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GOTY 2020

2020 was another year where a surprising number of the year’s biggest games--Doom: Eternal, Last of Us Part II, Ghost of Tsushima--just didn’t work for me. These were all games I enjoyed (well, mostly) but just didn’t think much about after finishing. For most of this year, I had a bunch of games on my list like Resident Evil 3 Remake and Animal Crossing: New Horizons that were only there to fill a slot in case I couldn’t fill the whole thing with games I felt more strongly about. It took nearly the whole twelve months, but I finally ended up with a list of ten that I am happy with, each game standing out in some way that makes me want to recognize its impact on me and share it with others.

List items

  • A bit of context for this one is necessary. Like many people, I had a long break from work in 2020 thanks to mandatory shutdowns. While I started my two-and-a-half month vacation playing newer games (some of which are on this list), I eventually made the decision to play ALL EIGHT GAMES in the Trails JRPG series. I had played the first game, Trails in the Sky, to completion a few years back but never continued the series. With nothing but free time on my hands, I started it over and went through every game back-to-back, ending with the newest release (at the time), Trails of Cold Steel III. For a solid month straight, I lived and breathed this franchise, barely playing anything else and powering through entry after entry until finally finishing just in time before I went back to work. As such, I see this top entry more as the entire Trails series being #1 for 2020, with Cold Steel III just being emblematic of my newfound love for the series.

    That isn’t to say that Cold Steel III is a bad game or anything. I wouldn’t call it my favorite entry in the franchise, but it is the most mechanically sound of the entire series. There are tons of smart combat and system changes that refine what the studio started doing with Cold Steel I, the first fully 3D game in the series. Everything, particularly the combat, just flows so much better than it used to. The narrative, which manages to span the entire franchise and constantly call back to events in a crazy way, keeps building up more and more intrigue as it moves along. There’s also a LOT MORE ANIME, as every game seems to want to make things even more over the top, such as during this game’s MASSIVE cliffhanger. It’s often silly and stupid, but I can’t deny I’m now fully invested in the series and eager to see what comes next, in the conclusion to the Cold Steel arc and beyond.

  • 2020 brought a lot of surprises, but one of the biggest was easily Half-Life: Alyx; not only is it a return to a long-dormant, well-loved franchise, it’s actually a pretty damn good game that sets up for a bigger return to more Half Life games. This is one of the most impressive VR games I’ve seen on a technical polish level. Everything looks and moves perfectly and all of the systems and gameplay feels just like it should. The action feels great, aside from small quirks like being unable to utilize melee in any way despite being able to swing things at enemies. There’s a solid, lengthy campaign with lots of variety and great setpieces, just as you would expect from a game in this franchise. Most interesting of all is how it manages to completely reset some events from the timeline to create a believable potential for new games in the franchise. I did not fall as hard for this game as some people did, but I am now VERY interested to see what comes next for the Half-Life franchise. Maybe something non-VR?

  • Paradise Killer is an incredibly unique game in so many ways. Its world, with concepts like sacrificing people to demons who are worshipped as gods and a constantly looped island striving for utopia, is unlike any I’ve ever seen and had me aching to learn more. Its gameplay, a weird mix of a 3D exploration adventure and crime-solving mystery, had me scrambling to see its conclusion, a conclusion which I love for how it doesn’t care if you get the “correct” answer or not. Its artstyle, which melds three-dimensional environments with flat two-dimensional sprites, is basic yet oddly compelling. Tying it all together is a brilliant vaporwave soundtrack (the best of the year) that plays throughout the island and sets the perfect vibe for solving crimes. There’s a few rough edges, such as a lack of clear direction at times and a somewhat boring world filled with mostly pointless collectibles, but this game was easily my biggest surprise of 2020.

  • My feelings on Hades are inverse from my feelings on past Supergiant releases--the gameplay is the best part and the narrative feels weak. This is Supergiant’s best playing game to date. Everything feels tight, there’s a ton of build variety, and the combat flow is unbelievably frenetic. It’s an expertly crafted rogue-like, in that way. However, aside from the smart contextualization of why you do runs over and over again and some clever fourth-wall referencing for your actions, I am disappointed by the story and worldbuilding. Mainly, this is due to how it’s based in an established fiction, Greek mythology. While they obviously do some things to make it their own, such as a few unique characters and characterizations with amazing voice work, I’m just not as engrossed and in awe with it as I usually am a Supergiant world. Still, it’s a great playing game with breathtakingly gorgeous art and another killer soundtrack, so I can forgive my lack of interest in the game’s world and characters.

  • After playing other Vanillaware games, I never thought I’d praise the studio for one of its narratives, but 13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim shattered my expectations. It’s a phenomenal story that unfolds slowly but surely over its 20+ hour length. The way it gives you bits of narrative here and there, revealing the huge truths over time in order to constantly surprise you, makes it hard to put down. More often than not, things ended up being not at all what I expected, which I loved. There’s also a fascinating group of characters voiced by a stellar voice cast. In addition to the visual novel sections, there’s tower defense-esque gameplay that’s very meh. It’s too straightforward and visually plain for me, which I find bizarre for a Vanillaware game. I also think the story falls a bit flat at the end, leaving some of my big questions unanswered. Nonetheless, this is one of the most interesting stories I’ve seen in a game to date and it’s definitely worth seeing.

  • Spiritfarer’s main strength is its engaging gameplay loop. Once you get it going, there’s always something to cook or unlock or build or upgrade. It quickly became one of those obsessive games I couldn’t stop playing, stealing all my free time for days. At the same time, it’s a game about death and moving on, as you bring souls to a place of acceptance before sending them to the afterlife. You get attached to these people before you see them off, making every farewell an emotional one. This unfortunately peters out a bit at the end, due to an ending that feels very sudden and left me feeling unsatisfied. Still, that alluring gameplay loop, complete with gorgeous art and satisfying, fluid movement, made for a memorable gaming experience.

  • Final Fantasy VII: Remake (Part 1, haha) is a remarkable, if very truncated and stretched-out, remake of a classic. Its most impressive accomplishment is how it builds up the characters and their relationships, even ones that didn’t have much development in the original game like Jessie. It feels so much more natural and makes me care more about the characters than I ever did before. The new interpretations of old scenes are all amazing, especially the Honeybee section which literally made me cackle with glee when I first saw it--best moment of the year in a game by far. Unfortunately, the combat is very meh to me. I like the ideas behind the combat, but it feels trapped between wanting to be turn-based and action, with stiff movement and a frustratingly bad dodge. It can also be relentless at times, especially the final section of the game with SO MANY BOSSES. I have to mention the soundtrack’s absolute perfection too--it’s perfectly evocative of the original while improving it in every way. My experience with this game was mostly positive, but I’d like to see some refinements in the next entry.

  • Persona 5 OG was already on my list in 2017, but Royal does enough to refine the experience that it feels worth having here again. There’s a lot of new stuff added and tons of rebalancing and edits to the flow of the game, especially the main dungeons. The new character has a fascinating arc, albeit one that takes FOREVER to get going. The game also adds a new endgame with a compelling new villain that feels like a better, if less epic, ending. There’s a smattering of excellent new music, including a main combat theme that’s actually good (sorry, I don’t like Last Surprise). There’s not really anything mind-blowing about this version of the game, especially if you’ve played Persona 4 Golden and know what to expect, but it’s still easily the definitive version of Persona 5.

  • Yakuza: Like A Dragon has all the Yakuza craziness you know and love but radically changes the combat to a turn-based JRPG system reminiscent of Dragon Quest. Its best feature is its story and characters. The main plot has a few pacing issues, but the emotional payoff is worth it in the end. Ichiban is a great new MC that feels unique from Kiryu and is certainly worth following around. His performance is also incredible, particularly when emotions run high and he makes you feel all the feelings. The weak part is the gameplay, sadly. The turn-based combat feels a bit inconsistent, as if it was cobbled together quickly. Balancing is all over the place, with parts of the game being either too easy or frustratingly tedious, and the camera is a bit of a nightmare. I got really tired of fighting by the end of the game, but it was worth it to see the narrative through.

  • Who would have guessed that 2020 would bring the revival of the Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater franchise? Vicarious Visions did what Vicarious Visions do and perfectly captured the feel of old THPS in a remake of 1+2. It feels just like I remember it and is just as fun to play as it ever was. The old levels are all here and look fantastic, with a few new goals here and there to flesh them out. Best of all is the soundtrack, which features almost all of the original two games’ soundtracks as well as a ton of killer new ones to create one of my favorite licensed soundtracks in any game ever. It gives me hope for a brand new game, one that blows my mind just as THPS 3 did back in the day.