Game of the Year

Alex O’Neill’s Top 10 Games of 2019

Hi! Hello! It’s another one of these here “Top 10 Game of the Year Write Ups” and I think the generally accepted thing for me to do here is to be a little reflective on 2019. At least, that’s what feels right!

I’m a, let’s say, overly self-reflective person, and that has its ups and downs, but in 2019, I think it was the cause of mostly downs. I have been struggling with a lot of self-doubt, low confidence, and the typical bout of depression through 2019, and I think above all those things self-confidence hit an all time low. Reflecting on that, on why I feel this way, what I feel holds me back, what I want, and want to do, want to accomplish, is I think in some ways reflective of my journey with games in 2019 too. 

A year that has highs like Kingdom Hearts 3, the re-unveil of Final Fantasy 7 Remake, Sekiro; formative and culminating experiences that really left a mark on my year, corresponded to extreme lows. In those lows, I found comfort in revisiting a lot of games like MegaMan Legends, which I finished for the first time this year, Persona 5, which I found a new appreciation for and platinumed this year, and of course the short-lived reflection on the earliest Call of Duty games with Call of Duty in Review, still reflective of a very formative time in my early obsession with video games. 

Plus there were just challenges I couldn’t prepare for, consequences of managing a team, of clashing of opinions, of having to play the PR guy for the company. All things I found myself way more prepared to do than I thought I’d have to be, but that still changes and shifts your perspective. When that meets a perfect storm of poor self-confidence, you feel like your drowning a whole lot.

But, because I don’t mean for this to be all negative, this was the year that truly all the wonderful people in my life shined brighter than ever. My best friend Damien moved in with me at the start of the year, acting as my constant rock whenever I needed someone to bounce off of. Jurge Cruz and Jarrett Green continued and evolved as absolutely invaluable mentors and supported me through some of the toughest Big Business Man IP Decisions I’ve ever had to make. Scott, Mike, and Quin, all in their second year of doing the rounds at Irrational Passions, stepped up and owned the content we put out this year, beyond anything I could have imagined. My friends, who I can’t mention all of, reached out, comforted, listened, and supported me in many, many dark moments throughout the year, and it made what might have been the worst year for me in a while, especially after a very difficult 2018, much more tolerable, even if it was still difficult and mental health is still a challenge for me to manage. 

To the new folks that are here, welcome, I love you, to the old guard standing strong, I see you, I thank you, and to those who may come and go, every moment you’ve given me is a lesson: I’m sorry I fail often, but I try to learn, try to be better, and try to let my actions speak louder than any words I write here.

But now we’re talking about VIDEO GAMES. My co-host of IPP Tony Horvath described this year for games as “shit” and while he is often wrong and I’m pretty used to it by now, here are some honorable mentions that I didn’t want to write many paragraphs on, and ten games, ten stories with those games, that I found to be quite special this year.

Honorable mentions: 

Destiny 2 Shadowkeep, I don’t necessarily want to have Destiny 2 on my list every year but hey: it’s very good.

Katana Zero, one of my favorite indie games from the year, picked it up on a whim, totally loved it.

Jedi Fallen Order, had a great time with it, maybe my favorite Star Wars thing out there, but it felt like a buggy mess most of the way, so I decided to put different games on the list.

Luigi’s Mansion 3, had an absolute blast playing this with Mike on stream, maybe I’ll go back and finish it someday.

Cadence of Hyrule, had it on my OKBeast.com list, I had a great time with it, decided to include something different this time

Bloodstained Ritual of the Night, same as Cadence, and a late-game contender came in and pushed it off the list.

Man of Medan, also same as Cadence, and while I do love it, I’ve just moved on to other things in my head, and want to highlight them more.

Number 10.

Tales of Vesperia Definitive Edition

It was over ten years ago I played this game for the first time. You see, in middle school, my friends Casey, Ian, and I all played through Tales of Symphonia together, co-op. How cool is that? Actually successfully playing a Tales game cooperatively?! In the GameFly-era of my life, which was most of high school, Tales of Vesperia was one of the games I rented and loved. Buying it again, years and years later, replaying it on multiple occasions, would lead it to become one of my favorite games of all time. 

So for ten years I prayed, dreamed, and hoped that maybe all that cool stuff they put in a PS3 re-release of this once-360-only game would come to the west, and for ten long goddamn years it didn’t. But now it has.

Maybe a bit of a monkey’s paw situation, since many voice actors didn’t return for the re-localization, and the consistency of the story get’s a tad bit weird because of this, but in spite of this the Definitive Edition of Vesperia is everything I’d hoped it would be and more. Two new party members, tons of new sidequests, weapons, and abilities, and truly unforgettable journey with one of the best crews of characters in an RPG ever. Full stop.

This is technically a re-release of an old game, so that’s why it’s number ten here, but I don’t care if it’s a cheat: play this game, please.

Number 9. 

Resident Evil 2

Looking back, my time with Resident Evil 2 was incredibly special. Mostly because I got to share it with my friend Andrew Taylor with Raccoon City Radio. Sure, it came out right around the same time Kingdom Hearts 3 did, but as a recent-convert to the Resident Evil fandom thanks to VII, I was all in on living in that world again.

So it’s back to the 90s, and Clair and Leon are on the run from some big dude in a trench coat, which honestly is about as 90s as you can get. I have my ups and downs with RE2, but with my excitement for Resident Evil 3 Remake at a peak, I went back and replayed it recently, and it’s just one of the tightest, most polished, most beautiful games that came out this year. 

Here is your mid-write-up-reminder to put literally everything in the RE Engine you cowards.

Exploring the Raccoon City Police Station is like Metroidvania ASMR for me, it gives me those crinkle-tinkles on the back of my neck just thinking about it. Managing my inventory, stocking up to go out into the nightmare world knowing X is moments from finding you, heart racing, you load one more acid round into your grenade launcher and then…

Thump.

Thump.

Thump.

SLAM.

Fight? …or flight?

The amount of times that question came into my head in this game is nerve-wracking. Where RE7 was very much a power-your-way-through kind of experience, an unkillable enemy screws that up pretty quick in RE2. And while I also hated how Mr. X made me play that game differently than how I wanted to, I also loved it. Love/hate, fight/flight, that’s the game, and it’s a palm-sweater every goddamn time I play it.

Number 8.

Sparklite

You may not have heard of Sparklite, and that’s okay! But please listen when I say it’s just an absolute delight. The top-down adventure feels like a romp through one of the most beautiful worlds in pixel art, and what I love the most is that it’s not out here to set the world on fire! There isn’t some huge departure from the inspirations present in Sparklite, the likes of Zelda and Rogue Legacy, and while I hate to dwell on comparisons, Sparklite wears them as a badge of honor. Not because Sparklite feels like a copycat, but because it pushes the needle in a more subtle way forward; the slight innovations within Sparklite’s mechanics make for tectonic shifts in the long-game.

You go down to the world, you explore, you get loot, you fight bosses, you get special items that make exploration easier, and you find secrets and treasure! Then, when death inevitably catches up to you, it’s time to reset, to talk to the townsfolk of your hub-city, and prepare yourself for another trek down into the ever-shifting world below. 

Having an adventure game with an ever-changing map layout could go very, very bad, and I’ve felt those missteps in games in the past, but Sparklite just succeeds. It knows what constants to keep in every land and area, what caves will always be there, what chests will always be there, and relying on those things becomes a great comfort on this adventure. Just like everything in this delightful world: it’s all comfort food to me.

Number 7.

The Legend of Zelda Link’s Awakening

I wrote a pretty apt story of my love of this game in a piece last year, and if you missed it, you should read it.

I chose to include this game over Cadence of Hyrule, another stellar title this year, but to switch things up a bit! I want to talk about how much warmth this game has. From its score, to how it reimagines every single part of the look of the original Link’s Awakening is pouring with charm. In a lot of ways, this is like an indie-Zelda game, and that channels the exact weirdness that went into making the original. 

I feel like I’ve written so much about this game, so just go play it. It’s a small, beautiful story that will warm your heart. I fell in love with Marin and her love of the outside world, her need to get out there and see something new. That sentiment carried me into 2020.

Number 6.

Pokémon Shield

I will say that running around Galar, I didn’t expect to get pulled into any sort of Pokémon, but here I am, number six on my list, above a Zelda game. It really is thanks to Let’s Go Pikachu. The more casual re-introduction to Pokemon did it’s job flawlessly, and all the things I liked and loved about my time with Let’s Go naturally evolved in Pokemon Shield.

Running through the wild area, I stumbled early on to a level 40 Garbador, a personal favorite Pokemon, and while I wasn’t anywhere near strong enough to catch the big guy, I was able to beat him with the cooperative help of my whole team. That feeling of teaming up together and besting a challenge like this as a team was something that I had never seen in Pokemon before. A powerful creature, way stronger than anything before it, just walking around; this exactly defines the parts of Shield that work for me. 

I found myself able to get into trouble way more, and with a much harder challenge, partly from coming from Let’s Go Pikachu I’m sure, but that made me want to get better, to change my team. I swapped out, caught, and used more Pokemon is Shield than I have probably across my entire tenure with the series. Experience Share made this possible for me, and I loved knowing that I was always progressing forward, toward more challenges. 

Number 5.

Death Stranding

Ah yes, Sam Porter Bridges. The man who delivers.

It me. The man what delivers.

I love delivering packages. I love traveling the world. I love feeling like anything could happen at any time. I love running into an encampment of BTs and having to find a way through. I love the relationship I made with BB over the game.

I don’t love the heavy-handed storytelling. Each character seems to (usually) have a well thought-out background, drowning in the details of tragedy, but instead of telling you this over the course of the story of this game, all of this comes to you in media res—through long and oftentimes hard to follow soliloquies of each character almost intentionally destroying all the fourth walls in existence to let the player know that hey: this is my story and this is the part where you need to care. Even still, there are some stellar moments in those moments of very out-of-place, directed storytelling, and the characters themselves, like Deadman, Cliff, or Fragile, all have amazing aspects just drowned out by the incessant background yelling of “hey this is what this game is about do you get it yet?!

What works is the mechanical story that’s told through the exploration of this world. Any of my oldest followers who’ve seen Alex Talks know that I love the progression of understanding and evolving with the mechanics of the world. Death Stranding gets this, and each tool, each interaction you have with other players’ worlds, often hits that level of “magical” for me.

The unending earnest and genuine feeling that lives below the surface of the entirety of Death Stranding’s tone is one I empathize with: earnest to a fault. And maybe that’s why I love it, flaws and all. 

Number 4.

Control

Walking down a particularly unfamiliar and dark corridor in the Federal Bureau of Control, something absolutely unnerving happens: the director hears a cry for help. 

Underpopulated as is, my director hesitated, but she perseveres. She presses her hand against the glass, unsure of the male figure transfixed by the refrigerator in front of him. “Help!” 

“I… I can’t right now, I promise I’ll come back!” Jesse yelled, helplessly because she knew Containment may be where she’d finally reunites with her brother, but both the mystery and the urgency of this unfamiliar situation almost ripped her from this mission. It’s like this was her destiny.

The words at the end of Alan Wake have both haunted and intrigued me eternally. Much like this story—one Mike Burgess excellently recounted on our Game of the Year deliberations podcast, exampling just how masterfully Control builds and expands its world—those final words in Alan Wake create, cultivate, and convulse a tone that is solely unique to Remedy. Those words were:

“It’s not a lake. It’s an ocean.”

Control is the first dip in that ocean. In a world I want to lose myself too. I haven’t stopped thinking about Control since the moment I finished it, and again doubled-down on that feeling when I finished a second time just a month ago. Restraint is the key word that articulates the immaculate interior of The Oldest House, restraint that is reticent in its rigidity, lovely in its overt and specific linguistics, and hypnotizing through its holistic design; an echelon beyond anything I have ever experienced. 

Play this game. 

Number 3.

Life is Strange 2

Life is Strange 2 absolutely destroyed me.

My love of the first game is such a personal story, both in how it’s told and how it felt to me, so there was a lot of concern that the sequel just couldn’t hit the same tone and execution of what Max went through. But it did.

Life is Strange, such a great catch all phrase on its own merit, just describes what these titles are all about, which also defines itself by another single word: melancholy. Almost every decision Sean and Daniel have to make includes both the good and the bad, and Life is Strange 2 makes every effort to make those consequences feel genuine and grounded. While it’s a story about a big brother trying to do what’s right to survive with his younger brother, I rarely felt that the road story felt out of left field or off the rails. The tone is serious, and the world and situations you’re put in treat themselves just as seriously, which lets the characters breath, express, and most of all, change.

Daniel and Sean are different people by the end of what they see traveling across the United States, and to share a moment that defined my playthrough without spoiling anything, it comes when I made a very important choice, together with Daniel. In that moment, he looked at me and said, “you’re right… that’s not us.” 

In that moment, Daniel was more real to me as the younger brother I’d do anything to protect that any other. And moreover, I felt like he truly understood me. That connection is something that transcends almost any experience I’ve had with video games in a long time. It channels the best of what this medium is all about, and I will never forget it.

Number 2.

Sekiro Shadows Die Twice

Of all the stories to tell you about Sekiro, how about a recent one. It’s New Game Plus-Plus, revisiting my first ever completion save, where I got stuck deep into a third straight playthrough because of how absolutely brutal things got. But here I was, having just beaten the game for a separate, fourth time after holiday, to reacquaint myself with my favorite games of 2019. I was at the challenge once more: Isshin Ashina, arguably the most brutal boss in the game, and I died a lot, a lot again, because lord knows the first two times fighting this boss were brutal.

One last attempt, I had yet to get to the third and final phase of the fight, where the most timing intensive counter-move comes into play, and I was nervous, but the fight must go on. 

Round one: the sword. It always starts with sword clashes, and it’s a trademark of Sekiro. It’s familiar territory, and the moves get parried effortlessly, I have this.

Round two: the spear. Ahh, I can’t tell you how many “Spears of Ashina”, a series of like-equipped mini bosses scattered across Sekiro, gave me absolute nightmares from the brutality of their reach. Ashina was no exception, of course, and the reach is always the thing that gets me. The parries are trickier, they come from angles you don’t expect, even in the thick of it, and feathering the parry button becomes a death sentence. No room for cheese in this phase, and the special moves that blast out occasionally break your stance; any moment of vulnerability here is a precious moment lost. Defence buff, healing pellet, clang clang, and hey, we’re through. Never that simple, but I assure you the moment-to-moment action was brutally satisfying. 

Round three: the lightning. I’m here, we made it, the final section. Lightning is a special move that only a handful of enemies in the entire game can perform. With Ashina, it can happen at any moment, the tip of the spear, so to speak. The move is specific in its parry too; for this, you have to jump into the air to hold the bolt in your body without discharging it into the ground, that would hurt you (a lot), so while in the air, you have to swing your sword to shoot the bolt right back where it came from. All in all, it amounts to a pretty trickily-timed jump with a very frantic mashing of R1 afterward.

Round three begins, and Isshin Ashina summons pure electricity through some kind of incredible magic never truly explained in the adventure, jumping into the air and pulling the bolt into his body. Then I jump, and slash, and blast it right back at him. Clangs happen. He’s in the air again, another fresh bolt, with me knocked off my feet. I jump, I return fire. He summons the lightning, and again I’m exacerbated now, in life I am almost panting, my heart is racing. I’m in the air again, the bolt strikes the ground and I can feel my index fingers tensing, I don’t think I’ve blinked in maybe generously four minutes. I run, I heal the lightning damage off, but too quickly he’s there, like the clap of thunder itself, shattering the sound barrier as the flash of lightning fades from view, and the swords are at blows again.

My heart pounds. This is it. 

The final blast of a parry sounds off as his stagger is met, and I deliver the final killing blow.

Exhale.

That exhilaration defines the pure mechanical magic FromSoftware has created. In that moment, I was the Wolf, I was locked in battle with the greatest samurai the Ashina Clan has ever produced. It was pure. It was beautiful. It was perfection. 

That is why I love this game so much. 

Real Quick

Number 1.5

Frozen 2

Ah, you thought I’d do an end of the year wrap up and not somehow secretly sneak Frozen 2 in there? Well you were wrong! While this is unorthodox, Frozen 2 is so important to my 2019, to my health and struggle this year, to exclude it would be wrong, I feel.

I have been mental-struggling for a couple months here, as discussed at the top, but in addition to my stellar support system of people getting me through a very difficult November was, I shit you not, Frozen 2. Whatever prejudices you have about Frozen or its sequel, either drop them, or see yourself out: this is something so close to my heart I’m hesitant to even share my feelings about it, that’s the level of meaningful we’re talking here. So be nice.

Going in completely blind save for seeing the teaser trailer, nothing could have prepared me for how this movie would devastate and challenge me. A journey of a changing and trying time in the life of the two heroes, both powerful, both vulnerable, and both pushed to their absolute limits. 

Seeing someone find themselves is the heart of storytelling for me, and it’s a huge part of gaming for me. Living that experience can let you find something new about yourself almost every game you play. Elsa finds herself in this movie, and it’s stellar, it’s beautiful, it’s a visual interpretation of actualization on a level that makes me bawl every single time I’ve seen it. I connect with her struggles, with her doubts, with those consequences of pushing things too far. 

This piece of media hit me harder than almost anything this year. I love Frozen 2 with all my heart and I’m ready to scream it from the rooftops. You should see it because it’s a beautiful, thrilling, and absolutely powerful adventure, and it really means the absolute world to me.

Number 1.

Kingdom Hearts 3

Hello, yes, welcome. You made it! Did you skip to this? 🤔

Hey we’re going off the honor system here, but don’t judge me. If you read all the way to this then you should know I am a delicate emotional flower that loves feeling things. Growing up with Kingdom Hearts, growing up with Sora, the true star of the show, made this journey something transcendent for me.

Never before has a video game reached these levels of mythical hype. Never. When playing through the tutorial, fighting in the first major area before the goddamn HUD even came up, I paused the game to just cry because I couldn’t believe it was real. That’s the kind of brainwashing anime-juice Nomura-san has me drinking over here y’all.

And you know what? I don’t regret a goddamn thing. If anything, Kingdom Hearts is an excellent (and sometimes not-so-excellent) example of the kind of journey games can take you on when you truly invest in them. Riku, Kairi, and Sora were just three totally random kids to me 18 years ago, and now, a lifetime later, Sora is one of my favorite video game characters of all time.

In the heart of the climax of Kingdom Hearts 3, Sora accepts the consequences of what actually putting all of your heart’s worth of effort into saving his friends may cost, because that’s just how he rolls. It’s 100 or nothing, and there will be consequences, but sometimes the people in your life are worth that. There is no stronger message to me. Watching Sora, for years and years, games and games, I know exactly the moments that defined this outlook for him. I feel what he is going through, I feel it in my bones.

That’s something so special and irreplaceable that I can’t help but recognize, in my heart of hearts, how absolutely magical a game Kingdom Hearts 3 is for me. Going to each world was like going to Disney World seven times over. Finding all my friends again and finally seeing them all together is like a high school reunion if they were a good thing. One last ride with Donald and Goofy is just honestly what my whole life has been building too, probably.

Kingdom Hearts 3 is a perfect example of just how transcendent video games can be, all jokes aside. It shows how much they can mean, how much you can relate to them, and absolutely how beautiful and fun they can be. It was all I could have wanted and more (and less) and I will never forget every waking second I spent with it. With Sora, Donald, and Goofy, one last time. ♥️

_______

One More Thing…

Most Anticipated of 2020…

Back in my day, when Top 10s were podcasts I recorded with way too many guests, I’d always like to end them with a look to the future, a most anticipated game!

Spelunky 2

For the uninitiated here, Spelunky is almost certainly the game I have played the most in my lifetime. I’d estimate upwards of 1500 hours, but honestly there isn’t a good way to track this and I played the hell out of that thing on my PlayStation Vita.

I got the chance to play Spelunky 2 at PAX West 2018. I actually went to the booth and played it on about seven separate occasions because I just could not get enough of it. Honestly, I played it so much I basically wrote two previews of it, having to update the preview with more and more information. I was in a Spelunky-centric discord answering incredibly specific questions. In that demo, I was the first person ever to ghost a gem. Only three of the people reading this will get that one. I even got to meet Derek Yu, the creator of Spelunky, on one of my trips to the booth. It was an absolute honor.

Every bone in my body is ready to play Spelunky 2 forever, and even with the most hype releases in all of video games coming in 2020, all I can think about is my next run.

THANK YOU SO MUCH FOR READING!!!