2020 was full of a lot of awful shit I don’t want to talk about anymore. I’m going to shout out some great games instead! As is so often the case, video games have helped distract and instruct me through times good and bad. A few stood out in particular, of course, including those on brand-new hardware that’s still too new to have a deep library of great stuff to play. Take a look!
Honorable Mention: Kentucky Route Zero
I haven’t managed to get all the way through Kentucky Route Zero yet. I told myself I would wait for the entire five-part series to release before I played it. Well, the whole thing is out now, and I’m still taking it slow. The strange sort of adventure game lends itself to the more languid pace. It helps keep the experience liminal in my head — something I think is largely intentional moment-by-moment as well. I can never quite tell when it’s trying to be funny, sad, scary, poignant, or a mix of all those things and more. I’m not normally one for intentionally vague stories like that. But I dig the semi-supernatural long haul trucker mystique. Not to mention a certain musical sequence in Act 3 choked me up in a way I did not see coming. That scene alone cemented the game on my list, even though I haven’t seen the ending.
Honorable Mention: Persona 5 Royal
I love Shin Megami Tensei games. And the Royal treatment makes it much, much easier to love Persona 5 in particular. Quality-of-life improvements (like guns that reload) and a vastly improved localization (that retcons some homophobia from the first release) finally allow me to unabashedly recommend this monster RPG to anyone. This is the first Persona game I’ve ever 100 percent completed, too — fulfilling every side activity and relationship.
Honorable Mention: Spider-Man: Miles Morales
Miles Morales is just a better Spider-Man to play than Peter Parker. I say this as someone who really, really liked the 2018 Insomniac game! But much of my joy there was from the unexpectedly fantastic story (ignoring all the pro-police stuff). Miles rarely left me quite as heartbroken as the previous game (kudos to Insomniac for adding pathos to Doctor Freaking Octopus). But the added bioelectric abilities, or “venom powers,” makes the series fundamentally more fun. The tight runtime means Miles Morales never overstays its welcome, either, which was another flaw in the first game.
Honorable Mention: 13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim
I’ve gotten word that some folks “slept on” 13 Sentinels — the visual novel and real-time strategy hybrid from Odin Sphere developer Vanillaware — this year. Don’t be like them. The game is slightly difficult to define. I realized that the moment I asked the PR company working on it to define the game for me. I didn’t get a response. I’m glad I gave it a shot regardless. The strange sci-fi tale of time travel and mecha pilots is fascinating and gorgeous.
It’s quite a lot like the Zero Escape series. You unwind the era-hopping story from the perspective of 13 protagonists in more-or-less any order you want. The RTS combat gates some of your progress through that plot, but actually grew on me quite a bit over time. It’s challenging without being frustrating — making way for the stars of the show. Those stars are the characters. They manage to shine even when what’s really going on behind the scenes of 13 Sentinels goes completely off the rails one time too many for my taste. Their mundane, romantic, and often hilarious shenanigans alone are worth the price of admission.
Honorable Mention: Yakuza: Like a Dragon
I love me a Yakuza game. Naturally, I was ever-so-slightly curious about the series’ move to a brand-new protagonist and completely different style of combat. But I was never worried. From the jump I 100 percent trusted the team behind one of my all-time favorite sets of games to knock it out of the park with its signature mix of melodrama, over-the-top characters, and deeply human stories. I wasn’t disappointed… by Yakuza: Like a Dragon itself. I did, however, lose my entire 45-hour save before the game came out. The press version is incompatible with the final release and I never got to finish the game. It says a lot about how good it is that I’ll probably start over from scratch, though, and reintroduce Ichiban Kasuga to the world of criminal intrigue and semi-magical sheep people living in classic movie theaters.
Honorable Mention: Final Fantasy VII Remake
Final Fantasy VII isn’t my favorite game in the franchise. It’s not even my favorite PlayStation game in the franchise. Yet Final Fantasy VII Remake managed to make me fall in love with the mid-tier heroes in my personal canon. The reinterpreted version of Aerith, in particular shines as a funny and competent foil to fuckboi Cloud. By his very proximity to Aerith — as well as a deeply fleshed out Jessie — he becomes a more interesting, more human character that Square Enix was willing to dress down and poke fun at, rather than the stoic icon nostalgia has turned the SOLDIER into. I didn’t always love the combat, but the dense and daring take on what could have been an overly faithful recreation of the first game had me hooked.
Honorable Mention: Ghost of Tsushima
I really didn’t expect to like Ghost of Tsushima so much. The game makes a pretty uneven first impression. Protagonist Jin Sakai is a gruff, uninteresting, and unlearning “hero” that’s hard to root for throughout most of the game. The rest of the game, however, is gorgeous and a blast to play. The combination of ninja-like tools and tight swordplay are a blast to weave together. Not to mention the free co-op expansion was a neat excuse to return to the single-player experience even as an endless parade of open-world games sought to overshadow it. I’m glad I went back. I could certainly do without Jin, but hopefully Ghost of Tushsima‘s strong sales lead to a sequel that improves on the storytelling shortcomings, while bringing back this excellent combat.
Honorable Mention: Demon’s Souls
The Bluepoint Demon’s Souls remake — a ground-up recreation of the original “Souls” title — was slightly contentious before launch. Not everyone loves the decisions made around the game’s architecture and enemy design. For me, most of the issues melted away under the light of just how good this core game is, and how much more I appreciate it now than I did on the PlayStation 3.
I only really came to love the Soulsborne games after Demon’s Souls. This was a wonderful excuse to look back on the highly experimental first outing with my slowly cultivated appreciation for its style of storytelling. I picked up on far, far more plot elements than in my first playthrough. And for all the maligned design decisions, the remake actually improves a lot of locations as well. The Storm King boss fight, for instance, is a whole new experience. Just as Demon’s Souls itself was a whole new experience for me this time around.
Honorable Mention: Monster Hunter World – Iceborne
Another year; another excuse to talk about Monster Hunter. At their worst, so-called “live games” are exploitative grabs at player wallets. Chasing the live game model has ruined or cheapened what would otherwise be great or even better series (Genshin Impact and Marvel’s Avengers come to mind). Monster Hunter, however, is the formula at its best. It’s a generous game where nearly all meaningful content is free — besides the massive, traditional expansion called Iceborne that hit PC early this year and a handful of $1-3 cosmetics. The seasonal events respect players’ time unlike any other (I’m looking at Destiny 2 and its ultra-grind-fests now). 2020 was also the year I got a regular crew together to slay beasts together with in fun and relaxing fashion. The complex, fulfilling series has never been better.
It was a hard-fought battle, but Hades just barely squeaked in at number one on my game of the year list. That’s a lie, actually. This is the game of the year. It’s a perfectly written, perfectly balanced, perfectly acted roguelike that introduced an entire new audience to the genre — all while changing the horny game for fan artists and fic writers alike.
I’ve said quite a lot about Hades at this point. I’ve been singing its praises since 2018, when it launched as a damn near perfect game in early access. It’s only gotten better since and I’ve only had more positive things to say about it in the interim. There isn’t much more to add. Except that I might play through the whole thing again (all 10 complete runs and the extra steps to get the epilogue) now that cross-save finally hit the Switch. The game is a comfort and a triumph and I don’t want it to be over, even after experiencing its perfect progression for two straight years now. I hope for many more years returning to the underworld to see all my wonderful, immortal friends. Please give us an expansion or a sequel, Supergiant Games!
Hades is so good that it occupies a spot in my memory of 2020 all by itself. I literally can’t think of another, single game that was as heartwarming, repeatable, satisfying, engaging, and challenging. Every other game — no matter how much I do indeed like them — feels like an honorable mention.