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Our Biggest Surprises of 2019

Our Biggest Surprises of 2019

Written by Randy Kalista on 12/30/2019 for
More On: What we're playing

Sometimes a game comes out of nowhere in 2019 to just, like—bam—leave us blindsided. Blindsided in a good way. Either our expectations were low, or possibly nonexistent, or these games completely slipped under our radar as completely unknown quantities. Sometimes you know well in advance what your favorite games are going to be. Sometimes you don’t know it until you’re already playing it. Either way, these are the games we played in 2019 that surprised us somehow. They might very well surprise you, too.

Nathan Carter
Die Young – I like survival games and had had my eye on this one for a while and decided to buy it during a sale. I am glad I did because this game is pretty great. It's not a true survival game like The Forest or Subnautica, but it has basic survival mechanics like needing to find food and water and crafting weapons and other items. You play as a young woman named Daphne vacationing with her friends when she is kidnapped and eventually wakes up at the bottom of a well, stripped of all her personal belongings including her shoes. The only thing you get is a mysterious map. Now barefoot and scared you have to climb up out of the well. After climbing out of the well you are on your own. Explore the island, find your missing friends, figure out what is going on, and escape the island. It's like an indie version of Far Cry 3. But the thing I loved about the game is that it doesn't hold your hand. Running to a new area and finding new locations and puzzles is a blast. Getting to each new area gave me so many aha moments, where I’d find something to help me complete a puzzle or unlock a new location. Told mostly through documents found lying around the island, the story pushed me forward to find out what the hell was going on. 

Sean Colleli
Nightmare Reaper – There’s been a resurgence of so-called “Boomer Shooters” in the last couple of years, so it’s only natural that one or two would fall through the cracks. Nightmare Reaper is one of those lesser-known retro-revival shooters, a Wolfenstein 3D-affectionate FPS with bright, colorful graphics, ridiculous weapons and procedurally generated levels. It falls heavily on the “amateur” end of the spectrum and there are little problems here and there that keep it from true greatness. That said, I just can’t help but love it.

The premise is truly unique: you play as a woman incarcerated in a psych ward, who battles her inner demons by falling asleep and blasting them into gibs in pixelated ‘90s-shooter nightmares. There are balance issues as the levels and weapons are pretty random, but this also produces some ridiculous—and terrifying—experiences you can’t find anywhere else. The winks and nods to memes and retrogaming YouTubers makes it clear that the developers at Blazing Bit Games know the audience they are playing to.

There’s just so much heart and passion put into this game that it drips from every 16-bit high color pixel, and after playing through the first episode in early access, I can’t wait to see what Nightmare Reaper looks like when it’s finished.

Ape Out – Ape Out is one of my big surprises of 2019 because it uses killer gameplay and impeccable presentation to grab you by the hair and drag you through a gauntlet like, well, an angry gorilla. This, in my humble opinion, is the best kind of indie game: pure concept and execution, rock solid mechanics, and a visual and audio tour-de-force presentation that drives the whole thing.

Ape Out doesn’t bother with controversial politics or self-indulgent navel-gazing. It strikes at something more primitive in the brain; you’re a caged animal, scared, vulnerable and hungry but also immensely powerful and righteously pissed off. Your breakneck dash toward freedom is characterized by moody suspense, punctuated by moments of brutal, cathartic payback. The entire presentation, splashed across the screen in bold urban pop-art and driven by an organic and adaptive percussion algorithm, grabs you by the throat and demands, “Look at this! Hear it roar!”

Ape Out does not waste time. Ape Out does not think twice. Ape Out commands your attention. Ape Out is fast and suspenseful and bold and difficult and most importantly, incredibly fun.

Kinsey Danzis
Untitled Goose Game – Fine, I'll be the one to bring up the meme game. I wasn't sure what to expect when this game started popping up on all my feeds, but due to my desire to be In The Know on the Cool Hip Things, I finally caved. So many video games want me to tackle morality, make life or death decisions, and navigate a dark and gritty space in an attempt to out-edgelord the competition—but there's just something strangely satisfying about being a chaotic nuisance. I'm not killing people, not robbing them, not making BioWare-esque decisions that require a half hour of googling and forum-trawling to figure out if I'm going to regret it later. I'm just a horrible goose. Best played with a friend or two so you can be a horrible goose together, doing your, ahem, fowl deeds to plucky classical music.

Eric Hauter
Sariento VRThe most surprising game to me this year. I am a person that is sometimes susceptible to VR sickness. Sairento VR broke every rule in the book by allowing me to hurl myself around the environment, wall running and taking giant leaps into the air, dropping down in slow-motion with a rain of lead on unsuspecting ninja enemies—all without a trace of discomfort. A mind blowing experience.

Randy Kalista
Death Stranding – Look, I work logistics in real life. I order up supplies and distribute according to demand. I make deliveries in a Freightliner van through my town. I have a jar baby which I carry strapped to my stomach. Just kidding about that last part. But playing what amounts to a third-person backpacking supply manager, fueled by Facebook Likes and Monster energy drinks, seems to have unlocked my not-so-latent talents. All my life people have been telling me to get good at video games. This is a game where I get to watch Twitch streamers and YouTube influencers tripping all over their shoe laces, while I get to work and make this look easy.

Genesis Alpha One With creepy, low-sci soundtracks, a dark-lit NASA aesthetic, and an MS-DOS feel to its hardwired technology, I fell pretty hard for this one. I built out my modular space station. I cloned the barely human future of humanity. I splattered xeno guts all over the side of my dropship as I harvested alien-rich environments to fuel an incomprehensible trek across the galaxy. I could hardly recognize anything of old Earth in what I was doing, except for putting one foot in front of the other in my lizard brain's instinctual need to perpetuate a species. 

Rebel Galaxy Outlaw Surprised, really, that the Rebel Galaxy folks made the Chris Roberts game that Chris Roberts can no longer make. Surprised that a dirty Southern fried rock soundtrack served up such high-octane rocket fuel. Surprised that the almost Mystery Science Theater 3000 animatronic look could also build out the Rebel Galaxy universe so nicely. And, to be honest, surprised that I couldn't ride the game to completion. Rebel Galaxy Outlaw gave me everything I was looking for in a space sim, but it turns out I needed surprisingly little to be satisfied. 

Carter Kilmann
Age of Wonders: Planetfall I've always been a fan of RTS and turn-based games. But I wasn't familiar with the Age of Wonders series, so I went into Planetfall with fresh eyes, a hint of curiosity, and a healthy dose of skepticism. Like a new romantic partner, it took some time to get acquainted and comfortable. The learning curve was steep. Planetfall is a mile wide and a mile deep. It demands patience. Each of the six factions plays with a unique feel and requires you to retune your strategy. But this complexity encourages replayability—which is one of Planetfall's strong suits. So give it the time it deserves. If you're looking for the perfect blend of traditional strategy and an XCOM-style combat system, Planetfall is for you.  

Rob Larkin
The Elder Scrolls: Legends – Having long ago abandoned Hearthstone due to a toxic community and developer/publisher that was hell bent on maximizing revenue by pushing new metas at an unsustainable rate for an F2P player, I went a long while without a CCG in my life. But 2019 was the year I meant to change that. After an exhaustive search and demo’ing more than a few, The Elder Scrolls: Legends was the one to come out on top. What's not surprising is how good the game is, though it is excellent. What was surprising was how free to play it actually was. TESL is incredibly giving in daily rewards, challenges for more, soul gem farming against the AI, free Twitch giveaways, etc. It was such a welcome breath of fresh air in this microtransaction-driven genre. However do note that this praise comes for the TESL we knew in 2019. As of this publishing, the game looks to either be dead or will eventually be undergoing a major change that could maximize revenue, completely reversing the praise levied here. Development has ceased as of only recently and the servers are purely in maintenance mode. But that's a topic for another day….

Nicholas Leon
Ice Age: Scrat’s Nutty Adventure – Hands down. It was clunky and laggy, but it still worked the way it needed to. It’s not great, but it’s a great reminder of old-school, branded games from big properties.

Call of Duty: Modern Warfare – Holy heck. While they didn’t pull this game’s story off as well as they did 10 years ago, Infinity Ward shows they still have what it takes to challenge what Call of Duty is and remake it. 

Matt Mirkovich
Control – I had no expectations for this game, so when I finally got to peeling the layers off this onion and found the first nugget of Alan Wake information I was hooked. The combat reminded me of old PS2 games, Second Sight, and Psi-Ops: The Mindgate Conspiracy, but with a more modern touch. The Oldest House is full of so many interesting things, it's hard to not have a sense of wonder about everything going on within its walls. Credit to Remedy, I had no idea where they were going to go after Quantum Break, but I'm thrilled with the direction they've chosen.

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About Author

Randy gravitates toward anything open world, open ended, and open to interpretation. He prefers strategy over shooting, introspection over action, and stealth and survival over looting and grinding. He's been a gamer since 1982 and writing critically about video games for over 15 years. A few of his favorites are Skyrim, Elite Dangerous, and Red Dead Redemption. He lives with his wife and daughter in Oregon.

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