Thursday, December 12, 2019

The Highlights of 2019

At last, it is once again that time. That time where we look back fondly or otherwise, at the games that have been released this year. Every outlet in games media will soon be consumed by hours upon hours of Game of the Year deliberations, top 10 lists, and other assorted recaps.

I am no different, of course. That said, when I look back at the list of games I've played this year, I noticed that it was quite unique compared to most other years. While there wasn't much in terms of big budget games, the number of niche, mid-tier titles that cater to specific interests really added up to be a profound year. I almost always had something new and neat to play.

Just like in previous years, these are just games I have many positive things to say about, in randomized order. Even if a game misses this list, it doesn't mean I didn't like it. Odds are I have nothing much to say on it or just didn't get around to it. With that said, the first of my 2019 highlights is:

Apex Legends
Apex Legends deserves credit for the ways it rethought and analyzed the Battle Royale genre to create its own niche in that space. It did so with two very distinct innovations:

First, they added character classes. When players drop in with their team of 3, each one of them on that team will choose between one of several different playable characters, each with their own skills and traits. Thanks to that, there's a degree of customization in the team's game plan even before the drop onto the map. As for me, I always chose Lifeline for her ability to heal players with her drone and safely revive them behind her barrier.

The other clever design choice was in the “Ping” system, which Fortnite would later go on to emulate. Basically, in order to facilitate play without voice chat, the team at Respawn devised a contextual system where players can hit a single button that will shout out whatever is in the middle of the screen to the rest of the team. Whether it's a cool weapon, heal/armor kit, a nearby enemy or container, or any of the myriad items of interest, the system does an excellent job of accurately displaying relevant information to the rest of the team.

I had a blast playing Apex with numerous friend groups for quite longer than I usually stick to these types of live games, and not just because of these changes to the Battle Royale formula. The developers at Respawn who built this game also built Titanfall 2, and that DNA is present in every aspect of how Apex plays. While players aren't wall running and platforming as much as they would be in Titanfall, they are still very mobile, and the gunplay is equally as satisfying.

While the post-launch support left much to be desired, this game was at the Apex of it's genre for many people, myself included.

The Outer Worlds
As many of you know, I have been disappointed in the output from both Bioware and Bethesda Game Studios for a long time.

Bioware's output has been on a downward decline ever since EA bought them up. Mass Effect 3 caused an infamous uproar in 2012, and Dragon Age: Inquisition came out to mediocre reception back in 2014. And they've not made a good game since, with both Mass Effect: Andromeda and Anthem being exceptionally poorly received.

Bethesda is in an equally spotty, or arguably worse, situation. The last game from them that can truly say I liked was Skyrim, way back in 2011. While I didn't hate Fallout 4, the more I reflect on my time with it the more I realize I just wasn't having as much fun with it as I wanted to. Though I didn't touch Fallout 76 last year, one just needs to google the name to see all of the many, many, many ways that went wrong.

I tell you all of this so that you realize exactly how badly I have been craving a functional game in this genre. Depending on what is considered a good open-world RPG, it's been anywhere from 5 to 8 years since the last one of those. This is, until The Outer Worlds came out.

I'm not about to sit here and say that it is a flawless game, because it's not. It's anti-capitalist viewpoint comes across as toothless, moraly thin and flavorless as cardboard, but the skeleton of what Obsidian made is exactly the kind of game I have been searching for. What they built is a template from which other open-world RPGs can be created, expanding on their work with Fallout: New Vegas, but otherwise going the established route for the genre.

But I can't mention The Outer Worlds without bringing special attention to my favorite companion: Parvati Holcomb. Voiced by Ashley Burch, Parvati is one of the fleshed out companions in the game, with a quest that personally affected me. I don't talk about it much here, but I am asexual, and even in the space of queer-targeted fiction, my sexuality is not often represented. There's a profound moment in the game where Parvati confides in the player than she has romantic feelings for another woman, but that she's afraid that her asexuality might complicate the relationship due to past experiences.

That alone was more important to me than I would've thought it could be, but then the game gave me the option to say that I am also asexual, and that I understand what Parvati is going through more than she might realize. In a world where I'm so used to the Bioware-style companions that assume if I'm bothering to get to know someone, that I want to have sex them when my relationship meter reaches 100%, being able to openly express my particular sexuality made me pause and just take it in. As I'm writing this, I can the watering of my eye ducts as tears start to form. For whatever its faults, The Outer Worlds gave me that, and it's something that I wish I could feel more often.

Resident Evil 2 (2019)
My experience with the Resident Evil franchise isn't the most fleshed out. If it weren't for a friend of mine, it might even be practically non-existent. He asked me to join him in co-op playthroughs of both Resident Evil 5 and 6, which became my entry point into the series. Later on, I would pick up a VR headset and enter the world of RE 7: Biohazard.

So picking up this remaster of Resident Evil 2, which brought that game's story and locales into a more modern control scheme via the new RE Engine, was a way for me to learn more about this franchise that I had only been tangentially interested in. On top of that, it was the first game I had performed a blind playthrough of on stream.

And while I certainly stumbled and fumbled my way through it, I did eventually push through and beat Claire Route A and Leon Route B. The game does an excellent job at putting the player in exactly enough danger where they feel like they are just a couple mistakes away from complete failure, but in truth they have all of the resources and abilities they need to succeed if they just think carefully about how they make use of them. It feels good to get to that realization and see one's skills naturally improve as they complete more of the campaign. The version of me who started that game wasn't the same me that finished it, and thanks just an incredible sensation.

Daemon X Machina
Were it not for a friend of mine recommending Zone of the Enders, I would not have known how much I enjoy games about giant mechs. Shame that there are so few games that appeal to that specific interest.

Fortunately for me though, this little gem called Daemon X Machina came in 2019. While the story is utter nonsense, I didn't come to it for that. I came to it to plop down into a giant robot and smash other robots to pieces.

And that's exactly what I did, upgrading both my machine and myself with cybernetic parts to create my own particular playstyle, focusing on maneuverability and throwing a ton of ammunition out with machine guns and shoulder-mounted missiles. That said, I see another world where I doubled down on Sniper Rifle fire with accuracy upgrades or a tank with a giant sword or mace in hand.

It's been a while since there was a good one of these, and by god (of the machine?) this was a good one of these.

Crash Team Racing: Nitro Fueled
I've never made a secret that I've been a long time fan of Crash Bandicoot, being the “PlayStation kid” growing up. Similarly, I played way more Crash Team Racing and Crash Nitro Kart than I've ever played of the Mario Kart games. Whenever people came over to my house, or when I went to a house with an original PlayStation, CTR was a regular fixture.

So seeing this game I've put so many hours into, one that I replay regularly, brought into modern-day, high resolution graphics, is such a treat. In addition, I can play online with other players, so there's always a worthy adversary around whenever I'm in the mood to take another shot at it. I used to think that I was good at this game, but going up against the online community has made me step up and learn new techniques that I always knew existed, but never had the patience to learn.

It's not entire recreating that feeling of getting all the neighborhood kids together to race in a 4-player match against each other, but it's so close that the memories come back every time I log in.

Bonus points for making my boy, Crunch Bandicoot, a playable character. What can I say? I have a type.

Devil May Cry 5
I already took part in an entire podcast about how much I loved the latest Devil May Cry game (audio balancing issues aside), but suffice it to say that the design team learned a lot since the 4th installment game out, and those lessons can be felt everywhere.

But to avoid repeating things I already wrote in that post, I will say that I was surprised how well the tension between Dante and Vergil was resolved. Furthermore, Devil May Cry 5 does the job that DMC4 failed to do in handing the reins of the franchise over to new protagonist Nero in a believable and honest way.

And with the new Devil Breaker for Nero, weapons for Dante, and entirely new, indirect fighting style for the newcomer V, each of the playable characters bring their own unique flavor of combat, and all of them are polished to a mirror shine. In terms of character-action games, there were few this year that could hold a candle to DMC5.

Slay the Spire
Looking through the list of games that were released this year, I was genuinely surprised to find that Slay the Spire was on it, because it's become such a fixture in both my gaming routine and in game design circles that I assumed it's been in my rotation for a longer time than a single year. I even streamed it, albeit badly, as a one-off on my channel.

As someone with an adoration for card games, deck-builders, and run-based games, Slay the Spire scratches multiple itches all at the same time. Choosing one of three characters to start with, the game hands players an initial deck of basic cards and asks them to engage in turn-based RPG battles where these cards represent attacks they can perform. Along the way, they gain/lose cards in the deck, gain new passive skills, and upgrade their character in the hopes of creating a synergistic enough combination of cards and passives that they can obliterate both common enemies and bosses in short order.

Even within the scope of a single character, the number of cards and passives they have access to allow the player to potentially spec in several different directions. Along these lines, my favorite character out of the three is The Silent, which serves as the Rogue/Assassin class. However, there are several different “flavors” of that archetype, including ones that defeat enemies by injecting them with massive quantities of poison, ones that win by debilitating their foe with crippling status effects, and ones that succeed with an almost literal “death by a thousand cuts”.

Combined with the fact that players are given perfect knowledge of what each enemy is about to do on their next turn, there is a ton of delicate decision making that needs to happen on every given run. Every choice, from what cards are or aren't added to the deck to the sequence of moves the player makes to beat a fight without sustaining much damage, is absolutely tense and crucial. Any one false move can cascade to have long lasting consequences that aren't immediately obvious. However, like any roguelike or deck-builder, learning from past mistakes is half of the game.

It's not a bold claim to say that Slay the Spire is an exceptional game in its various genres, and definitely worth consideration if you're into any of them.

Ring Fit Adventure
As a person who has struggled with my weight and fitness nearly my entire life, I am no stranger to the genre of “fitness games”. I was the kid who bought Dance Dance Revolution in order to play it as a form of daily workout. I had an Eye Toy, and games to play with it, assuming any of you reading this have any idea what that means. And though I never took part in it directly, several of college friends used that smart phone app that made a zombie apocalypse game out of running.

So trust me when I say that while Ring Fit Adventure is no substitute for an actual diet and exercise plan, it is not just some poorly thought out “fitness game”. It is a fully fleshed out hybrid of a body weight fitness class and a JRPG. After strapping a joy con to their left thigh, and attaching the other one to a Pilates ring, the built-in “Ring Con”, I was thrust into a world under threat from the evil, and attractive, bodybuilding dragon, Dragaux.

Any given area had me running an obstacle course by jogging in place, using various exercises like squats (so... many.... squats), along with various presses and pulls of the ring-con to target specific muscle groups to traverse the map and reach the goal. Along the way, I was accosted by monsters and the occasional boss character, which I needed to beat in a “fitness battle”, using a whole array of exercises for attacks.

As a fitness app, the game is great about helping to coach players through proper form, while never feeling judgmental about their level of fitness. In fact, the game is constantly encouraging players not just to keep at it, but also to be mindful of their limits and take breaks or drink water as necessary. And the RPG elements are also solid, with each exercise having its set of enemies that it does more damage to, and area of effect that may hit multiple foes at the same time. There's also a ton of fitness-themed items, like clothing for armor and fruit/vegetable smoothies as consumable buff/healing items that give players a steady sense of progression. Players also gain experience and level up, obtaining “gains” like extra attack power, defense, moves, and health.

It's not perfect, as Patrick Kelpick noted in a recent VICE Games post where he wished difficulty could be adjusted per-exercise and not globally, but it is one of the best attempts at a games-as-fitness-tool that I have ever seen, and it's something I have cleanly added to my weekly routines.

Did I mention that the evil bodybuilding dragon is kinda hot?

Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night
Thanks to Bloodstained, I have the distinction of being one of the people whose first Castlevania game isn't actually a Castlevania game. Produced by Koji Igarashi himself, even a newbie like me has enough familiarity with the source material that I can feel the Castlevania DNA in this game, and it runs deep.

And while the game succeeds on that front, that isn't honestly why it makes the list as a highlight. At least, not entirely. Bloodstained has the distinction of being one of the earliest examples of a Kickstarter game, like Pillars of Eternity by Obsidian and Double Fine's Broken Age. In the years since these games opened up the space for crowdfunded video games, so many projects have failed after being successfully funded that it seemed like all such projects were fated to be doomed.

So while I certainly had an excellent time with Bloodstained, I'm much more happy for all the people who backed it. To them, this is exactly the kind of game they wanted, and they deserve it.

It takes a special kind of allure to get me interested in an Early Access title. Normally, I stay as far away from work-in-progress games as I possibly can. For Supergiant Games, I can make an exception. The makers of Bastion, Transistor, and Pyre have thus far always managed to strike gold, so I was willing to trust their judgment that if they're releasing a game early, it's in a solid enough state to play.

And I was absolutely correct to place my faith in that team. If I didn't know any better, the only indication that the game hasn't been completed yet is that a successful run abruptly ends where the development team hasn't finished up the rest of the game's content. Otherwise, it feels like a fully fleshed out roguelike dungeon crawler with an isometric perspective.

It's been a while since I checked in to see how the game is progressing, but it's something that I think about regularly. Like Dead Cells from last year, this is one of those games where the story of how it gradually develops will be just as, if not more fascinating than actual product, offering a much needed window into the messy world of game development.

Disco Elysium
Where The Outer Worlds creates a template for RPGs heavily inspired by the games that came before it, Disco Elysium dares to take the genre in a new direction that I found unbelievably refreshing.

In a crapsack world loosely based on, but fundamentally separate from, our own, Disco Elysium opens with your character waking up in a trashed hotel room from such a profoundly drunken stupor that they no longer possess any memory of who they are or what they've done. Based on what everyone around him piece together from his erratic pre-amnesia behavior, he is one of the detectives sent to solve the case of a dead body found hanging from a tree in a back alley.

As a fan of detective fiction, this was already a strong enough hook to catch my interest, but the game is so much more than just another detective story. I've often heard comparisons to Planescape: Torment evoked in reference to Disco Elysium, and those comparisons are warranted in two ways.

Both games choose not to place a strong focus on their combat, and double down on the more conversational, story-telling aspects of tabletop RPGs. In fact, I'd say Disco Elysium succeeds Planescape in this area. Planescape still adhered to the conventions of the time with the occasional combat scenario, even if those fights could be made exceedingly trivial. Disco Elysium cuts combat out of the game altogether, doubling down on a system of skill checks that affect nearly everything the player does.

And I do mean everything. The player's various skills act as personalities in their head which coach them through the tasks they undertake during the investigation. For example, if someone makes a blatantly false statement, there's a behind-the-scenes skill check that is rolled against the Logic stat, and if it succeeds then the personality representing “Logic” will chime in and tell the player that the subject's statement couldn't be true. And yet, that doesn't mean that specialization in a given ability is a good thing. Characters with too many points in logic may start to see patterns and trends where none exist, and every one of the game's 24 different stats is like that, each with their own pros and cons.

In other words, the drunk detective's personality, and thus what options the player has access to, are very strongly linked to what kind of person their stats add up to. A player lacking in empathy just can't console a grieving victim unless external factors and hidden skill check modifiers help them overcome that dearth, or they get fluke into an extremely lucky roll, which does happen. It's a game where failure doesn't mean the story is over, it just means that the player needs to come up with another solution that better fits the kind of person they are.

Which leads to the other similarity between Disco Elysium and Planescape: Torment is that both of them have strong themes of self-discovery. Both the drunken detective from Disco Elysium and The Nameless One from Planescape suffer from a lack of self-understanding due to their amnesia, and each of them struggle with that over the course of their adventures. As much as they need to solve their problems, they also need to learn who they were, and hope that the answers therein can help them figure out who they are. Though I can't say I have ever suffered from amnesia, I strongly sympathize with the desire to learn about and understand oneself for personal reasons, so both of these characters resonate with me on that level.

Any other form of praise I have for this game would unduly spoil the experience for anyone reading this, and I wouldn't want to do that when discovery is half the fun. Out of all the games on this list, this is the one I'm most afraid that people will forget, relegating it to “cult classic” as it languishes on Steam wishlists. It's such an amazing experience that it deserves more than that.

Death Stranding
There is... a lot to unpack with Death Stranding. For better or worse, Hideo Kojima is at it again, this time with a new IP. This is one of those games that will absolutely belong on the other list I publish every year, but we'll save that for when we get to it.

What gives it a spot of the highlights list is that it is a fascinating experience to take it while actively playing the game. Basically, the player is a courier in a post-apocalyptic America, and that aspect of the game is oddly compelling. I didn't think I would enjoy navigating the terrain to try to make my deliveries as quickly, safely, and efficiently as possible.

Many of the other systems service this core mechanic as well. After a certain point in the story, players are allowed to start constructing objects in the environment that can make the journey from location to location easier. This doesn't just help them, but other players as well, since they can both see and make use of these same structures. I can't count the number of times I felt grateful to someone else for creating a generator I could use to recharge my electric truck as I was driving, or building a road/bridge to safely drive over rocky terrain and rivers. And there's a sort of satisfaction that one can only achieve by loading a truck full of hundreds of kilograms worth of cargo to casually drive to a destination that could once be barely accessed by twenty or more minutes of arduous, on-foot navigation thanks to both one's own efforts and that of their fellow players.

Death Stranding has so many mechanics to facilitate a spirit of mutual cooperation between people without ever actually communicating with each other. I'll never know who took a package I dropped off and took it to their destination, or who dumped that final chunk of metals and ceramics into the road I was building to finish it off, but I know that I'm grateful for the way we touched each others playthroughs and made each other's journey just ever so slightly easier.

Pokémon Sword and Shield
Last year, I played my first ever Pokémon game with Let's Go Eevee, which is a bit of pseudo sequel/remake of Red/Blue with a partner Eevee and a Pokémon Go-esque catch system in lieu of encountering and battling Pokémon in the wild. While I was no stranger to the franchise, watching a ton of the anime growing up, that was my first direct exposure to the games.

And since that left such a positive impression on me, I figured this would be a great time to take the plunge and give Pokémon the chance that it deserved with the Shield version of the latest installment. As an entry point for a new player like me, this is the best game I could hope for. There are a number of excellent quality-of-life features present in this game, from XP Share to the ability to freely recall any ability that your Pokémon have previously forgotten at any Pokémon Center.

The additional of the semi-open Wild Area, full of powerful Pokémon, 4-player raid battles, and other hidden secrets, is also very welcome. It's fun to wander a large space and see what new, emergent stories and adventures can occur as I explore with my partner, Cinderace, and our other teammates. Once we get tired, we can set up camp to rest, eat curry, and play around a little.

There's also something to be said for how the Galar region, heavily inspired by Britain and British culture, turns the classic Pokémon Gym Challenge into something akin to a story campaign in a FIFA game, where the players gets endorsed by the reigning champion and rises the ranks to take his title. Gym battles take place in large stadiums packed with crowds, with the Dynamax mechanic serving as a huge climactic finale to each one as both participants gigantify their Pokémon. It feels like a kaiju battle with attacks so powerful they actually change the weather inside the stadium.

As silly as it sounds, I always had a blast fighting against gym leaders and rivals, all of whom are well-developed and fleshed out characters, on my Pokémon journey. I didn't delve too far into the post-game, but I liked my time with Pokémon Shield enough that I can be considered a series convert.

Back when they were still in the business of making good JRPGs, Tri-Ace were the proud developers of the Valkyrie Profile series. Inspired heavily by Norse mythology, one of the most unique aspects of that franchise is the combat system, which had each of the four characters of the player's party assigned to a face button on the controller. By timing the inputs, they could combo each characters' moves into one another to create a more effect attack, each hit building up the damage multiplier for successive strikes.

Indivisible, the crowdfunded RPG built by Skullgirls developer Lab Zero, takes the core concept from that old Square Enix franchise's combat system and expands upon it. Each character that can be recruited to the player's team has an entire movelist, include variations of attacks that can be executed by holding a different directional input along their attack button. Drawing inspiration from the fighting games the studio are better known for, there's also a super meter than can be expended to either heal the team or unleash even more powerful attacks against enemies, and a system to precise time guards and blocks to avoid taking damage, instead healing and regenerating super meter.

Combined with the number of different playable characters who each have their own fighting styles, and the variations of enemies that each have their own guards and resistances, the game takes measures to avoid the problem Valkyrie Profile had where players would eventually just create the “one combo” that they could execute over and over again ad nauseam. Most players will eventually stumble into the party that best suits them, but even then they need to think about how they approach specific groups of enemies.

But Indivisible doesn't stop there, also expanding on the 2D platforming sections Valkyrie Profile was also famous for: Blowing up into a full-blown Metroidvania as players acquire more skills and equipment that let them go back to old areas and discover places and items that were previously inaccessible.

Having backed the IndieGoGo campaign in 2015 after playing the prototype, I had almost completely forgotten about Indivisible until the game arrived at my doorstep. As a backer, I can safely say that I'm proud to have taken part in making this game a reality. I loved Valkyrie Profile, and seeing a spiritual successor take flight made the wait well worth it.

Judgment/Judge Eyes
After spending the summer of last year getting completely caught up on the Yakuza franchise, no one should be surprised that I was eager to return to the mean streets of Kamurocho once more once Judgment came out here in the US. When I heard it was also a detective game starring a disgraced defense attorney in the Japanese legal system, I was even more invested.

Launching the game, it felt very nostalgic wandering the map, from Pink Street to Tenkaichi Street, passing by the Millennium Tower. I remember a genuine pang of sadness as my favorite takoyaki stand at the end of Tenkaichi Street from the previous games had closed down, waiting for a new business to fill the void left behind in their wake. Such was my experience returning to the place I had spent so much time last summer.

And yet, no longer was I playing as Kazuma Kiryu, instead taking control of new protagonist, Takayuki “Tak” Yagami. While Yagami also has improbably martial arts skills, especially for a defense attorney, he feels more human both in how he fights and interacts with the city. Rather than relying on brute force, his style utilizes agility and the environment to turn the tide against foes blatantly stronger than he is.

Where Kiryu is a social outcast who tends to exist on the fringes and in the back alleys of civilization, Yagami has a much public face. By the end of the game, I had developed so many friendships that no matter where I was in the city, a friend was willing to help me out by jumping in when hooligans attacked me, or throwing me improvised weapons I could use against them. He feels like an integrated citizen in the city, gradually growing a strong and reliable support network with his peers.

As far as murder mysteries go, I still think fondly to how the case gradually builds and expands in scope over the first few acts, culminating in a finale that genuinely affected me. I wish I could say more without spoiling key moments of the game, but suffice it to say this fan of detective fiction was immensely satisfied with the plot laid before him. Judgment is everything I wanted it to be and more.

Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney Trilogy (and the rest of the series)
I have a confession to make: Although I have obviously heard about the Ace Attorney games, I had never played them up until the remake of the original trilogy came out on Switch and PC earlier this year.

There's almost nothing I dislike about these games, from the characters to the localization, the cross examination mechanics, and the soundtrack. Everything is presented with such a flare that I couldn't help but get sucked in to the sheer drama and suspense of it all.

Nothing quite compares to the tension I felt reading through a witness statement and comparing it to the evidence in my possession with CrossExamination – Moderato 2001 plays in the background, reminding me that I'm just a few mistakes away from condemning my client to life in prison, the truth of our case forever lost.

That is, nothing except the follow-up feeling once I submit my contraction, and the music pauses just briefly enough that I'm unsure if I guessed incorrectly... before it changes to celebrate my brilliant deduction. More than any other visual novel series, the Ace Attorney games use their whole presentation to make the player feel the highs and the lows right along with their protagonists, as if they were right there with them every step of the way.

My adoration was of these simple, but effective was so strong that when I started streaming LA Noire at roughly the same time, I couldn't help but wonder why they bothered with the mo-cap interview mechanics when Phoenix Wright had already created a better system way back in 2001.

And I didn't just stop at the Trilogy once I had finished it. Afterwards, a friend of mine informed me that every other Ace Attorney game that had been localized in English was readily available on Android and iOS, so I took up my phone and played the rest of the franchise in short order. Not only was it fun to play through all of these games on my own, but also shared it on Twitter and Mastodon and seeing all of my friends vicariously enjoy them once more through my virgin eyes. I began to adore the main cast enough that I even commissioned art of my own fursona cosplaying as everyone's favorite rival prosecutor: Miles Edgeworth, known for such endless quotable lines like “You are not a clown, you are the entire circus.”

This was, to me, as much a special summer event as it was a series of video games. I love them so much, that if I could wipe my mind of all memory of the franchise, just so I experience it for the first time once more, I absolutely would without hesitation.

The Dark Pictures: Man of Medan
Man of Medan, from Supermassive Games, was one of the two games I played with my friend Acharky on stream this year, and just as an excuse to hang out with a buddy, this was a highlight for me.

But more than that, it took what I enjoyed about Until Dawn and doubled down on that template, serving up an excellent horror story in what is hopefully going to be just the first in an anthology of many.

On top of that, Supermassive seems to have gotten the memo that people play games of this nature socially, in groups where players pass the controllers around to take control of specific characters in the narrative. To that end, they have created ways to systematize those interactions that actually came in handy during our stream session even though Acharky wasn't in the room with me, by making it easier to delineate whose turn it would be to make decisions.

While the 4-6 hour length may drive many people away, it actually drew me into the game because I was confident that I could play through it over the course of a weekend. Short games are good, and we could always use a few more of those.

Kingdom Hearts 3
Finally, after working with Sam for years on the primer series, in order to prepare ourselves for it, Kingdom Hearts 3 actually came out.

Rather than apply a modern design ethos to the Kingdom Hearts franchise, in many ways this latest entry brings a PS2-era design ethos into the modern-day, which I found oddly refreshing among the tide of live services and games with sprawling open worlds. Playing Kingdom Hearts 3, even absent my attachments to the cast and characters, had a nostalgic bent to it that brought me back to my childhood, when Sora, Donald, and Goofy (always in that order) first graced my 4:3 TV screen back in 2002.

Though it would have been impossible for a sequel of this magnitude to ever live up to the hype, Kingdom Hearts 3 made a good college try of it, and I was completely engrossed in watching the finale of the Xehanort/Dark Seeker Saga. For once, Nomura presented more answers than questions, and even if not every plot point is resolved, there's a strong enough denouement that I was surprisingly satisfied once credits rolled.

Code Vein
It's no secret that I have an appreciation for the Souls games and the mechanics they employ. Like it's own vampiric cast, Code Vein taps into that vein and leeches many of its core mechanics that you are undoubtedly already familiar with yourself. All one has to do is substitute bonfires for “Mistle” and souls for “Haze” and the formula is there.

That said, it's the differences where it stands out, because there are several big changes that drastically increase the possibility space players have access to. One of them is the class system. Whenever the player increases their character level, they do not increase their character stats. Rather, their stats are primarily determined by their class, known in-game as a “Blood Code”, which is rated per stat on a scale from D- to S+.

Each Blood Code also has a list of skills, known in-game as “Gifts”, which can be acquired and equipped to the character, up to 8 active and 4 passive. By mastering equipped gifts, they can be used no matter what Blood Code the player has active, as long as it has a high enough rank in its prerequisite stats.

Since both Blood Codes and Gifts can be swapped out at any time, this means that players have the freedom to change their playstyle almost at will. In Dark Souls, I have to commit to being a warrior, caster, or jack-of-all-trades. Here, I can try to play as a magician wielding a bayonet and light armor for mobility. If that doesn't work, I can swap that entire build out for a warrior class, big out a heavy two-handed sword, and dive straight into a melee. And with the ability to master the abilities of different classes, players are encouraged to keep changing their play style, equipping what “core” skills they like best and swapping out the rest so that they can keep building up their kit.

Code Vein also allows players to bring in one NPC partner to fight with them. Having this companion by my side proved to be invaluable assistance, not only for drawing aggro away from me, but also because they could spend half of their health to resurrect me if I ever died. As much as I wished they'd just stop talking, the moment they brought me back from death I forgave them for every single worthless word.

This all combined to create a Souls-like that is noticeably easier than it's sources of inspiration. That said, it's hard to express how liberating it feels to no longer be stuck using the same jack-of-all-trades build time and time again just because I want to sample all of the game’s mechanics without playing through it three or four times.

Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice
Well, that's a bit of a mood whiplash after talking about blood souls. This is another game that I wrote about twice this year.

Like Code Vein, this does borrow a core set of mechanics from it's Soulsian brethren. Unlike Code Vein, it does it an entirely different direction more akin to a Tenchu game, also developed by From Software.

In an effort to avoid heavily repeating thoughts previously expressed, I'll say that what I like most from Sekiro is my experience unlearning the habits that helped me through Souls games and relearning a whole new, significantly more aggressive and relentless paradigm.

And more than just being aggressive, Sekiro forced me to be more tactical in my thinking, using stealth to assassinate as many mooks and guardsman as I can before finally taking on the more challenging opponents around me.

By the end, I had practically become the titular one-armed wolf in how I was surveying the area and planning out my approach before finally making my move, using cheap tricks and dirty tactics to even odds against foes significantly stronger than I was.

Medievil takes me back to a very specific period of my life, when I was a kid. My aunt actually introduced me to this game, so I have memories of playing this over at her house during Thanksgiving and Christmas parties that come back every time I replay it.

Seeing it brought back in HD was a special treat, and streaming it was even better, but it's not a game I could recommend. It was obviously dated even back when it came out on the original PS1, but it's special to me. And props to Sony for remaking it so that I and exactly seven other people in the entire world could have that experience.

Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3: The Black Order
This was the other game that Acharky and I streamed together, since we had done so for the previous Ultimate Alliance titles.

This game is interesting because, when taken in context with the games that came before it, almost serves as a commentary on how the face of Marvel has changed in a post-MCU world. Prior to the movie, it would have been inconceivable that the Guardians of the Galaxy would be the only playable characters at the start of a Marvel crossover game. And yet, here we are in 2019 witnessing that exact same thing.

But just because the MCU is such a heavy influence doesn't mean that they stick exclusively to that canon. After Wolverine and the rest of the X-Men got ruthlessly snubbed in the last Marvel vs. Capcom game, I figured we'd never see them in any Marvel-related video games ever again, so it came as a relief to see them present, getting a whole chapter dedicated to them. Even the Inhumans, like Kamala Khan, and characters like Spider-Gwen made the roster, and it's great to see them getting the same love that the popular MCU characters receive.

Ultimate Alliance 3 was the perfect excuse for Acharky and I to get together and geek out about comic book canon for a few hours a week over the course of a month.

Fire Emblem: Three Houses
Fire Emblem: Three Houses is an excellent tactical RPG, but almost nobody actually cares about that part of the game and I am no exception.

What they care about is being a good teacher trying to make the lives of their students better. My memories of sharing a meal with Felix and Bernadetta in an effort to develop their relationship are much more vivid than those of Edelgard ramming her axe into a hapless soldiers rear end or seeing that same, timid little Bernadetta kill a mage for 30 yards away with a clean shot right between the eyes. Not to say that those memories aren't also vivid, but rather that they were more like icing on my relationship cake.

On top of that, I was genuinely surprised at the sheer quality of the writing in Three Houses. The depth of political and philosophical intrigue between the multiple factions in the plot rival that of the best Ivalice storylines from Final Fantasy. As someone who considers Final Fantasy Tactics: The War of the Lions one of the greatest stories ever told in a video game, I do not say this lightly.

Like Phoenix Wright earlier on this list, I had as much fun sharing my experiences with Fire Emblem with my friends on Twitter, participating in the meme culture surrounding it, as I did playing it for myself. I'd say one couldn't escape the phenomenon, but that would imply I was trying to. I went out of way to follow Fire Emblem meme accounts because I was that invested in the characters of this game.

To end my discussion of Fire Emblem, I just want you all to know that despite whatever you hear, Edelgard did absolutely nothing wrong.


And so ends a fantastic year in video games. While I wouldn't say there were many generically good “AAA” video games, this was a time where if I knew you well enough, I could find more than a few titles to recommend just based on your personal interests. If this is any indication of what the future might hold, we should be in for even stronger years to come.

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