The race to create photorealistic graphics has meant some truly stunning video games in recent years, and with a new console generation just around the corner, things are going to get even better very soon indeed. There are games where at times it can be hard to tell the difference between digital and reality, and every year we see developers recreate humanity more closely than before. That said, the ingenuity of game designers has repeatedly demonstrated that we don't need life-like graphics to make stunning interactive entertainment, and this little celebration of visual design more than proves that point.
5. The Legend of Zelda: Link's Awakening by Nintendo EAD - Restoring a revered classic is no easy task, but Nintendo made it look easy with The Legend of Zelda: Link's Awakening, which landed on the Switch this year after more than 25 years away. Despite being strong on nostalgia the decision was taken to overhaul the game visually, and they've done a lovely job.
This charming adventure was brought to life via some beautiful visual design. From shimmering water to the lush vegetation, the world is beautiful to behold and a pleasure to explore, regardless of whether you're moving through sandy beaches or delving deep underground into puzzle-filled dungeons.
4. Disco Elysium by ZA/UM - The fact that Disco Elysium would end up being a contender for game of the year across various outlets might have come as a surprise to many, but the fact that the game is a visual wonder was less so. The developer behind the game, ZA/UM, was put together by a group of artists, novelists, and musicians, and it shows in every aspect of the game.
Disco Elysium's design is fairly simple, but it displays emotions in its environments through clever use of colour palettes, dystopian structures and brush stroke-like aspects that make the game look like a moving oil painting. It's so unique in so many ways and every design aspect complements the rest.
3. Death Stranding by Kojima Productions - Ever since the early days of Death Stranding following its reveal, Hideo Kojima made clear that it'd be a visual spectacle, right down to the mossy rocks and the blades of grass under Norman Reedus' feet as he traverses the vast, sprawling terrain. It's a game where the natural scenery is created with such love and care that it's a joy to take it all in, even when there are ghostly BTs or violent mules nipping at your backside.
That's without even mentioning the excellent characters, the unique costumes (Troy Baker's golden mask is iconic already), and the facial animations that make this one of the most polished and visually delicious affairs of 2019. It's not always big and bombastic, but everything in there has been polished and tweaked down to the tiniest detail, which is certainly evident in the finished product.
2. A Plague Tale: Innocence by Asobo Studio - There are few threats that have yet to be explored in the realm of video games. Zombies roaming the streets, terrorists lurking in bunkers, aliens waiting to rip one's head off of one's shoulders; sometimes it feels as though we've seen it all before. Cue A Plague Tale: Innocence.
The Asobo-made game had us hooked from the very start, following protagonist duo and sibling pair Amicia and Hugo as they escape forces opposing their family's influence in the area while searching for a cure for Hugo's mysterious illness. At first, the player was led to believe that the armies at the duo's heels were the main threat in the beautiful world, but soon it was revealed to be the erratic, dangerous horde of plague rats taking over the land that would prove to be the game's main antagonists.
Not only is A Plague Tale: Innocence a beautiful game, but the clever design surrounding the rats plaguing the siblings throughout the game is masterfully done, creating not only an immediate sense of helplessness through its sheer atmosphere but a surreal yet somehow believable setting.
1. Control by Remedy Entertainment - Remedy has, since the release of its stunning yet haunting narrative-driven shooter Max Payne, delivered games with unique twists, stellar design and grand soundtracks. From dark detective sagas to horrifying alternate reality thrillers to mindbending time-travel stories, the developer has had us hooked since the early 2000s.
The latest in the studio's wave of stellar experiences is Control, a delightfully odd tale following protagonist Jesse Faden who arrives at the Oldest House, a building hiding in plain sight in the middle of New York City. While appearing to be a borderline mundane federal office building at first glance, one is quickly made aware of the fact that the interior is capable of bending, changing, transforming at any time, adding an extra layer of surrealism and otherworldly immersion to the adventure.
Not only does the Oldest House itself boggle the minds of Control's players, but the design, from the sparse use of colour to its ever-changing environments, had us in awe throughout. Taking inspiration from vintage supernatural source material, Remedy crafted a game so utterly striking that even months after release it still stands as the game that we enjoyed most this year from a visual perspective.
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