1. RESIDENT EVIL 2
Capcom’s 2002 Resident Evil set a bar for video game remakes that has stood strong for nigh-on two decades. It kept the 1996 original’s classic survival horror gameplay experience, heavily remixed the scenario, added a few terrifying surprises, and gave the Spencer Mansion a pre-rendered facelift that remains the stuff of graphical legend to this day.
When a Resident Evil 2 remake was finally announced, it was met with equal parts jubilation and concern by a loyal yet weary fandom. 1998’s RE2 represents the pinnacle of the franchise’s golden era. A technical marvel that made zombie horror relevant again and instilled an unparalleled sense of dread in living rooms and bedrooms across the world. But in more recent years the franchise, and even survival horror as a whole, had seen far better days.
Resident Evil 6 was near-universally loathed – a high-budget, low-soul declaration by Capcom that they had learnt all the wrong lessons from the exquisite Resident Evil 4. And yet despite this – Resident Evil 6 was also the highest-selling RE game to date. Survival horror seemed as doomed as a Raccoon City police officer…
Could REmake 2 buck the trend? How would Capcom approach remaking such a beloved title? Should they even be trusted to do so? Thankfully, they more than delivered…
This console generation has witnessed lots of talk about remasters, remakes, and reimaginings. The Last of Us 2 Remastered showed how extra hardware grunt could make an exceptional game even better without much tinkering. Bluepoint’s Shadow of the Colossus expertly remade the original, capturing everything that made it special whilst building subtly on its world and aesthetic. REmake 2 would be on the extreme end of this scale, and also the most successful reimagining we’ve seen to date…
Gone are the clumsy ‘tank’ controls. Gone are the static camera angles. In their place – slick & precise third-person combat, and a lovingly rendered version of the RPD building (not to mention what awaits below) that’s undergone the Capcom remix treatment ala REmake’s mansion. By targetting both gameplay and visuals for modernisation, REmake2 represents a significantly more ambitious undertaking than even the seminal REmake can boast.
Of course, refined controls demand heightened challenge. Much of old school Resi’s tension was driven by the relatively sluggish and limited level of command players were afforded over the player character. To compensate, Capcom has unleashed what are, for my money, the best-realised zombies in any video game to date.
Remake2’s rotting hoards aren’t the fastest, they aren’t the even the most deadly. In fact, to refer to them as hoards is a bit of an exaggeration as they’re in fairly short supply and very much finite; unlike so many other modern spins on the Romero pastiche. But for what they lack in numbers and ferocity, they don’t half make up for in sheer character and dynamism. Each of the undead staggers about via beautifully macabre animations, with each limb allowing for dissection, be it via bullet or blade. It’s possible to amputate all four limbs, leave the unfortunate cadaver for dead, and then return to the same spot three hours later to find them worming about on the polished marble floor, broken jaw snapping wildly, still intent on devouring your startled flesh…
Dig below the surface and you’ll find subtle yet impactful game design at play. Each zombie has a randomly set amount of hit points which resets upon each new playthrough. Combine this with the resource-saving, dodge-before-shoot style gameplay that survival horror demands, and each encounter can potentially snowball into disaster…
You’re making great progress. You lucked-out on not aggroing that licker in the last room, and there’s just one zombie standing between you and saving your game for what feels like hours. Your health is critical but you’ve got three shotgun shells, a full 9mm clip, and a flash grenade. Smooth sailing. The zombie isn’t even facing you as you begin to dash past…
Suddenly the camera pans downwards and the player character cries out in pain. A zombie that you killed on your first trip through this corridor is now nibbling on your ankle. You’re quick enough to put a knife through their brain before taking damage, but as you regain control the camera pans back up to reveal that the brief ruckus caught the attention of the nearby zombie who is now less than two feet away. She lunges towards you leaving just enough time for you to switch to your shotgun, aim at her head, and eviscerate every inch of her above the shoulders…
Phew. That was close. Just need to get through that door and save the game…
Thud. THUD. THUD!
Before you even reach the said door it bursts open revealing an eight-foot-tall goliath in a trench coat. Your shotgun blast alerted him to your whereabouts. You attempt a 180 but he’s too quick. He lifts you by the skull and crushes it like a grape. You died…
The eight-foot goliath in this hypothetical is known as Tyrant. Tyrant featured in the second campaign of the original game but was very much limited to cutscenes and some, admittedly unnerving, set-pieces. Remake2 lets Tyrant loose (as countless reddit & Twitter memes can atest). For a sizeable section of the game, he is a serious presence. He stalks the halls of RPD and hones in on the player should they opt to sprint or make a loud noise of any kind. Two things that the player becomes quite partial to in the early hours of play. This trifecta of reserved, methodical play, with dynamic, unpredictable enemies, and an omnipresent stalker hoping to punish any and all mistakes makes Remake2 an absolute joy for survival horror fans old and new.
The experience is accompanied by a surprisingly low-key soundtrack. One that often acts as more of a soundscape than something that looks to rival the bold and iconic themes of the original. You can revert to the original score via the options menu, and it’s definitely worth doing so temporarily for the nostalgic feels alone, but I think the ambience of the new offering adds a lot of tension that shouldn’t be ignored.
The original Resident Evil 2 was released at a time in my life where I was likely at peak impressionability. Its gore, narrative, and sounds are etched into my mind forever. Satisfying me, and the millions of other 80s/90s kids like me, was always going to an almost impossible feat. Somehow, someway, Capcom did it…
The game isn’t even a year old and I’ve already completed it several times. It’s my first ever PlayStation Platinum trophy. I can finish the campaign on the hardest difficulty in less than two hours (my first playthrough took ~13), without healing and without saving. The PlayStation era Resident Evil games are still commonly found in rotation amongst the speedrunner community to this day, due to their incredible design which focused heavily on replayability. The fact that REmake2 even nailed this element of the game shows just how well the development staff understood the source material and how committed they were to honouring it…
REmake3 rumours and speculation are now rife. Capcom’s renaissance is seemingly unstoppable. In a cultural era where rebooting or relaunching an IP is no longer an instant indication of a cheap cash-in (see Blade Runner 2049, Zelda BOTW, Stephen King’s IT, Star Wars, etc) REmake2 stands tall as one of, if not the, best example of how it’s done…
And it’s also the best game of 2019.
2. DEATH STRANDING
Metal Gear Solid is my all-time favourite game, and also my favourite game series. The idea of Hideo Kojima being unchained from Konami with the added might of PlayStation’s tech and budget behind him was a dream come true.
That said, I didn’t expect to play the game until 2021. How could someone as famously painstaking and particular as Kojima leave his job in 2015, set up a development studio, write, cast, and create an ambitious game, then release it before the end of 2019? Not to mention that anyone who follows Kojima on Twitter will know that he’s seemingly always jet setting from one city to the next, meeting celebrities and eating meals that look like they should be displayed in the Tate Modern…
As the release date approached, I thought to myself – maybe it will be fairly short. 10-15 hours, like in the old days. Wrong. My playthrough was over 45 hours, with many other people online showing off their 70/80/90+ hour playtimes…
So how did he/they do it? Well now that the game is out, it’s evident that he dodged that 2021 release by utilising the following – all the technical know-how of Sony’s first-party studios, a ready-built and proven game engine in Decima, ~70 staff members from Guerilla Games to help push things across the line, and a gameplay loop that’s simple, expandable, and reads like something from the @PeterMolydeux parody Twitter account.
You see, the vast majority of my time with Death Stranding was spent traversing barren landscapes in order to deliver generic packages to NPCs who only briefly appear to thank the player as holograms. So a good two thirds or so of those 45 hours was probably not all that intensive in terms of development time. Yes, the landscapes are gorgeous. Hyper-realistic and yet oddly otherworldly. But with essentially no NPCs, settlements, conflicting questlines etc to account for, it all seems very doable in the couple of years Kojima had.
The core gameplay mechanic is traversal. This is the first real walking-simulator. And it’s the main reason why Death Stranding was both lauded and loathed by reviewers. If you don’t enjoy the traversal, the game is going to be not just a slog, but torturesome. There’s plenty of Kojima-esque cutscenes and moments to be had, but they punctuate a protracted experience that, for the most part, puts actually playing the game first, with the ratio of exposition to interactivity being fairly similar to that of MGSV (another 50-hour epic).
Luckily, I really enjoyed the traversal. In the early hours, the views and vistas are enough to carry you through. You’ll take the odd spill and fail a delivery mission or two as you get the hang of things, but just as the game begins to feel a little cruel and/or the player too impotent, you come across your first vehicle. Then your first set of mechanical legs. Then some improved walking shoes. Then some weaponry that makes the rare enemy encounter far more manageable. Then a truck… and so on. And so on…
There are 70 missions in Death Stranding. Each of them basically involves walking from A to B. Sometimes you’ll walk from A to B to C. Sometimes you’ll walk from A to B to A. But you’re always traversing and always delivering cargo. The fact that Kojima has not only managed to make a worthwhile, and substantial, experience out of a singular gameplay mechanic is infinitely more impressive than the most uncanny valley digitised Mads Mikkelsen. The fact that the experience is not just worthwhile, but actually one of the best that I, and assumedly many others, have had this year is a complete head fuck.
Talking of head fucks – the story of Death Stranding is bizarre even by Kojima’s lofty standards. I won’t pretend that I understood it because I didn’t. This fantastic analysis actually helped to put all the weird sounds and lights being thrown my way in order and make a kind of sense. That said, the basic premise of the world being envisioned here is pretty fascinating, even if it only serves the purpose of being a paper-thin veil over the themes and moralising that Kojima is very keen to present to his audience. And by far that biggest theme is connections.
Everything, and I mean everything, in Death Stranding is about connection, or the lack of it. From the core narrative of literally establishing a neo-Internet across a post-apocalyptic United States, to the naming conventions of places & people, to the passive multiplayer gameplay mechanics which rely on players crowdsourcing resources to make the progression bearable, to the shockingly impressive assortment of original songs penned by Chvrches, Major Lazer, and Bring Me the Horizon, to name just a few, which all carry themes of loneliness, longing, and reconciliation.
You could argue that Kojima is hammering the same point again and again for fifty hours. But at a high-level, the game is clearly a reaction to the incessant bickering and othering that western society has descended into. If there’s one point right now that’s worth saying and saying again ad infinitum, it’s that we’re all connected, whether we like it or not, and that we all have far more in common with each other than we don’t. And if we’re going to save the world, we won’t do it from our culture war bunkers, throwing accusations and harvesting likes.
I played Death Stranding during the hardest, most stressful, and saddest time of my life (I’ve had a pretty easy life, so no biggy). I like to think of myself as strong enough to do anything on my own and without the need to ever rely on others for help. Mileage will obviously vary, but having a video game that shared a loud and clear message about our basic human need for co-operation and mutual understanding cut me like a knife.
I cried as played Death Stranding. But it wasn’t during the final hours as the impressively told story came to its epic conclusion. It wasn’t during any cutscene or soft-exposition. It was when I stood at the top of the highest mountain in the game, looked down through the snow and mist on to the desolate lands below, the game’s themes spinning in my head and colliding with my own internalised emotion.
Death Stranding is an exploration of isolation and community. It purposefully frustrates players in an age of committee-built service games designed to frictionlessly onboard and pacify the masses. It’s a two-day-long art-house piece that had trailers play in cinemas before billion-dollar earning films.
It’s a Hideo Kojima Game.
What a decade it’s been for From Software. Since Demon’s Souls kicked off the Souls-like revolution in 2009, they’ve released three Dark Souls games, PS4’s best exclusive – Bloodborne, and their latest game, Sekiro, continues to embed them as the go-to studio when it comes to third-person combat games.
Out of all the games listed above, Sekiro is by far the largest divergence from the heady template they laid down with the cult favourite, Demon’s Souls. When the rest of the industry is seemingly trying to shoehorn Souls mechanics into their offerings, From has decided to scrap much of their convention (at least for now) and craft something that harkens back to days of Tenchu.
Much has been made of Sekiro’s difficulty. In fact, the game came dangerously close to becoming a full-fledged whipping boy of the uber-woke video game media crowd after a couple of innocuous opinion pieces concerning accessibility in modern game design sparked a near boycott. Luckily, Japanese developers seem relatively unphased by these teacup storms and as we enter the final weeks of the year, the faux-outraged quota crowd have moved on to other pointless endeavours and Sekiro remains one of the standout titles of the year.
Ironically, Sekiro is in many ways a far more straightforward endeavour than its forbearers. Gone are the various character classes, reams of vague stats, endless weapon/armour choices. In Sekiro you play a set character, with a set weapon. There’s some versatility in terms of which special weapons you decide to unlock and improve before others, but every player will face each punishing encounter with essentially the same tools at their disposal as everyone else. You don’t have to stress about whether to upgrade your vitality over your damage output, as a key example.
Another big change comes in the form of a grappling hook that lets players quickly dart around the world, not to mention a dedicated and effective jump command – a first in From’s Souls output. Enemies come at you in greater numbers and at a greater pace than the likes of Bloodborne; a counter to that newfound agility. And combat focuses heavily on deflections to break down your opponent’s stance over time – some of which require deft coordination, a likely reason for the aforementioned charge of inaccessibility.
The lore has been reigned in somewhat when compared to the grand high-fantasy fiction that formed Dark Souls’ world of Lordran. Sekiro is set in Japan, and borrows heavily from real-world Janese myth and culture. For a game that sees you fighting skyscraper-sized snakes and apes who throw shit at you, Sekiro is a relatively grounded affair.
Yet for all its differences, the key elements remain the same: exceptional combat, a brilliantly designed world map that will bury itself in your brain by the time your adventure is through, and a sense of achievement that few if any other games are equipped to provide.
Should most games have difficulty settings? Yes. Must all games have difficulty settings? No. The beauty of From’s creations stems from their infusing of fiction and gameplay mechanics. Everything is carefully considered and speaks to the wider whole. To insist that the games bend to the ability of any and all players is cultural vandalism. Be gone, Polygon.
Dreams isn’t technically out yet, but it isn’t the only early access game on this list and quite frankly – the game deserves to be on next year’s list too…
Actually, to call Dreams a game is a gross undersell and, as things stand, frankly inaccurate. Dreams is thousands of games. Dreams is the largest and most ambitious collaborative art exhibit in human history. Dreams is an accessible platform for creativity unlike anything I’ve ever seen.
If you’ve not heard of it, you’re not alone. Here’s the elevator pitch – Dreams is the next game from Media Molecule, makers of PS3’s LittleBigPlanet. Dreams takes the user-generated content philosophy of LBP to a shocking extreme, empowering players with a versatile and accessible creation engine with which to create pretty much anything they can conjure in their minds.
It sounds like hyperbole, but in Dreams I’ve played countless Sonic & Mario clones (of course), I’ve listened to EDM albums, I’ve admired beautiful sculptures and paintings, I’ve been scared, I’ve piloted starships, I’ve played ping pong, I’ve shot mutant crabs, I’ve been eaten by mutant crabs, I’ve watched sunsets, I’ve driven cars through neon 80s streets, the list goes on…
Dreams is £25 on PSN right now. It will likely double in price when it’s officially released next year. Buy it.
Supergiant Games are a bit hit & miss for me. I never got on with Bastion, despite almost everyone else swearing by it. I absolutely adore Transistor. Pyre bored me senseless, even though I wanted to love it…
Hades is their latest release and the second early access title on this list. The game is currently exclusive to the Epic Games launcher on PC, is a top-down run-based, combat game in some ways akin to Diablo, and sees you as the son of Hades desperately trying to escape the Underworld.
Every couple of months the game receives substantial updates, adding new levels, enemies, character dialogue etc. Despite not being finished, the game looks and plays like the finished product. It has a beautiful art style, the highlight of which being the cast of Greek gods who pop with vibrant colour.
The combat is weighty, frantic, and super engaging. Your character unlocks a mix of permanent upgrades and temporary buffs, gradually making you stronger as you try time and time again for that perfect run.
The only downside is that the game isn’t finished yet, despite how well it looks and plays. Something I came to find out as an incredible run came to a sudden end after a frantic boss encounter when a splash screen advised that the game would be continued after the next update… 🙁
Regardless, Hades is shaping up to be something truly special when it’s finally finished. And it’s absolutely worth the money to jump in now. So do it. Or go to Hell.
6. FIRE EMBLEM: THREE HOUSES
Three Houses was my first Fire Emblem game – a series I had long admired but never got round to playing due to its Nintendo handheld focus (Vita represent!). I had heard tales of awesome strategic gameplay, with epic lore and permadeath on all characters. When the latest version was announced for Switch, the hype was real…
And I was not disappointed. Three Kingdoms actually shocked me in terms of the sheer amount of content and customisability on offer. The mix of Japanese social sim with intense turn-based battles was perfect for both quick pick up & play sessions, and also multiple hour deep-dives.
Ironically given the series’ perception, my biggest complaint was the meagre challenge that it offered, especially given I was a newcomer. This seemed to be a common complaint and the game has now been patched with some extra difficulty options.
This is one of my favourite experiences yet on Switch, and I’ll totally go back to this whenever the first lot of story DLC is released! Oh, and Edlegard is bae <3
Valfaris has the run & gun-style combat of Contra mixed with the precision traversal of Castlevania, all wrapped up in a sci-fi fantasy aesthetic & heavy metal score…
It’s brutal, satisfying as hell, & one of the best games of the year. Play it.
I can’t recall the last time a game gripped me as hard & as quickly as Blasphemous. It blends post-SOTN Castlevania & Soulslike mechanics with weighty, satisfying combat. The macabre art-style & OST are standout; feeling like some forgotten 80s arthouse horror epic.
This, along with Valfaris, are great examples of indie games flying under my radar and then totally blowing my socks off. Awesome games don’t need to be AAA!
I tried to play Castlevania: Symphony of the Night multiple times before I finally got it and it stuck. And oh boy did it stick…
Platform adventure games like SOTN and its offspring are now my favourite thing to do with my spare time. And luckily, there’s no shortage of them. Chasm, Timespinner, Blasphemous, Hollow Knight are just a handful of what this burgeoning genre has offered up in the last 18 months or so.
Bloodstained can now be added to that list, but with a pretty odd twist – the creator of Bloodstained, Koji Igarashi, is also the creator of… Castlevania: Symphony of the Night. It seems like Hideo Kojima wasn’t the only creative that Konami burnt, but the difference with Igarashi is that he’s not looking to explore new horizons or invent new genres – he just wants to make another great Castlevania game.
And with Bloodstained – he’s very much done just that. In fact, the game plays it safe to the point of detriment, throwing an absurd amount of weapons and abilities at the player instead of offering anything truly new. But even if it’s old-hat, it’s still pretty damn good!
10. TETRIS 99
It’s Tetris. It’s 99 players. It’s fucking beautiful. LOOK AT IT!