(Disclaimer: I’m re-posting some of my writing from previous blog entries in order to save time. My thoughts on certain games hasn’t changed much since writing about them last year).
2019 was an embarrassment of riches in terms of new game releases. There’s been a sentiment circulating in the community that due to the transition to new consoles/hardware in the coming year, 2019 was considered to be relatively disappointing, but I couldn’t disagree more. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve realized that the industry will continue to move forward and evolve, with or without me. While there are more and more interesting games to play with each passing year, there’s only so little time in any given day. Excluding the hundreds of throwaway games that get released on your digital storefront of choice (Steam has always been guilty of this, but the Nintendo eShop and the PlayStation Store aren’t any better these days), the general quality level, across the board, has been staggeringly high. As someone who’s always preferred games developed by Japanese studios, there’s also been a renaissance of sorts over the past few years in the east and I couldn’t be more thrilled.
Despite over-saturation in the marketplace, a lot of independent studios have found success and nearly all of my favorite companies/developers from my childhood have been firing on all cylinders. Nintendo is still killing it with their first-party output, Capcom is finally back on track and respectable again, From Software is winning awards and getting the recognition they’ve always deserved, Sega is finally localizing anything and everything Yakuza-related, Falcom is producing arguably some of the best RPGs on the market, Namco Bandai is finding success again with franchises that have been around since the PS1/PS2 era (cough, Ace Combat, cough) and Platinum Games continues to persevere with quality titles despite their lack of commercial success. There’s a lot to love and a lot to look forward to, no matter your preferences, likes or interests. So, let’s get to it!
HM. Yooka-Laylee and the Impossible Lair – Yooka-Laylee was one of my most anticipated games back in 2017. While many independent studios seem keen on creating 2D throwback experiences, it’s particularly rare (get it?) to see a 3D game from an indie studio, let alone from one with such a legacy. When I finally got my hands on Playtonic’s 3D platformer revival, I had a lot of not-so-great things to say about it. In retrospect, I gave Yooka-Laylee some tough love, considering the developer’s legacy and relatively humble Kickstarter beginnings, I expected a lot more than what I ultimately received. Fast forward to 2019 and the former Rare developers are back at it again with Yooka-Laylee and The Impossible Lair. Ironically, the chameleon and bat’s second foray into the fold is more akin to their SNES heritage and not the “Twoka-Layle” most fans expected it to be.
It’s hard not to compare The Impossible Lair to Retro’s more recent Donkey Kong Country titles, specifically Tropical Freeze. If there was ever a game that wore its inspiration on its sleeves, The Impossible Lair would be guilty as charged. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, however, as Yooka & Laylee’s move-set transitioned from 3D to 2D rather well. With that said, the controls did not feel as tight as they could have been and the levels, although mostly competent, did not have the set-piece, “aha” moments found in Retro’s offerings. The most standout feature in the game is the 3D overworld portions, however. With its Zelda-like puzzles, simple platforming, and tucked-away secrets, it’s almost as if the game was designed by two different teams. To be honest, I almost wish the entire game was comprised of the overhead portions of the game. In addition to simply being well thought-out, players could alter the 2D stages by interacting with the 3D environment which would create new, cleverly designed platforming levels to tackle.
What should also be noted is that the game runs/performs beautifully on all major platforms, which is a shocker considering the previous game’s not-so-great performance issues and the fact that the game runs on Unity (a game engine that’s known to be problematic for some developers). Despite some personal hangups with the game, I enjoyed my time spent with Playtonic’s second outing with the Chameleon and Bat. I will say that the final level (which can be attempted at the start of the game, a la The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild) is a bit too slavishly difficult for my taste, but it provided an old-school challenge that made the finale far more rewarding. I’m hoping Playtonic continues to create new games and that The Impossible Lair was another half-step towards the true 3D sequel fans have been waiting for.
HM. The Touryst – Shin’en Multimedia, the developer behind The Touryst (including other favorites of mine such as Nanostray, Jett Rocket and F.A.S.T Racing), have been synonymous with Nintendo’s platforms since the original Game Boy Color. Whenever I buy a new Nintendo platform, I’m always on the lookout for a game by this studio because they are absolutely masters of their craft, no matter the hardware of choice. While their games might look generic at first-glance, their titles almost always take advantage of the hardware’s capabilities and they are usually quite impressive graphically, too. The Touryst is no exception. The game utilizes voxels (think 3D Dot Game Heroes or Minecraft even) and while it’s usually not an art-style I prefer, it worked for me in this instance and suited the game’s presentation rather well. Digital Foundry (an awesome YouTube channel you should follow) did a wonderful piece on the game’s technicalities/visuals, which you should check out too.
The Touryst was probably both the “quickest-to-start” and “quickest-to-reward” game I played in 2019. You simply arrive by boat to an island for reasons that aren’t explained and the game begins. There’s hardly an introduction sequence, there’s very little dialogue and there’s virtually no loading screens. The story is told mostly through some non-playable character (NPC) interaction and hints of lore scattered about the many islands you’ll visit. At its core, The Touryst is a 3D action-adventure game with Zelda-like elements. You’ll explore a location, solve a few puzzles/tasks, unlock a dungeon, defeat a boss, obtain a “key”, earn new abilities, unlock new islands, rinse & repeat. The retro-inspired mini-games, tasks and dungeons can all be completed at a brisk pace, too. Nothing overstays its welcome and you’re constantly being rewarded something new or completing one of the game’s objectives quicker than you would expect. The sense of progression is unmatched here.
For whatever reason, my entire experience with The Touryst also reminded me of the Zelda-like clones from the Sega Genesis era, specifically Climax Entertainment’s Landstalker and Treasure’s Light Crusader (how about those deep cuts, for you!). Perhaps it was the isometric camera perspective found in the dungeons (accompanied by the tricky platforming caused by such a design choice) or maybe it was how brisk and no-nonsense the pacing was. The Touryst is clearly a callback to games from a simpler time. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve appreciated shorter experiences, games that I can complete within 3-4 hours where I feel completely satisfied afterwards. This was the one game from 2019 that I wanted more of, however. Shin’en is known for making sequels and if there was one title from them that needs/deserves a follow-up, The Touryst would be it.
HM. The Stretchers – The Stretchers was my surprise indie hit of 2019. Developed by Tarsier Studios (the developers mostly known for Little Nightmares), came what could potentially have been one of the best puzzle-action cooperative (coop) experiences from last year (next to Luigi’s Mansion 3, of course). From the very few impressions I’ve read online, the game has been described as “Crazy Taxi with an ambulance”, but I feel that simple deduction is not doing the game any sort of justice. The Stretchers has you controlling two paramedics (whose appearances can be customized to your liking) who are tasked at rescuing citizens who have become “Dizzied” by a disgruntled former co-worker (who also now resembles a much skinnier Doctor Eggman from Sonic the Hedgehog). The Stretchers is designed as a traditional open-world game, complete with side-objectives, waypoints, ramps to drive off of and pedestrians that you can nearly hit. In some ways, it feels like a Grand Theft Auto (GTA) for kids and there’s certainly nothing else like it on the Switch.
What stood out to me the most about the game, however, was just how polished the whole experience was. If I didn’t know any better, I would have been convinced that one of Nintendo’s internal studios developed the game. The majority of the game tasks the player to drive from one destination to the next, helping citizens back to health along the way. Utilizing both analog sticks, the two paramedics must cooperate together in order to carry people on a stretcher back to an ambulance, all the while avoiding various environmental hazards such as sprinklers, lawn rakes, buzz saws, enraged farm animals and the sort. It’s a goofy game, to say the least. The Stretchers is also very physics-based, which can cause a lot of shenanigans during its numerous missions. While the game is clearly meant to be played in local coop, single-player isn’t a terrible experience either. Controlling both characters by yourself can be a bit cumbersome at first, but the developers did their best to make things relatively playable for those (like myself) who flew solo.
In an age where most people mostly play games together online, it’s still nice to see a proper couch coop experience. While there are certainly means to play local coop games on other platforms, the Nintendo Switch was clearly designed for these types of occasions. With that said, having launched shortly after the release of the Nintendo Switch Lite, The Stretchers felt designed for the original hardware, specifically for docked-play. So, detach that Joy-Con, grab a buddy, and save those who have been dizzied!
HM. Shovel Knight: King of Cards – I can’t believe I’ve been playing Shovel Knight games for almost 6 years. The original Shovel Knight title (the Shovel of Hope campaign) launched back in 2014. Since then, the fine folks over at Yacht Club Games have given us what are essentially entirely new games in the form of character expansions (which were originally planned Kickstarter goals – surprise, they’ve followed through with everything!). It’s been a wild journey and with each new campaign (Plague of Shadows and Specter of Torment included), I keep thinking to myself, “…am I sick of Shovel Knight yet?” and the answer is almost always a resounding “…no, I guess I’m not!”. I don’t know how they keep doing it, but with each new character/expansion, Yacht Club Games continues to provide entirely new ways to play their game. King Knight’s move-set feels the closest to Wario from the Wario Land games. He can dash forward and rebound off of certain walls, which allows him to spin off of enemies and perform additional aerial maneuvers.
It takes a bit of time to adjust to what King Knight can/cannot do, but once it clicks, stringing together dashes and spin attacks in order to navigate the levels feels super satisfying. Speaking of stages, the King of Cards is like the New Super Luigi U of Shovel Knight campaigns. While the volume of levels appears to be larger than previous entries, the stages are a lot shorter in length. They’re still densely designed, however, as there’s no shortage of secrets and hidden exits to discover. There’s even a full-fledged card game at your disposal and while it’s completely integral to the story, it’s mostly optional if card games aren’t your thing. After numerous expansions, ports and re-releases, I still can’t believe I’m finding myself playing/enjoying Shovel Knight, but here we are. While I’m ready for a true sequel or something entirely new, Yacht Club Games are clearly masters of their craft and King of Cards is no exception.
HM. Luigi’s Mansion 3 – I loved the original Luigi’s Mansion on the Nintendo Gamecube. It was as if Nintendo studied the mansion layout from the original Resident Evil, Nintendo-fied it, threw in a bunch of ghosts, equipped Luigi with a vacuum machine capable of ghost-busting and let him loose. Here we are today, three games deep in a franchise that’s finally given Luigi his proper spotlight away from Mario and it’s arguably the best entry to date. The most immediately striking thing about Luigi’s Mansion 3 is its overall graphical fidelity; the visuals, animations and character models are all top-notch. It’s quite possibly the best looking game to date on the Switch. The amount of unique animations on display is overwhelming and I dare say Nintendo and the good people over at Next Level Games are steps away from capturing the essence of a Disney/Pixar animated film (or maybe just Dreamworks). It’s that good. With Dark Moon on the Nintendo 3DS and now with Luigi’s Mansion 3, I still feel like there’s something missing from the sequels that the original game had, however.
The amount of variety, both from a visual and gameplay perspective, is unparalleled, but I feel like we’re getting further away from the fact that it should be a “mansion” and not a “hotel”. Each floor, while thematically interesting on its own, feels disconnected from everything else (why is there an ocean with a pirate ship on one of the floors!?). At the end of the day, there’s no reason why a game like this should justify ANYTHING to the player, but I can’t help to wonder why these floors were designed the way they were and the game simply never gave us an explanation/reason. As the fine folks over at Giant Bomb would say, “it’s a videogame-ass videogame”. Regardless, busting ghosts just feels good. Sucking up every little item/object and seeing what Luigi can interact with is both addicting and a joy to behold. I completed the game with an “A Rank” and I’ll likely go back for the remaining gems, boos and achievements, too. Luigi’s Mansion 3 is a must-have for the Switch.
HM. Yoshi’s Crafted World – Yoshi’s Crafted World is the fourth collaboration between Nintendo and Good-Feel. It’s also the third entry in their now long-running arts & crafts affairs (first being Kirby’s Epic Yarn, second being Yoshi’s Woolly World). I completed all of the regular stages with everything nearly collected, but there’s some secret levels and some additional challenges in the post-game. If you’re familiar with the more recent Yoshi titles (or even the classic SNES game, Super Mario World 2: Yoshi’s Island), Crafted World doesn’t stay too far from its tried & true formula. Yoshi can run, jump, flutter, and toss collected eggs like he/she could do in previous games. This time around, however, Yoshi can target objects and enemies in the background/foreground. Although Crafted World’s stages are 2D, the game incorporates 3D elements (such as paths that go inward/outward) and dynamic camera perspectives, which creates an illusion of a much larger, more tactile space (similar to the Klonoa games).
Crafted World’s aesthetic isn’t entirely new to the scene. Games such as Media Molecule’s Tearaway or even Nintendo’s very own Paper Mario franchise have experimented with the arts & crafts-look before. Stages feel like, for the lack of a better term, hand-crafted, and each level has dozens of unique art assets on display. A variety of colorful fabrics and creative materials provide a tangible backdrop begging to be played with. The diorama effect is strong with Crafted World, as it feels like the developers physically placed their creations on a big slab of cardboard and we’re simply looking down upon and interacting with their set. It’s also interesting there isn’t some sort of Nintendo Labo VR integration as not only is there an unlockable Labo costume for Yoshi, but the dollhouse-like nature of the game’s presentation would lend itself to such a feature. My only gripes with the game, albeit minor, is the soundtrack and some of the design decisions that were made around specific collectibles.
Tomoya Tomita (who’s worked on Woolly World and previous Good-Feel titles) did not contribute to the game’s OST and it clearly shows. The music isn’t offensive, but similar to one of the more recent portable Yoshi games, the same theme or two is used throughout the majority of the game with little variation. Also, after each stage in a world is completed, the player can replay levels in search of hidden objects scattered about the foregrounds/backgrounds. The problem here is the fact that you can only accept one of these requests at a time and some worlds can have up to nearly a dozen or so to complete. While you can exit the stage as soon as you find the hidden objects, it would have been nice to stack the requests so the player wouldn’t have to restart the stage numerous times. Honestly, if it weren’t for the sub-par soundtrack, Yoshi’s Crafted World would have probably made by top 10. Until then Good-Feel… and next time, hire Tomoya Tomita to compose your soundtrack!
My Top 10 Games of 2019
10. Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night – Castlevania had a huge impact on my childhood. Not only was it one of the more challenging 2D action-platformers for its time, it was one of the first games I played that focused on classic horror, specifically Dracula and his armies of monsters and demons. I revisited the first game through Konami’s Castlevania Anniversary Collection last summer and although it’s aged rather well, it’s still an unforgiving experience; getting hit by a flying medusa head and being knocked into a death pit, dealing with enemies that respawn almost instantly off-screen, and missing jumps because of depth perception or the like, it was all part of the learning experience that was being a Nintendo kid in the late 80s/early 90s. Fast forward to 1997 and Konami would release Castlevania: Symphony of the Night (SotN), a title that would go on to become one of the most critically acclaimed games ever and one of my personal favorite games of all time.
With its interconnected castle, level progression, character growth, equipment options and a more approachable/easier difficulty, SotN would pave the way for decades and create a sub-genre that’s now known today as “Metroidvanias”. Many independent studios would do their best to capture the essence of SotN over the years, but most fans would agree that nothing has taken its throne since. In 2019, Koji Igarashi’s (IGA), the man most credited for SotN’s success, and ArtPlay (an independent studio IGA co-founded after leaving Konami) released the true successor to SotN that fans have been eagerly waiting 10+ years for. That game was Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night. Was it worth the wait? Sort of. Bloodstained was a Kickstarter project, funded by fans who specifically wanted another SotN and that’s exactly what we got, just perhaps not as polished/refined as I would have personally wanted it to be.
My Favorite Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night moments:
Encountering a giant demon cat or the succubus with the guitar and seeing their take on the infamous “inverted castle”.
Everything you love/remember about Castlevania and SotN is here (including an interesting take on the notorious “inverted castle”), but it’s lacking a bit of its own identity, which I can’t really fault the game/creators for. My only major issue with Bloodstained is the fact that there’s simply too many combat options at your disposal (which was a problem I had with SotN, in retrospect). There is an excessive amount of equipment, shards, items and abilities to tinker with. Speed-runners and the devoted may disagree, but there’s really no need to experiment with all of the items and potential builds because the game doesn’t really ask you to do such a thing. I found a weapon type/class and a certain shard (cough Heretical Grinder cough) that suited my play-style early on and I rarely had to change my build to defeat a boss, let alone complete the game.
I believe I completed the game on Normal difficulty, however, which I’ve read is remarkably easy, so perhaps the unlockable harder difficulties will make me think twice about how well/poorly balanced the game is. At the end of the day, I’m hoping, at the very least, Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night was successful and IGA and his team can create an even better sequel or perhaps something entirely new moving forward. While Bloodstained was a relatively enjoyable and faithful trip down memory lane, it felt a bit too constrained by its Castlevania legacy (as ironic as that sounds). Finally, on a personal note, it’s also very cool to see your name in the credits to something you helped contribute to as it was probably one of the better Kickstarter projects I’ve backed over the past few years. If you’re a Castlevania/Metroidvania fan, Bloodstained is an essential play.
9. Control – I’ve been playing Remedy’s games since the original Max Payne. Outside of perhaps Max Payne 1 & 2, their games have felt more like interactive movies (sometimes borderline visual novels – with the amount of dialogue, documents and files there are to read) than the 3rd-person, narrative-driven, action-shooters that they’re clearly trying to be. I finally played through the very divisive Quantum Break for the first time last summer and while I’ll agree that it’s probably not one of their better titles, I sort of enjoyed the game by the time the credits rolled and it most certainly has more in common with Control than any other game in their catalog. In Control, you play as a woman named Jesse Faden, who arrives at the “oldest house” in New York City for some unknown reason. This place acts as the “global headquarters of the Federal Bureau of Control”, which shouldn’t mean anything to the player at the start of the game.
Without spoiling anything, things go south almost immediately and Jesse finds herself searching for her brother, among other oddities and curiosities she stumbles upon along the way. Control has been described as the “X-Files meets Twin Peaks with a splash of Remedy’s signature style“, and it’s an apt description. I believe fans of such television shows will find themselves enamored almost immediately with its quirky cast of characters and its blend of psychological horror and full-motion video (FMV) clips. The game itself is a 3rd-person shooter with a heavy emphasis on physic abilities/powers. While there is a shape-shifting gun at your disposal, similar to Quantum Break, the gun-play isn’t Control’s strong suit. It’s the physic powers that you learn over the course of the game that take precedence. Tossing a piece of a wall or a fire extinguisher at an enemy rarely got old and the game did do an adequate job at introducing new enemy types and varied encounters over the course of the 10 hour or so campaign.
My Favorite Control moments:
The Ashtray Maze, the refrigerator side-quest or Dr. Darling’s music video. It’s too hard to just pick one.
With that said, similar to how I felt about Bloodstained, I wish the enemy types asked the player to experiment with all of Jesse’s abilities. I got through the majority of the game using nothing but Launch/Seize and I rarely had any trouble. There’s also a Metroid-like progression in place, with new abilities/powers that let you backtrack to older areas. The entire game is broken-up into traditional chapters, but the playable space is interconnected, similar to the original Resident Evil mansion or even Metroid Prime’s maps. So, what else is there to say about Control that hasn’t already been said? It’s been nominated for multiple awards in 2019 from numerous gaming outlets, podcasts and the sort. It was nominated for GOTY at The Game Awards and it’s almost unanimously praised by the larger community as a whole. It’s a shame the game didn’t do too well commercially despite its critical success, however. Jeff Gerstmann’s review on Giant Bomb is excellent too and he describes the game better than I ever could. I enjoyed my time with the game and I can’t wait to go back and get the Platinum trophy and play the upcoming downloadable content (DLC) expansions.
8. Astral Chain – When I first saw the announcement trailer for Astral Chain and they named dropped Hideki Kamiya (of Resident Evil 2, Okami, Viewtiful Joe and Bayonetta fame) as supervisor and Takahisa Taura (of NieR: Automata combat fame) as director, my anticipation levels for this game were through the roof. It shouldn’t come as a surprise to those who know me personally, but I love Platinum Games. They are one of the few developers, lead by industry legends, who have been carrying the PlayStation 2 era torch for years now. While they’re still mostly known for their character-driven action titles (see Bayonetta, Vanquish or Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance, for example), they’re a super competent group of passionate developers who know exactly what they want to make and almost always deliver the goods (outside of a few of their licensed titles).
Astral Chain, in some ways, feels like a relic of the past. It’s the kind of game where the developers clearly implemented every idea they wanted to include but the kitchen sink. At its core, Astral Chain is a character-action game, not unlike its Devil May Cry or Bayonetta brethren. Comparatively, Astral Chain is a lot more forgiving and easier to play, however, as the combat options pale in comparison to the aforementioned titles. The scoring/ranking system leaves a lot to be desired as well. With that said, controlling your chimera (which are essentially chained beasts at your command) is extremely satisfying. Binding your enemies, catching them in their tracks and tossing them backwards feels natural and crunchy. Most of the combat is handled by your familiars and they come in a handful of variations with unique combat and traversal capabilities, too. Your main character(s) can also chain attacks together with their gun and baton, which is meant to supplement your leashed chimera’s attacks, however. It all works rather well and the game does a decent job at introducing new enemy types along the way.
Favorite Astral Chain moment:
Any and all end-of-chapter sequences when you’re leaving the Astral Plane.
Outside of the combat portions of the game, there’s many subsystems and gameplay alternatives to explore. There’s a Batman: Arkham Asylum-style detective mode, motorcycle chases, stealth sequences, mini-games and even the dreaded shadowing/tailoring of NPCs, my favorite! It’s got an “Astral Plane” as well, similar to Control, which I found ironic. There’s A LOT going on in Astral Chain, to say the least. Some of my favorite moments were the chapters where you could explore and learn about the game’s world/lore. The art direction is phenomenal as well; the cyberpunk-inspired city streets are dressed with neon billboards, complete with fake products, flying drones and futuristic company logos. Halfway through the game, I was immediately reminded of Ganbarion’s Pandora’s Tower or even Monolith Soft’s Disaster: Day of Crisis, in terms of gameplay variety and ideas. It’s most certainly a game that would have felt right back at home on the PlayStation 2, Nintendo Wii or even the Dreamcast. I loved nearly everything about Astral Chain for what it represented and for what it was attempting to be.
7. Concrete Genie – Concrete Genie, developed by Pixelopus, a development team out of SIE Worldwide Studios, is an action-adventure game about the power of the paintbrush and how street art can be used to defeat bullying. The story takes place in an old fishing town which has been abandoned due to an oil spill and a bunch of punk kids have claimed its docks. Your main character, a young artist with a vivid imagination, has his book of drawings stolen by bullies and its pages torn and tossed to the wind. In a somewhat 80’s inspired coming-of-age story sort of way, the protagonist stumbles upon a lighthouse where his creations have come to life. By utilizing the power of these “Genies”, the player must seek out his missing pages, restore the town to its former glory and put the bullies in their place.
Concrete Genie feels like a combination of a lot of things that I love. At times, it reminded me of a Tim Burton film (with its whimsical, yet dark atmosphere, stop motion-like animations and tall, lanky characters), an episode of Stranger Things or even a Double Fine game (some of the writing/humor is very similar and the main character feels like a teenager version of Raz from Pyschonauts. Perhaps it’s the backpack?). Although painting is the focus of the game, it’s extremely user/kid-friendly and mechanically, it reminds me of how Capcom approached the technique with Okami. While most, if not all of the city streets, walls and surroundings can be painted, there are special sections of the city, lined with light-bulbs, that act as your primary canvas in order to progress. In Concrete Genie, you choose from a selection of pre-made pictures (based on the pages you’ve collected), which can then be placed, stretched and manipulated to your liking.
Favorite Concrete Genie moments:
Watching your Genies eat apples that have fallen down from a tree that you drew, sitting down near a bonfire you created and huddling up next to your creatures or witnessing any of the other handful of cute idle animations available.
Concrete Genie was a rather short experience, but it tried to say/do a lot for it’s 5 or so hour stay. While the game introduced light-puzzle solving and even combat scenarios over the course of the campaign, the final act felt a bit rushed, which was rather unfortunate. With that said, the game excelled in the areas that mattered the most to me. Whether it’s the subtle camera perspective flourishes (such as pulling the camera back during certain scenes/areas to punctuate the moment) or the handful of adorable idle animations between your character and his creations, it’s the little things that go a long way. It was perhaps the most warm and comforting game I played in 2019, too. There’s a certain degree of charm and lightheartedness that’s hard to capture here, but the developers clearly knew what they were channeling. Concrete Genie was an absolute delight and it was clearly a labor or love. I hope the studio gets another opportunity at creating something even more ambitious moving forward.
6. Judgment – Judgment, developed by Ryu Ga Gotoku Studio (or Yakuza Studio in the west), is the latest entry in the long-running Yakuza franchise. Yes, don’t believe what any PR person at Sega tells you or anyone else on the internet for that matter, Judgment is through and through a Yakuza game. Despite arguably having nothing to do with the other six mainline games or the franchise’s plethora of spin-offs, Judgment takes place in the same city, Kamurocho, and yet it somehow still feels like an entirely new experience. First things first, Judgment runs on the studio’s new Dragon Engine and it looks phenomenal. Yakuza Studio has been guilty of reusing assets (or the same, old engine for numerous games) in the past and while it’s mostly a true statement, you can’t deny that their character models, facial expressions and animations always look damn good. Judgment is also the first game since the original Yakuza back on the PS2 to receive an English dub in the west. It’s somewhat fitting considering the fact that Judgment is, yet again, another good jumping-off point for those looking to introduce themselves to the seedy underbelly of Kamurocho.
Judgment follows the story of Yagami, a disgraced lawyer who is now a private investigator. There’s been a trail of murders in the city and the main character finds himself knee-deep in an investigation where there’s more than meets the eye. Judgment isn’t too different structurally from the previous games, however. Yagami runs around the city streets, encountering thugs and other city lowlifes along the way, all the while helping strange, yet endearing townsfolk who have ridiculous backstories. The biggest difference here are the investigation sequences, which play out like a point & click PC-style adventure game. There’s an illusion of choice at play here to a degree as there’s no real consequence for making the incorrect claims. There’s also different outfits Yagami can don depending on the situation, but it’s nothing you haven’t seen before and it’s certainly not to the same level as say the recent Hitman games, in terms of scripting or AI behavior.
Favorite Judgment moments (so far):
The skateboarding getaway scene or any of the sub-stories, honestly.
I’ve been playing Yakuza games since the original back on PS2 and I’ve reached a mild degree of fatigue with the franchise (now that Sega is localizing all of them, I simply can’t keep up with them all). With that said, I almost always enjoy my time spent in Kamurocho. Whether it’s the wonderful cast of characters, the engaging/suspenseful sub-stories or all of the funny business and side activities in-between, there’s really nothing quite like a Yakuza game. I’ve only now just reached Chapter 7 and the only thing I could do without are the chase sequences (from prior Yakuza games) and shadowing/trailing peoples of inerest. Walking slowly behind an NPC in the shadows hasn’t been fun since, well… ever, and they’re in an abundance here, unfortunately. I don’t normally put games I haven’t beaten on my “Top 10” list, but I know what I’m here for and I don’t see myself thinking any less/more of Judgment by the time I finish it. I’m hoping, at the very least, that the story goes places and the ending surprises me.
5. Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice – From Software’s latest “Souls-like” and spiritual successor to the Tenchu franchise, snuck its way out to a very crowded market in March last year. As someone who’s been playing From Software titles since the 90s (King’s Field was my very first exposure to their games), Sekiro, in more ways than one, feels like the culmination of a lot From’s previous efforts. Part Souls, part Tenchu and a whole lot of pain & suffering, Sekiro manages to break away from the successful formula that’s rooted itself since Demon’s Soul while still maintaining that distinct hook & feel From Software titles are known for today. First and foremost, character builds, traditional leveling mechanics and stat distribution have been dialed back, even further more than Bloodborne’s “limited” options. You’re a shinobi with nothing but a sword and you’re on a rescue mission fueled by revenge (or so I’ve gathered). Oh, and you’ve got a prosthetic arm, not unlike Nero’s amalgamation of tools from Devil May Cry V.
As someone who grew-up playing and loving the early Tenchu games, its legacy is clearly notable at a first-glance. The player assumes the role of Wolf who can perform stealth kills from behind, from above or even when hanging from a ledge. To even the odds (as the game is very challenging) consumables aplenty can be discovered/used and there are skill and ability-trees, which grant the shinobi new techniques. A simple experience system is in-place, in addition to a Black World Tendency-like mechanic (events and characters can change depending on how many deaths the player endures), for those who are familiar with Demon’s Souls, of course. Sekiro is exhausting, though. The moment-to-moment gameplay is satisfying and the level design is as competent and interconnected as the previous titles, but the boss encounters are literal brick walls. Attack, guard, parry, counter… die. Repeat ad nauseam… but hey, at least the distance from your bonfire (I mean Sculptor’s Idol!) to most bosses is shorter compared to the previous games (and you can jump now, too!).
At the time of writing this, I finally completed the game, but I played the majority of Sekiro in 2019. I saw a “bad” ending, but received credits nonetheless. I’ve been playing games for 30+ years and I think Sekiro cemented the fact that I’m just tired. I’d like to think I’m a fairly competent gamer still, but as I’ve gotten older, my skills, interests, attention span and willingness to play certain games has changed. Sekiro is a game of sheer perseverance. It’s easily one of the most difficult games I’ve played in the last 10 years. While I’ve never finished say Ninja Gaiden: Black on Master Ninja difficulty before, I’ve accomplished other challenging feats over the years that I’m still quite proud of.
Favorite Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice moment:
Beating any boss, really, but Genichiro Ashina for sure.
If we’re only talking From Software’s “Soulsborne” games even, I’ve beaten all of their previous titles, including achieving the Platinum trophy in two different regions for Demon’s Souls. It took me almost an entire year to see Sekiro to any sort of conclusion, however. I found myself joking among friends that I needed a vacation after every boss encounter and it came to a point where I dropped the game for a few months even. I have very complicated thoughts about Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice. When the sun sets and I close my eyes, I kind of hate the game, but the shadow of my former self fucking loves it.
4. A Plague Tale: Innocence – Another game that seems to have been forgotten in the madhouse year of gaming that was 2019 was Asobo Studio’s A Plague Tale: Innocence. A Plague Tale is a narrative-driven adventure game (think something along the lines of Naughty Dog’s The Last of Us) from an independent developer based out of France (mostly known for licensed/Disney titles, ironically). The game centers around a brother and sister as they escape from a plague-ridden France after their home is invaded and their parents are murdered by the inquisition. Both the English and French armies (including giant rats) are on their backs and the player must navigate the countryside while stealthily avoiding its surrounding horrors. While there is a light combat system (in the way of crafting ammunition for a slingshot) and a rudimentary crafting system at your disposal, most of the game is sneaking around rats and evading/running away from guards.
Favorite A Plague Tale: Innocence moments:
Picking flowers with your brother, Chapter 13 in its entirety or rebuilding an old, abandoned castle.
A Plague Tale’s strengths are in its characters, pacing and overall story. Some of the best moments in the game are when nothing of particular interest is happening and you can take in the environmental storytelling, the beautiful vistas/landscapes and the incredible soundtrack. Picking flowers with your little brother or restoring an old abandoned castle to be your new home are just some of the few moments of respite scattered between the many horrors and grief that beset the two main characters. The extremely talented composer, Olivier Deriviere (known best for his work on the Remember Me soundtrack) composed the music for this game too and it’s quite the listen. Honestly, A Plague Tale rivals a lot of “AAA” studios/games and in my opinion, it can sit alongside the big boys like Uncharted or The Last of Us. I just wish more people would have played it. It was one of the few games I played this year that felt feature-complete and had a satisfying conclusion to boot. Do not sleep on this game if you enjoy campaign-driven adventure games and historical pieces with some supernatural flair!
3. Devil May Cry V – Capcom’s legendary action game franchise is back, baby! It’s been eleven years since a proper Devil May Cry game from Capcom’s internal studios. The boys are back in town, so to speak, as the franchise is no longer in Ninja Theory’s hands. Hideaki Itsuno (director of previous DMC titles and Dragon’s Dogma fame), cinematic & action coordinator extraordinaire, Yuji Shimomura, and actors Reuben Langdon & Johnny Yong Bosch round out the development team and cast, respectively, bringing fans what is arguably the most passionate DMC title to date. Devil May Cry V (DMC5) is very much a return-to-form in many respects yet it somehow manages to progress the series/genre ever so slightly forward with its new playable character, impressive new visuals and passive online multiplayer features.
DMC5 takes place after the events of DMC4 and is also considered the latest in the franchise’s timeline. Dante and Nero have returned from the previous games and perform similarly to their counterparts from previous titles. In addition to Nero’s Exceed system from DMC4, his Devil Bringer has been replaced by interchangeable/expendable mechanical arms, which allow for more options and nuance in combat. Finally, Dante returns with his signature styles and arsenal of weapons. It’s easily the most overwhelming entry to day, at least in terms of learning all of the mechanics and combat options available at any given time. Of the twenty or so missions, each character has their designated stages, but unlike DMC4 (which had Dante repeating Nero’s levels backwards), most missions tread new grounds. One could argue that the mission design and flow feels safe/dated, but the game looks phenomenal (due in part to the new & shiny RE Engine).
Favorite Devil May Cry V moments:
Any cutsceme, but specficially the introduction sequence or summoning V’s Nightmare and watching it break through certain walls contextually.
One of the most impressive aspects of DMC5, however, is the fact that most, if not all of the missions introduce either a new enemy type or culminate with a unique boss battle, but this comes with a caveat, however. One thing I particularly loved about Bayonetta (which is arguably the spiritual successor/evolution to DMC) was its bestiary and how each enemy (angel) had both a rich lore and a sense of place within the game’s universe. To further showcase the angels in Bayonetta, each enemy would receive its own introduction sequence. After a stylish cinematic, each monster would then be enclosed by a bible-like book, encapsulating the angel’s artwork and description for the player to read at their discretion. It was an extra little detail that made each encounter feel unique and special and no other character-driven action game has aped Platinum Games in this category since.
While most DMC games have traditionally introduced monsters/demons in a similar fashion, they’re often cinematically represented with the accompanying witty banter between said monster and protagonist. Ninja Theory’s DmC followed suit and although the cut-scenes weren’t as stylish or well-shot as Capcom’s previous titles and the sarcastic commentary was always hit/miss, the team made a conscious decision to implement splash screens which displayed the enemy’s name. For me personally, this stylistic choice felt like something you would have seen out of a sixth generation 3rd-person action-adventure title like Midway’s The Suffering. DMC5 seems to strike a balance between the older games and Ninja Theory’s title by incorporating similar splash screens, but they’re not as impactful/interesting as Bayonetta (and the first game is nearly a decade old now!).
What sets DMC5 apart from the rest of the franchise, most importantly, is both the newcomer “V” and the game’s asynchronous online multiplayer features. The new poetry-reading character, V, and his trio of summons (which also happen to be callbacks to enemies and boss characters from DMC1) provides a new/interesting way to engage with the denizens of the underworld. Unlike Dante and Nero’s close-quarters combat styles, V is a long-ranger character who commands familiars to do his bidding from afar. In addition to a new playable character, DMC5 integrates online player’s mission data into the single-player experience that’s certainly a first for the genre. In certain instances throughout specific missions, Dante, Nero and V will sometimes cross paths both in & out of cut-scenes. The big difference here, however, is that when the player is seeing one of these characters perform actions in the background or on an alternate path, it’s actually data that’s been recorded by a real player. It’s a novel idea that feels like a half-step towards a true multiplayer experience.
I completed the game on Devil Hunter difficulty, which is the hardest mode that’s available from the start, unfortunately, as the game’s default difficulty is rather easy. While the mission design is arguably dated and not as varied thematically as say Ninja Theory’s DmC, there’s something refreshing about its stubbornness to progress beyond its well-trodden legacy. In an age where a lot of “AAA” developers/publishers are striving to release the biggest, busiest, chore-filled open worlds, having a very focused and linear character-based action game is a delight, especially when there’s not a whole lot of competition at the moment. With Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice and Astral Chain having released in 2019 and games like Bayonetta 3 & Nioh 2 looming on the horizon, it’s a wonderful time to be a fan of character-driven action games.
2. Resident Evil 2 – Capcom’s beloved Resident Evil (RE) franchise continues to impress and surprise existing fans and newcomers alike with their latest remake of Resident Evil 2. I’ve been playing RE games since the original back on PlayStation (PS1) and although I’ve played through all of the mainline titles (outside of RE6) and a variety of the spin-off games, my heart lies with the older titles, pre-RE4. I’ve enjoyed RE the most when the emphasis was put on surviving. Managing limited inventory/resources, storing items in “magic” boxes, knowing when to utilize ink ribbons to save progress, navigating environments with fixed camera angles and interconnected spaces with light puzzle-solving and backtracking is what defines RE for me. Once the series started resembling the (horrible) movies and became more action-oriented, my interest began to wane.
Fortunately, since the release of RE7 and Capcom’s implementation of the RE Engine, it seems like they’re back on track to becoming one of the best developers in the business. Despite a lot of the original staff having left over the years to pursue new ventures (such as director Hideki Kamiya who’s now at Platinum Games), the Resident Evil 2 remake remains remarkably faithful to the original vision from 1998’s classic. If you’re familiar with the inevitable downfall of Raccoon City and the trials of tribulations of rookie cop, Leon S. Kennedy, and “I’m searching for my brother, Chris” Claire Redfield, you’ll feel right at home here. The story is largely the same, but a few liberties have been taken (for the better mind you). Unlike the original PS1 game, the remake opts for a 3rd-person/over-the-shoulder perspective, which is more akin to post-RE4 titles and it works/feels as wonderfully as one would expect.
Favorite Resident Evil 2 moments:
Seeing all of the memorable moments and areas from the original game re-imagined, retooled and reworked such as the first Mr. X encounter and the alligator boss.
The core of the game and the general flow/structure mirrors the original title to a significant degree. At the same time, the Resident Evil 2 remake feels like a completely new experience. Capcom did a really good job balancing what made the 1998 game so great while adding modern sensibilities and other quality-of-life (QOL) changes. Each area is interconnected and outside of certain doors which still require keys, there are no load-screens between each location. Ink ribbons (at least on the standard difficulty) are no longer needed to save progress and auto-saves are generous in their usage. The map has even been made useful/relevant as items that have yet to be collected become noted and a simple color-coding scheme is applied showing the player whether or not a room has been completed looted. It’s good stuff.
Old-school Resident Evil games have always embodied what I loved about traditional survival horror games. They’re super well-designed games that are meticulously crafted, begging to be replayed, learned and mastered. Resident Evil, to me, should always be a 3-4 hour tightly designed experience (once mastered) filled to the brim with B-movie melodrama and Hollywood-level production values. The Resident Evil 2 Remake encapsulates all of the above while still surprising and playing with returning fan’s expectations. It was and still is a masterclass in design and I can’t wait to get my hands on the Resident Evil 3 Remake in the coming months.
1. Ace Combat 7: Skies Unknown – Developed by Project Aces, Ace Combat 7 (AC7) marks the 20th anniversary for the franchise. Ace Combat is a flight-sim of sorts that leans heavily on short/re-playable missions, dogfights, light customization options and arcade-like air-to-air combat. Most of the important entries take place in a fictional world (including AC7) stricken with political intrigue, warring nations, and melodramatic pilot drama (my favorite). Like many other Japanese developers last generation, the franchise has had its “Westernized” entry or two (for better or worse) with 2011’s Ace Combat: Assault Horizon and 2017’s Ace Combat: Infinity, respectively, being the two major outliers. There hasn’t been a proper mainline entry since 2007’s Ace Combat 6: Fires of Liberation, so a new title in this long-running franchise has been long overdue, but oh so worth the wait!
Story writer, Sunao Katabuchi, wastes no time bombarding the player with political drama and silly science-fiction. AC7 posits a world where drones are replacing human pilots and space-elevators and fake runways equipped with cardboard plane cutouts exist. It’s perfect in the most convoluted sense yet the whole package is extremely sincere and endearing in the best way possible. I don’t think I’ve played a game this year that’s more earnest than AC7, too. Even when the dialogue is the most ham-fisted thing ever or when a cinematic overstays its welcome, I can’t help but to indulge myself in its wackiness. For those who might be unfamiliar with the franchises, it’s like playing a Metal Gear Solid game, but with jets. The series composer, Keiki Kobayashi, is also back with his amazing filmic score, which lends itself beautifully to the many climatic moments and encounters during each mission. In fact, in an interview with the producer, AC7 almost didn’t come to fruition. It’s a moving story, one that struck a chord with me after the fact, which made me appreciate the game for merely existing in the first place.
Kono-san did not allow the data to be finalized. Even if it was just once, he wanted to give people goosebumps and make them cry. So he made a phone call:
“I want one music track, and it has to be a really great one. I want you to compose it now.”
When I reflect on my favorite game of the year, I tend to think about the experiences that make me put down my controller out of pure reflection and awe. I look for the moments that give me chills; the sequences, music, missions or story beats that make me say, “…whoa, wait a minute…what am I seeing right now?”. It happens almost every year and Ace Combat 7: Skies Unknown was the game to do this for me in 2019. Whether it’s chilling on the debriefing screen, listening to the sweet slap bass lines as you prepare for the next mission or listening to the radio chatter as it synchronizes with the action on the screen, there’s nothing quite like playing an Ace Combat game. Tearing down the shields of a giant, whale-like warship in the sky while listening to Daredevil playing in the background was one of the most powerful and memorable gaming moments I had all year. Nothing else came close to this experience and that is why Ace Combat 7: Skies Unknown was my 2019 Game of the Year.
Here’s to 2020’s games,
Ace Pilot, Matty — out!