Alex Van Aken’s Top Eight Games of 2019
In a word, I’d describe this year as busy.
I’ve flown across the country multiple times for weddings, conventions, a quick weekend getaway or two, and even my brother’s high school graduation. I was fortunate enough to participate in three PAX West panels this year, one of which was the first ever OK Beast panel that packed out an entire room in the Seattle Convention Center. I was lucky enough to host an episode of Kinda Funny Games Daily alongside my long-time friend and collaborator, Blessing Adeoye.
I’ve slept on so many floors and air mattresses this year to make all of these travels possible. Even now, I’m finalizing this Game of the Year list on my grandparent’s couch while Christmas dinner is being prepared across the room from me in the kitchen.
2019 has been full of some of my life’s best moments – and some of the worst.
I played so many games in 2019, but I also feel like I’ve barely played anything. While my friends raved about the endings of games like Death Stranding and Control, I could rarely summon the determination to finish a game. Looking back, I played a lot of multiplayer games in order to stay connected to family and friends; and in between matches of Fortnite or Rainbow Six Siege, I cherished short experiences and only gave way to games that tried something new or satisfied a particular itch.
So here are my top eight games of 2019.
8. Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice
Sekiro: Shadow’s Die Twice, the successor to From Software’s famous SoulsBorne games, yields a really intimate experience which strips away almost any luck from its various combat encounters, requiring the discipline to execute very specific mechanics in any given scenario. It was incredibly satisfying to lock eyes with a mid-boss across the battlefield, make my approach, and square off in a fight for the death.
There isn’t any sort of talent tree or perk system to help augment your character’s strengths or weaknesses. Outside of a handful of items or helpful Shinobi prosthetics, there aren’t any shortcuts to aid players in their journey. Instead, the game demands total mastery of the blade, quickly cutting down anyone who attempts to approach a boss or even a throwaway enemy without the proper knowledge and technical skill needed to do so.
Unfortunately, the tediousness that makes Sekiro so great is also what tired many players, including myself. I wish I had the stamina to return and finish the game.
Mordhau throws all of the intricacies associated with Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice out the window in favor of chaotic, multiplayer medieval warfare. Set amidst a wave of games that have loved to dwell on the feudal politics of the dark ages, Mordhau was a breath of fresh air earlier this year. All you’ll find here are absurd castle sieges, sword duels, and chivalrous pawns that mindlessly throw themselves against the gates of the enemy castle with sword and shield in hand.
Just be sure to mute the in-game chat.
6. Pokémon Sword and Shield
Shout-out to my boy Chewtle for that glow-up.
5. Disco Elysium
Disco Elysium is a narrative-driven detective game that should probably be my favorite game of the year, and it many ways it is, but it just came out and I haven’t been able to play it nearly enough to make that decision. It’s difficult to describe ZA/UM’s weird little game, but essentially it’s a dialogue-based CRPG wherein your character’s traits influences their personality and colors their decisions. It’s a psychedelic trip of a role-playing game that has absolutely blown my mind through oddly funny situations and incredible writing.
Also, Kim Kitsuragi, the detective partner that accompanies you through the experience, is my favorite video game character in a long time.
4. Void Bastards
Void Bastards is cool, man.
The game is a clever mash-up of Rogue Legacy, Doom, and immersive sims like Deus Ex and it’s become one of my favorite roguelites ever. This first-person-shooter stealth game tasks you with charting the galaxy to attain specific tools and items for the sentient robot warden that rehydrated your cold, dead corpse at the start of the run. Upon death, you’ll be revived as a randomized space prisoner with their own set of traits, quirks, and ailments that make every expedition into the Nebula memorable.
Play this game.
3. A Short Hike
Developed and published by an indie game developer called Adam Robinson-Yu, A Short Hike is a brief adventure wherein players hike, climb, and fly through a lovely mountainside campground that’s filled with anthropomorphic animal neighbors. Along the way up the valley, main character Claire is tasked with running various errands for other inhabitants in exchange for tools and other gifts that help her climb higher towards the mountain’s peak.
Yeah, it’s like Animal Crossing. But with hiking.
In all serious, no other title delivered on the joy of exploration quite like A Short Hike did this year, and it’s a game that everyone needs to try. The original soundtrack is great, too.
2. World of Warcraft: Classic
World of Warcraft has been my favorite game of all time since I first played it in 2005 – and it still is. However, due to the nature of live-service games and MMORPG’s, I’ve never been able to return to the game in its original form – at least in an official capacity – until now. Revisiting the world of Azeroth, before it changed many times over via content expansions, has been an amazing and honestly comforting experience this year. Each time a friend or family member created a new character, I’d drop whichever quest I was on to show them a tour of their starting area, equip them with a few decent pieces of armor, and ensure they had enough silver to learn new professions and abilities after I logged off.
Previously, the majority of my time in World of Warcraft was spent as a part of the Alliance faction, though I was always envious of the Horde’s characters and territories. This time around, I rolled an Orc warrior named Mulgaar and a Troll mage called Moto that I ended up clocking over 180 hours on since August. Though I was certainly familiar with The Barrens, Stonetalon Mountains, and other Horde-centric environments, it was a treat to explore these areas and more as a proud member of the faction. I still haven’t hit level sixty yet (though I plan to), mostly because I’ve tasked myself with gaming the economy, spending hours buying and selling goods and materials on the player-run Auction House to collect heaps of gold for my guild-mates. I wish I were as skilled at managing finances in real life as I am in Azeroth.
For the Horde!
1. Apex Legends
With over 1,500 matches played and hundreds of wins under my belt since the game stealth-dropped in early February, there’s no other game I’d call my Game of the Year besides Apex Legends. Whether it’s the game’s eclectic cast of affable characters and their bevy of tool-sets, the context-sensitive ping system, or the revive mechanic that I didn’t know battle royale needed until witnessing it, there’s no denying that Respawn Entertainment created a special gameplay experience this year. Though many of the genre’s previous installments were largely free-to-play, including the industry-defining Fortnite, in hindsight I’ve realized that these types of games were not very accessible to a broader audience. The sweeping changes Apex Legends has made to the battle royale formula have not only opened the door to new players, but have wildly improved the game experience for those already on the other side of the threshold.
On top of stealth-dropping an entirely new game which garnered 25 million players in its first week, the team at Respawn has provided a steady drip of new content throughout the year. They’ve expanded the game’s base roster of eight characters to eleven with the additions of Octane, Wattson, and Crypto; and they designed two wildly unique maps – each with their own quirks and modes of transportation. The original map, Kings Canyon, established Apex Legends’ balanced blend of asymmetrical level design and classical first-person-shooter arena environments. World’s Edge was introduced as a second map which replaced its predecessor’s airships and dinosaurs with treasure vaults and a light-rail train.
Apex Legends continues to shake up the battle royale space with each new content update, and every single time I come running back to the Outlands.
If you want to hear more of my in-depth thoughts on Apex Legends, listen to our ongoing podcast, Jump Master, which covers all of the latest happenings relating to the game.