While 2020 was a chaotic year that bred challenge after challenge, video games served as a safe haven for many of us. Animal Crossing: New Horizons comforted millions at the start of the pandemic, Among Us secured a new fanbase while driving streaming to new heights, and Sony’s and Microsoft’s next-generation consoles squeezed in a release just in time for the holidays.
No matter the person, there was something for everyone this year. Monstrous open-world games to sink countless hours in, triumphant returns of older games with a fresh coat of paint, refreshing titles small in scale but large in ambition. Each year I tell others there’s no better time to get into gaming, but 2020 cements that conviction.
To discuss my favorite games this time around, I wanted to go back to the basics. Ten games make up the list: five “winners” and five honorable mentions. Two of the winners get special designations as “Game of The Year” and “Runner-Up”.
Of course, there are some games that I missed this year that intrigued me. Here are some of those before I start:
- 13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim
- Demon’s Souls
- Kentucky Route Zero
- Ori and the Will of the Wisps
- Paradise Killer
- Streets of Rage 4
Animal Crossing: New Horizons
Animal Crossing: New Horizons released at the perfect time. One of the most relaxing games of the year, players create their own villages and engage in day-to-day activities like fruit-picking and building construction. With foundations from Animal Crossing: New Leaf, the game matches the Nintendo Switch’s versatility with its own new features. Terraforming gives full control over your island’s terrain, and the DIY benches accompany new furniture options. Jumping into this game for a couple minutes a day never fails to soothe the nerves, and it is the perfect game to strike up conversations about. While its lacking online infrastructure leaves much to be desired, the true appeal of the game lies in whatever spurs your imagination.
Somehow CrossCode is both a blast from the past and a leap towards the future. A great action-RPG with inspiration from SNES-era 16-bit titles, there is an infusion of distinct gameplay elements coming together for a fun romp. In particular, there are great inspirations from The Legend of Zelda with its integration of puzzle-solving and exploration into a solid action system that keeps you on your toes every step of the way. It universe also has the backdrop of a massively multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG) akin to Final Fantasy XIV acting as a gateway for an interesting adventure that hosts fun characters and sidequests, but never drags on to lose the player’s interest. Without a doubt, CrossCode makes a great case for the future of retro.
Final Fantasy VII Remake
Recreating an iconic game brings about overwhelming expectations while its developers struggle to tread the tightrope of “faithfulness”. Despite initial concerns about Final Fantasy VII Remake, it delivers upon the promise of bringing the classic into the next generation. Most impressive, however, is how it engineered an impeccable combat system with the adrenaline of an action game but the patience of a turn-based one. Learning from the failings of Final Fantasy XV’s gameplay, most enemy encounters feel hand-tailored to ensure a nice sense of challenge with fair restrictions to powerful magic and abilities to even the playing field. Not to mention, each character brings a distinct playstyle that must be considered when developing strategies for the game’s strongest bosses. All that said, Final Fantasy VII Remake’s future has question marks written all over it. Thankfully, one can be rest assured that it stands tall on its own and merits a playthrough, be it as a newcomer or veteran.
Spider-Man: Miles Morales
It’s all in the tagline: “Be Greater. Be Yourself.” After the resounding success of Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, the pressure was on Insomniac Games to give Miles Morales the proper game he deserved. And in most respects, they lived up to them. Smaller in scale, Spider-Man: Miles Morales turns the spotlight onto Miles as he sizes up against Roxxon’s corporate dominance. Its narrative organically weaves his Harlem life and his struggle to find himself as Spider-Man together into a struggle that signifies a turning point for Miles heading into the inevitable sequel. With a refined combat system that incorporates Venom abilities and invisibility, Miles is even more fun to play than Peter. The feeling of déjà vu dampens the experience, but nevertheless captures the essence of Spider-Man with great pride.
The Last of Us Part II
Controversial as it was, The Last of Us Part II grapples with the unending cycles of violence and obsession while tending to two different characters whose paths intersect with an ugly encounter. Some of its newfound scope muddies the integrity of its most important story beats, but the brevity of its post-apocalyptic world is apparent from Seattle’s flooded buildings and streets to Seraphite Island’s lush forestry. It is the mini-stories scattered across letters and keepsakes that breathe fresh air into the experience, many of which might be missed with the greater freedom provided to explore the game’s landscapes or navigate its combat encounters. Two playthroughs with The Last of Us Part II did not convince me that it could rival its predecessor, but it affirmed the value in judging the game on its own merits.
Ghost of Tsushima
When you break the traditions of your kin, what are the consequences of those actions? Ghost of Tsushima thrusts us into a fictional interpretation of the Mongolian invasion of Japan’s Tsushima Island, where Jin of the Sakai Clan vows to resist their conquest. Jin’s journey consists of discovering and honing his skills to match up against the Mongols threatening the subjugation of Tsushima’s inhabitants. As you ride your horse across Tsushima, one bears witness to rolling grasslands, cherry blossoms, and scenic mountaintops amongst other sights that never leave the screen, a masterclass in graphical showcase fitting of the PlayStation 4’s swan song.
It is a powerful contrast to the bloody combat that Jin must participate in, acting as a necessary counterpart that prompts an appreciation for the smaller things in its world. In this respect Ghost of Tsushima draws inspiration from classic Assassin’s Creed and The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild to carve a cinematic, albeit repetitive action-adventure game with touchstones of aesthetic beauty. And amidst all of this is a story where Jin must grapple with his identity as “The Ghost”, a persona that contradicts the core tenets of the samurai code that Jin held so true. The way of the samurai (or the ghost) runs strong with this one.
Visual novels remain a compelling medium for storytelling and continue to bring new ideas to the table despite their lesser emphasis on interactivity. Even with that background, I was still floored when I experienced If Found…. Both gorgeous and touching in its presentation, the game alternates between two stories that reinforce each other. One centers around an astronaut named Cassiopeia attempting to prevent a black hole from consuming the Earth, while the other focuses on a young transgender woman named Kasio who returns to her Irish hometown during a cold December and reunites with people she holds affection and resentment towards.
If Found… immediately struck me with how it beautifully weaves its artwork with its writing to form an emotional core that resonates with the insecurities that some of us encounter within our lives, whether one fails to conform to social norms or lacks the self-confidence to navigate the challenges of their daily activities. You interact with the game by erasing the screen to reveal new scenes, unveiling the layers of a heart-wrenching story that can leave you overwhelmed at times and hopeful at others. It is an authentic, compact exploration of struggle that deserves a much larger spotlight.
Xenoblade Chronicles: Definitive Edition
It’s difficult to go wrong with remastering a generation-defining JRPG like Xenoblade Chronicles with updated graphics, gameplay refinements, and additional content. Once strapped to the Wii and New 3DS, its shackles broke when it reached the Nintendo Switch in May. The impressive scale of Gaur Plains is resounding in HD, and the detail crammed into the wildlife and geographies of the Bionis and Mechonis can be fully appreciated. This is also aided with a cleaner user interface (UI) that streamlines the unnecessary elements to ensure that it does not get in the way of enjoyment.
In fact, the geological conflict at the heart of Xenoblade Chronicles remains as strong as ever. The consequences of it ring true across the game’s numerous sidequests and stick with Shulk and their crew in their arduous journey to tear down the Mechon. The tall order of that ambition dawns upon each battle won, emphasized with an immersive battle system requiring great position and greater tenacity. Even in the midst of newer games like Genshin Impact with online components and action-based combat, Xenoblade Chronicles: Definitive Edition stands taller with a robust single-player experience melding the ambition of open-world games with the fundamentals of a story-driven JRPG.
Persona 5 Royal
After the phenomenal success of Persona 4 Golden, Persona 5 was due for its own upgrade. Three years from its original release, Persona 5 Royal brings with it the quality-of-life improvements necessary to make a case as the strongest JPRG of the decade, even with nine years ahead of it. Impeccably polished and equally stylish, some of the major criticisms of the original are addressed with fantastic changes that not only augment the experience but feels robust in its contributions. Traveling Mementos brings great incentives for scurrying each corner, brand-new battle mechanics tie into additional content added through Kichijoji, and the grappling hook unveils new secrets.
But what puts Persona 5 Royal above the competition lies with its new confidants: Kasumi Yoshizawa and Takuto Maruki. Both are integral to the original story material that dominates the latter sections of the game, of which might be the best content the game has to offer. Kasumi is an endearing addition to the cast whose arc explores the weight of expectations, and Maruki might be the most well-written character in the entire game.
Even better, this isn’t a game that feels more drawn-out despite it clocking in about 15-25 hours more playtime than Persona 5. Instead, it feels much richer and packs in much more value per minute. Especially for those who played the original game, this is a clear step-up that gives you the perfect excuse to dive back into Tokyo with a colorful cast that carries it to its endgame. Living up to its name, Persona 5 Royal gave its players the royal treatment with a JRPG unrivaled in the home console space.
GAME OF THE YEAR
Perhaps a safe choice that will keep me from banishment to the Underworld, but I cannot emphasize the phenomenal standard that Hades sets as my personal game of the year for the rest of the decade.
On one hand, it perfectly understands what makes a game fun. Slotting itself in the ever-expanding genre of roguelikes, Hades shines with a great “Boon” system that prompts experimentation. There are numerous rewards that can be earned to secure permanent upgrades for Zagreus, customize the barracks of the Underworld, and forge relationships with companions. With each successful and failed attempt to reach the surface and reunite with Zagreus’s mother, there is always something to be earned or learned that can prepare you for a better run. Few games reward death, but somehow I looked forward to it even if I got “so close” to besting Hades at the surface. And if you need challenge? The “Pact of Punishment” opens up new difficulty options to tailor your experience to match your abilities and reap new rewards. All of this fuels an addictive loop of gameplay that never stops giving after dozens upon dozens of escape attempts.
Yet none of this gives credence to the astounding innovation in storytelling that Hades pioneered for the roguelike genre. Thousands of lines of voiced dialogue, all of which are done justice with outstanding vocal performances across the board, permeate the game, scattered across colorful personalities from the Olympian gods to the Underworld’s residents. Even after 45 hours of playtime and reaching the “true ending”, I continue to discover original dialogue and conversations for every character, responding to your accomplishments, failures, and choices that one might regard as insignificant. It was a pleasant surprise to see one of the bosses comment on my lack of upgrades when I removed them to test my mettle, evident of the exhaustive lengths Supergiant Games went to in order to craft a robust game. Without a doubt, there is intention with each aspect of the game’s design that will floor those who dare to play.
This particular quality is what propelled Hades to the top. How a hack-and-slash game with this gameplay system remains fresh and piques my interest is an incredible feat, one which my words alone cannot articulate why this is an “essential” title in the gaming catalog.
For a year wracked with challenges from every corner, 2020 was an exceptional year for gaming. More people got to enjoy it from the comfort of their home than ever before, and I am willing to bet a significant fraction of them will pick it up as a mainstay. Each year we get brand-new experiences that bolster the collection of quality titles for us to experience (and our ever-growing list of backlogs).
There’s a light at the end of the tunnel in 2021, and I suspect that the repercussions of the pandemic will catch up to the industry in the form of less releases and less time to play them. Heck, the botched release of Cyberpunk 2077 will no doubt send shockwaves across the gaming world to remain accountable to itself and its players. Regardless, the dominant outing of video games this year will carry over into the new year with even more momentum than ever before and I’m excited to ride that wave across.