We can’t wait until the final weeks of December to share our favorite games of the year. Our memories are too weak, our enthusiasm too strong. Rather than try (and probably fail) to recall what we loved about the games from January and February after 10 months of playing hundreds of other games, we feel it’s best to run our games of the year list as an ongoing journal, updated regularly and thoughtfully.
Here’s how it works: We update the list at the end of each month — and occasionally in between, if we’re particularly excited about a new game. In December, we’ll add any games we missed throughout the year, then reorganize the list into Polygon’s annual Top 50 Games of the Year feature. For example, take a gander at 2018’s list.
You may notice the inclusion of games that were either fully released or made available in early access prior to 2019. Because many games change from patch to patch, let alone year to year, we may include previously available games that receive a significant update within the year or become available on a platform that substantially impacts how that game is experienced.
The latest additions:
I’ve died dozens of times exploring the compact solar system of Outer Wilds. Death is inevitable, but I learn so much from each life that shuffling off this mortal coil never becomes too frustrating.
Outer Wilds is a time loop game. The only way to experience the full adventure is to repeat the same limited chunk of time exploring, knowing that destiny is predetermined.
The mysteries in my solar system are as varied and wild as the planets I get to explore. Every location teems with ancient ruins, bizarre natural phenomena, or deadly hazards that can prematurely end my life. My goal is to find out more about the missing race of people who landed among my planets looking to solve a mystery of their own. They’re the reason I’m stuck in a time loop.
Uncovering what brought them here and how I can finish their work has taken many lives to figure out. I’ve been sucked through black holes, eaten alive by gargantuan fish, and suffocated to death in the darkness of space, but I’d die a dozen more deaths just to discover a few more of the game’s answers.
The best part? Every time I think I have a handle on what’s going on, I learn something new that changes my understanding. Then I die, wake back up, and hop back into my spacecraft to slowly unravel the big questions of this universe.
There are plenty of perils in the darkness of space, but interstellar bureaucracy is easily the worst. Why bother saving the galaxy when you’re going to end up with a ton of forms to fill out?
Void Bastards is a droll take on the BioShock format, letting players explore dangerous environments (space stations, in this case) while leaning into specific play styles of stealth or hacking or all-out machine gun murder. But tonally, Void Bastards is closer to a Douglas Adams novel, bemoaning the tedium of queues and terrible office tea.
The biggest twist on the familiar gameplay formula is that Void Bastards is randomized. Every small space station that players explore has its own strange layout and variables. One may be full of smoke while another is packed to the gills with homicidal robots. Player characters are randomized too, with varied perks that give boons and detriments to their combat potential.
But Void Bastards’ shining achievement is its art style, which truly looks like a sci-fi comic book brought to life.
All of these features combine together to make a unique, silly adventure that’s extremely tough to put down. After all, there’s always another HR computer to blow up.
Indie outfit Image and Form has made a name for itself by building a lively steampunk universe spanning multiple genres. With SteamWorld Quest, the Swedish developer takes a shot at fantasy RPGs, a genre laden with tired tropes. Turns out, adding some nuts and bolts does wonders for reinventing worn-out concepts like knights and mages.
But SteamWorld Quest’s biggest draw isn’t the aesthetics or charming robots. As with other SteamWorld games before it, Quest takes a core mechanic and builds an elegant machine on top of it. In this case, the base game is a turn-based deck-building RPG where every move must be weighed against its total cost to perform. From there, Quest adds wrinkles such as status effects, combos, and cooperative attacks — all of which work together to make a complex game where every battle feels like a satisfying new puzzle.
- The latest must-own Nintendo Switch game is SteamWorld Quest
- SteamWorld Quest: Why can’t more franchises experiment like this?
Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice
Developer FromSoftware spent the last decade making games so absurdly difficult that its popularity is a bit difficult to explain. Demon’s Souls begat the Dark Souls trilogy, which spawned Bloodborne. Every game was a riff on a formula that brought the quirky Japanese developer closer to mainstream success.
In 2019 with Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice, FromSoftware took a hard turn, replacing medieval European fantasy and Gothic horror with feudal Japanese fantasy.
It’s a riff on the formula that the studio created and popularized, but it’s also something new — a fast-paced, action-focused departure from its more deliberate and esoteric forebears. It eschews role-playing classes, so everyone plays as the same titular character. Skills for your constant blade replace the bloated menagerie of weapons and armor in previous titles. The story is straightforward, not something that requires reading vague item descriptions and then watching YouTube videos just to almost kind of understand it.
Sekiro is FromSoftware’s sensibilities refined and focused. It’s as beautiful as it is brutal, and the sweetness of victory is still strong enough to make the frustration of frequent failure worthwhile. It is also unambiguous proof that FromSoftware isn’t a one-trick pony.
- Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice review
- Sekiro is brutal, beautiful, and FromSoftware’s friendliest game yet
- Sekiro beginner’s guide
Set entirely in a late ’90s Geocities-like online hub, Hypnospace Outlaw is a flawless piece of historical fiction, a savage work of contemporary satire, and a genuinely tricky puzzle game. It’s a funny piece of work that’s nostalgic about the past, without getting too misty eyed.
The game tasks me with working as a community enforcer, administering a code of behavior across its ugly, bizarre user-created pages. These websites are populated by a diverse cast of internet archetypes extant in the ’90s, as now. Copyright infringers, virus makers, hackers, scammers, and trolls must all be taken down through deduction, investigation and lateral thinking.
Experimentation is the key, and there are times when solutions seem maddeningly elusive. But all the while, Hypnospace Outlaw prods and nudges us to think about our digital lives, now and in the past.
Available on Windows PC, Mac, and Linux.
Get it here: Steam
- Hypnospace Outlaw is a hilarious satire on internet stupidity and venality
- How it feels to release an indie game in 2019
Total War: Three Kingdoms
For those of us who’ve ever fantasized about being an ancient or medieval warlord, Total War: Three Kingdoms is one of the best games yet released. It’s complicated, intricate, and difficult, yet it manages to hold together convincing simulations of human dominance and the struggle for power.
The Total War series’ trademark, huge real-time battles, are at their best here, balancing rock-paper-scissors units with heroic generals, smart tactical options, and interesting RPG-like upgrade trees. There’s also a solid economic sim that underpins resource management.
But the game’s biggest boon is its cast of characters and the way it handles human interactions though diplomatic activities, and the delicate handling of underlings, family members, and mercenaries.
The Best Games of the Year:
New Super Mario Bros. U Deluxe
If Super Mario Odyssey is the culmination of 3D Mario games, then the same could be said of New Super Mario Bros. U Deluxe for 2D Mario games. On the surface, its stages look like a collision of Super Mario World and Super Mario Bros. 3. But the game does more than parrot its predecessors. New Super Mario Bros. U Deluxe repurporses the familiar designs of the franchise, then slowly subverts them. Where I expect a shortcut, I get a dead end. A trail of gold coins leads me into a pit. Concrete walls dematerialize, revealing bonus power-ups.
Comparably underappreciated when released on the Wii U, New Super Mario Bros. U Deluxe gets a second chance at relevance on the Nintendo Switch. The hybrid portable console is a more fitting home for the game, its short levels benefitting from being played on the go or over a lunch break. New Super Mario Bros. U Deluxe isn’t as flashy as its 3D sibling, but it’s no less full of surprises and charm. They both belong on every Switch, complimenting one another.
- New Super Mario Bros. U Deluxe is the first fantastic game of 2019
- Ranking the core Super Mario games
Resident Evil 2 Remake
Hours into the game, I overhear a hot Resident Evil 2 tip: Disable zombies by shooting them in the kneecaps. I’ve been programmed by decades of zombie media to aim for the head, and the game rewards this with some spectacularly gruesome cranial explosions. But quietly, the game rewards pragmatic decision making over flashy but wasteful action.
I take to kneecapping my enemies, letting them helplessly crawl after me. In the short term, I miss popping zombie skulls like bubble wrap. But in the long term, I’m happy for the ammo, especially when the familiar shambling zombies are no longer my greatest concern.
The strategic gunplay is just one of the many pieces that enliven the remake of Resident Evil 2. The art-museum-turned-police-station benefits from the moody glow of modern video game lighting. Claire, Leon and the full cast look realistic, and their actors deliver emotional and affecting performances — without throwing out the original’s game’s camp entirely. The Resident Evil 2 remake amplifies the best qualities of Resident Evil franchise, maintaining the satisfying exploration-puzzle framework of the game while updating the experience to be fresh and immediate. It takes the expectations and tweaks them just enough to surprise you, like learning the true weakness of a zombie is its knees.
- How Resident Evil 2 fell apart, then became one of Capcom’s biggest hits
- Resident Evil 2 review: The new world of survival horror
- Resident Evil 2 board game review: plays well, looks like hell
Slay the Spire
The PC market is filled with run-based roguelite games with familiar progression systems. Or, in layperson speak, it’s filled with games in which you grind through challenging dungeons only to die, losing everything you earn — except a currency or some other reward that makes the next run a little easier. It’s a proven, addictive loop; it’s also a bit overdone. Nonetheless, Slay the Spire stands out in this crowded space.
The twist: It’s a card game. One of three heroes builds a deck and climbs a tower, defeating progressively more difficult enemies as they go along.
Developer Mega Crit’s art is charming and simple, but the complexity of the card interactions is deep and imaginative. It’s one thing to build a deck against a human opponent in something like Magic, but to create something that can be slotted against all the different enemies in Slay the Spire feels different entirely. With 50 hours inside the tower, I’m still discovering new strategies for overcoming its various ghouls.
Slay the Spire is one of the best dungeon crawlers I’ve experienced, and the first card game I’ve truly adored. Don’t let the genre or the screens sway you. While it might look like a niche experience, the game is designed to appeal to everyone.
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Baba Is You
Most puzzle games establish a clear and limited set of rules, then task the player with finding a solution within those constraints. Baba Is You converts the rules into the game itself. On each stage, the rules are written on the screen, each word an individual block. The words and phrases can be rearranged to literally change the rules in the game world.
For example, the rule “Flag Is Win” means I must reach a flag to complete the stage. But if the flag is unreachable, I can change the rule to “Rock Is Win” and simply touch a nearby rock to finish the puzzle.
The game’s minimalist pixelated art style is easy to read, every object and word on a stage serving some purpose, likely waiting to be repurposed for a strange, mind-bending solution. It’s particularly enjoyable on Switch. I can play a couple of puzzles until I become frustrated, take a break until an epiphany strikes, then return with a potential solve. As I wrote in our review, I enjoy Baba Is You just as much when I’m not playing it.
Respawn Entertainment has been one of the most promising AAA developers of this generation, producing the innovative multiplayer shooter Titanfall and a surprisingly rich single-player campaign with Titanfall 2. The studio has always had its hardcore fans and critical praise, but Apex Legends is the first project to attract an audience fitting its talent.
Apex Legends is the latest battle royale game, but it plays markedly different than genre titans PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds and Fortnite. It’s a first-person shooter with a tactility that calls to mind the early Call of Duty games. Players choose from a group of “Legends,” each of whom has unique abilities, similar to Overwatch. And its world builds upon the established vision and fiction of the Titanfall franchise, lending it a pinch of depth.
Having elevated multiplayer shooters, then FPS campaigns, and now the battle royale genre, Respawn has shown a rare knack for adapting to a fickle industry. Up next for the team: producing a Star Wars game worthy of the original trilogy. If anybody can do it, I suppose it’s this team.