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Featuring surprise AAA launches, long-awaited sequels, unconventional indie outings, and ambitious remakes, 2019’s gaming lineup was truly unexpected. While complaints over the amount of titles intended for the year being delayed into 2020 certainly hold merit, there were still more than enough hits for gamers of all stripes to sink their teeth into. So whether you’re looking for breathtaking microgames that can be beaten in an evening or blockbuster alternatives to DARK SOULS, MGRM’s list of 2019 favorites has you covered.

games Ace Combat 7

20. ACE COMBAT 7 / Bandai Namco

That’s right folks— Kingdom Hearts wasn’t the only Japanese franchise to make its comeback in 2019 after more than a decade of spin-offs and reboots. ACE COMBAT 7 returns the arcade flight sim to its roots, pitting the player’s squadron against a fleet of sci-fi aircraft and flying fortresses in set pieces that could’ve flown right out of INDEPENDENCE DAY. While the insufferable anime melodrama in the (blessedly skippable) cutscenes reaches new series heights, so too does the over-the-top action in each of the game’s scenarios. A new cloud physics engine is the unexpected star of a host of AC7’s innovations, with chaotic weather phenomenon and malfunctioning HUDs joining missiles and cliff faces on the list of hazards you’ll reckon with. With a killer soundtrack and breathtaking graphics rounding out the package, ACE COMBAT 7 ups the ante for one of my childhood favorites at every turn. [Ed Dutcher]

19. THE LEGEND OF ZELDA: LINK’S AWAKENING / Nintendo, Grezzo

This alarmingly cute remake of the 1991 Game Boy classic of the same name isn’t so much a modernization (as is the case with at least one of our top 20) as it is a fully faithful recreation of the idyllic island of Koholint, and it’s actually better for it. Instead of trying to overhaul systems, maps, and gameplay that didn’t need any such treatment, developers Grezzo focused on aesthetic improvements and ended up with a gorgeous, unique, diorama-like art style and an eclectic update to the game’s stellar soundtrack. The drastically improved audio even allows the game’s sentimental beats to land, of which there are surprisingly quite a few. Of course, nostalgia is a huge reason I enjoyed this adventure so much: sidequests and shortcuts from the original are etched into my brain such that I often felt like I wasn’t even thinking about what I was doing, just retreading familiar steps in more vibrant color. It made for an extremely soothing experience that I’d love to revisit like I did so many years ago. Of course, add to all this the tried-and-true 2D Zelda gameplay, and voila—you have an adorable little dream come true. [Angelo Rivera]

games Pokemon

18. POKÉMON SWORD/SHIELD / Nintendo

“If ain’t broke, don’t fix it” could easily be the defining methodology for the Pokémon series heading into the new decade. For as much as visual styles get upgraded and monsters, mechanics, and types get added and removed from the series, the basics remain the same. That’s part of the nostalgic appeal of the games, the warm comfort food of grinding, leveling, and getting your ass whooped in online play because those people are more serious than you will ever be about pocket monsters. SWORD & SHIELD are not a reinvention of that wheel, but they finally bring a mainline game to a home console, with a few mechanics that hint at a more promising future, or what could have been an exciting present. Beyond the new United Kingdom-inspired Galar region with its various “British” versions of existing Pokémon to accompany the new ones, SWORD & SHIELD introduced new open world-lite Wild Areas with roaming, powerful Pokémon, camping, and even raids. The presence of these features is revolutionary in its own small way as the notion of an open world Pokémon game has been on the wishlist of many fans of the series for years, but their half-step execution suggests purposeful limitations to the game’s design. The Pokémon series will never be the grown-up, challenging, expansive game that fans want, because Pokémon works beautifully as many young player’s first exposure to RPG mechanics. SWORD & SHIELD’s polish and streamlining on the Switch only further cement that. It’s okay that the most hardcore Pokémon fans have aged out of the series they grew up on, when you can still appreciate how well-crafted the games continue to be for younger generations. [Ian Campbell]

17. A PLAGUE TALE: INNOCENCE / Asobo Studio

For some inexplicable reason, the gaming gods decided that 2019 would be the year that “AA”-tier games made their return into the zeitgeist, showering us with titles that rocked production values similar to their profitable AAA cousins, but retained the freedom of expression of the indie scene. And in a year chock full of interesting ventures into this revitalized market, none stand as intimately “human” as A PLAGUE TALE: INNOCENCE. This narratively-driven foray into depravity revels in pushing players through tragedy and harrowing circumstance, making them feel irreparably vulnerable as they sneak their orphaned child avatars through the dour, rat-infested French countryside during the height of the Black Plague, while avoiding the murderous Inquisition hounding them at every turn. However, unlike every other grim-dark offering on the market that thrives on brutality, the true selling point of A PLAGUE TALE lies in its character writing, using its child leads not as cheap shots at our heartstrings or set dressing but as genuinely nuanced, dynamic characters that few other games this year come close to delivering. It’s a game that is perfectly content in its own skin, delivering a tight, rich, and atmospheric experience in an industry predicated on shallow open worlds and live-service scams, a figurative ray of light shining through the sea of corpses. And in such dark times, what more can you ask for? [Jon Farah]

games Control

16. CONTROL / Remedy

There’s an itch you can’t scratch. It rests in the center of your temple, but not on the surface, much deeper than that. A place you can’t itch. There’s an itch you can’t scratch. It’s a hunch, maybe something you heard whispered, or caught a glimpse of walking home late at night. Something that if you told someone about they would think you’re crazy. It gnaws at you, it itches. But you can’t scratch it. CONTROL is both the relief to that Itch and the Itch itself. A game immersed in X-Files fan fiction, the New Weird, and a healthy dose of the SCP Foundation, blending all three together into a powerful dose of calamine lotion. For the game writing alone CONTROL would be worth a spin, but as a shooter and secretly, a pretty good superhero game, CONTROL proves to be even more satisfying as a physical experience, showcasing blinding sparks, smoke, and explosion of objects that were never meant to collide together, creating a tornado of destruction that makes the conspiracy-injected thrill of the game world tame in comparison. Which is to say, it’s a fantastic game, thematically and in moment-to-moment gameplay. The itch of the game’s paranoid mystery story and the relief of the supernatural-powered combat are the best back-and-forth to come out of 2019, itch-related scars be damned. [Ian Campbell]

15. THE OUTER WILDS / Mobius Digital

Despite all our scientific advancements, the millions poured into research, and actually putting real people into space, many of us still have a quaint understanding of the cosmos. Some of that is a lack of knowledge, we all can’t be astrophysicists after all, but it’s also because of the clock-like way astrological bodies present themselves to us. The sun moves through the sky just so, as does the moon and many of the trash satellites we’ve littered low-Earth orbit with. In that way, the world feels mechanical, so that even though we know it’s far wilder, we default to those childlike assumptions. In THE OUTER WILDS, that clock-like world is the name of the game, the roguelike “run,” not some DEAD CELLS-esque descent into a loot-and-monster-filled castle, but rather the far reaches of understanding… and space. THE OUTER WILDS starts with a homegrown mission to the moon, a sort of birthright for the player character, but it quickly spins out further and wilder, revealing ancient civilizations, anomalies of time and space and a whole lot of heart. To explain the specifics of THE OUTER WILDS’ story would spoil much of the beauty of the game and its method, but even without that carrot, THE OUTER WILDS stands out for how the game’s mechanical and tactile understanding of the world touches everything, from the way your ship flies (and easily crashes) to the in-game tools you use to tune to sonic frequencies and decode ancient languages. THE OUTER WILDS is a game with papers and red string-style conspiracy board. It’s a game that lets you send a probe into a black hole and take pictures of yourself as you get smaller and smaller in the infinite distance. THE OUTER WILDS lets you listen to guitar music playing across the expanse of space and find the man playing it. If ever there were a game to play (in the style of my emphatic recommendation of NIGHT IN THE WOODS) this would be it. [Ian Campbell]

games Kingdom Hearts III

14. KINGDOM HEARTS III / Square Enix

The mere concept of the Kingdom Hearts series having a definitive “final” installment had become a meme for so long that it’s still honestly hard to believe it actually exists. And yet… here we are. A full 17 years since things were simple and clean, KINGDOM HEARTS III delivers the colorful, convoluted, cacophonous culmination of a 10-game-long adventure we all expected it to be, while somehow being so much more. Visually, it’s pure eye candy, with every quasi-open Disney world replicating the Mouse House’s style to picture perfection, every flashy spell and Keyblade swing even more frenetic, and every encounter, from the lowly Heartless mobs to each world’s Big Bad, feeling like a showstopping event. The series’ notorious story hits its peak with glorious aplomb, complete with all the bafflingly dense lore and unapologetically fanfic-y melodrama we’ve all come to know and love(?), while still making room for the emotional gut-punches and satisfying payoffs that both industry titans are known for. And while fans of the series may know that some new, unfathomably batshit expansion of the series is a foregone conclusion, KINGDOM HEARTS III itself serves as a fitting end to Sora and Friends’ heart-centric stories. There’s no chance in Hell that this game will dissuade anyone from revoking the “hot mess” label given to Nomura’s baby over the years, but at the end of the day, that doesn’t matter. We all know it’s what inside that counts. [Jon Farah]

games Devil May Cry 5

13. DEVIL MAY CRY 5 / Capcom

Since its inception, the Devil May Cry series has been a pillar of action gaming. The franchise’s gonzo depiction of exorcism paved the way for the current reign of PlatinumGames’ eclectic catalogue, but with their latest entry, Capcom is back with a serious claim to the crown. It’s almost unfair to address DEVIL MAY CRY 5 as a single game, so varied are the game’s numerous playstyles. Starter character Nero’s sword and pistol are familiar enough that anyone can pick them up, but are still oh-so-satisfying to juggle demon carcasses with. Newcomer V, on the other hand, feels like he’d be more at home in LEAGUE OF LEGENDS than a hack’n’slash, as his total reliance on summoned minions is completely alien to the genre. Augmenting series poster boy Dante’s moveset are an outrageous transforming motorcycle and a, uh, hat, each of which somehow have enough utility that enterprising players can completely replace the demon slayer’s classic arsenal with either curio. Any of these gameplay techniques are robust enough to headline their own title, and cramming them all under the same roof results in one of the most lavish beat-em-up sandboxes ever made. DEVIL MAY CRY 5 is as welcoming to newcomers as it is refreshing for series vets, and is a must-have for any action fan. [Ed Dutcher]

12. LUIGI’S MANSION 3 / Nintendo

I said a lot more about LUIGI’S MANSION 3 late last year, but what I’ll recapitulate here today is that I find it a vanguard example of Nintendo’s unique brand of family friendly-leaning creative fun. Featuring colorful, fully destructible environments, endlessly refreshing and innovative combat via Luigi’s tricked-out and suped-up Poltergust 3000, and the man, the myth, the legend, Gooigi Himself, if there was ever a game to give a respite from the steadily increasing horrors of 2019, it was LUIGI’S MANSION 3. Portrayed in an ooky-spooky, intricately detailed art style that will always be a treat to return to seasonally, the various levels of Hellen Gravely’s Last Resort hotel all feature endearing themes and Big Bads that incorporate a variety of playstyles, from boneheaded smash ‘n bash to carefully timed puzzlers. Somewhat on that note, perhaps what’s most impressive about the game is that while it first presents itself as an entirely recreational escape, the heat is gradually turned up to the point where it becomes a full-fledged adventurer that will leave even the more seasoned gamers among us touting some verbiage Shigeru Miyamoto would likely disapprove of, a perfect example of how games can be cute, entertaining, and genuinely challenging all at the same time. Oh, and how could I forget… the Polterpup. Be still my heart. [Thomas Seraydarian]

games Call of Duty

11. CALL OF DUTY: MODERN WARFARE / Infinity Ward

It’s kind of insane that the boys at Infinity Ward convinced me to shell out $60 for a Call of Duty game, considering that the last time I spawn-tossed a Semtex was when MODERN WARFARE 2 was a rite of passage for many a high schooler. But hey, if you weren’t convinced that nostalgia sells, then let 2019’s CALL OF DUTY: MODERN WARFARE prove you wrong. Not only the first time that the frantic live.die.repeat shooter has been interesting in eons, but also the first time Infinity Ward has tried its hand at competing with what seems to be every other FPS on the market. From the madhouse Ground War mode that gave Battlefield diehards a run for their money, to the excellent Gunfight matches that rivalled the tactical tomfoolery of RAINBOW SIX: SIEGE aficionados, there’s something for everyone in this latest COD. But now that the dust of its initial release hype has settled, I look back most fondly on its viciously thrilling campaign: a literal greatest hits of 2010s cinema packaged into a completely insane series of missions ranging from ZERO DARK THIRTY stealth raids to Michael Bay military operations. I mean, it’s Call of Duty; as problematic as it is engrossing! [Sergio Zaciu]

10. STAR WARS JEDI: FALLEN ORDER / Respawn Entertainment

You know it’s been a banner year for your studio when you can ship a hit battle royale and a stylish, cinematic hack’n’slash within the same 12-month span. While Respawn was wowing us with the surprise launch of APEX LEGENDS, they already had another silver bullet loaded in the chamber. JEDI: FALLEN ORDER marries the platforming of the Uncharted series with the venerable Soulslike formula, finished with a shiny Star Wars veneer that not even RISE OF SKYWALKER can tarnish. It’s a totally unexpected combination of properties, but one that yields the first truly great lightsaber combat since 2003’s JEDI ACADEMY. A while back, I wrote a piece for this site about SOLO, the “Star Wars Story,” and their replacement of a renowned tradition of games set in the periphery of that galaxy far, far away. Amy Hennig’s project code-named “Ragtag” was one such casualty, cancelled for a supposed lack of interest in single-player adventures, but the success of FALLEN ORDER vindicates her effort. With Disney’s recent announcement to expand development of their properties in gaming, it seems Respawn’s one-two punch might have been exactly what it took to bring back that old tradition. [Ed Dutcher]

games Sayonara Wild Hearts

9. SAYONARA WILD HEARTS / Simogo

Simogo, the creators of SAYONARA WILD HEARTS, are masters of the perfect morsel. They know how to make a game that’s self-contained, replayable, and hard to forget, whether it be narrative-based like YEAR WALK, their earlier, horror-adjacent work or a pure synthesis of sight and sound like SAYONARA WILD HEARTS. It’s that easy, just-throw-it-on quality that really gives the game legs. It’s a visual, playable album of music ranging from electronic dance tracks to bright pop ballads worthy of Carly Rae Jepsen, but breaking the songs out into distinct levels and interspersing dance-based fight sequences make the game fun to drop in on at any point. It’s short, it sounds great, and the lush neon colors and wireframe designs give the game a dreamlike, decidedly digital aesthetic that suits a big, bright TV or your phone on a bus to work. The game obviously sits in a lineage of other music-oriented rhythm-type games like REZ, but the modern pop packaging and the wide variety of platforms SAYONARA WILD HEARTS is available on made it an exciting release from 2019, an album worth listening to and a game worth playing. And vice versa. [Ian Campbell]

8. FIRE EMBLEM: THREE HOUSES / Nintendo

What a decade it’s been for the Fire Emblem franchise. From its near-death experience in the early ‘10s to the full renaissance brought on by titles like AWAKENING, FATES, and even the mobile entry HEROES, the series absolutely refuses the permadeath its games are so well known for, and to say THREE HOUSES justifies that tenacity would be a spectacular understatement. Nintendo (with Intelligent Systems and co-dev Koei Tecmo) delivered on the first console entry since 2007(!!)’s RADIANT DAWN in a big way, providing players with a fully-realized world and an intricately woven storyline to accompany FE’s already solid tactical RPG chops. The tale changes drastically depending on which of the titular three houses players choose to align themselves with, even going so far as to pit you against the other students of the Garreg Mach Officers’ Academy when the world is embroiled in a bitter three-way conflict, making multiple playthroughs a necessity to see the big picture. Of course, Fire Emblem’s draw as a series has almost always been its character pools, and I count FE3H’s cast as among the most lovable and well-written in the series’ history. Every character is given time to shine, from insightful support conversations to just lounging around and having tea with your favorite students, and that makes the inevitable war between them that much more devastating. Perhaps most impressively, for a game about a bunch of anime tropes going to war, 3H pushes the unclean side of the narrative quite well—nothing you do on any of the routes is the far-and-away good choice, leaving players facing the gravity of their decisions at every turn. It’s masterful work from a team that previously opted for very linear fantasy narratives. [Angelo Rivera]

games The Outer Worlds

7. THE OUTER WORLDS / Obsidian Entertainment

Since the moment THE OUTER WORLDS came out swinging against the Fallout franchise in their trailer, we expected it to fill some rather large shoes. But I think the success of THE OUTER WORLDS comes not from filling Fallout’s shoes but from filling a different pair of shoes entirely that happen to look like Fallout’s shoes, but they’re in space. While there is a lot of similarity between the two worlds (futuristic weapons, specifically stylized locations, weapons, and armor, the lingering stench of capitalism that has broken the world) it manages to forge its own path with its own very specific systems and methods. There is a lot of NEW VEGAS’ DNA in there, but it is most assuredly its own thing. THE OUTER WORLDS also succeeds by building deep characters to surround the player with their own wants and needs and in-combat bonuses. As friends have! There is more than one character in this game I would absolutely take a bullet for, and I think that having that sort of success in crafting your world makes it something very unique and special. [Steven Porfiri]

6. UNTITLED GOOSE GAME / House House

Many games in the past have pushed the allure of being a chaotically evil presence with edgy narratives and violent cutscenes, pulling in potential players by assuring them that it feels so good to be bad. UNTITLED GOOSE GAME takes part in this but shows you that one doesn’t need to be a gun-totin’ sociopath to delight in the misfortune of others, you can simply be a horrible goose stealing a rake from a gardener. House House’s indie smash is a delightful expression of id that I wouldn’t necessarily call “wholesome,” but the simplicity of its concept certainly gives it its charm. As the apparent embodiment of chaos, the player goose is given a list of tasks that will systematically inconvenience the citizens of this sleepy English village. Part of the fun is figuring out just how to perform each task with the limited manual ability given to the goose, who can mostly only bite things, flap ominously, and honk. While the game retains its simplistic concept, the way to perform these tasks grows more complicated over time, turning into a satisfying brain teaser where the goal is to watch an old man fall on his ass to strategically timed Debussy stings. [Steven Porfiri]

5. DEATH STRANDING / Kojima Studios

It’s clear now post-release that Kojima’s bizarrely unique vision with DEATH STRANDING may have been too much for some. When you’re a post-apocalyptic delivery man throwing poop grenades at ghosts while traversing areas where the land of the dead and the land of the living have become one, it’s easy to see how the experience might not be for everyone. Just imagine being in the room seeing the faces of the employees of his newly-minted company as Kojima pitched the idea of poop AND pee grenades. But for as much of a balls-out insane concept this game is wrapped around, it’s quite easy to get into an enjoyable groove whilst playing. There are moments here that top even the best scenes from RED DEAD REDEMPTION 2. Yes, it’s an open world wasteland, a decades-old trope by now in video games, but there are enough surprises in it to keep one occupied. There are messages and even structures made by other players scattered throughout that give morale as well as in-game boosts, Conan O’Brien with his cosplay girlfriend, and the occasional slime-covered humpback whale. Like many of Hideo’s projects, it’s a hard nut to crack, but the struggle is so worth the nectar within. [Alec Larios]

4. DISCO ELYSIUM / ZA/UM

As with any medium, true originality is almost impossible to find in video games. The AAA titles all stick to formulas that ensure profitability and indie games tend to take their cues from other indie games. So when I first spawned into DISCO ELYSIUM, I marvelled at how completely unique the game felt as an experience. Sure, there’s been other point-and-click adventures and RPGs, but this exact blend of the two has never been seen in gaming before. The gameplay consists of guiding a drunken detective through both a classic criminal caper and his own internal narrative, driven forward by a partner with infinite patience. DISCO ELYSIUM could almost be considered an interactive novel with how brilliant and hysterical the writing is, and springs off the screen with the help of A-plus voice acting that includes four members of the smash hit left-wing podcast Chapo Trap House. I lost both of my hitpoints in my first run by being embarrassing to a bartender and kicking a mailbox, and I still had a blast. DISCO ELYSIUM paves the way for more powerful storytelling in gaming and has loads of fun doing so. [Dan Blomquist]

games Apex Legends

3. APEX LEGENDS / Respawn Entertainment

Are you actually certifiable enough to be playing a battle royale that isn’t APEX LEGENDS? If PUBG and FORTNITE were the little games that stumbled upon the oil well of drop-ship-spawned, squad-based shoot ‘em ups, then Respawn Entertainment’s late entry, APEX LEGENDS, was the first entry designed from the ground up for the popular format. Like the younger brother who slyly avoided making all the mistakes of his older siblings, APEX LEGENDS was the first time that a battle royale felt like a genuinely compelling game of team work (thanks in no small part to its OVERWATCH-esque character classes). Where every FORTNITE whizz kid clipped videos of himself manically building a stairway to Heaven as he’d execute enemies with savant-like precision, APEX LEGENDS revealed itself as a decidedly more strategic game: one where great gameplay was often attributed to a three-person team’s creative combination of individual character loadouts and unique special abilities. From dome shields to noxious gas, APEX LEGEND’s greatest strength is that not every character can do everything! It’s so much more than a run ‘n gun shooter: a constant seesawing of defensive and offensive strategy, making it one of the very best online shooters of the decade. [Sergio Zaciu]

games Resident Evil 2

2. RESIDENT EVIL 2 / Capcom

A strong follow-up to the TEXAS CHAINSAW-inspired madness that was RESIDENT EVIL 7, the 2019 facelift of the second entry in Capcom’s iconic horror franchise, and the sophomore entry of its gritty new direction, fires on all cylinders. RESIDENT EVIL 2 locks you in a police station with an unrelenting pursuer, shreds the key into pieces, and scatters them to the wind. The resulting bedlam is some of the most stress-inducing I’ve experienced in two decades of playing video games, and I don’t say that lightly. It’s true that most Resident Evil titles channel, at least on an aesthetic level, a rather dumb brand of horror, video games’ equivalent to ALIEN RESURRECTION. RE2 is no exception, but few horror properties can match the sheer existential terror of hearing Mr. X’s thundering footfalls behind you as you dump your last bullet into an oncoming horde of zombies. And yet, as terrible RE2 is for my blood pressure, I keep coming back to it. Endlessly replayable with four campaign routes, a slew of bonus modes, and hundreds of unlockables, RE2 is so much more than the 10 hours it takes to reach the credits for the first time. That’s what’s so wonderful about the various levels of appeal the game operates on: depending on how you approach it, RESIDENT EVIL 2 is either the perfect weekend blockbuster or a labyrinthine puzzle box that’ll have you absorbed for months. [Ed Dutcher]

1. SEKIRO: SHADOWS DIE TWICE / FromSoftware

I’m just not good enough of a gamer to milk games like SEKIRO for all they’re worth, but absolutely none of that changes the objective truths of this game: it’s stunningly gorgeous, deceptively complex, and as hard as Toshiro Mifune’s blood curdling screams in Kurosawa’s best films. I’ve always wanted to feel like a samurai in a video game, and SEKIRO not only had me delighted with every swing of my blade, but also with every scrape on my skin. Few video games this challenging have ever been this delightful at the same time. While BLOODBORNE was a game that had you heaving through sadistic boss battles and relentlessly morbid visual language at every turn, SEKIRO’s decidedly sexier stroll through the woods trades the barrage of assaults for the meticulous planning of smaller, more intimate encounters. Admittedly less difficult, and more conventionally pretty, there’s a lot of praise that one can heap upon FromSoftware’s latest work of masochistic genius, and had I not been so brutally consumed with work at the time of its release, I surely would have perfected the art of the blade in due time. After all, few developers understand the old adage of practice makes perfect quite like FromSoftware, and with a game as acrobatic, and just plain old cool as SEKIRO, dying is rendered into a learning process that’s… dare I say… fun? [Sergio Zaciu]

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