V. Ys IX: Monstrum Nox
After the brilliant Ys VIII: Lacrimosa of Dana, my favourite of 2016, I had some reservations about its sequel. Screenshots and subsequent trailers failed to capture that sense of exploration of, and adventuring through, uncharted territory I’d come to love from Adol’s unintentional trip to Seiren Island. Instead, Monstrum Nox felt restrictive and bleak.
Guess what? It was. Ys IX: Monstrum Nox is a bleak game, full of restrictions. Adol and the Monstra are trapped within the prison city of Balduq, unable to access other parts within or surrounding the city until they’ve dealt with nightmarish Larvae during monster raid-like Grimwald Nights. Even though Adol breaks from prison at the start of the game, he finds himself locked up time and time again.
The gameplay itself, however, is far from restrictive. Each Monstrum adds his or her own ability to exploration, such as White Cat’s gift to traverse walls vertically or Doll’s third eye allowing the group to x-ray all areas. All these monstrous gifts contribute to exploration that is simply even more fun than its predecessor, rendering Lacrimosa of Dana restrictive in that regard instead.
The more of the game I played, the longer my list of complaints grew — ranging from its Trails-inspired narrative structure to the contrast of framerates between the city areas and dungeons. Although I ended up with quite a list of things I wasn’t satisfied with during the 47 hours it took me to finish the game, I still loved it by the time the credits rolled. Substantial world-building, mind-boggling plot twists, amazing dungeon designs and the numerous references to Adol’s earlier adventures outweighed the list of negatives I’d been compiling in my head.
IV. Ace Comat 7: Skies Unknown
Commonly I forget about the games I play at the start of a new year. Many others follow and their impressions overwrite the games played during those cold winter months. Ace Combat 7: Skies Unknown, released in the third week of January, is not a game that did let itself get overwritten by the rest of 2019. It certainly did not. What did get lost in the passage of time, however, is how the game — or rather, the series — caught my interest in the first place. Maybe it were the gorgeous visuals, maybe the series’ incredible musical scores. I don’t remember, but I hit that ‘Preorder’ button regardless.
The preorder button of a physical copy, no less. If you know me, and I assume you do if you’re bothering to read through this list of games I liked, you also know that I don’t buy physical games anymore. None of the games in this overview were bought by me as hard copies. Still, the Skies Unknown preorder button I hit was for an amazing deal on a physical copy. Hesitant to risk the full PSN price on a game series I had no prior experience with, I gave in to my Dutch instincts and branched into the cheaper, physical route. Guess what? The package got delayed due to snowstorms, followed by a mailman shirking their responsibilities. I had no intention of getting robbed of my plans to take to the skies that weekend, so I bit the bullet, paid up for the digital copy and returned the physical copy when it arrived — a week later.
Ace Combat 7: Skies Unknown is an amazing game. It immediately drew me in with its cinematic opening and gorgeous opening mission, and continued to captivate me with many of the missions to follow. Maybe I was just in for the spectacle — I’ll gladly leave the discussion of the direction, execution and, well, contents of the story to the series’ fans — like dog-fighting over a city during sunset or navigating through a narrow ravine only to go all out on an enemy base, but my pleasure in doing so was genuine. Etched in my memory in particular is mission 19, toward the end of the game, where the absolutely stellar track Daredevil starts to accompany your heroic endeavours.
Goosebumps over a flight sim — my younger self would’ve never believed you.
III. Dragon’s Dogma: Dark Arisen
Speaking of which, that younger self really showed his naivety tweeting “I honestly can’t imagine a single reason why one would prefer Dragon’s Dogma over Dark Souls” back in 2012. What a brilliant game. It offers a vast, sprawling world, full of dark dungeons and other ruins, in which death lurks around every corner. All you can rely on is your knowledge of the intricate battle system, your lantern and, of course, your pawns.
Pawns are followers of your character, the Arisen, and fight alongside you. You create your Main Pawn at the start of the game, and you’re able to hire two more Pawns along the way. As I explored the pitch-black dungeons with three pawns behind me, it dawned on me that Dragon’s Dogma is essentially a modern take on Falcom’s 1987 classic Sorcerian and soon started to hum its Yuzo Koshiro composed music as I unravelled the mysteries of Gransys.
Bitterblack Isle, the DLC addition included in the Switch version I picked up, was unfortunately a bridge too far for me. At a certain point, the game simply got too hard and expected me to grind more than I was willing to. I returned to Gransys and wrapped up the game. I wish I’d kept better track of my adventures during the game because they’re a little hard to remember now, eight months later — although I can also use this as an excuse to succumb to the temptation of Dragon’s Dogma’s New Game+ and start anew.
II. Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice
Throughout Nioh, which made it into my top 3 of 2017, I wondered what From Software’s take on a feudel Japan-based action game would look like. A couple of weeks later they released their ‘Shadows Die Twice’ teaser, followed by a proper announcement of Sekiro during 2018’s E3. The game immediately became my most anticipated 2019 release.
One of the reasons Bloodborne is my favourite From Software title is because much its gameplay is designed around my preferred style of combat: parrying. Ever since playing Demon’s Souls and Dark Souls, I’ve relied on parrying. Over the years, I’ve gotten pretty good at it and even in other games, like aforementioned Nioh and Dragon’s Dogma, I made sure my character would be able to parry enemies. It’s just so satisfying to see an opponent’s attempt to attack you backfire in their faces — in a risk/reward kind of way — I dare say it’s my favourite mechanic in these kinds of games.
Sekiro makes parrying an even more integral part of the game. In addition to reflecting an enemy’s attack in building up their balance gauge, there are also the thrusting and sweeping attacks that can be countered by the mikiri counter (bless you) and jumping (bless the introduction of verticality, as well). My traditional, reactive playstyle, however, wasn’t enough to carry me through Sekiro’s more challenging boss fights. Genichiro Ashina — whom I lovingly started to call ‘Gennybro’ after dying to him time and time again — taught me I had to be more aggressive if I ever wanted a shot at making it in the world of Sekiro.
After I let go of my Soulsborne approach and embraced Sekiro’s much more aggressive style I started to make progress, albeit slowly, in this amazing new world FromSoftware crafted.
I. The House in Fata Morgana
The House in Fata Morgana is a visual novel released back in 2012, developed by Novectacle, a Japanese indie developer that doesn’t even have its own page on Wikipedia. The game was picked up by publisher MangaGamer for localisation and released in English in May 2016. From that moment onward, I saw the game frequently popping up on Twitter and people losing their mind over how good it is. It piqued my interest and, since Dramatic Create ported the game to Vita in Japan, I requested it as a birthday gift in 2018 and got around playing it this year, the same year the English version made its way not only to PlayStation 4 and PlayStation Vita, but also as a Limited Run Games physical release. And, oh my god, it is good.
This thriller starts when your amnesiac self awakens in a mansion, where you are greeted by a maid. The maid guides you to doors which take you through the history of the mansion, hoping you’ll regain your memories as you learn about its past. You visit the mansion in various eras and meet its residents as you untangle the fascinating mystery lingering in this forsaken place.
After wrapping up the first door, heart still throbbing in my throat, I was told ‘it’s only getting better’ after storming the group chat filled with people who already read the visual novel. I started to take my Vita to the office again, so I’d be able to advance the story during my breaks. Those thirty minutes of playtime were enough for the story to gain momentum and to make it difficult to return to work. To quote myself during the second door: ‘SHIT, I CAN’T PUT THIS DOWN NOW. (╯°□°）╯︵ ┻━┻’.
I can confirm that ‘it’s only getting better’ really applies The House in Fata Morgana. The story excels at subverting your expectations. Every time you think you got a door’s ending worked out, the game picks up one of the many twists foreshadowed and turns the story completely upside down, leaving its reader agape. Then there’s the gimmick in the fourth door, which I’ve never seen of heard of in another game. It’s optional and completely missable, but once you notice you’ll — figuratively speaking — retrace every step you make.
What truly lifts The House in Fata Morgana above the other games in this list for me is one of the major plot threads in the story, one I can’t speak of without blatantly ruining the experience for people who still have to read the visual novel. Fortunately, I can be sufficiently vague yet painstakingly clear to fellow players: multiple letters are written throughout the tale, but that one letter and the door that follows is what cemented The House in Fata Morgana in first place for me.
What I can say is that that door was not only actually excruciating to read through, it was also very confronting. Some of the ideas raised in that door — perhaps it’s better to speak of a mindset—reminded me of my childhood and preoccupied my brain for the rest of the week as I dug through my memory. It was a very unique experience. Books, films, games or even anime remind always of fond memories, but it opened a door (no pun intended) that no other game had done so before. The game, but in particular that door, deals with difficult topics masterfully. Painfully, but professionally.
For the sake of my and your time, I force myself to list only five games. I’d like to quickly address some other games I greatly enjoyed this year.
Fire Emblem: Three Houses is one of those games. It’s a game I had initially little interest in, but after watching my wife making her way through the Blue Lions story, I created a save file on my own. I picked the class that had most of the characters that interested me — Linhardt, Bernadetta and Petra — and set off. I think I never picked up the controller after the first fifteen hours is because I pretty much watched my wife play through the entire game, its surprisingly long length, and unsurprisingly rigid structure, which actually reminded me of the first Trails of Cold Steel, a game I couldn’t get in to because of its predictable and repetitive structure.
One of my most anticipated games this year was Untitled Goose Game. It completely lived up to my expectations, and I audibly laughed as that feathered jerk honked itself through to the other side of the neighbourhood. I’ve recommended the game to every (potential) Switch owner who visited this year. No one has been disappointed so far.
Speaking of disappointments, I have to admit that my enjoyment of Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night was rather short-lived. My interest dwindled rapidly as I progressed through the game. None was left by the time I reached the final boss. I did beat the game a couple of months later, but that was out of boredom during a sleepless night rather than actual interest in finishing it. Shame. At least I really enjoyed its 8-bit prequel, Curse of the Moon.
Square Enix released a couple of classics for Switch this year, most notably the Collection of Mana. I still can’t believe they actually localised Seiken Densetsu 3. And although I still haven’t finished either Secret or Trials of Mana, my wife —who’s been a fan of Seiken Densetsu 3 since her teenage years— and I had a blast making our way through the fields of Rabites. I also finished Dragon Quest, the re-release of the very first one for the Switch. Although it involved a lot of grinding and repetitive music, the overall adventure was very charming. I immediately understood why Japan had succumbed to this series.
Another classic that actually competed for fifth place alongside Ys IX in my list of favourites is Romancing SaGa 3. Of course, I was aware that it was one of the most beloved entries in the series, but after my lukewarm response to RS2 I was a little hesitant whether its sequel would suddenly click. It did. Romancing SaGa 3 waltzed all over my plans to play Xenoblade Chronicles 2 in November. The throw of a dice decided I would play as Katarina, and 33 hours later I had saved the universe. Hearsay had me prepared for a frustratingly rough ride, but it was actually laughter over Katarina’s ice-cold replies and random moments of humour that dominated my first time through RS3.
Other, older games I finished this year were Yakuza 0 and The Last of Us. Both widely praised, for good reasons. Yakuza made me fall in love with 80’s Japan (and Goro Majima, but that’s a given), with Spotify generating playlists full of Japanese 80’s music every single week. The Last of Us was actually a birthday gift back in 2014, so with proper audio set hooked up to my TV, I dug out my PlayStation 3 for its long-awaited swan song. By now everything that could be said has been said, so all I’ll add is that The Last of Us is one incredible game.
Super Mario Odyssey was much better than I originally anticipated — similar to my experience with Super Mario Galaxy back when, but not as remotely as impactful. Still, I gathered every moon I could find without resorting to guides. No Man’s Sky didn’t stick around that long, I’m afraid. While I was slowly starting to warm up to the game, my home base — staff included — completely disappeared. Unwilling to start over, I just dropped the game. The Witness lasted a bit longer, but not quite until the end. I’ve — or we, I should say, as I played together with my wife — cleared most of the areas, but the puzzles involving tetriminoes started to get so complex that I wanted to look up the solutions online.
As mentioned before, I also started playing Xenoblade Chronicles 2 before I got distracted by Romancing SaGa 3, Utawarerumono: Lost Frag, Trails of Cold Steel III and SaGa Scarlet Grace: Ambitions in quick succession. Rest assured: I already discussed the latter two at length in my list of favourites from 2017 and 2018, respectively. And I will pick up Rex and Pyra’s adventure next year, if only for the amazing cinematography, scenery and music.
Other games on the horizon are brand-new releases like Nioh 2, Animal Crossing: New Horizons and Hajimari no Kiseki as well as fan-favourites such as more Yakuza, Crypt of the NecroDancer and Zwei!! 2.