The Ten Best Family Games of 2019

Posted by | Feature, Opinion, PlayStation 4, Switch, Xbox One | No Comments

It’s the calm before the storm as we head into 2020, with with a pair of next-gen consoles looming on the horizon from Sony and Microsoft. This year was more than an afterthought for games, however, and Nintendo continues to release smash hits for the Switch.

Gaming families had plenty of excellent choices this year, though you’ll definitely want to own a Switch if you don’t already have one – nearly half the games on our list are exclusive to Nintendo’s excellent handheld hybrid. Here is the (alphabetical) list of our favorite family games of 2019.

Doraemon: Story of Seasons

You may not have heard of classic 1970s anime and manga series Doraemon, but chances are the words Harvest Moon or Stardew Valley will excite you. Doraemon: Story of Seasons infuses the enjoyable farming gameplay of Harvest Moon (now called Story of Seasons) with the youthful characters of Doraemon, including the titular time-traveling cat and his helpful gadgets.

Platforms: PC (Steam), Switch

Dragon Quest Builders 2

Dragon Quest Builders mashed up two great tastes that taste great together – the colorful enemies of venerable RPG series Dragon Quest, with the building, crafting, and blocky world of Minecraft. The result was an instant hit. Dragon Quest Builders 2 adds online (and local network) co-op multiplayer, and is available on Nintendo Switch.

Platforms: PC (Steam), PlayStation 4, Switch

Kingdom Hearts 3

Kingdom Hearts fans had to wait an eternity for the return of Sora, Donald, and Goofy with this beloved mash-up series of Disney and Final Fantasy. While the gameplay in Kingdom Hearts 3 is still firmly rooted in its original early 2000s PS2 era, there’s an undeniable joy playing within the Disney and Pixar worlds like Frozen, Toy Story, and Pirates of the Caribbean.

Platforms: PlayStation 4, Xbox One

Luigi’s Mansion 3

Nintendo knocked it out of the park with this excellent follow-up to the Luigi’s Mansion series, turning the haunted mansion into an entire ghost-filled hotel. Luigi is armed with more ghost-busting abilities, such as cloning himself as Gooigi, which can also serve as a family-friendly local co-op mode. On top of a fun campaign, up to eight players can play competitively or cooperatively in various multiplayer modes.

Platforms: Switch

Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3: The Black Order

It’s been ten years since we last enjoyed a Marvel Ultimate Alliance co-op brawler, and The Black Order more than satisfies our need to punch, blast, fry, and zap henchmen and villains. We love mixing and matching our team of different Marvel heroes from a roster of over 30, including Avengers, X-Men, and Guardians of the Galaxy.

Platforms: Switch

Planet Zoo

As a full park sim Planet Zoo is geared more toward teens and adults, but thanks to the excellent animal AI, robust creation tools, and focus on animal conservation, it makes an excellent game for families to work together to learn about animals and their complex habitat needs. A lengthy campaign help introduces the park tools and management systems while offering a wonderful variety of biomes and locations, then you can try your hand at building your own zoo from the ground up in sandbox or franchise modes.

Platforms: PC (Steam)

Pokémon Sword and Shield

There’s little doubt that a Pokémon game will grace our list of best family games. Even with the somewhat mixed results of Pokémon Sword and Shield, there’s no denying that it provides hours and hours of catching hundreds of Pokémon and battling through the UK-inspired Galar region. The free-roaming Wild Area alone is worth the price of admission for Pokémon’s eighth generation.

Platforms: Switch

Super Mario Maker 2

Super Mario Maker was a phenomenal game when it released on Wii U in 2015, finally giving us the power to create our own 2D Mario levels. The Switch sequel is basically more of the same, plus tons of new features like new enemies, components, day/night and biome themes, and  the Super Mario 3D World tileset. All that along with a much improved single-player campaign and online and local multiplayer makes Super Mario Maker 2 a must-have for Mario fans.

Platforms: Switch

Untitled Goose Game

The official tagline nails this quirky indie game’s description: It’s a lovely morning in the village, and you are a horrible goose. Play as a goose in Untitled Goose Game with a checklist of hilariously mischievous tasks such as stealing from a store, knocking over vases, hiding in boxes, and causing light-hearted mayhem for these poor townsfolk.

Platforms: PC (Epic Games Store), PlayStation 4, Switch, Xbox One

Yooka-Laylee and the Impossible Lair

Yooka-Laylee and the Impossible Lair is a much improved spin-off of the 3D platformer series that combines 3D overworld travel with 2.5D level designs, starring the chameleon Yooka and his bat companion Laylee. The result is a satisfying spiritual successor to classic 2D platformers like Donkey Kong Country.

Platforms: PC (Steam), PlayStation 4, Switch, Xbox One

Kingdom Hearts 3 Adds Challenging New Critical Mode

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Kingdom Hearts 3 received a free update today that adds a challenging new difficulty setting called Critical Mode.

Critical Mode makes two simple but, well, critical changes. Sora’s maximum HP and MP are halved, and the frequency with which situation commands and unity attacks pop up is much lower. On the plus side, enabling Critical Mode opens up exclusive new moves that Sora can unleash.

The Critical Mode update also now allows players to carry over their hard-earned late-game keyblades into a new game. When starting a new game, keyblades will revert back to their starting power level. But you’ll be able to wield many keyblades much earlier than normal.

One of our chief complaints about Kingdom Hearts 3 was how simplistic and easy the combat was. We’re not sure if halving Sora’s stats and reducing the powerful situational moves will improve the gameplay, but we’re always glad to see more options.

Kingdom Hearts 3 is available now on PlayStation 4 and Xbox One. It’s rated E10+.

kingdom hearts 3

Opinion: Kingdom Hearts 3 Has a Nostalgia Problem

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A YA-friendly, easy-to-play action-adventure that explores and celebrates Disney animated movies should be a winning formula. It certainly was in 2002 when the original Kingdom Hearts launched on the PlayStation 2. The popularity of the series and decade plus drought of a main-line game created a huge amount of anticipation for Kingdom Hearts 3.

Unfortunately, Kingdom Hearts 3 feels like a PS2 game in all the worst ways.

Seventeen years feels like forever ago, but I played and enjoyed the original Kingdom Hearts. The hack and slash combat was fast and fun, and the use of Disney and Final Fantasy characters as NPCs and party members was something truly special. The story rested on whimsical light against darkness tropes, which is perfectly fine when you’re battling alongside Goofy and Donald. When the sequel came out in 2005 I jumped all over it, only to be left with a vastly more convoluted story involving virtual world copies, soul-merging heroes, and impostor villains.

Several spin-off games, prequels, and side stories were released in the years between Kingdom Hearts 2 and 3, which I ignored. I fully expected to be completely lost in Kingdom Hearts 3’s story. But I did not expect the series’ defiant refusal to evolve beyond its PS2-era interface, combat, and level design.

kingdom hearts 3

Kingdom Hearts 3 is a grim reminder of how far gaming has come in the last decade and a half. I was frustrated from the very opening level in the Disney Hercules world of Thebes and Mt. Olympus. Every area is mostly a series of walled, linear hallways, with a few larger rooms for bigger combat sequences. A minimap in the upper right corner is mostly useless, and the game lacks a proper world map. Countless times I got completely turned around, doubling back for awhile before I realized I was going the wrong way.

Exploration in most worlds is extremely limited and not very rewarding. The exception early on is the Toy Story world, which primarily takes place inside a three story toy store, granting a bit of freedom to explore different areas. Even then I got completely lost when I was told to go to one location, only to finally look it up online where exactly I needed to go. Never have I ached for a proper quest marker or just any kind of journal. At the very least a standard map would’ve saved so much of my frustration, even with the mostly boring level designs.

Don’t even get me started on the Gummi ship sequences. They managed to make the weakest part of the original games and make it even worse in Kingdom Hearts 3.

To travel to each new world you have to pilot an ugly, blocky, customizable ship in a pseudo free-roaming space sequence. Controlling the Gummi ship is abysmally frustrating. Worse still the game forces you into retro shoot ’em up boss battles between worlds. These boss fights weren’t difficult but took forever to complete, all while doing nothing but mildly moving the ship around and holding down the attack button.

kingdom hearts 3

On-foot combat isn’t much better. Fighting the heartless and the nobodies mostly boils down to mashing the attack button as quickly as possible while Sora vaults through the air with colorful keyblade attacks. Occasionally a special attack is available, such as uniting with your allies or summoning a neon-colored Disney attraction, like the teacups or carousel.

The attraction attacks are a neat idea but given their resource-less cost you never pass them up, and it turns the already dull combat into an even duller shooting gallery or rhythm game. The first time you unleash the teacups or the splash run is a blast. Not so much the 20th time.

Gaining a new keyblade after completing a world is the one piece of fun loot you’ll ever get. Each keyblade has slightly different stats and different special attacks they can unleash, including transforming into entirely different weapons like a warhammer, dual pistols, or a magical staff. Visually it’s fun transforming the Frozen keyblade into a pair of lighting fast dual blades, but the actual combat doesn’t change. I’m still mostly mashing the attack button.

kingdom hearts 3

Elemental spells can be thrown around, but feel sluggish and weak compared to the much quicker basic attack combos, and selecting a spell using the d-pad is a nasty UI holdover from the PS2 era. Equipping abilities is also needlessly fiddly. Sora and friends level up and gain new abilities, which must be actively equipped. Each ability takes up a certain AP cost, and a character can only equip so many. If you equip an accessory which grants additional AP, you’ll need to first de-equip a number of abilities in order to shuffle your items around. It’s exactly as annoying as it sounds.

I’m not going to comment too much on the story itself, given that I fell out of the Kingdom Hearts loop long ago. But I was disappointed in how the story approaches the Disney worlds. The worlds of Frozen and Tangled simply recreate the movies, beat for beat, including drawing cutscenes directly from the films (yes, they do the entire “Let it Go” number).

In the Frozen world I was hoping to actually adventure with Queen Elsa. She has superhero-style ice powers – how do you not include her as a party member! But no, we have to tell the entire Frozen story again and follow everyone around, at one point getting thrown into an annoying, bland ice labyrinth for no reason other than to pad out the adventure.

kingdom hearts 3

The Pixar worlds fare much better. Both Toy Story and Monsters Inc take place AFTER their respective films (first films anyway). The stories and level designs are much better served when they’re not beholden to retelling stories that were clearly not built for video game adventuring. Tangled’s world consists of running through a forest to the castle, then running back through the exact same forest. Whereas in Toy Story Sora and company are shrunk down and explore a toy store with giant robots. The Pixar worlds are far more interesting (to a point) and make the actual Disney animated worlds that much more disappointing.

I had fond memories of the original Kingdom Hearts. And I still think a high-concept RPG using Disney’s deep roster of worlds and characters is a wonderful thing to explore in a video game. But Kingdom Hearts 3’s shocking refusal to evolve beyond its aging level designs and simplistic combat create an experience that only the most nostalgia-blinded fans can enjoy.