confidently awarded it our Game of the Year. In that process, we heard about why some of us fell in love with Disco Elysium, Death Stranding, and Outer Wilds and made sure those games got the recognition they deserve in our list of the 10 best games of 2019.

Michael HighamThen there’s my ass. Don’t get me wrong, I have tremendous respect for those games and recognize real. And I said my piece about Apex Legends to cemented it on our list, a game that took over our office this year. But I naturally gravitate toward different things and only have so much time (and money) for games–especially since most of it was dedicated to Final Fantasy XIV–we’ll get to that.

What I’ve learned though is that by embracing your own bullshit and telling the world about it in smart, thoughtful ways, and reflecting on why it matters can lead to more opportunities around those things. E3 2019 embodied that for me, being able to host segments for GameSpot’s live stage on the show floor. Light flex, but it was wild as hell doing live interviews with RGG Studios for Judgment, Square Enix for FFXIV, Nintendo Treehouse on Astral Chain, or Pete Hines about Bethesda’s direction. More than any year, I saw how passion can turn into opportunity, lead to a better sense of belonging, and help overcome imposter syndrome. I guess that’s where I was going with that? Embrace your bullshit. 

By virtue of the brand being strong, I got to meet and collab with so many great folks that I only knew through Twitter at events like PAX and E3. Just as important as games were to 2019, so too were the homies and homegirls made along the way and the folks who put us on. One of which was my man Blessing Adeoye Jr., so this is a special shout out to him for letting me spread the good word here on OK Beast about my 10 favorite games of 2019.

1. Final Fantasy XIV: Shadowbringers

It seems that every year, a game series comes into my life and takes over, becoming the thing that defines my year. In 2019, I found Final Fantasy XIV. Through nine months since starting, I clocked in 400+ hours. What started as silly head canon as a Persona spinoff with my character Chie Satoneko (shouts out to Miqo’te cat girls) has turned into an experience I’ve become strongly attached to within a world I now care deeply about.

The base game A Realm Reborn said ‘eat the rich’, then Heavensward gave a grandiose political drama that said fuck authority, and Stormblood showed what revolution and taking back your homeland from oppressors can look like. The 2019 expansion Shadowbringers embodied all that, but gave us an entirely new realm expertly built with its own history, plight, and reason for existing. Like many JRPGs, you grow close to its cast of characters, seeing them develop in both their most vulnerable and powerful moments, and Shadowbringers puts them front and center alongside your own storied character. Storytelling that conveys a massive sense of scale.

Y’all are probably thinking, ‘hold up, isn’t this an MMORPG?’ Yes, and that’s the thing about FFXIV–the amount of effort and care put into its narrative not only makes it the best story told in MMO history, but one that stands among the all time greats. Real talk. And it’s still going.

FFXIV never forgets about its past, and Shadowbringers introduces fascinating narrative threads that recontextualize what has come before it. The stakes are high from the second you enter this oddly beautiful realm that’s been ravaged by calamity, clinging onto hope in the face of seemingly inevitable extinction. It features one of the best-written villains in Emet Selch and the lovable mysterious boy in the Crystal Exarch who hit us with the BIGGEST FLEX in all of 2019. And to be honest, I’ve though very hard about this: Shadowbringers delivered my favorite moment in games of all time.

Listen, I’m on record for saying that crying is lit, and I stand by that. Because I’ve never had a cry as lit as the final hours of Shadowbringers. It’s usually the emotional goodbyes to characters or the heart-wrenching plot twists that bring us to tears, but Shadowbringers hit me with an overwhelming sense of clarity. In just one cutscene, one powerful moment, all these narrative pieces fell into place. 

The perception of FFXIV’s past, present, and future was changed, shocking you with how multiple ongoing story threads were all tied together in a matter of seconds. The revelations washed over me and I could hardly believe how masterfully it was portrayed, and how this being an MMORPG (sometimes requiring other players for fights) took on a new meaning.

It wasn’t done through long exposition, either. Despite FFXIV built on older tech, it’s an attuned with showing rather than telling. This also extends to the outstanding use of its soundtrack. How the theme song hits in the penultimate cutscene, how the first dungeon’s song communicates desperation perfectly, or how the lo-fi instrumental of a certain zone instills an uneasy calmness, Shadowbringers (and FFXIV as a whole) is a massive musical achievement.

It’s such a wild and unpredictable thing, to have grown to love FFXIV this much, and it’s an incredible feeling to know that you found one of your favorite games ever. I’ll never forget Shadowbringers, or FFXIV for that matter, also because I’m still playing and will be for as long as it exists.

Did I forget to mention that it’s the best-playing MMORPG to this day?

2. Persona Q2: New Cinema Labyrinth

Who’d’ve thought that a 3DS game in 2019 could be so damn good. I mean, it’s pretty easy to bet on a Persona game, though. Y’all might know how much the series means to me, so having a game that unites the casts of Persona 3, 4, and 5 in a big collaboration full of wholesome fan service brought me some of my happiest moments of the year.

Persona Q2: New Cinema Labyrinth (like the first Persona Q) uses the Etrian Odyssey-style dungeon crawling and RPG mechanics to make up most of the gameplay aspects; navigating maze-like maps and challenging turn-based combat. But it’s the charm of these characters that steal the show, like seeing different friend groups meet and eventually become one big gang. Most of all, having the optional female protagonist from Persona 3 Portable play a major role in Q2 felt like a revitalization of something special that was thought to be lost or forgotten. It’s a beautiful celebration of Persona and a reminder of why we love the series to begin with.

Now let me tell y’all about music, because if there’s one thing you can guarantee with Persona, it’s that the soundtrack will be absolute fire. Several wonderful songs were brought back from the original games, but then there are brand-new tracks that are certified bangers that stand among the franchise’s best. Listen to the battle theme “Pull The Trigger” and opening theme “Road Less Taken” and you’ll find that they capture a perfect upbeat jazzy J-rock sound. Even little things like how the lead singers from each of the games get their vocals layered onto the overworld song when the corresponding cast joins the party.

I knew a 3DS game wouldn’t get much attention in 2019, but even the bold style and charisma of Persona doesn’t get lost on the old 3DS.

3. Judgment

In the year of our lord 2019, we were blessed with another game in the Yakuza lineage. It was so hard to say goodbye to Kazuma Kiryu and company with the end of the original saga last year, but the spirit carried on through Judgment. RGG Studios retained that magical balance of gripping melodrama and absurdist humor in Judgment with an all new cast of characters who came to life with top-notch voice work and captivating story arcs.

It’s weird going back to Kamurocho without Kiryu or Majima, but Judgment did just enough to distance itself by putting you in the shoes of Takayuki Yagami, a private investigator with a wildly complicated past. Thus, you have investigation-style gameplay elements in addition to the wildly flashy beat-em-up combat. Not all the new detective work gels well in Judgment, though it hits more often than not and breaks up the traditional pace of Yakuza games. And you damn right it has ridiculous side quests (aka substories) and minigames, but no karaoke unfortunately.

Judgment was the first time an RGG Studios game got English voice acting since the original Yakuza for PS2 back in 2006. Although I prefer subs over dubs, I respect the work and execution from the cast and localization team–the latter of which is responsible for bringing these games to life through expertly done subtitling. It’s like the Yakuza team can’t fail at winning your heart.

4. Astral Chain

What I appreciate about Astral Chain is that it doesn’t necessarily rely on the established foundation of Platinum Games, and goes for something quite different. You see parts of what director Takahisa Taura has done with Nier Automata and Metal Gear Rising gameplay-wise, but turns that formula into something that plays a bit slower and tactical.

It’s so damn satisfying to hit enemies with your Legions (basically JoJo stands) and cycle between all five, busting out all their powers in sequence while hitting timing-based sync attacks simultaneously. Astral Chain is also a case of when style and substance meet, as all the flashy moves and animations serve to signify important instances in combat. Everything in this game just looks so damn dope, and this soundtrack has some certified bangers.

As wild as Astral Chain gets, it knows when to relax. It’s one thing I praised in my review, but saw that other folks dislike. Between the chaotic stretches of combat are moments to catch your breath and embrace its world through mini-investigations and side quests, some of which you can only find with a keen eye. To me, it created an enjoyable pace that knew how to keep it moving. 

I’ll admit that Astral Chain was narratively disappointing with story beats that simply didn’t land, especially since whichever character you choose turns into a silent protagonist while the other sibling gets to be the central character in the plot (despite there being voice acting for both). Despite that, it being this high on my list speaks to how great its combat, pacing, style, and atmosphere came together. 

And oh, wow, who’s that character there? Oh snap, it’s Chie in Astral Chain as the (good?) cop she always wanted to be. ACAB, except her.

5. Metro Exodus

Metro’s dark and threatening post-apocalypse immediately grabbed me back with Metro 2033. I loved its sense of vulnerability, its tightly-focused combat sequences, and detailed hub areas. Metro: Last Light refined the formula, but Metro Exodus was a slight departure from many of the core tenets of the series. It still delivered some of those unnerving scenarios where danger lurked around the corner, though it largely played on the idea of exploring a desolate world on the surface, above the metro tunnels that were once the only home.

Metro’s core gameplay is rock-solid with impactful gunplay and thrilling encounters, but what I remember most about Exodus was its cast of characters. It took me by surprise; I didn’t expect it to hit the same notes that get me attached to, say, JRPGs. Specifically, your train acts as a home, a place to relax and catch up between chapters. And that’s where you listen to the characters, chill with you and the others, and dig deeper into who they are. In search of a new home, comes desperation, doubts of survival, but the strength of the bonds made through the story. At every turn, Metro Exodus showed an unexpected level of earnestness through its dialogue. So, here’s a special shout out to Damir, the best of the bunch and my Asian brother who found his purpose in Exodus.

Exodus exchanged the supernatural for something more grounded. It’s a bit odd to feel that most of what the previous two games established are somewhat brushed off in the opening, but the journey that ensued was genuinely captivating and human.

6. Death Stranding

I really had no expectations going into Death Stranding, because we were all wondering what the hell it was. Like, Norman’s reedus was the most talked about thing before we got our hands on it, the game that is. Death Standing is divisive for sure, but it clicked for me big time.

Let me tell y’all about walking. Never have I been so engaged with the act of walking in a game, hyped to simply plot a course, take a hike, and hope all goes well. BTs and MULEs act as the more intimidating threats which create serious tension, yet the terrain itself is just as much of an enemy. Figuring out how to carry packages along with tools while accounting for the variables along the way doesn’t sound exciting, but its subtle multiplayer connection and stunning vistas drew me in and kept me going in its seemingly lonely world. Death Stranding makes you look at the open world not just as a vessel for quests, rather as one you need to physically understand.

I can see how the forced melodrama, fake-deep story elements, or incessant presence of Kojima’s favorite things can come across as self-indulgent. But I never found the core of it to be egregious, though it does take some buying-in. Death Stranding is a rare case where the gameplay itself speaks as loud, if not louder, than the main narrative. I’ll be the first to admit though that I’m here for Kojima’s bullshit, which Death Stranding most certainly delivers.

7. Disco Elysium

Despite all its complexities, Disco Elysium comes across as rather simple. Talk to NPCs, investigate the environment, and make decisions. No need to min-max stats or worry about optimal builds, even as a CRPG with a skill tree of sorts. It firmly revolves around reading, which might not sound fun. However, what you’ll find is a generational achievement in choice-based storytelling with writing that feels liberated from narrative conventions.

You kind of just go with the flow in Disco Elysium. You build your character through decision-making, rarely ever knowing which choice is good, bad, or optimal. You are the result of your actions, with consequences impossible to predict. Through it all, you have multiple voices in your heard depending on the stats you put in, which is where skills come into play. It’s also a play on psychological concepts that also communicate the complexity of what goes into who we are or why we do certain things.

You start with investigating a murder, not knowing a damn thing about yourself or why you’re in this position to begin with. But Before you know it, the story and your quest log has branched off in several unexpected directions, dealing with politics, racism, and trauma. And sure, I wasn’t too thrilled about having to play as a white cop who could be shitty, but in many ways the game transcends that. Which speaks to the importance of Kim Kitsuragi, your companion who’s stoic, complex, and a comforting presence, especially for Asian representation. While you will morph through choices and consequences, Kim is a necessary constant who takes just as much of the brunt, if not more, that this cold world presents.

Disco Elysium can be cold, funny as hell, sobering, and sometimes all-too-real. I hope you like reading.

8. Control

Around every corner, Control has something absolutely fascinating to tell you about its world. It’s a near-perfect execution of throwing you into the deep end with more questions than answers, and smartly leading you along so you never feel lost. You’re compelled to unravel the mysteries of a surreal, shifting government building, and damn does it feel good to break shit and smash enemies with your powers and weapons.

One thing I always say about Control is how it makes dull offices spaces wildly fascinating. Every log entry, note, explanation of ‘objects of power’ or deranged thing like the Threshold Kids tapes has a sensible place here. I also want to dedicate this moment to Dr. Casper Darling, played by Matthew Porretta. Boyyyyyyyy. That dude is nice. It’s a top-notch performance for a character who unknowingly guides you through the concepts and events that make up Control’s premise. He’s never really there, only known through the tapes left behind, but his presence is always felt.

Control rides the line between absurd, hilarious, believable, and chilling. Even with the lingering questions after finishing it, there’s a satisfaction to how it gives you just enough without over-explaining anything. I’m always down for a game that genuinely messes with your head, and if it’s one with superb worldbuilding and great combat, then all the better.

9. Apex Legends

Folks around the office used to call me Daddy Royale since I was first on the battle royale train and unintentionally nominated myself to review both PUBG and Fortnite. Since then, I’ve been burnt out on the genre. Then came Apex Legends, which does battle royale far better than any of those that came before it. When Apex launched in February, I played a decent amount, recognized all its refinements, and loved how it seamlessly incorporated hero-shooter elements. I mostly fell off after a bit, though. It wasn’t until Season 3 came around with a new map and the legend Crypto did I fully embrace Apex. 

It’s really something special that in a battle royale, you’re compelled to find enemy squads. Because of its core mechanics like fluid movement, different ways of traversal, and solid gunplay, combat is something you seek rather than dread.  Creating intuitive ways to communicate with your team without a mic also helped mitigate the reluctance of matchmaking with random players. And damn am I happy about not having to micromanage an inventory system while under pressure.

The roster of legends helps keep things fresh, but it also embodies representation done right that I like to believe was done in earnest. Apex has the charisma to make it memorable, and I respect it. I’m glad to have found a new multiplayer shooter to come back to after bouncing so many over the years. It’s as if Respawn had a list of all the things that battle royales were doing wrong and had an answer for each one.

10. Indivisible

It’s a special thing to feel seen.

There was a lot that I docked Indivisible for when I reviewed it, a lot that I wish it did better because I want to love it unconditionally. All flaws considered, Indivisible has a special place in my heart for what it means Southeast Asian person. It’s this weird amalgamation of cultures, languages, and references that doesn’t come across as haphazard (thankfully).

As for playing Indivisible, it goes for this tremendous blend of 2D platforming, Metroidvania-style exploration, and turn-based RPG/fighting game hybrid–it’s ambitious as hell. As great as the combat is, it gets away from its best aspects toward the end, though the platforming challenges hold up throughout. And despite working with a strong narrative concept, the story falls flat in critical moments. Regardless, I like Ajna as a character and the huge roster of party members that make up Indivisible. 

It’s a powerful thing to have a roster nearly made up entirely of Asian characters that truly show the diversity of the Asian identity. It’s also a credit to Mariel Kinuko Cartwright, an incredible artist who led development as creative director, too. Indivisible helped me realize just how interconnected South and Southeast Asian cultures are, and set me on a path of learning how the motherland of the Philippines fits into all of it. That’s not really the message of Indivisible; rather it sparked a deeper curiosity about the influences it drew from. 

Games That I Didn’t Get To Play Enough Of But Probably Would’ve Made My List:

The Outer Worlds

I love Knights of the Old Republic II and Fallout: New Vegas and by all accounts, The Outer Worlds makes good on all that. It deserves more than the three hours I gave it.

Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice

Dying is dope in Sekiro, but I didn’t come back to it unfortunately. It’s GameSpot’s game of the year, and like I said earlier, our proponents of Sekiro made an incredibly compelling case for it. I’m disappointed I didn’t play more.

Fire Emblem: Three Houses

How the FUCK did I not make time for Fire Emblem this year? I’ve now been exposed as a fake weeb. You hate to see it!

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