My favourite games that I played in 2019

This entry is part 7 of 7 in the series Game of the Year Awards

What were my favourite games that I played for the first time?

If 2018 was the year in which I bought a Switch and rediscovered the joys of Nintendo games, then 2019 has been a wonderful year for new releases. I played three excellent new games, any one of which would qualify to be Game of the Year: Dragon Quest Builders 2, Total War: Three Kingdoms, and Fire Emblem: Three Houses:

  • Dragon Quest Builders 2 has been my unexpected hit of the year. I love building towns, rooms, fields, even defensive walls. I love DQB2’s charming, cheerful characters and world. And even after finishing the story months ago, I love tinkering with my island in the postgame: adding spas, barns, irrigation, and a rail network, fleshing out floor plans, and renovating my early projects with everything that I’ve learned since. I am pretty confident this will be my evergreen Switch game for the foreseeable future.
  • Total War: Three Kingdoms is beautiful, challenging, and immersive — a return to form after the hit-and-miss Rome 2 generation. Whether desperately battling to save my capital from a superior invader; planning elaborate, multi-pronged campaigns; haggling with computer players that finally act believably and in-character; or simply admiring the aesthetic, this was almost everything that I hoped for.
  • Similarly, Fire Emblem: Three Houses is my favourite in its series. It rewards careful planning — both in battle, and when strategising how to recruit, train, and develop my crew of heroes — with triumphant satisfaction when those plans come together. And its epic narrative, closer to Legend of the Galactic Heroes than to traditional fantasy, has me intrigued. I estimate I’m 70%-80% through my first run, and I look forward to seeing how it will conclude.
  • Honourable mentions go to three more games: Rule the Waves 2, which challenges players to design, build, and command not the shiniest navy — but the one that’s most appropriate and cost-effective; and Wargroove and Crying Suns, which show what indie strategy games can do with a striking aesthetic and solid gameplay.

Incidentally, this marks a change from the last couple of years. My favourite games of 2018 were mostly Switch titles that had been released in 2017, such as Super Mario Odyssey, Mario + Rabbids: Kingdom Battle, and one of my all-time favourites, Zelda: Breath of the Wild. And my favourite game of 2017 — Shadow Tactics — was likewise released in December 2016.

What are some games that I revisited?

I also revisited, or kept playing, a number of games that I’d played in previous years. Sometimes, this followed the release of new DLC or updates — as with various PC strategy games. Other times, it was about continuing an existing play-through. Some I particularly enjoyed were:

  • Continuing to explore Hyrule in Zelda: Breath of the Wild. I’m still not finished, but with Breath of the Wild 2 announced, a brand-new copy of Link’s Awakening awaiting me, and the DLC a tad too hard for me, perhaps I should just move onto the final battle with Ganon.
  • Playing through the postgame of Super Mario Odyssey;
  • Exploring alien archaeological sites and building a galactic empire in StellarisAncient Relics DLC;
  • Saving the world from fascism for the umpteenth time in Hearts of Iron IV: Man the Guns – and leading the NCR in the Fallout total conversion mod;
  • Trying out new civilisations and winning the space race again in Civilization VI: Gathering Storm.
  • Playing Battletech’s career mode — aka Galactic Mercenary Hand-to-Mouth Simulator — in ironman.

Risk, reward, and mission design in Fire Emblem: Three Houses

This entry is part 2 of 2 in the series Fire Emblem: Three Houses

Juggling knives — In an ideal world, I wouldn’t have split my forces. But faced with multiple objectives — rescue civilians, spread around the perimeter of the map; recover treasure chests; go after the boss —  I’ve had little choice. My party is split across the entire map: some straggling through a thicket towards the boss, others flying on pegasus- or wyvern-back towards the civilians, one man on horseback battling his way up a narrow lane. And now, a powerful optional boss has thundered onto the field, trailed by several lackeys. Fortunately, my strongest character is close enough to intercept. Unfortunately, her best backup – the two people who can hard-counter the new arrival – are on the wrong side of the map.

It’s time to improvise.

I really like Fire Emblem: Three Houses’ mission design.  The game’s rules are fairly basic: most battles are won by defeating all enemies or the boss; and enemies usually activate when someone gets too close. By itself, this produces an optimal way to play: be cautious, cruise across the map in a giant blob, and pick off enemies a few at a time. What the game does well is adding extra layers of complexity, such as mission-specific twists and optional objectives. Here are a few examples:

  • Three-way battles offering a reward if you can defeat more characters than the other two factions, or a race to defeat a specific character to claim a treasure.
  • Optional bosses with rare drops.
  • A reward for keeping waves of spawning pirates out of a village, even as your main force presses on to defeat the boss.
  • A map populated by fast, powerful roving enemies … and a treasure chest in the middle.

This pushes me to vary my tactics, and adds challenge even when my party is over-levelled. It has also delivered memorable set-pieces, such as the one at the top of this post.

Firaxis’ XCOM makes an interesting contrast — I think giving the player a risk/reward decision in Three Houses works better to shake up playstyles, compared to a hard cut-off such as XCOM 2’s controversial mission timer. The XCOM series itself has been through several approaches — Three Houses is closer to picking up MELD in XCOM: Enemy Within, although with greater variety (granted, Three Houses has the advantage of hand-crafted missions, whereas the XCOM games rely on random generation). Comparing these three games, I would argue that carrots work better than sticks.

Fire Emblem: Three Houses impressions — The best of all worlds

This entry is part 1 of 2 in the series Fire Emblem: Three Houses

Uh oh. I’ve overcommitted. This map has enemies positioned in a “U” shape, with the party starting on one map edge and the enemy lining the other three, and I’ve gone for the aggressive approach — charging straight down the middle. Now I’ve pushed several of my characters too far ahead — and I’m playing with permadeath on! The mighty Princess Edelgard, so capable in a clash of arms, has met her match in an enemy mage. Then Petra the swordswoman goes down, targeted by multiple enemies. Argh.

Rewind one turn. Try again. The advantage of going down the middle is that I’m fighting along interior lines, and now I rush characters from one flank to shore up the other with their healing magic. I pull back my most exposed party members, weather the storm. And lesson learned, I push onto victory.

An early battle in Fire Emblem: Three Houses. The togglable purple overlay marks squares that are in range of enemies. And by selecting an enemy, I can see (bottom left) their target.

Excellent tactical RPG so far. I’m 10-15 hours into Fire Emblem: Three Houses, or up to the start of the game’s fifth chapter. As a lapsed series fan who walked away in frustration from Fire Emblem: Radiant Dawn on the Wii, I was cautious about Three Houses. Instead, it’s exceeded my expectations. I am having a great time with Three Houses’ turn-based battles, the bedrock of the Fire Emblem series; I appreciate the new, anti-frustration features; and I like the new Persona-style explorable hub.

Tense, intelligent turn-based combat Fire Emblem veterans (and XCOM players) will be familiar with the basic rhythm of each turn: a patient, methodical exercise in determining where to move each character, who should attack whom, and in what order. The trick is to minimise incoming damage, both from counterattacks and on the enemy’s turn. This might include:

  • Using a ranged character to soften up a melee enemy so a melee character can safely finish them off.
  • Eliminating enemies before they get the chance to move and attack.
  • Sending forward one character as bait to lure enemies into range.
  • Positioning characters where the fewest number of enemies can reach them.

And because this is an RPG, individual characters’ strengths and weaknesses matter. If there are three magic-users ahead, then it’s best to bait them using someone with high magic resistance. Conversely, magic may be the best option when attacking a heavily armoured knight. Attention to detail is important!

New features mitigate against frustration — There are two: the ability to rewind to an earlier turn (similar to Tactics Ogre’s Chariot system), and the ability to see which characters will be targeted by which enemies when previewing a move (a little like Into the Breach). They serve different functions:

  • Rewinding time is a safety net. I play with perma-death on, so being able to rewind a turn or two is much, much better than having to replay a battle from scratch.
  • Seeing enemy attacks in advance is a planning tool, making it easier to take calculated risks.
Talking to party members between battles in Fire Emblem: Three Houses.

Taking a leaf from Persona was inspiredThree Houses benefits from adding a hub area, where the player can explore and interact with NPCs between battles. Like Persona, this runs on a calendar system, with a finite number of actions available each week. I like this for a couple of reasons:

  • First, it adds another layer of decision-making — I have to prioritise which characters to recruit and which skills to train.
  • Second, a large part of my enjoyment of games comes from puttering around well-designed worlds.

Hybrid vigour. So far, I appreciate both Three Houses’ execution and its new features. The game has breathed new life into the series for me — I look forward to playing more.