Will it finally end or does 2020 have another surprise for us?!
In this modern era, there are increasingly less things people can definitely agree on, but if there are some stuff that everyone should agree on are: a) BLACK LIVES MATTER b) this year can suck a bag of dicks c) it was an absolutely amazing year for video games. Before I get into the fun part, I just want to say that, this year will end in a short while and a new one will begin and it will be better, because we will be wiser after we deal with the traumatic 2020, and if anyone is feeling down there are hundreds of ways to get help; don’t let this year get the better of you, there are ways to deal with everything life throws at you.
For now, the list is going to be a little different this year (again); it will start with a smaller list of best surprises of the year, an honorable mention that don’t quite fit anywhere else, and then the list of 10 games where the first 8 are tied for 3rd place and sorted alphabetically, with the top 2 ranked normally. This is going to be a long read and I hope you finish the whole thing; I will try my best to make it worth your effort and without further ado, lets start with the best surprises list of 2020!
- Gears Tactics:
Although this list is alphabetically sorted, I’m very glad that I get to start with Gears Tactics, because it is the best game to showcase what one extreme of a surprise game can be; on the surface, Gears Tactics is a game that should not be surprising to anyone, due to its quality. It has the backing of a huge company, the power of a household IP, and the creative freedom to experiment with a new genre; what is surprising is not necessarily how much of a quality product it is, but how painstakingly Gears it is. From the look to the writing, but most of all mechanically, Gears Tactics is both a Gears game and tactical shooter in the vein of XCOM (but with its very own tactical spin on the genre that it is as much Gears as it is XCOM); it could have been more average and safer than that and most people would still be happy, yet it is not; they could have made an XCOM game with a Gear skin, but they did not. Instead, Gears Tactics manages to create a pace that will appeal to series fans, control the difficulty to cater to the mainstream audience that the license will attract, and provide a unique take for genre fans without compromising what they want and the challenge they seek. The story is not great, the mission variety runs dry fairly quickly, and the progression – at least in terms of loot – could have used a few more iterations, but that feeling of losing a character because you made a mistake is still there, the bond with your units is still there, Gears’ signature cover based shooting with intense close quarter combat is still there and translates beautifully in this genre; in fact, I love chainsawing an enemy in this game more than any of the other Gears games, because of the added effort and skill that is required to pull it off. It’s not a perfect game, but I still highly recommend it to people who like Gears or with an interest in tactical, turn-based shooters, especially ones who may be looking for a good beginner’s game which Gears Tactics certainly is.
If there’s one genre that saw a lot activity and improvement over the past year, it would be the rogue-like genre with games featuring on this list later on, early access games that I will definitely talk about when they have their full 1.0 release, or even smaller gems like Going Under. It took me just over 18 hours to complete the game, which is brisk when compared to other rogue-likes, however I absolutely loved every second I spent with the game. I knew I was going to love the visuals, the quirky setting, and the wacky ideas, just by looking at the trailer, but I was very surprised to find out that the writing was actually good, the characterization was decent, and the combat had enough depth and variety to keep me going for 18 hours. Its not an amazing game, but this was at best a good game that turned out to be great and I still have fond memories of the characters and situations. The gameplay was always going to be the biggest obstacle for the game (especially with the ambitious gimmick of making any object in the game your arsenal), however the combat felt satisfying and the regions felt diverse and offered genuine variety in both enemies and objects to play with; it was not the most responsive or deepest combat of the year, however given that this game is not supposed to be played over and over again, so for what it is I enjoyed it a lot more than I was expecting.
I seriously expected nothing from a 2020 battletoads game; I expected to start it, groan and cringe at the humor or the writing, get to the first challenging level or annoying section, quit it, and forget about it. Instead, I played the whole way through it and really enjoyed it; its not perfect or particularly great in any meaningful way, but in a year that was as grim as 2020, a game that models itself after a Saturday morning cartoon was exactly the goofy, heartwarming setting I wanted – and it’s a good game with lots of challenging and addictive things about it as well. The style is the most controversial thing about this game, according to some fans, but I really loved what it was going for and how it achieved it, but beyond that, the humor was very appropriate and genuinely great. Battletoads though, is all about the gameplay; specifically, I thought the beat-em’up sections were fairly decent when the 2.5D style was not messing with your perception of where enemies were, but the mini-games were entertaining and different, which added nice variety and pacing to the game. Some challenges were a bit too much, while others were too easy, and in general, I found the game struggled to maintain a consistent difficulty curve, but beyond that this game is extremely fun (even in single player) and was one of those games that didn’t try to do anything new or innovative, but was done with focus on creating a fun experience and they achieved that.
An honorable mention, before the main list:
- Wasteland 3
The only reason Wasteland 3 is only a honorable mention is because I haven’t finished or done anything substantial enough for the main path of the game…yet; I had to pause on the game to finish some stuff, including these lists, so I don’t think it’s fair to put it against other games of the year. I have however spent dozens of hours wandering around post-apocalyptic Colorado, exploring all its weird stories and characters, pondering its interesting dilemmas, engaging in its great tactical combat, and soaking in the incredible atmosphere and sounds inExile put in this game. There are so many small moments of humor or humanity (and the lack of it) that stick out to me even after months and without the complete conclusion, choices I made in-game hours ago that I still don’t know how they will play out for my characters; as I keep saying, I don’t think there’s an objectively “good” or “correct” way to create experience for games of all genres and ambitions, but Wasteland 3 represents a level of complexity and depth I am increasingly becoming more fond of and which leads to experiences I cherish. I hope the rest of the game lives up to what the early parts deliver on and I will be talking about this game next year, regardless of how it pans out.
Just one last pit-stop before the list! I need to mention Animal Crossing: New Horizons – not in the running for my favorite game of the year – because it is simply put my most played game of the year…by a lot! I’m guessing that if I put together all the time spent on the playthroughs of the list below, they may add up to the time I spent on AC, which I don’t regret, but I also am fully logical as a person and realize that AC is a bad game; a wholesome, quirky, and addictive one, but bad nonetheless. That’s it, I need to feel that all that time spent on the game was worthwhile and I’m not at all thinking about the spider webs and angry villagers that await me if I decide to head back and revisit my addiction! Never mind that, on to the list!!!
My favorite games of the year 2020:
Releasing a sequel to a classic was never going to be easy especially since the two are so different in many ways; DOOM Eternal though does not shy away from a challenge. While the game delivers on the bigger and better promise of a sequel (at least in terms of the impressive visuals and expanded campaign), it does so many bold things with the DOOM marine and the lore of the franchise that hardcore fans could have turned on the game the minute it released. However, they back those up with one of the most satisfying combat systems of the year and another god-like soundtrack from Mick Gordon; I could stop here, but I feel that’s selling the game a little short. Obviously, the game does feature some stuff I don’t care for like the story (which I found disappointing), but I love the satisfying challenge and taking the “chess combat” formula to the next level with multiple layers of strategy and forward thinking now required; you need to be aware of your abilities and their cooldowns, what enemies are present, what resources you need and how to get them, what are your priorities, which weapon is best suited, etc. I haven’t gotten into the DLC, but with a bit of free time, I could always go for a bit more DOOM; just talking about it makes me want to stop everything and start playing a bit more of DOOM!
Supergiant holds a special place in my heart and will always be a studio that excites me; they have a distinct style, strong narratives, and satisfying gameplay, alongside one of the industry’s best composers. Their games are unique and interesting, but Hades is special. In a year where rogue-likes have been amazing, Hades delivered an experience like non other and should become genre defining. Supergiant’s insistence to create a game where gameplay and narrative don’t only coexist, but are inseparable from each other, in a genre that is infamous for the lack of strong narratives; to sum it up, Hades is one of the best narratives and satisfying combat games of the year, alongside addictive progression both mechanical and narrative wise. It’s a game I spent 60 hours on and will continue to play, because there are challenges, I have not mastered yet, whole systems I have not seen yet, narrative arcs that are still incomplete, which are all, worthwhile to experience if the first 60 hours are anything to go by. Its one of the best-looking games of the year, one of the best soundtracks of the year, one of the most endearing and complete narratives of the year, and one of the most fun, fast, fluid, and satisfying combat systems of the year. In a sense they are the complete inverse of our reality; just when I thought Pyre was their magnum opus and could not get any better, they deliver Hades and prove me wrong yet again!
As you can tell by glancing at this list, I really like indie games; I enjoy a good AAA game, but they rarely stick with me beyond the playtime I put in them. Haven is a perfect example of why; it’s not the most feature complete game, but it aims to provide a different experience and one that pushes the industry (and the medium) forward. Haven is one of those rare games that takes a relationship seriously; its not a joke or a mechanical reward, it’s a reference point from which systems, characters, and a narrative can organically formulate. It creates a fascinating sci-fi world, a simple yet entertaining mechanical-driven game, and delivers captivating characters through a relationship that I cared for and wanted to make it work. Its simplicity and quirky nature will put off some people, for sure, but it had sunk its claws in me early on and did not let go until the credits rolled, making for another indie gem people should experience.
2020 has been a rough year for people in many regards; one of them, unfortunately, has been for the push to standardize and systemize inclusivity in mainstream or otherwise industries, including entertainment. In the wake of the BLM movement, the ongoing discussion about identity and gender, and other social issues, one need only casually browse to see the extremes of both sides, but that is a topic for a different article. Where this makes sense for this game is that, regardless of what is going on in the discourse, inclusivity leads to variety and If found is a direct result of that policy. I’m not talking about the subject matter by the way, although I do think it is sublimely handled; I’m talking about people with different viewpoints and experiences, creating unique and meaningful experiences to create a sometimes poignant, but always deeply engaging and emotional experience. Through its unique gameplay gimmick, exceptional writing and presentation, If found delivers one of the best narratives of the year in an entertaining and satisfying way. I’m sorry if this sounds corny, but it is a thought-provoking experience that allowed me to look at another culture I have no experience with, connect and experience a situation I have not, and understand and relate to it a bit better, while experiencing an exceptional entertainment property.
- Max Gentlemen, Sexy Business!
Okay, I know how this title looks, but hear me out: First, the “sexy” part can be completely removed (no judging, by the way, you do you); Second, Max Gentlemen is a great little party game from ages ago and that part with the business part, made for the funniest game I’ve played all year, alongside one of the most interesting ideas. Long story short, MGSB is a business management/dating sim game with a few strategic influences; the story is completely bonkers and unimportant, but what definitely is important is the writing. It genuinely made me laugh countless of times and forced me to stop playing so I can get a grip of myself (not in a dirty way!); that is my favorite thing about this game, but it is also the most subjective as the humor may come off as too random or “wacky” to some. The game itself though is a genuinely challenging and interesting business simulator; you are very wealthy and your arch nemesis manages to con you out of your wealth and tasks you to gain it back within a time limit. You have to recruit and befriend various associates with different perks and skills, in order to get back your wealth and defeat your nemesis. This is an incredibly silly game and that is part of its charm; for example, in order to get back your wealth you have to take over other businesses and the way you do that is through hostile takeovers, which are literally two groups of “employees” fighting each other to the death in the town square. Beyond that, there are various meters and jobs you need to keep doing, like raising your mustache level which allows you to recruit more gangsters – I mean workers! – or going to the bank and getting one form of currency; if I start explaining every system, it will sound overtly complicated, but it really is not, the game eases you in and in no time, you are juggling everything like a gentleman. That doesn’t mean it’s easy, there are various tactics to win and all are valid, but it is a challenging game you will need to restart a few times until you get the hang of things; where it clicked for me though was the “dating sim” aspects of the game. In addition to the associates’ gameplay benefits, they are also dateable and romanceable, but their dates are freaking brilliant; one character tries to solve a murder and drags you along, while another tries to kill you and repeatedly fails. They are hilarious and are absolutely a worthwhile reason to replay the game several times just to see everything the writing and the mechanics have to offer; MGSB is one of the few titles I have ever replayed more than twice, and that should speak volumes about the game’s quality
When I first saw Neon Abyss, I thought it looked really cool and I should keep my eye on it and get it at some point; then, I saw it was coming to Game Pass on day one. If you fail to realize why Game Pass is such a game changer, then let me tell you that 4 of the 10 games on this last are from that service and probably none would be a day one purchase; they would be wishlisted and purchased after I was done with the AAA games who spent marketing money and have impressive visuals and features. I am so glad I did not do that with Neon Abyss, as it was for a couple of months, my go to game; I love its style, its bonkers level of chaos, its willingness to allow your character to become completely OP and workshop its way through that and still create a satisfying and fair challenge. I love how weird it is and how solid its mechanics and gameplay feel; most of all, I love how honest it feels with its vision. Even months after getting the game, I still drop by on a weekly basis and have a run or two, because even after the release of so many incredible rogue-likes, there’s nothing that fills this niche it carved out for itself.
When I first played the original Ori, the design decisions that made it interesting just didn’t click with me; I loved the idea of a save system that takes resources away and incentivizes a riskier style, but in execution, I was just frustrated and anxious about using it all the time. In the end, I gave up on that game, so when the sequel was announced and the features were shown was cautiously optimistic; they are making a more traditional action-platformer in the vein of Hollow Knight, but will it pay off removing unique features that gave the game its identity? Having seen the reaction to the game made me very pleased for fans of the original, because I couldn’t be more in love with Ori and the will of the wisps if I tried. I love its style and beauty, the heart-string pulling story, the challenging and immensely satisfying combat, the rewarding exploration, the astonishing soundtrack; I rarely 100% games, but Ori is a special game that I happily spent all the time I wanted in that world and, now with my brand-new Series X, will happily go back and enjoy it some more
One of the trends I saw this year in video games – and specifically indie games – was the “dark, fairy tale” setting; games like The Last Campfire or Neversong that used the storytelling trends and tropes of fairy tales, centered around darker themes like death, grieving, etc. I played a lot of them this year and hopefully this trend will continue in the years to come, because I absolutely love it, especially if they are going to be anywhere near the quality of Roki. Roki uses Nordic influences primarily and it is one of the most effecting games I played all year; with a unique art style that is a gorgeous mix of several animation styles, great character designs, and smart use of limited resources, the world of the game is one that is fantastical and grim in a fascinating and engaging way. The story is beautiful too with themes about grieving and sorrow, how to move on from that or deal with them, but what satisfied me the most was that, while the game was a point & click puzzle game, it contemporary solutions to age old issues to provide a modern take on the genre that marries gameplay and narrative in an intriguing and approachable way; the puzzles were always meaningful to the story, but also challenging and engaging on their own right, bringing out the best of both features in a worthwhile way. Usually, when point & click fans tell you to play a game in the genre, it comes with caveats like having a walkthrough open or remembering the release date or persevering through some janky or frustrating moments (and opening a video guide when things get unbearable); Roki has no caveats. If dark fairy tale sounds interesting to you (and I had to pick only one to suggest from this year) then you should play Roki.
I consider myself to be someone who’s come to terms with the mortality of life and its finite nature; to me, discussing death and dying, joking about it, being melancholic and grieving, all the baggage that comes with that aspect of life is important, so we can deal with it “better” or at least in a healthier and humane way. If you’ve played Spiritfarer, you know why I began with that intro and you know why it’s so high on this list; this is a game that moved me beyond words and gave me that coveted “bittersweet” feeling I long for. It made me cry, it made me laugh, it made me think about things that I needed or should think about. It is also a surprisingly well designed, well executed video game; there are so many influences that are implemented in the game with the efficiency and skill, AAA teams of thousand employees would envy; there’s fantastic writing, beautiful and artistic designs of characters and worlds that satisfy the most imaginable players; once more, a game soundtrack that works wonders in elevating and enhancing the experience provided by other elements of the game. Even with my particular playthrough, where I wondered aimlessly for a few hours, trying to advance the game, only to be overwhelmed by too many things to do at once, you can see how that analogy can fit with the overall themes of the story, but even with that experience, there aren’t too many better paced games out there this year. Stella and Daffodil’s journey was especially memorable for me and after months of playing and loving the game, I remember the names, the situations, the characters, and all that comes with it with a bittersweet happiness and that is special.
As I keep repeating, however shitty reality has been in 2020, video games have flourished and delivered unique and amazing experiences in our homes. I genuinely struggled to complete this list because there are so many more games I want to highlight, so many I haven’t even touched yet, and yet, the hardest decision I had to make for this list was this one: Should Kentucky Route Zero be considered a 2020 release; due to its episodic nature, the game started releasing back in 2013, but in 2020 the final episode released alongside the TV edition, which includes all acts and intervals released throughout these years. The reason it was hard was that if it was a 2020 release then an already jam-packed list with many difficult decisions just lost its coveted top spot. This is not only my favorite game of the year; this is one of my favorite experiences ever. This is a game that I played through 3 times, cried and laughed each time, keep finding interesting ways to interpret and think about it, and is filled to the brim with an aesthetic, a writing style, and an artistic sensibility that feels tailor made for me to love; and love it I did. Just like my vague review, I will not get into what KRZ actually is about, because it is one of those games that I’d rather people play it and not get/like it instantly/at all, but have those willing to stick with it, explore it, and experiment with it get the experience I got. I’ve long heard people in the media having games that they return to yearly because they love them so much and I don’t have that game; it’s not a contest, by the way, it doesn’t mean they love games more than me or vice versa, but it is a concept I envy and I wanted to replay my favorite games without feeling like I’m wasting time. Fortunately for me, I do have that game now and even though I’ll probably make the same choices and interact with the game the same way as I did in the previous playthroughs, I honestly can’t wait to go through it again and again.
That’s it, that is my favorite games of the year 2020 list. It was long, but hopefully you picked up on a few games to keep an eye out and found the list entertaining enough to get through. Be safe and have a lovely end to a shitty year and hopefully a better one will await in 2021!