Release date: February 4 (PS4, Xbox One, PC)
The balls-to-the-wall gunplay in Apex Legends is second to none. It’s an argument that could be diffused with a round of Overwatch, but Respawn’s elevated approach to the battle royale takes the best of Titanfall, CS:GO, PUBG, and Rainbow Six Siege, and fastballs those mechanics into a John Wick-style video game. Skirmishes can erupt into non-stop bullet storms, and its use of 3v3s, ping systems, character powers, verticality, and top-shelf weapon design amplify it to new heights. It’s a rock’em, sock’em shooter, and while it’s still finding its legs, Apex isn’t wasting any time in becoming a contender for top battle royale game on the market. And loot boxes be damned — it’s free to play.
Release date: February 5 (PC)
Unquestionably, ART SQOOL is the weirdest game on this list. As Froshmin at your new art sqool, you’re tasked with completing a barrage of seemingly random assignments through drawing on your MS Paint-like canvas, which are graded by your AI professor, all in an effort to make you the best artist you can be in this glitched-out vaporwave world. It can be a frustrating experience — you only start with one brush (get outside the classroom, kids!), and a bad grade can feel like a personal affront — but this singular indie game from Brooklyn-based illustrator Julian Glander is as whimsically engrossing as it is a thinkpiece on the institutional strictures and scamminess of real-life art school. Post-grads with liberal arts degrees: Brace yourself for flashbacks to your days of stewing quietly during classroom critiques.
Baba Is You
Release date: March 13 (PC, Switch)
Arvi “Hempuli” Teikari’s new 2D puzzler follows four simple rules: Baba Is You, Flag Is Win, Wall Is Stop, and Rock Is Push. As the baba — an adorable bunny-like creature — the objective is to push aside rocks and touch the flag to complete a level. That is, until you realize every word on the screen is a movable tile and you can modify each of the cardinal rules to complete a puzzle in an entirely different way. It’s a mechanic that can become brutally difficult in mere seconds, but the ability to modify and remix larger X and Y statements is what makes Baba Is You an addictive timesink. It’s a puzzle game within a puzzle game and one that will gut-check your preconceptions about the genre.
Devil May Cry 5
Release date: March 8 (PS4, Xbox One, PC)
Hideaki Itsuno’s Devil May Cry 5 is ridiculously cool, stylish, sexy, and full-on cheesy, and as much as its narrative is about Nero’s path to becoming more than just dead weight, it’s a sequel that ties some loose ends together by being the action romp it deserves. One second, you will find yourself lost in a plot that is equal parts Hot Topic, Fury Road, and Showdown In Little Tokyo, and by the next, you’ll find yourself headbanging the night away as you hack and slash enemies with motorcycle swords. Dante is still Dante and the demons are still demons (for the most part), but DMC5slays at upending the traditional norms and stigmas of today by making a badass arcade gem feel like a theatrical masterpiece.
The Division 2
Release date: March 15 (PS4, Xbox One, PC)
The Division 2 is the year’s best loot shooter. It’s a bit of a paradox, considering Ubisoft’s flair for turning darker, political narratives into episodes of Chip ‘n Dale: Rescue Rangers, but their take on a post-apocalyptic Washington, DC is a captivating technical achievement that’s rewarding from the get-go. It ties refined cover shooter mechanics to a new drop-in matchmaking system and smarter enemy AI that make action sequences more tactical than predictable, and with an endgame that lives by classes, raids, strongholds, and customization, there’s a lot of stuff that just needs doing. It piles on to create a gameplay loop that never stops looping — making it a compelling, thrills and skills RPG that sets the bar for the shared world shooter genre.
Release date: March 12 (PC)
Jay Tholen and Mike Lasch’s Hypnospace Outlaw is a wonderfully weird simulation of late ’90s internet culture that’s more addictive than Shark Bites fruit snacks. In it, players are tasked with moderating an online hub called Hypnospace in hopes of using investigative tactics to take out hackers, scam artists, copyright infringers, and corrupt GeoCities trolls. There’s a lot at play as the narrative uses a point-and-click puzzler to skewer politics, corruption, and social structures, and it’s all encased in a customizable desktop and an online fallout of teen spaces, punk bands, virtual pets, New Age spiritualists, and pre-MySpace creatives. Hypnospace is a memeable head trip about digital villainy and how far we’ve come since the time of Winamp skins and Limp Bizkit covers.
Release date: April 18 (PC, Switch)
Much like Dead Cells and The Messenger, Katana ZERO pulls apart the typical concept for a 2D action platformer by being a rare outlier that flirts with art and action. It’s a pixelated mashup of 47 Ronin and Timecop — cuffing a time-bending samurai quest to chic katana duels, instant deaths, interconnected rooms, and a darker ’80s neon aesthetic that’s accentuated by one of the year’s best original soundtracks. Its lush combat sequences and VHS free fall into themes of trauma and life and death are here for Saturday mornings, but Askiisoft’s execution is what makes ZERO a timeless paragon in its genre (and on the Switch).
Kingdom Hearts III
Release date: January 25 (PS4, Xbox One)
Forget about the DeviantArt crowd and everything you’ve read on Tumblr: No one really knows what the hell is going on in Kingdom Hearts III. What we do know is that Tetsuya Nomura and the rest of his team have fulfilled their promise of delivering a monumental conclusion to one of the greatest franchises Square Enix has ever produced. It’s charming, wacky, and more rooted in moments of self-reflection in a world of all-things Disney, and every organic emotion it stirs up is backed by carefree combat mechanics and cinematic flourishes that explore the intricacies of Wreck-It Ralph, Tangled, Big Hero 6, and Winnie The Pooh. It’s still very much about Sora’s great big adventure with Donald and Goofy, but in true Kingdom Hearts fashion, it pivots to focus on old and new players alike in hopes of providing an escape from the Heartless and Nobodies that haunt our own realities.
Life Is Strange 2
Release date: January 24 (PS4, Xbox One, PC)
Life Is Strange 2 starts off on a ordinary afternoon, with two adolescent brothers who attempt to keep up with the minutiae of everyday life in Seattle, until a quick search for party supplies triggers a devastating series of events. That split second transition throws the brothers into a totally unexpected direction and the different “Roads” and “Rules” that follow show that Dontnod are committed to using human behavior and American politics to emphasize themes that flicker beyond Arcadia Bay. Keeping spoilers to a minimum, the first two (and a half) episodes stand by their strengths — stitching a beautiful narrative to your heart in hopes of hitting you where it hurts the most — and with an updated engine and a flawless indie soundtrack that pulls from the likes of Whitney, First Aid Kit, and Sufjan Stevens, it’s clear that there’s no point in turning back.
Mortal Kombat 11
Release date: April 23 (PS4, Xbox One, PC, Switch)
Mortal Kombat 11 is in a league of its own because the decades-spanning team at NetherRealm is absolutely nuts. Their fixation with design and performance remains, but MK11 is more of a nostalgia-inducing romp than a modern classic. Story mode is an earth-shattering John Woo soap opera; the fatalities are absurd and eye poppingly gorgeous; and its lessons on attacks, cancels, frame data, zoning, and character movesets help to create one of the best fighting game tutorial that gaming has ever seen. It’s attached to the loot grind, but with old faces (Liu Kang, Kitana), cult favorites (Frost, Noob Saibot), and customization that digs into modular loadouts and 30 different pairs of specs for Johnny Cage, boredom in MK11 isn’t an option. It sets the bar for fighters and sequels with a budget, and it’s a stunning thesis on how a studio can bring together tweens, veteran gamers, and SonicFoxes to shadow kick you in the neck.
Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney Trilogy
Release date: April 9 (PS4, Xbox One, PC, Switch)
First released back in 2001 for Game Boy Advance, Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorneyseems an impossible success. Nonetheless, the courtroom visual novel adventure game about rookie attorney Phoenix Wright who investigates and defends a string of strange cases, some dealing with the spiritual realm, has been one in spite of itself, extending into a trilogy and getting several platform re-releases and adaptations as manga and anime. Now, it’s gotten an upgrade for modern platforms with fresh graphics and an updated UI. Befitting of its weirdness, Phoenix Wright doesn’t have the self-seriousness of many other games — the earnesty of the early 2000s dialogue reads as laden with irony in 2019 — and the straightforwardness of the gameplay makes each chapter breezy enough to get through at a decent tick while not being so simple that it hands you all the keys to the case you’re working. It’s a blast to challenge your dickhead, corrupt rival lawyer in court and call bullshit on sketchy witnesses that testify on the stand. For first-timers, file Phoenix Wright to “games you’ll sink four hours into before you realize time has passed at all.” For returning vets, welcome back — court is in session.
Resident Evil 2
Release date: January 25 (PS4, Xbox One, PC)
1998’s Resident Evil 2 was a cultural phenomenon; 2019’s Resident Evil 2 is Capcom’s attempt at hitting everyone with a noise complaint for yelling about some trenchcoat-wearing bogeyman who views race walking as an American pastime. The remake is still centered around Raccoon City and why it’s pretty much Portland but for zombies, but it ditches tank controls for an over-the-shoulder perspective that would make any RE fan’s head pop. Claire is still a leather-clad badass; Leon still looks like he belongs on the cover of Bop Magazine; and in between all the awkward flirting and cheesy one-liners is a renewed passion for collectibles, sound design, and survival horror that uses perfectly detailed environments to scare you senseless. It’s a candid love letter to Shinji Mikami and the Resident Evil series as a whole, and it’s one that will push you to invest in no health and no item box runs just to see if you can make it out alive.
Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice
Release date: March 22 (PS4, Xbox One, PC)
Sekiro isn’t for the faint of heart. In its 30-plus hours, you’ll take on the role of a loyal shinobi who is left for dead in the late 1500s Sengoku-era of Japan. What follows is a lonesome revenge tale in a visually breathtaking world that invites curiosity, exploration, and lore-mongering. But being a FromSoftware game, it severs itself from the “Soulsborne” genre to subject you to a different kind of heartless that emphasizes patience and precision. That invitation is what makes Shadows Die Twice one of the most compelling video games of this past decade. Its white-knuckled combat forgoes stat builds and arms you with a single katana, a grappling hook, and a modular prosthetic arm, forcing you to study the ins and outs of parrying and how all three tools correlate with timing, spacing, and movement. When that finally clicks, Sekirowastes no time in rewarding you with some dope anime-esque ninja shit. It’s a weird, unforgiving, and downright harrowing game, but it’s an example of how a director and a studio can challenge their own values and principles to compose a complete work of art.
It’s hard to replicate a year like Top 6 Japanese Games Of 2018, but the industry’s most talented voices continue to upend norms in hopes of creating digital treehouses we can find solace (or be scared out of our wits) in. If the likes of anticipated releases like Cyberpunk 2077, The Last Of Us Part II, and that shamelessly adorable Link’s Awakeningredux are our future, then these titles are a reminder of the kill streaks, plot twists, and memes that make us whole. In a time where the world isn’t so pretty, they’re here to inspire, comfort, and inform. These are our picks for the best video games of 2019. We’ll be updating regularly all year long, so check back frequently.