The end of a console life cycle is always a strange time. Some developers move resources to upcoming systems while others are pushing the current machines to their limits, having mastered their ins and outs.
This year, that’s especially true as the video games business faces several disruptive forces and new platforms thrown into the mix. Virtual reality, smartphones and streaming services are all vying for gamers’ dollars and transforming the industry.
Amid this background, 2019 saw some unbridled creativity with a number of original titles standing out from the crowd. Meanwhile, the best sequels improved on already great formulas. It wasn’t the best year for video games, but it was one with good offerings.
1. “Death Stranding”: Hideo Kojima’s ambitious project was far from perfect, but the power of its vision was undeniable. It’s a game that oozes originality — sometimes to its detriment — but the core gameplay focusing on exploration was refreshing at a time when many titles tread the same well-worn path.
At its heart, “Death Stranding” is a game about pioneering amid hostile environments. As Sam Porter Bridges, players venture to far-off settlements in order to make them part of the United Cities of America. It’s a big undertaking, but players don’t do venture alone. With an online connection, they can blaze new trails for others or follow along a route others have traversed.
The strange and thrilling experience is unlike anything enthusiasts have played, and that’s one of the best compliments you can give a game when everything else this year feels so derivative.
2. “Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice”: Although this is not a “Souls” game, the fingerprints of Hidetaka Miyazaki are all over this Japanese epic. Set in the Sengoku period in Japan, “Sekiro” follows the adventure of Wolf, who has to rescue his lord, Kuro, from forces that want to use his ancient bloodline.
Filled with fantastic elements and difficult scenarios, the game has that trademark challenge of Miyazaki’s other works. The magic comes from how developers at FromSoftware switch up the combat system and mechanics to make “Sekiro” feel like a different type of game.
3. “Tom Clancy’s The Division 2”: The original “Division” was a game that got better over time. Ubisoft looked at what they did wrong at launch and tweaked it until it became great. Knowing the past flaws, the team was able to get off on the right foot with the sequel.
The cooperative gameplay and the addictive loot elements combine for a cover-based shooter that’s enthralling as players work to free Washington, D.C., from gangs and paramilitary forces that have taken over the capital.
4. “Fire Emblem Three Houses”: Fortunes have changed for this strategy series. A few years ago, it was on the verge of being canceled permanently but the stellar “Fire Emblem Awakening” turned the franchise around. Now, it has become one of Nintendo’s biggest series, and this latest version lives up to the lofty standards.
Players take on the role of a mercenary-turned-professor who has a mysterious past. The teacher mentors a group of students — players choose one of three houses — and the instructor takes them through a harrowing campaign that uncovers the secrets behind the land of Fodlan. The game hits all the gameplay beats that players expect, but this time around, it’s done with the rich visuals of the Nintendo Switch.
5. “Borderlands 3”: Sometimes you forget how great a franchise is. That’s the case with “Borderlands,” which hasn’t had a proper sequel since 2012. With “Borderlands 3,” one of the first looter shooters returns and gives players the humor and addictive gameplay that made the previous entries so heralded.
The team at Gearbox updates the formula with a set of villains in the Calypso twins that have the mindset of social media influencers. They open up the opportunity to get loot by letting those who watch the game on Twitch get the weapons and gear they see streamers get. These are forward-thinking ideas, but it’s the story, with a surprising amount of heart, that makes “Borderlands 3” so memorable.
6. “Dragon Quest Builders 2”: Square Enix offered a smart take on the “Minecraft”-style game. Combining heavy narrative elements with the build-it-yourself formula created an intriguing action role-playing game. The sequel improves on every aspect of the original, giving players a compelling adventure while streamlining elements that made the first offering cumbersome.
As the Builder, players team up with an computer-controlled ally named Malroth and try to free several islands from the Children of Hargon cult. With a better narrative and quest design, “Dragon Quest Builders 2” broke out of the mold of a typical “Minecraft” clone and created an experience that scratches the creative itch while also enthralling players with fun story.
7. “The Outer Worlds”: At at time when studios are pursuing online multiplayer experiences, Obsidian offered a throwback experience with a deep single-player RPG. “The Outer Worlds” does plenty of things right by creating a sci-fi dystopia as colonies in the Halcyon system. The comparisons to “Fallout” is obvious and not surprising seeing as how the creators of franchise worked on this title, and it shows in the characters and social commentary.
As a survivor of the colony ship Hope, players are awakened by a rogue scientist named Phineas Welles. They’re thrown into a star system that’s dominated by a rival corporation. It’s up to players to rescue the people of Halcyon any way they can and that could lead them toward revolution or a doubling down of the corporate order.
The freedom to craft your own hero and make important decisions that determine the fate of colonies makes the adventure compelling, but it’s the biting satire about the evils business run rampant that will hit home for players.
8. “Astral Chain”: Platinum Games has mastered the action genre, and with that as a solid foundation, the developer is able to experiment. “Astral Chain” puts players in the shoes of a cop on Neuron police task force, which is humanity’s last defense against creatures called Chimera.
What makes a Neuron officer different from others is their ability to control a Legion, which is a Chimera under human control. Players use this to their advantage in combat by controlling both characters to defeat enemies. It takes some adjustment to maneuver two potent fighters, but the challenge is rewarding, almost akin to learning how to use the offhand to play piano.
The unconventional gameplay and diverse and smart mission designs make this action game stand out from other efforts in the genre this year.
9. “Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order”: EA hasn’t had the best success with the “Star Wars” license. The titles it published had the dressing of a galaxy far, far away, but the games lacked the soul of a “Star Wars” adventure. Respawn Entertainment rectified that with “Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order,” which follows Cal Kestis, a padawan who survived Order 66.
Players follow his journey of redemption as he heals from the trauma of surviving the attack that eliminated the Jedi. As Cal, players shouldn’t go in a battle expecting to mash buttons to win, but instead, they’ll have to dodge, parry and look for openings against enemies. It’s a more cerebral and “Souls”-type approach to combat, but as the campaign unfurls, Cal regains his Jedi abilities. That makes the adventure easier as it also captivates players with Cal’s struggle against the Empire.
10. “Gears of War 5”: The new generation of “Gears” needed the right hero, and the franchise found it in Kait Diaz. This entry veers away from JD, who is the son of series stalwart Marcus Fenix. He never seemed like the right character to carry the series. With Kait, players have a more intriguing backstory to explore with secrets that shake the foundation of the “Gears” world to its core.
“Gears of War 5” changes the formula by adding some open-world elements and slight role-playing game mechanics with the introduction of the robot Jack. The machine assists players through combat by offering shields and attack boosts. They can switch up Jack’s abilities in line to a certain playstyle adding a refreshing layer of depth to a franchise that needed it.