GOTY 2020

It feels redundant and perhaps perfunctory at this point to try and sum up 2020; to say it’s been a shitty year is an understatement. I also had my own personal turbulence on top of the obvious, which resulted in a clear split in my gaming year. During the first half I had precious little time for games, where during the second half I had more time for games than I’ve had in years. So, given the state of the world, I used that time to touch quite a number of this year’s noteworthy titles; not all of course, but a lot. I even managed to get my hands on both a PlayStation 5 and a Xbox Series S, and play some of their launch games before making this list. So on those fronts, I can’t complain.

As for the games themselves, I don’t think I’d say 2020 was a particularly “strong” year when compared to others; workmanlike is the word that comes to mind. For me and my tastes, I played one legitimately amazing all-star game, and then a whole lot of really solid ones of all shapes and sizes. But that’s not a bad thing, and as I’ve said before, even the “worst” gaming years are still good and have a lot to offer. This year that includes every game on this list, 10 impressively creative works that I thoroughly enjoyed playing, and which made a meaningful impression on me. In fact, 2020 saw me finally embrace two trends that have been gaining momentum in recent years: roguelikes and remakes. I showcase two of each high on this list, and in a way they defined my gaming year. I’ve scoffed at both trends before, but they’ve grown on me over time. People are doing good stuff in those spaces.

Anyway, that’s enough preamble. Below are my 10 favorite video games of 2020. Thanks for reading, I hope you have a spectacular day, and now let’s kick 2020 to the curb.

List items

  • It’s hard to know where to start with Hades. I could talk about how good the action feels, when you’re dashing and attacking in harmony with dangerous foes. I could talk about how much variety exists within each run, and how replayable it is. I could talk about the smooth progression of customizable upgrades that, at times, almost make it feel as much like a traditional single player campaign as a roguelike. I could talk about the sharp writing, keen attention to detail, infectious characters, and undeniable personality in all aspects of Hades’ presentation; not to mention its stunning art and killer soundtrack. Or I could talk about how all of these parts are executed to near perfection on their own, yet still come together to form a whole greater than their sum. Hades is a game that knows precisely what it wants to be, and nails its cohesive vision with such boundless positive energy and gusto that I can’t help but be smitten with it.

    On top of being a supremely well-made game, Hades makes its mark on me personally as the first roguelike I’ve fallen utterly in love with. It’s a genre I’ve generally appreciated more than I’ve enjoyed playing, but through a series of smart, considered design decisions, Hades meets me in the middle. It manages to retain the genre’s biggest strengths (variety and replayability run after run) while avoiding its biggest frustrations (overbearing RNG and obtuseness). Just as profound is the way Hades leverages its run-based structure to empower its narrative trappings, which reveals new potential I didn’t know the genre had. So here I am, 100+ runs into a roguelike, and loving every minute of it. Hades is the best game Supergiant has made by some margin, easily my favorite roguelike to date, one of my favorite games of all time, and most importantly for this list, my clear game of the year. It’s an incredible thing.

  • I had no idea what to expect going in, but Final Fantasy VII Remake is nothing if not bold and audacious. Yes, ballooning the first 5 hours of the original game into its own 40 hour epic certainly comes with its share of filler. But it also allows Remake to dive much, much deeper into Midgar, Shinra, AVALANCHE, and its large cast of memorable characters. In fact, the narrative beats of FFVII are perhaps more resonant now than ever, and Remake’s portrayal and exploration of the first chapter of this classic is simultaneously extravagant and powerful. It also looks amazing, sounds even better -- holy crap is its adaptive soundtrack a treat -- and sports a fresh new take on the series’ strategic combat. And while its divisive ending could have been executed better, it certainly has me eager to see more. A remake of FFVII could never have the same impact as the beloved original. But a Remake? Count me in.

  • I’m as surprised as anyone that a second roguelike has wormed its way so high up this list, but Monster Train somehow pulls together numerous disparate ideas into a smart, balanced, and cohesive whole that really hooked me. I love trying out the different clan combinations and champions, and how unique they all are. I love the flow of a run and how you are presented with fewer, more meaningful battles and upgrades. I love the complex battles which reward thinking ahead and careful tactical play. I love the card synergies, and how you can create some absurdly powerful combos. I love the slick UI and generous amount of information it surfaces, which helps you make educated decisions. Monster Train is the kind of surprise I love this medium for, a game I could have never expected, yet kept coming back to throughout the year. And with more updates on the way, I’ll continue riding that train into 2021.

  • Is it cheating to include a remake of an 11 year old game on this list, one that’s mostly unchanged aside from graphical and performance enhancements? Especially when said game is already an all-time favorite? Maybe. But revisiting Demon’s Souls on the PlayStation 5 in 2020 serves as a poignant reminder of what made From Software’s iconic series stand out in the first place. The keen attention to detail, the trust it puts in the player, the intricate character-building options, the immaculately designed levels, the iconic enemies and bosses, the bold online features; it was all there from the start, and still holds up today. And on next gen hardware it looks and sounds truly incredible, and performs even better. It’s a magnificent facelift for a bonafide classic, and a strong showpiece for what the new consoles are capable of.

  • Desperados III was my first foray into this type of real-time tactical stealth game, and if its quality is indicative of the genre at large, it almost certainly won’t be my last. My favorite moments were when I was in the thick of it, deep into a mission surrounded by numerous guards and obstacles. That’s when I was forced to get creative, to make use of all the ridiculous and exciting abilities spread between my team of varied and entertaining characters, and craft my own solutions to the problems at hand. I appreciate how much trust Desperados III places in its players, and it works thanks to a super slick UI, stellar level design, and a varied campaign that constantly shakes things up and presents new problems to solve.

  • “Lady Love Dies,” “Doctor Doom Jazz,” and “Witness to the End” are but a few of the character names in Paradise Killer, and give a mere glimpse into the style this game is dripping with. It builds its own bizarre mythos, fills it out with wacky but endearing characters, and ties it all together with a bold art style and an absolutely groovy soundtrack. Best of all, however, is how it sets you loose to investigate its detailed island, and weaves a compelling mystery into every corner of it. What unfolds is a tale about power, who desires and wields it, and how they manipulate others to get what they want. Piecing it together myself was a real treat, and made for a fascinating and highly memorable open world detective game unlike anything I’ve played.

  • Allow me to have a rare measured take on The Last of Us Part II: this is a very good video game that also has some flaws. It’s easily the best stealth action Naughty Dog has crafted to date, and I had a lot of fun sneaking my way through its varied, detailed environments to systematically take down enemies for the entirety of its lengthy runtime; not to mention its numerous exciting set piece moments. Yet I will remember The Last of Us Part II primarily as a bold and intense character study of Ellie, not as a hero, but as a broken, violent person living in a broken, violent world. Exploring just how far she could fall was wrenching, and when presented with incredible production values and top-notch acting, it really stuck with me.

  • Ori and The Will of the Wisps is one of those games that didn’t stick with me all that long after I finished it, but I greatly enjoyed every moment I spent with it. Like its predecessor, this is a beautiful game, with gorgeous art that looks even better in motion, a sweeping orchestral musical score, and some effective and emotional narrative moments. Yet even with all those standout traits, the act of playing Ori is still where it shines brightest. This is a tight platformer with more than adequate combat, and a lush, detailed world that’s fun to explore. I didn’t put this game down until I had found every item and completed every challenge it put before me. It’s just a good, polished game in every aspect, one that was a real treat to play.

  • New Horizons will forever be associated with the initial COVID-19 lockdown, but there’s no denying the timing of its release. Animal Crossing’s daily routine structure has never fit with the way I like to play games, but in 2020, such a grounded routine was welcome. Of course, it helps that this latest iteration came with improved progression, the ability to decorate your entire island, and a gorgeous audiovisual presentation. Having an equally invested friend group further helped keep me coming back, and I’ll be damned if the stalk market didn’t hook me too. Some quality of life improvements are still needed, and I eventually burnt out on the Animal Crossing structure once more. But only after New Horizons charmed me for months.

  • Gears Tactics is better than it has any right to be. Not only does it translate the long-running shooter franchise into a turn-based tactics game surprisingly accurately -- complete with chest-high walls, curb stomps, chainsaws, and e-holes -- it also introduces plenty of fresh ideas to stand tall on its own as a tactics game. I especially like the action economy, where careful use of your characters’ skills can generate bonus actions to create some exciting combos and powerful turns; it’s a different way of thinking that had me consistently engaged in my moment to moment play. I could have done without the unnecessary loot and padded length, but Gears Tactics works as both a Gears game and a tactics game better than I could have expected.