So yeah, 2020...
In a lot of ways, looking at the list I’ve created here kind of sums up how I felt about the year in general. So much of the mainstream was pushed aside for me that I had to find gems in other places. Because there were no big films, or hell, I didn’t have a film festival to go to either, I found myself seeking out old and weird stuff and in a way, this translated into the types of games I found myself genuinely attached to. The big budget first party releases have been largely pushed aside here and a large part of that has been Game Pass. Five of the games on this list I played on Game Pass and I’m pretty sure that if it wasn’t a thing, I probably would have only played about one of them, I see that as a win for the service.
Previous Year Lists: 2008 (Braid), 2009 (Dragon Age: Origins), 2010 (Mass Effect 2), 2011 (The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim), 2012 (Zero Escape: Virtues Last Reward), 2013 (The Last of Us), 2014 (Dark Souls II), 2015 (Bloodborne), 2016 (Inside), 2017 (NieR Automata), 2018 (Yakuza 6: The Song of Life), 2019 (Outer Wilds)
Best Old Game I Played This Year: Dragon Quest V: Hand of the Heavenly Bride - Being told that this is the best 2D RPG ever is a tough mantle to live up to. It’s excellent, even playing through it on Mobile.
Just Missed Out:
Ghost of Tsushima – It was just a game I played, I liked everything here, but never really loved any one part of it.
Welcome to Elk – Just wanted to quickly shout out this cool and heartfelt little adventure game.
Spiritfarer – This could have so easily made my top 10 if only there was less of it. By the end of the game, there is so much busy work…which I get is kind of the point, but it pushed me away.
Deadly Premonition 2: A Blessing in Disguise: Beyond the technical mess this game was, it’s also an awful story. Genuinely made me question if I liked the first game and if I should even bother with SWERY games in future.
Star Wars: Squadrons: It just never clicked for me. This should have been a home run, instead I just found myself bored by the whole thing.
The Top 10
I didn’t love the first Ori game outside of maybe the soundtrack and some of the visuals. I found the difficulty variations to be pretty frustrating and that probably detached me from the experience. Going into Will of the Wisps, I was a little concerned the same might happen as I started it, but the game slowly washed over me and I was just completely drawn in. There are some weird choices in the story, particularly as relates to the villain, but the gameplay is just so smooth and when you combine that with stellar visuals and the moving score, it makes for a spectacular game experience.
It hasn’t quite stuck with me as much as I would have liked, but when putting this list together and ordering things, I’d think back to the visuals and the music and felt it presented a strong enough case to beat other games I was considering for the 10th spot.
I don’t have a lot to say about Morkredd other than I wish more people would give it a go because it’s just this fun weird puzzle game that I found myself obsessively playing at the end of the year. I will say this, the final sequence is, well, bad, but thankfully what comes before it scratched a physics puzzle itch in the right spot. The atmosphere is great, the levels are varied and playing this single player often broke my brain, but I came out of it happy. It also doesn’t outstay its welcome which makes it a perfect Game Pass game.
In October, I became somewhat obsessed with Frankenstein. As a part of Shocktober, I decided to read the book and then watch as many Frankenstein films as I could. I then extended this to see what games there were based on those characters. As it so happened, there was a PC hidden object/puzzle game called Frankenstein Master of Death. I enjoyed it enough but it made me what more from the first person story driven puzzle game genre. It wasn’t till I played Call of the Sea (on Game Pass) that I got exactly what I wanted.
The fact that I was able to solve every puzzle in this game through basic deduction (okay, there was one I couldn’t get and even after reading the solution, still didn’t get) was a big plus. The intricate and beautiful world that was built around these puzzles was also key. At the end though, it was this fun adventure story at its heart and revealed itself in fascinating and often beautiful ways.
Another Game Pass gem that was short but ever so sweet. I love that this game didn’t outstay its welcome because I wanted to absorb everything there was to it. I just kept pushing myself, taking in the trial and error fun of each scenario and enjoying the havoc I was able to wreak. The movement in this game feels so great and the first time you pull off a great monster movie kill, it just makes you smile and gives you a push to up your game the next time you get a chance.
At the centre of Carrion though is a fun Science Fiction Horror story. One of my favourite films is The Thing and playing through the story moments in Carrion while often a slow distraction, was so much fun because of where it all leads. This game probably has my favourite ending of the year and it’s unlikely to be something I’ll forget for a good while which is a big achievement for such a small game.
For a bunch of reasons, I haven’t played a Supergiant game since Bastion. This is a shame because Bastion is damn close to being an all-timer for me, I love that game. It wasn’t looking like I was going to get to Hades either but with a train trip over Christmas (Note: in largely COVID free Australia), I decided to load it to my Switch and start playing on Christmas day and yeah, I get it now, it’s great.
Everything I loved about Bastion is here, the smooth combat, the cool story and the fantastic music. My only complaint is that I’m feeling a little bit hampered regarding progression, but that’s just me wanting to get through it. It’s not higher on the list simply because I haven’t spent enough time with it, I might regret putting it at 6, but this is where I sit on the game as the year ends.
So a weird thing happened in November, I’d just finished another game and thought I’d start Yakuza Like a Dragon, but that had a large install that was going to take some time. A couple of years ago I’d decided to play through the Gears of War games, I only go through Ultimate though before I got distracted but I had them all sitting there on my hard drive. As Yakuza installed, hearing that Gears 5 looked incredible on Series X, I loaded up Gears of War 2. How obsessed did I become? The first game I played on my Series X was Judgement just because I had yet to finish it. I paid for the story DLC for 3 which was the second game I played on my Series X. I’ve bought books…BOOKS! I mean look, I’m a guy who reads pretty heavy literary works here but for some reason I was just overtaken by the desire to immerse myself in this world as much as possible.
While Gears Tactics is a solid game, its place on this list probably has more to do with the franchise it’s connected to and I thought Hivebusters would be a stretch. It’s a franchise which, in absorbing as much of it as possible, I’m also trying to locate exactly what it is in me that is so drawn to it. Gears Tactics isn’t helping that because while it isn’t the heavy action game I’ve become accustomed to over the last month, it still works great as a Gears game. Maybe it’s just the solid high quality gameplay these games have while being set in a world that has a surprisingly deep backstory. I’ll keep at it, and I’ll likely love every moment of it which includes enjoying this fun dive into a genre I often find myself getting a lot from.
4. Mortal Shell
I think I’ve been saying that Dark Souls is my all-time favourite game on these lists every year since I played it in 2014. In fact, the only year since then that I haven’t had a Souls style game on my list has been 2017. This year doesn’t break the trend. It doesn’t take long for Mortal Shell to reveal what it is. For me though, it’s always about what there is that is unique while still managing to capture the essence of what I love about that original Dark Souls. Mortal Shell hits that essence and as I found myself wandering through the games third dungeon (which was the obsidian castle thing for me) a smile crept over my face, they nailed it.
At least with that Dungeon they did, there’s a pretty frustrating learning curve here and getting to that point caused me a few headaches. The open world can be an annoying maze at the start of the game and the first dungeon I went into had me questioning my desire to continue. Once I locked in my build though and focused on the areas I felt fit my playstyle, the game felt great. The bosses became fun and exploring the levels and open world was something I relished. It’s a short one, but I’d take a Souls Like game at only 20 hours every year if it was at this level of quality.
Early in Bugsnax, you’re given a side quest to spy on one of the other members of the small community that you’re asked to build up. The result of this quest is heartbreaking and yet, if I hadn’t done that quest, if I’d refused to spy on a character who I’d come to kind of like, I wouldn’t have seen this great character moment. This happens again throughout Bugsnax and each time, in doing something inherently bad, I was revealing more about these characters and in doing so, growing to love them more and more.
When people talk about Bugsnax, they rarely talk about how great the characters are instead talking about how whacky the whole thing is. “They’re bugs you can EAT!” was often heard and at first, it kind of turned me off playing. What actually got me to play it was hearing how bizarre the ending was, I wanted to see it which, funnily enough, I didn’t really like all that much. I liked the moment to moment gameplay and dutifully collected every Bugsnax in the game, but I probably wouldn’t have done that with such fervour if it wasn’t for all the great characters who I had such joy in living with. The fact I nearly cried at the end when I saw two characters kiss is enough for me to put it this high on the list.
2. Wasteland 3
As I neared the end of my time with Wasteland 3, I wanted to shout from rooftops how great this game was because as near as I could tell, nobody was talking about it. Maybe it is just the podcasts I listen to, it got a few mentions here and there from the resident RPG guy but everyone else seemed to not even want to try it. Is it simply because it’s an isometric RPG? If this was first or third person full 3D, would more people have played it? I don’t know, but what I do know is that I invested a lot of time, pushed through some graphical bugs with this game and just loved the experience.
Despite being a Kickstarter backer for the second game, I never actually played it and I also hadn’t played the original. The closest I’d gotten was reading about it through the marketing of the original Fallout. That didn’t matter though, as I built my team, I found that I was able to forge a new path for my characters, unshackled by knowledge of previous games. Then I go and battle a giant Robot Reagan and, as I said at the start, I want to shout from rooftops. There is just so much cool and fun to be had here that when I finally wrapped it up, I was strongly considering doing another complete play through where I make different choices, I hope I’ll get that chance soon because this game deserves a second run. It also deserves a first run from you, yes you reading this.
In 1997, my brother and I were waging one of our regular this is better than that battles. In my corner was the newly released Fallout, in his, Final Fantasy VII. Both were RPGs with turn based combat and both were set in dark futuristic worlds. That’s about about where the similarities end. There’s a certain irony that this list has FFVIIR at 1 and Wasteland 3 at 2 when I think back to 97 and where I was as a gamer then and now. Where Wasteland 3 is a throwback RPG with a strong adherence to old school systems, FFVIIR forges a new path breaking the shackles of the game it is remaking and I liked that more than Wasteland 3, let’s explore why.
I didn’t actually play the original Final Fantasy VII until 2017. After playing Final Fantasy XV, I decided I should try to play every single player, numbered Final Fantasy game over the course of 12 months. The first game I played after XV was VII, I loved it. It wasn’t just that though, I finally recognised it for what it was and understood why my brother was so invested in it, it’s a Young Adult novel, this was my brother’s Harry Potter.
Final Fantasy VII Remake isn’t a remake, it’s a big budget adaptation of a book you loved as a kid. Instead of stilted turn based combat, they’ve changed it to a cool real time system that produces battles you could only imagine in your mind in 1997. It’s bells and whistles all over the place but it’s also more than that. There is controversy around this game, a controversy that suggests what this game series is going to be isn’t that faithful adaptation many desired. Like any great book that gets a big Hollywood adaptation though, I’m not looking for them to transfer what was on the page to the screen, that often results in boring and unimaginative work. Great adaptations often break the material a bit, it angers purists sure, but the work then becomes new and exciting. FVIIR’s ability to capture everything I loved about that opening chapter of the original in a huge and bombastic way was something great to witness and I find myself excited about the new path they journey on ahead. No game hit me like this one in 2020.