My 10 Favorite Video Games of 2019 (Twelve Days of Favorites, Day 3)
One reason I don’t read my books is over the past few years I’ve chosen to spend more time playing video games. For a few years, that means firing up the game Neverwinter on my Playstation and going off into the MMORPG grind. Towards the end of 2018, I started getting bored with that constant grind for advancement, only to see it replaced with new challenges and yet more grinding, and I decided to shift away from the MMO (massive multiplayer online) style games to single user games. I am primarily an RPG player. I try to avoid first person shooter or fighter games, and I definitely avoid games where the violence is human on human and too realistic — it just skeeves me out.
That means I tend to put most of my playing hours into faux-medieval style RPGs because I seem to be okay with the fake violence of shooting a half-orc barbarian with a crossbow, but shooting a human with a shotgun I can’t deal with.
I also have been making it a habit the last few years to get off the computers and away from anything involving fast twitch reactions in the games, in favor of an hour or two late in the evening to wind down and relax, often by listening to podcasts while doing low-intensity things either on the iPad, or on the Nintendo Switch.
For Christmas 2018 I got a Nintendo Switch, curious about how well it would work as a primarily portable gaming machine. I so love the switch I’ve wiped the disk on the Playstation, put it on a shelf in the closet and let my Playstation membership lapse without any regret. This list, then is a combination of my favorite Nintendo games along with some of my most commonly played iPad games, and I don’t expect that usage combination to change in the next year or two, because it’s a great combo for what I want to do, and has the games I’m interested in playing. note that I almost never play a game on an iphone, and I no longer play on the Mac, mostly because I enjoy being able to sit out with Laurie by the TV and whack away at things rather than being off in my office…
But first, a hardware recommendation. My one big gripe about the Nintendo Switch was the poor ergonomics while playing with the Joy-con controllers attached. It definitely made my hands sore after a while, which is not good. Then Federico Vitticci spoke about the Hori Split Pad Pro Controllers on the Remaster podcast, and I decided to try them out. They are amazing, massively more comfortable than the Joycons, and I recommend them to anyone who finds the standard controllers uncomfortable. At $50, while they’re somewhat larger than the Joy-cons, they’re a great investment and one of the few attached controllers I’ve seen that will still let you dock the unit in the Nintendo dock with them attached.
Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild
One of the first games I got was Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, and like pretty much everyone else I was blown away with how good and deep the game was. It’s a well written story with a lot of complexity, it is a wide open game for exploration, and I really thought the game mechanics were pretty well thought out. I can’t recommend it highly enough, and it is, I think, one of the few games good enough to justify buying the gaming machine just to play it.
it’s that good.
Witcher 3: The Wild Hunt
If Breath of the wild was the first major game I played on the switch, the one I just finished (last week!) is my second favorite of the last year, and that’s Witcher 3: The Wild Hunt.It translated well to the Switch and played suprisingly well on the portable screen, meaning I didn’t need to dock in and use a big monitor for most of my playing hours (the same is definitely not true when I tried out Diablo 3, which is not on this list and otherwise not discussed today). Again, a mostly open universe you can explore and wander through as you wish, with a fascinating main storyline and many many side quests and adventures. The gameplay on the switch is pretty good, although there were a few things where I had to stop and think about how exactly I enabled this thing or set of that device. But overall, I could easily get in the flow and not have to think about HOW, and instead focus on the OHMYGODWHEREDIDTHATCOMEFROM?
A big caveat: this is very much an adult game, not for those young of age or sensitive to things like cussing, adult concepts and situations or, well, cussing. The characters cuss. A lot. No, seriously, the NPCs in the background are constantly cussing at you and each other, and it’s not sensored. Many of the story lines and characterizations have strong sexual aspects, and on a number of occasions, various people (mostly women, to be honest), get naked for your amusement, and sometimes, they have sex. If this were a movie in a theater, it’d be an R. It’s not explicit, but it’s not hinting and nudging, either. If those kind of things bother you, this is very much not a game for you.
But if you don’t mind that stuff, this is a deep, complicated, dirty, grungy universe with really interesting and complex characters, and a storyline where you’ll find seemingly innocent things you do at one stage of the story influence what happens to you way later, and opens or closes options that make other quests easier or harder. And if you like a long-playing (I think I was over 100 hours) game with both a strong cinematic storyline and lots of killing of random beasts and evils, this is a really good game for you.
Gems of War
Next on my list, Gems of War, which is an RPG style match three style card deck game, where you build your deck of cards and grow the power of the cards over time, and the battles are fought and won (or lost) by matching power gems against your opponent.
This is a pretty fun game for me, and since it’s the kind of thing I can bounce into and back out of without major time committments, it’s effectively one of my “five minute” or “solitaire” games for when I’m stuck waiting for something. Downside: it does require an online connection to the company servers to get fight info, but most of the games of this type do. I’ve experimented with a number of differert card/battle type games over the years, this is one that’s stuck in my playing list.
This isn’t a game with a progressing story line, this is a game/quest type game with daily and weekly challenges, a guild you can join for added benefits, and is effectively an endless battle grind. which for how I play it, is perfect. A great time waster with enough variety that I don’t get bored.
Puzzle Quest: The Legend Returns
And then there is Puzzle Quest: The Legend Returns. It is at its core a roguelike battle game that uses a match-three-gem system for determining battle activity and outcome. There is a storyline as you move through the various regions solving problems and fighting battles, leading a final big bad battle and ultimate victory.
I found this game quite fun overall, but to be honest, as I got closer to the big bad nasty brute, I started getting a bit bored, and the game was running me around the board to various distant locations to set up the final battle, which triggered many random encounters, all of which seemed more intent on wasting my time rather than moving the game forward. Still, overall, it’s a well done game and there’s a lot of fighting and killing and some puzzles to solve, and was a fun use of my time, even if the final boss was a bit of a “okay, done. next?” for me.
Fire Emblem: Three Houses
Next after Puzzle Quest was, in fact, Fire Emblem: Three Houses which is an established Japanese RPG series but the first of the titles to come to the Nintendo Switch. It is VERY JRPG, with many quirky secondary characters and the kind of weird social sub-plots that only happen in JRPG games. In this game, the character you drive is the son of a former warrior for the Church of Seiros, in self-exile for many years. Of course, paths cross as war looms, and both father and son are brought back in the fold, where, as you might expect, the son is immediately given the role of professor to the students in one of the three houses in the school teaching fighting to the kids studying there.
So your job is to tutor the students, test their progress, and then take them out and fight battles with them. Then you come back and solve mini-quests and sometimes have a tea party, where you sit down and have awkward small talk with one of the others at the School as you both painfully explore whether or not there’s a possibility of you two being future partners.
No, seriously. Go kill that even band of bandits, then come back and have a tea party and stare awkwardly at each other for a while. Welcome to the wonderful world of JRPG in all its glory.
It is glorious fun if you just let go and roll with it. Underneath that is a pretty good story and some really interesting characters as the main character you’re playing runs through his Hero’s Journey towards an ultimate goal of saving everything from the looming evil.
One thing I really appreciated in this game was the writing. it’s rather intelligent and the story moves forward and takes some interesting plot swerves that I didn’t see coming, but which were in retrospect very carefully and quietly foreshadowed. Without getting into spoiler territory, it is probably a good idea to not assume that all of the students you tutor will be available for you to use in the final battles, but you can use your tea parties and social time to recruit students from the other two school to consider joining your classroom instead to bolster your team.
I quite enjoyed the game, and it’s one of the few RPGs I might consider playing again some time, because there are three student groups, each with different individuals and there are many ways for game decisions to vary what’s possible and what outcomes may come of them. Much more replayable than most RPGs because of this, and that’s another nice aspect of the game.
Dragon Quest XI S: Echoes of an Elusive Age
And then there’s Dragon Quest XI S: Echoes of an Elusive Age, the latest in a series in this universe and the first of them on the Switch. I did warn you I play a lot of RPGs, right?
This is a Square Enix game, so it’s another JRPG, but not nearly as quirky as Fire Emblem was. It’s more of a grand scale hero’s journey RPG where the lead character builds a team and goes out to right wrongs and fight evil. The art and character design are done by the artist that also designs Dragon Ball Z, and it shows. The main character may or may not be the reincarnation that returns live out the prophecy to fight the great evil taking over the world. Of course there’s a great hero returned as a little boy, a prophecy, and a great evil and many battles.
You also build out a team with a wide variety of skills and personalities — and flaws that they have to work past and overcome. A few of the characterizations really struck home; one character is a circus performer, long estranged from his father because when he announced to his father his intent of becommong a circus performer instead of a warrior, his father denounced him and denied those intentions. (hint: in case it’s not painfully obvious, the circus is a metaphor for coming out to his father as being gay and being disowned for it by his massively macho dad).
Another character, and I’m in mild spoiler territory here, that becomes part of the hero’s team dies before the final battle. You won’t see it coming, and it’s a huge shock, to you (or was to me), and to the team, but that death is actually used to drive the redemption story for another of the characters and becomes a very important aspect of the larger storyline in a way I found very successful and touching.
Probably the biggest compliment I can give this game is that I gave a damn about the characters. Most RPG characters are quirky stereotypes that don’t go too deep. Each of the characters here has its own hero’s journey of some or or another and some point of conquest or redemption that gives them fulfilment within the larger story being played. I really appreciated how the characters were created and how they were used in the game.
Lots of fun, and probably the most traditional of the RPGs listed here, and while I’m unlikely to play it again any time soon, I was sorry when the main quest ended because I wasn’t ready to stop playing.
Okay, enough with RPGs for this year. When I’m not battling great evils in an endless series of hero journey plotlines, I like to have what I call solitaire games. things I can pick up for a few minutes and put down without worrying about the game in progress or having to remember where I left things.
Gems of War above is my primary solitaire game on the Switch, but somewhat to my surprise, the one I play most often after that is Minefield, the classic Windows game of identifying where the bombs are and not dying in trying. I die a lot. It’s a good, solid, well-implemented and game with easy controls and a nice clean display. There’s nothing really fancy here, and that’s the point. If I’m sitting in a waiting room or waiting for something to happen, I can whip it out and die a few times, put it away again and not have to think too hard. Exactly what I am looking for in this kind of game. Mindless fun.
Switching to IOS and the iPad, I primarily use that device for these solitaire devices, and I am surprisingly old school about it. The one I spend most of my time in is Jigsaw Puzzle, which you can probably guess from the name lets me solve picture puzzles. it has a huge supply of puzzles, both free and buyable as content packs, and it issues a free game every day. you can set the difficulty from about 16 pieces to well beyond 400. You can also supply your own images and turn them into puzzles to solve.
Beyond that it’s…. a way to solve picture puzzles. If you’re into that sort of thing, it’s awesome. If you’re not… Maybe you should try it. it’s the game I’m usually playing in the late evening while sitting in a comfy chair listening to podcasts or an audio book. it keeps my hands busy but doesn’t distract the brain from what I’m listening to, which makes it a perfect tool for that kind of evening.
I want to give an honorable mention here to Patterned, which is available via the Apple Arcade service, and which is a picture puzzle app modernized and using seamless pattern drawings instead of pictures. the user controls are actually quite well designed and it’s a lot of fun, and the images range from really easy to sovle to quite puzzling, and I’ve been enjoying it as an alternative to the traditional puzzle.
Full Deck Solitaire
It probably doesn’t surprise you that the other app I spend my time in on the iPad is… A real solitaire game. My favorite is Full Deck Solitaire, which I’ve been using for years. It has a wide range of solitaire games available, and again, this is mostly about filling time and not thinking too hard about it as you do.
Old school, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim
And the final game I’ll mention this year is Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, which is the next RPG that’s going to eat hours of my life without any regret. I’ve actually played it before on Playstation, and it is a game I’ve wanted to play again, mostly because it is, like Breath of the Wild, a very open and unstructured game that you can adapt to whatever you feel like doing, whether it’s clearing out vampire vaults or sitting on mountaintops watching sunsets (I’ve done both). I may not finish the main storyline in my next run through, but I think it’ll be a nice use of some time before I decide to dive into a new RPG I’ve never played before, and it’s an old friend I’ve wanted to explore for a while but never decided to invest the tiem in doing.
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