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Games of 2020

2020, huh? A true shitshow in damn near every regard, and one that I don't want to spend too much preamble ruminating on. Bless these games for bringing some light to it. There's plenty of rambling and ruminating to be had in the ten entries below, so pardon the stream of consciousness.

An extra honorable mention should be given to the rollback netcode update for Guilty Gear XX Accent Core +R, which took one of my favorite fighting games of all time and added quality online play. An amazing game became even better in 2020, and if I didn't leave it off the list on a technicality due to when it came out, it probably would be near the top.

List items

  • Stop me if you’ve heard this one before; someone thinks that Hades is really good. Supergiant games make appearances on my top ten lists more often than not, and after spending a good hundred or so hours with Hades, I’m comfortable saying that it’s my favorite game the studio has made to date. This team’s acumen for pure gameplay design is second to none, and the instant I heard they were making an action roguelike, I was as excited as can be to get my hands on it. At the same time, I have a habit of not diving too hard into early access games lest I get my fill or burn out before the game gets to 1.0, so I didn’t start with Hades until the Switch version came out in 2020. Once that happened, though, it was off to the races, and Hades was all I wanted to play for weeks, putting in run after run in an effort to see everything the game had to offer.

    The wonder of Hades lies in all of the details, and it does so many things right it’s hard to know where to start. It’s a killer roguelike, but some of its greatest strengths come from how it makes that structure appealing even to people who may not have been fans of the genre before. The way the game doles out story in the hub between runs, filling the House of Hades with an assortment of different characters for Zagreus to chat with, fleshing out the world and building up relationships with the whole lovable bunch. The writing is absolutely top-notch throughout the game, be it in these conversations at the House, talking to whatever gods or other assorted folks show up during a run, the main story scenes where major events come to pass, and everything in between. The character arcs that reveal themselves over the course of runs are compelling, and the fact that even a death leads to more story unfolding makes no run feel like a waste. Both my first escape and my tenth rank as some of my favorite gaming moments of the year, and the addition of this much strong storytelling to Hades makes it stand out amongst roguelikes as something truly special.

    The gameplay is as strong as ever, up to the lofty standards Supergiant’s previous work has set. Each weapon was fun to use, and the different aspects available mean that even within a weapon there are more options to explore and more variety to be had. Add in whatever assortment of Olympian boons and keepsake effects that turn up in a given run, and some truly busted builds are on the table. I loved seeing what I could come up with, taking what the game gave me in the early stages of a run and then seeking out what would complement that loadout and turn it into something awesome. The way the game introduces powerful duo boons for different god pairings lent a benefit for paying attention to the particulars of what I picked up early and what I should be on the lookout for, and the way those combinations play off of the unique aspects of the gods that comprise them are clever as hell. I still have some prophecies to go back and complete, but I find the pure act of playing the game to be so much fun that I have no problem grinding out the time needed to level up character relationships and wait for some random occurrences to come up in order to achieve those goals.

    The art and music of Hades are both on point, with the character designs for the whole cast emphasizing what makes each resident of the House or Olympus unique. Each area of Hades that a run goes through is well-realized in its own right, and I want to give extra love to the foyer of each region having a place where you can stand to pan the camera up to a truly breathtaking wide shot that captures its aesthetic perfectly. The game’s soundtrack, predictably given the track record of Darren Korb’s work, is a perfect fit. The style shifts from area to area, and certain unique rooms having their own theme music made them feel extra special. It’s a sign of the effect that the soundtrack had on me that, upon unlocking the ability to buy the game’s individual songs to play in the hub, I learned of the existence of a song I hadn’t heard yet and set about finding where in the game I could find it. Turns out, it was the Extreme Measures Hades battle theme. If you know, you know. That shit RIPS.

    I could go on, but you get the point, and even beyond that you’ve surely heard all of this said time and time again across the internet by people far more eloquent than I am. To put it simply, Hades is a resounding success on every level, a game so entirely lacking in rough edges that the only complaint I could offer is that I wish there were more of it. Given how much the game developed over the course of its time in early access, maybe there’s hope that further updates will be coming in the future. Credit to the entire team at Supergiant Games, you all have created a masterpiece here.

  • Oh boy, here we go. This one has been a long time coming, as I technically started playing this game back in 2013 when its first chapter released. KR0 has released piecemeal over the past near-decade, with chapters and interludes coming out as they were ready, but the finished product finally made it out in 2020. I believe it was somewhere around the end of Chapter 2’s release that I decided to stop and wait for the full game to be released before playing more; little did I know it would be many years before I would get my chance. Once the TV Edition released at the beginning of 2020, I started the whole thing over and played through the entire story, and I fell in love with it all over again.

    Kentucky Route Zero is an adventure game that tells the story of a delivery man named Conway who is hired to make one last delivery for an antique shop to a home on 5 Dogwood Drive. The only way to reach this address, he finds, is to travel down the mysterious Route Zero, and the act of learning the nature of the Zero and what it means to traverse it takes Conway, the various compatriots he meets along the way, and the player, on one hell of a journey.

    The gameplay is generally relatively standard point-and-click, moving characters around various environments to interact with stuff and talk to people, but the details are where things really get special. One of the major tricks that KR0 has up its sleeve that worked so well for me is the nature of its dialogue choices. In many adventure games, everything hinges on what choices you make to induce huge shifts in where the story is going, but this game isn’t really interested in that. Here, the player is presented with much more minor choices in dialogue responses, selections that end up in generally the same place but allow the player to flesh out the character’s interiority, the minutiae of how they feel about how everything’s going. It makes the story being lived out feel intensely personal, even if the actual events are pretty much entirely going to occur according to the game’s design. My favorite example of the choices this game offers is actually one of the first ones: the first time that Conway addresses the old hound that’s in his delivery truck with him, the game lets you choose its name from a handful of options. In the end, the dog’s name isn’t really important, but the one you pick sticks around for the entire game, making your experience just a little more “yours.”

    The story that Kentucky Route Zero tells is equal parts heartwarming and heartbreaking, a look into the way that the systems that our world is built on (capitalism, especially) are designed to break us down and tear us apart, but the wonder of life is often in the spaces we create for ourselves and the people we share them with. Every chapter introduces new environments and new characters with their own stories to tell, all of them weaving into the larger experience and creating something resonant, especially in a year like 2020. I played this entire game before the world was ravaged by a pandemic that was used as an opportunity for the rich to further profit from the suffering of the rest of us, and I honestly can only imagine how it feels to experience it now, having lived in our current world for as long as we all have.

    The visuals are often minimalist but still deliver incredible environments when the game decides it’s time for them, and this is another of the year’s truly great soundtracks. Each chapter contains a major moment that’s accompanied by one of the OST’s full-vocal tracks, many of which are among the game’s best and most impactful scenes. Alongside these big-time pieces, the rest of the soundtrack is a perfect match to the vibes of each place the group finds itself in, and has been regular background music for me for much of the time since the game’s release. The game’s finale song still makes me emotional every time I hear it. It’s beautiful.

    I can’t say enough about Kentucky Route Zero, it is one of my favorite stories I’ve ever experienced in a game and gave me a world that I loved to explore for as long as it let me. This game is the definition of “magical realism,” a world that’s equal parts entirely down-to-earth and completely unbelievable, where bureaucracy is applied to the impossible and everything, no matter how unreal, somehow manages to feel right at home.The whole thing needs to be seen to be believed, and I don’t know if we’re likely to see anything quite like this again. I wouldn’t be surprised if some players find themselves bored with the game, the exploration may drag from time to time. However, if there’s one thing you take from this whole list of mine, it’s this: please play Kentucky Route Zero.

  • As was the case for many people in 2020, Animal Crossing: New Horizons was the right game at the right time for me. Releasing just as everything started to shut down and “normal life” as a concept was pretty much entirely blown up, ACNH was there to fill in the gaps. It provided a nice little low-pressure daily routine when the feeling of “what day is it, even” started to set in, and was a never-ending source of good vibes when they were otherwise in short supply. Most importantly, though, it was something that I was able to do with friends that I was otherwise unable to see and hang out with. Living by myself hasn’t ever really bothered me before, but the onset of quarantine has shown just how rough it can be. In this regard, Animal Crossing was a godsend. Visiting friends’ islands, seeing what they were working on, helping out with decoration projects or gathering up materials to help bring someone’s ambition to life, all this and more helped keep some form of socialization alive in a time when actually seeing people wasn’t an option. Honestly, no matter how I feel about the game as a thing to play, the value that it had in my life in 2020 alone is enough to earn it high honors.

    Thankfully, it’s also a strong game in its own right. I’ve played every iteration of Animal Crossing over the years, but how much time I’ve actually stuck around with each game has varied from game to game. This is the most time I’ve spent in an Animal Crossing game since Wild World, and the tools the game gave me to make my island just how I wanted it to be played a big part in that. The terraforming tools introduced in New Horizons, while sometimes finicky to use, finally offered a solution to the age-old Animal Crossing problem of “oh no, the island structure I got myself stuck with 100 hours ago when I started isn’t compatible with this new project I want to do.” My island design wasn’t nearly as ambitious as many that I’ve seen, but I still had all the tools I needed to make the island of Illyria into a fun little place complete with a space center, soccer field, playground, the works. The way the game was designed with a bit of guided progression to get a player started, ending with the reward of a sweet KK Slider concert and the unlocking of the terraforming tools, was a nice way to get back into the rhythm of Animal Crossing and also get used to the things that make this iteration new.

    Of course, the biggest change in the new game is the DIY crafting system, and in my opinion the system hits more than it misses. Material and recipe collection were other sources of “stuff to do” which are always welcome once the game reaches an equilibrium state, and the ability to make and color-customize the furniture I wanted for my home and island was welcome. Of course, the fact that the game still hasn’t added multi-crafting (one bait at a time? really?) is a bummer, but otherwise it worked great for me. Like many AC games in the past, I found myself a few manageable collection goals to complete, and spent much of the year getting those checklists finished, and I’m happy to look at my completed suite of KK Slider records and full fossil room with joy, even if there’s tons more that I haven’t done. While I’m at it, special shoutouts to the museum in New Horizons, which they pulled out all the stops in making beautiful as hell. Visiting the island of a friend who had completed the whole thing and just wandering through the museum and taking it all in was super impressive.

    This game has its share of frustrations, of course: the online is as clunky as Nintendo games have always been, but the community stepped up in some ways to fill in the cracks, with fan-made sites offering ways to share custom designs and coordinate island visits that I definitely took full advantage of. I’m not going to deny that the game has limitations, but they didn’t ruin my experience. Bless this game for the role that it played in taking some of the edge off of a truly garbage year, and for all the fun I look forward to having spending more time on my island.

  • I can’t think of a more shocking video game announcement in recent memory for me than the studio behind the Yakuza series telling the world that the next game in their long-running series would be completely changing the genre of its basic gameplay and making it a turn-based RPG, but after seeing what they’ve accomplished with Like a Dragon, it’s impossible to argue with the decision. I fell in love with Yakuza starting with the release of 0 a few years back, and through the Kiwami games and the PS4 re-releases of 3-5, I played through the entire series leading up to the release of Like a Dragon to be as ready as I could for the new game. It’s become one of my favorite video game series, and this new entry is an incredible addition to the franchise that supplements its new gameplay style with a new protagonist and supporting cast.

    The general format of wandering around a relatively small but dense open world, finding sub-stories and sidequests along the way to uncovering the game’s main plot is still present from the rest of the series, even with everything else being swapped out. Every environment that the game took me to was full of the same off-the-wall little stories to uncover and play out, and I searched out every one that I could find, both to level up my characters and just to see what nonsense was hiding in each city. Of course, everything changes when combat begins, and rather than the beat-em-ups that fill the rest of the series, here we have an RPG a la Final Fantasy or (perhaps more appropriately) Dragon Quest. The game’s combat had plenty of interesting options, with a variety of jobs that each character could take on and level up in to get new skills, some of which could be taken between jobs to make for some truly busted movesets by the time the game was over. I had a couple of little frustrations with the combat, mostly with character positioning making AOE abilities hard to judge and the occasional example of a character getting stuck on the environment and taking forever to run over to an opponent to attack them, but these were relatively minor.

    Stepping into the shoes of Kazuma Kiryu is a tall order, given how beloved that character is to fans of the series, but Ichiban Kasuga is one of my favorite video game characters I have encountered in many years. He’s the kind of friend that everyone should be lucky enough to have in their life: even if he doesn’t always understand what’s going on, even if he doesn’t really have a frame of reference for what you’re going through, he wants everything to work out for you and he’ll move mountains to help make that happen. His single-minded devotion to what he values in the life of a member of the yakuza, even as everything that happens to him threatens to shatter his hallowed image of the honorable gangster, is admirable, and him sticking to his guns no matter what happens makes him a protagonist that you just gotta root for. The rest of the supporting cast is outstanding as well, even if some of the party members don’t get quite as much development as I’d like (especially Saeko.) Talking too many specifics about what I love about the cast is a spoiler minefield, but I’ll just say I loved the whole party in this game and wanted to get to know them all as much as I could. The story being told in this game, while as ridiculous and melodramatic as the series has ever been, was well-told, and once things started rolling downhill towards its conclusion, I wanted nothing else but to play more of this game until I saw the end.

    It’s truly admirable for a studio to change so much about a successful video game franchise in a sequel, but Yakuza: Like a Dragon’s entire existence is a bold decision made with the swagger and confidence that is emblematic of its own main character, and damn do I love it.

  • My 2019 list contained a sorta-cheaty combination of the first three Trails of Cold Steel games all in one entry, as I played the entirety of the series that had been thus-far released in that year. I came into 2020 chomping at the bit to see the conclusion to the Cold Steel story, and I would say that CS4 delivered a satisfying end to that arc. Many of the strengths of this game echo the same things that were great about its predecessors. The worldbuilding in Cold Steel is top-notch, the various factions placing pieces about the board until it’s time for them to make their big move to try to shape the future of the continent to their desires. Really, the most important thing I can say about this game is that it brings a whole mess of plot threads started up over the hundreds of hours of JRPGs that led up to this point to a satisfying conclusion, giving characters resolution that I felt they deserved and delivering moment after moment that I was dying to see.

    The game is mechanically pretty much identical to its predecessor, but it did successfully mix things up by simply throwing a massive quantity of characters into the fray as playable over its runtime. Having characters not only from the entire breadth of the Cold Steel games but also from other Legend of Heroes subseries make appearances as playable party members, even temporarily, gave opportunities to experiment with more movesets than the core members of Class VII, which was welcome, and it was also great to have more personalities bouncing off of each other. This series has always been incredible at building to confrontations between characters that have been emphasized as world-beating badasses, then finally putting those fights into motion and having them deliver, and CS4 has its share of those as well.

    Obviously another tricky recommendation because playing through the first 3 Cold Steel games is a must before getting into this one, but this quadrilogy of RPGs are some of the finest ones I’ve ever played, so if you’ve missed out on the series, there’s never been a better time to jump in now that everything is available.

  • I’ve had a hit-or-miss history with Vanillaware games, often respecting what the studio is going for (especially with Odin Sphere and Muramasa,) but never actually playing through any of their games to completion. That all changed with 13 Sentinels, a game which hooked me so completely that there was no way I was going to pull myself away until I had seen it through. A game that defies categorization, 13 Sentinels is somehow part tower-defense strategy game, part visual novel, and part adventure game, each component contributing to a whole that has to be experienced.

    I dare not say too much about the story because uncovering it all is such a huge part of the appeal that I wouldn’t want to deny that to anyone who may play it, but I will say that it’s fantastic and full of lovable characters who play off of each other in a bunch of great ways. The story is told from the perspective of the 13 different main characters, with the player being given the choice of whose next chapter they want to see next, occasionally gating off progress in one storyline until another has reached a certain point. Those progress gates allow for certain moments to be built up with the proper gravitas, but otherwise the game is totally cool with you coming across its many revelations in whatever order you may, which I thought was a neat way to go about telling this sort of sci-fi story. I wouldn’t say that the game turns on any one huge twist or reveal, but the way that everything unfolds as it progresses is masterful.

    The action sequences, where your characters actually get into their giant robots and fight some kaiju, are a sort of mashup of turn-based strategy and tower defense, with you deploying your various mechs around a city map and defending a central terminal against waves of advancing kaiju. The game’s progression of stages does a great job of introducing the player to each new type of monster and what tools work well against it, and the game gives indications before each mission of what to expect, so proper preparation and knowing what mech classes/loadouts to bring along into each battle is rewarded. The battles also are peppered with bits of extra characterization, even going so far as to incentivize the player to bring in specific combos of pilots into a given mission so that they can have a character moment that’s relevant to the battle at hand. When the story and the battles mesh together, some of the game’s best moments are created, often signified by some special musical moments where everything comes together perfectly.

    13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim is a game like no other, and Vanillaware truly knocked this one out of the park.

  • While not really an actual sequel to Astro Bot Rescue Mission, another previous GOTY contender, Astro’s Playroom is a game that makes me so damned happy that Asobi Team keeps giving these goofy little robots more fun things to do. While this pre-installed PS5 pack-in is functionally a tech demo for the features in the DualSense controller, it somehow also manages to be one of the most fun games that I played all year. The ridiculous premise of each world representing a component of the system (GPU Jungle, SSD Speedway, it’s really something else) is easy to poke fun at, but the fact that the game keeps any irony at bay and is just hella excited about the Playstation is heartwarming in its own way.

    To that end, Astro’s Playroom also made me realize I have way more random Playstation nostalgia than I knew going in. I didn’t have an original Playstation at home growing up, only messing with them at friends’ houses until getting into Sony’s consoles for real with the PS2, but the lengths to which this game goes to tug at various video game heartstrings worked in a way that I couldn’t anticipate. I found myself searching for all the little robot cameramen in every level just so I could see what game scenes were being acted out in silly cosplay. From Tekken to Monster Hunter to Bloodborne, tons of old favorites made goofy appearances that never failed to make me smile.

    There’s not a ton of game here, the whole thing can be wrapped up in just a few hours, but the addition of speedrun levels (separate stages from the main game’s, which is neat) gave me something to go back to. On top of that, all of the secrets and collectibles manifest as obscenely-detailed models of random Playstation minutiae from over the years, and if you think I wasn’t gonna spend time zooming in and rotating around a Playstation Move wand in honor of all my hours of JS Joust, then you give me far too much credit. Recommending this game feels almost pointless, since it comes preinstalled on a video game console that’s still pretty hard to get, but if/when you get your hands on a PS5, there’s really no reason to not play through Astro’s Playroom. If nothing else, you’ll have a goofy good time for a while.

  • At first glance, it may look disappointing that the sequel to one of my previous Games of the Year isn’t topping the list for this year, but that’s just a testament to how good 2020 turned out to be for games for me. Ori and the Will of the Wisps is a sequel that expands on everything that made the original Ori special, bringing back the visual and musical beauty from the first game and adding layers of intricacy to the action which end up making the whole experience even more enjoyable this time around. In general, the game is structured similarly to the first, tasking you with Metroidvania-ing around a beautiful world and taking in a heartbreaking story as you go.

    The biggest departure in Will of the Wisps lies in its combat, which is much more involved than its predecessor. In Ori and the Blind Forest, combat felt largely automated, boiling down to just tapping an attack button to fire locked-on energy blasts while focusing purely on movement. For the sequel, the developers added an ever-expanding moveset that begins with giving Ori a blade of light which, combined with all of the mobility options already present, allows for awesome combos and juggles that I found constantly satisfying. Once I found an ability build that I was comfortable with, the combat went from something that was just “good enough” in Blind Forest to a part of the game that I was excited to take part in, a huge improvement.

    It should come as no surprise that the art and soundtrack in Ori and the Will of the Wisps all live up to the high standard set by the individual, even stepping beyond that to reach a level of their own. I’ll admit to being a bit bummed out when I started this game on my launch Xbox One, which chugged a bit too hard trying to render everything, but when I picked it back up on the Series X to resume playing, throwing more hardware at the problem made my initial framerate issues go away. Of course, that solution isn’t available for everyone, so if you’re working on modest hardware, beware. Still, it’s an amazing game chock-full of resonant emotional moments and awesome action set pieces, one that shouldn’t be missed.

  • Anyone who has talked to me about games for long enough will eventually (whether they want to or not) get a spiel from me about how much I love Mega Man Battle Network and how much those games need some kind of a remaster. Seriously, Capcom, you’ve remastered everything else, get to it. But until that happens, I’m at least glad that there’s someone out there keeping the spirit of those games alive in their own way, and that’s what Thomas Moon Kang is doing with One Step From Eden.

    In short, OSFE is a deck-building roguelike that combines the concepts of a game like Slay the Spire with a combat system that heavily calls back to the Mega Man Battle Network series. Fights take place on a pair of 4x4 grids, one belonging to the player and one to the enemies. Battles are more frenetic than what fans of Battle Network may expect, as rather than periodically pausing to choose more spells, the game runs through your deck one at a time and shuffles when you hit the end, all while actively fighting. Over the course of a run, your deck grows with spells that you select to add to it after each battle, and combined with the unique attacks and abilities of the character you’ve chosen, a variety of builds are on the table. The learning curve can be steep, and I got beaten up over and over while I adjusted to the challenge that the game was presenting, but once I got my feet under me I had a great time unlocking more characters (and more movesets for the characters I had) and seeing what new possibilities those options gave me, then taking all of that stuff into yet more runs to see how it goes. The character design for all of the playable characters (who are also the bosses, you fight everyone you aren’t playing as in any given run) is sharp and varied, with each character having a totally different playstyle that fits the theme of their visual design perfectly. Add in a soundtrack that’s got bangers all the way down and keeps the energy going alongside the action of the game, and One Step From Eden worked for me on every level.

  • The Pathless is a pretty straightforward game to describe: you explore an open world divided into a handful of sub-sections, solving puzzles and collecting macguffins in each section to beat its boss and move on to the next, repeated a few times until it’s over. However, the particulars that fill in the gaps of that description are where the game really shines. The Pathless is one of my favorite examples this year of a game that simply feels good to run around in, with the rhythm of dashing around the environment and lock-on-shooting a bunch of crystals to keep my dash meter filled staying fun throughout my time with the game. Navigating the world gave me a bit of a Breath of the Wild feeling, with the game offering a view that highlights points of interest within your line of sight, directing you towards the puzzles you need to solve to unlock an area’s boss fight. That combined with the fun basic movement makes for a solid base to build on, as the simple act of getting from objective to objective is both convenient and enjoyable in and of itself.

    The puzzle design is relatively basic, with your character’s only real verbs being “shoot arrow,” “drag object,” “pull lever,” and “tell pet eagle to do a thing,” but the game mixes those things up in clever enough ways to keep the puzzles from getting tiresome. The boss fights are more visually impressive than mechanically interesting and tend to go on a little long (the video game rule of threes is on strong display here,) but their strong presentation carried the day even when things dragged a bit.

    The game’s story and characterization is limited, saying a lot through text blurbs found in the environment, but I have to give a special shoutout to the animation of the Hunter and her eagle, whose bond is just lovely and made me want everything to go well for them at all times. The soundtrack, composed by Austin Wintory, is outstanding, rising and falling with the action and fitting the game’s aesthetic perfectly throughout, and the game’s visuals, especially its bold use of colors cutting through the muted colors of the cursed island, are impressive as well. It’s a heck of a game, and as one of the first PS5 games I got to play, it has me ready for what the new generation is going to have in store.