Wow, look at the time! I think I say this every year, but I can’t believe we’re halfway through 2019 already. And it’s been a busy 2019 as well. This list of the best games of the year so far is already so strong, it feels like a proper end-of-2019 Game of the Year list. Hell, I had to cut some perfectly deserving games because we ran out of space. In June.
And it’s only going to get worse from here, with high-profile releases like Doom Eternal and Control still to come in 2019. And then 2020’s spring gauntlet of Cyberpunk 2077, Dying Light 2, Vampire: The Masquerade - Bloodlines 2, Watch Dogs Legion, and on and on.
Good years ahead. But before we get there, let’s take a moment to recount the best games of 2019 so far—maybe some you played, and probably at least a few you haven’t gotten around to yet. (Note: This list is in no particular order, except the final entry.)
Baba is You
Baba is You is a fiendish puzzler with simple rules. So simple, in fact, they’re laid out for you to see. Every puzzle consists of a series of text blocks, arcane-looking phrases like “Flag Is Win” and “Water Is Hot” and the titular “Baba Is You.” Your task is to push these blocks around, redefining the very rules of the puzzle in your favor. Stuck behind a wall? Well, maybe you should become the wall—or rather, Wall Is You.
Of course, the difficulty escalates. Immutable rules, either placed outside your reach or tucked into corners where they can’t be manipulated, force you to get creative with your solutions, creating long chains of cause and effect where Crab Is You and You Are Melt and Water Is...nothing? Oh,now I can get across that river. And so on and so forth. Baba is You is smart, it’s addictive, and I’ve derived the utmost satisfaction from its “Eureka!” moments.
Resident Evil 2
Resident Evil 2 is the Resident Evil that finally made me a fan—and I don’t mean the 1998 original, I mean the remake this year. After years of trying and failing to get into the series, I finally had a proper Resident Evil game with a well-written story and fully modern mechanics (and no more typewriter ribbons) at a time I could appreciate it.
Point being, it’s not just a nostalgia piece. Resident Evil 2 is one of 2019’s best horror games, with an entertaining story that sustains both Claire and Leon’s back-to-back playthroughs, and tweaks that update the source material without losing its spirit—like a color-coded map that tells you when you’ve collected everything in each room, quality-of-life tweaks that demonstrate how games have evolved since the ‘90s.
And for repeat runs? Well, try putting Mr. X in a thong for a truly exciting twist.
Metro Exodus had me worried when I first demoed it. This was a series about claustrophobia, about how nuclear survivors rebuilt some semblance of civilization in the ruins of the Moscow subway system. With Exodus , the series was due to go above-ground and open-world, leaving the subways behind. I feared the change would scuttle what I loved about the first two games, especially Metro 2033.
But my fears were in vain. While some of the open-world bits do feel superfluous, Metro Exodus is still a joy to discover. Each region is dotted with enough ruins to regularly recreate the old Metro feel, and the story of Artyom, Anna, and their journey out of Moscow is a poignant third act for a series that definitely earned one.
Devil May Cry 5
Capcom rolled straight from one win to another this year. After making me a fan of Resident Evil, I then found myself falling in love with Devil May Cry 5 only a month later. This one, I expected even less. Another series I missed out on in its heyday, until now the only game in the series I held in high esteem was Ninja Theory’s controversial DmC.
I still think the level design in DmC is more interesting— Devil May Cry 5 gets a little rote near the end, overusing its H.R. Giger-esque hellscape for a few too many levels. It’s so damn entertaining though, from its stylish slow-motion intro credits to its charmingly cheesy dialogue to its flashy combat. Every single piece feels like a series at its peak, which is incredible for a series that hadn’t received a proper sequel in over a decade. I’m sure Devil May Cry 5 is a treat for longtime fans, but it’s just as apt to hook a newcomer. Take it from me.
There was a magical period in the early days of the Internet where it felt like anyone could make a website, and everyone did. Hypnospace Outlaw is an homage to that era, to GeoCities and AOL and all the weirdness that came with it.
It’s wrapped in a wild story about HypnOS, an operating system that only functions while the user is asleep. You’re a “Hypnospace Enforcer” tasked with stopping illicit activity, be it file sharing or harassment or malware distribution. It’s silly fun, in a Hackers sort of way.
But the real hook is nostalgia. Your in-fiction job mostly requires trawling through a vast collection of faux-‘90s webpages, laden with ugly gifs and dad-rock jingles and eye-searing colors. It’s a meticulously detailed recreation of what that period felt like, everyone exploring this new medium before self-expression consolidated around the handful of universal sites we have today.
Total War: Three Kingdoms
After two excellent and creative Total War: Warhammer games, I didn’t know what a Total War based in human history could do to refresh the formula. Turns out the answer was in historical fiction, drawing on elements of the Romance of the Three Kingdoms saga for a Total War that embellishes history with larger-than-life characters and grandiose battles. Did it all happen this way? Doubtful, but Three Kingdoms is full of personality and lends itself to the dramatic player-driven storytelling you want from a strategy game, old rivals dueling on the battlefield and trusted advisers stabbing you in the back at a crucial moment.
And for those who don’t want any of that? The “Records” mode gives you the old Total War experience, albeit with a far deeper diplomacy system than any in recent memory. It’s a best-of-both-worlds situation, and easily the best historical Total War since 2011’s Shogun 2.
“Observation is kind of 2001: A Space Odyssey—but you’re HAL.” I maintain you only need that single-sentence description from No Code’s lead writer Jon McKellan to know whether Observation might be up your alley.
You are Systems Administration & Maintenance, or SAM for short—the artificial intelligence aboard a space station that ends up far from home, with no record of how it happened. Building on the work it did with Stories Untold, No Code’s made another love letter to analog and early-digital technology, tasking you with unraveling the mystery of the space station’s mysterious journey from the confines of the ship’s security cameras and computer systems. And while it’s a novel mechanic, Observation’s New Weird-story (with hints of Annihilation ) is really what keeps you hooked. It goes places.
Moment-to-moment, Void Bastards is like an infinitely replayable System Shock, as you trawl through a series of abandoned spaceships for food, fuel, and ammo. Each ship incursion takes maybe five minutes, with randomized elements like “No Power” adding additional hurdles—and enemies that get more difficult as you go deeper into the Nebula.
But your goals are nonsense like “Find a Line Printer,” with which you’ll create an ID card that doesn’t work. Not without an HR Computer at least, for which you’ll need a Mouse Ball and other space garbage. Every time you die, you’re given a new space felon to try again—with randomized traits like “Smoker,” meaning you cough every few seconds and alert enemies. And did I mention S.T.E.V.? He’s your handy AI guide, who chimes in with advice like “Note to self: Issue more bullets to replacement client.”
It’s one of the most satisfying and rewarding run-based games I’ve played in years, and hilarious to boot.
Heaven’s Vault has some rough edges. Its more action-oriented bits—sailing around the Nebula, walking around various planets—are the least interesting facets, and you do them a lot. Less, after the game’s post-release patches, but they still comprise a significant portion of the experience.
The writing makes up for it though. Inkle already demonstrated its prowess with 80 Days and Sorcery!, but Heaven’s Vault is its most ambitious work of interactive fiction yet, a sprawling archaeological sim of sorts, comprised of dozens (maybe hundreds) of different story branches that still manage to coalesce into an engaging sci-fi story. And how well you understand that story also depends on how deep you delve into its translation side, with a “lost” language for the player to slowly decipher as they explore the Nebula—for the first, fifth, or tenth time.
A linguistics-based puzzle game won’t be to everyone’s taste, but it’s very much to my taste, and I’ve rarely felt smarter than when I finally deciphered the rules to Heaven’s Vault’s glyphs.
Best of 2019 (so far): Outer Wilds
The music swells and I stop. By now, I know exactly what those first musical cues mean: The universe is about to end again. My 22 minutes is up. I settle in to watch the sun explode, already planning where I’m going to explore the next time out.
Outer Wilds is incredible. It’s a clockwork, a solar system in miniature that’s trapped in a time loop. The same events play out every run, with 22 minutes to explore any planet you’d like and uncover its secrets. You could theoretically finish it in your first-ever playthrough—provided you looked up the answer, where to go and what to do. More likely: You’ll die, either by crashing into a planet at top speed (as I did), or in a blaze of glory as the clock expires.
But you could finish it, because nothing about Outer Wilds changes. Only your knowledge changes, as you uncover shortcuts that make it easier to get to hidden areas, or chart when and where certain events occur so you can be in the right spot next time, or learn in one area a heretofore-unknown mechanic that will get you past an obstacle in another area. The story is told in scraps of a lost language—reminiscent of Heaven’s Vault, albeit without the translation mechanic. By the end you’ll have an idea how and why the time loop occurred, and what to do about it, assembling the story like a puzzle.
Outer Wilds is what an adventure game should be in the modern era, full of breathtaking vistas and packed with secrets that make it a delight to explore, and meticulously designed so even without any guidance the player can string its breadcrumbs together, figure out where to go next and what to do to bring the journey one step closer to its end.
Bonus: Yakuza Kiwami
In the interest of letting another proper 2019 release get on this list, I’m relegating Yakuza Kiwami to the “Honorable Mention” section. After all, it came out on consoles three years ago—and is a remake of a game from 2006, no less.
Don’t skip it though. Don’t think “Ah, it’s not on the actual list, so who cares?” Kiwami is one of the best games I’ve played this year, and the perfect entry-point to the series for someone who doesn’t want to spend 50 or 60 hours on Yakuza 0. I took that route, and I think it’s the better option because some of the story moments hit harder having played the prequel and spent more time with those characters. Kiwami gives you a bite-sized introduction to what makes the series special, condensing the typical Yakuza experience down into 20 or 25 straightforward hours, and putting longtime protagonist Kazuma Kiryu through some harrowing events before it’s all over.
It’s a soap opera, but it’s a great one, and I’m glad Sega’s porting these games over to PC at last.