Bit later than usual with this one. By my tabulation this is the ninth one of these posts I’ve done across my various blogs (good luck finding 2012 – 2014). I always enjoy putting these together; I’m not sure anyone else really gives a damn, but I find the process cathartic and it’s always good to look back on the year — especially one as gloomy as this one — and remember all the fun. That said, let’s get into it with a batch of honorable mentions.
Honorable Mention: Cyberpunk 2077
Yeah, this one’s not getting placement in the top ten. That may come as a shock to a handful of you, but I’m going to have to blunt here and say that Cyberpunk isn’t really anything especially fantastic. Cyberpunk feels a bit like 10 incomplete, yet serviceable, games stapled together, and none of those disparate parts ever really feel like they’re coming together into a cohesive whole. The graphics are fine but honestly never stood out to me the way they seemed to for many, the music did nothing for me, the gunplay was atrocious, the skill trees and upgrades were uninspired, and ultimately Cyberpunk doesn’t really do anything that the Fallout and Deus Ex series haven’t done before. There’s a lot to like about its vibrant and dense world, and Keanu Reeves is perfectly able as one of our leading men, but when it gets down to it Cyberpunk didn’t even spring to mind when it came time to compile this list. [Note: I’m aware the game is also horrendously riddled with bugs and likely should’ve been put out about six months later than it was, but to be honest the bugs were some of the most enjoyable parts of the game for me.]
Honorable Mention: Spiritfarer
Spiritfarer is a delightful little town-building and relationship-managing game that’s relaxing and charming, full of tasks and chores to complete, and features a sleazy raccoon as a shop owner. I’m pretty sure that’s the only game from 2020 you can say that about. Pretty … pretty sure. Spiritfarer is veritably quaint by the standards of some of the other standouts of 2020, but it offers a wonderful story about loss and grief in a way that previously only hideously boring games have tried to tackle, and manages to do so better than any of them. On top of that framework of guiding souls to the afterlife, you have a nice resource-gathering and town-management puzzle riddled with fetch quests and favors for your passengers that’s reminiscent of a sort of bizzaro-world version of Don’t Starve, where — were they films — instead of being directed by Tim Burton it’s directed by Wes Anderson. A refreshing light in the dark, but when all is said and done, not a standout.
Honorable Mention: Hyrule Warriors – Age of Calamity
The first Hyrule Warriors was an enjoyable hack-‘n’-slash romp through some familiar Hylian locales with a ludicrous amount of mooks to slaughter and a thin story that sort of, kind of, resembled something that might come from a Zelda game. Age of Calamity improves on all fronts, delivering an effective love letter to Breath of the Wild that manages to expand on its story without stepping on its legacy, and providing an amusing-at-worst, exhilarating-at-best combat experience with surprising depth and complexity. Most notably, where the first suffered for its shoddy co-op and samey character design, AoC (I don’t think I’m going to continue using that acronym) knocks both of these out of the park, providing an insanely large roster of playable characters, each different enough not to get them confused (most of the time), and mostly (mostly) manages to run cooperative play without too many hiccups. That said, it’s effectively still more of the same, and you can basically mash the X button to win every level, but you can also not do that, which is where the fun comes.
Honorable Mention: Microsoft Flight Simulator
This one’s going in the honorable mentions because I’m not entirely convinced it’s actually a game. Whether it is or not, it’s an impressive technical achievement and a downright masterpiece in its genre. Many days have gone by where I’ll set up an autopilot flight across some foreign country and just leave it up while I work on my other monitors — it’s a beautiful and relaxing diversion. Gorgeous models, real-time weather, and amazing AI-generated landscape and structures are only the tip of the iceberg here; from what I understand it’s incredibly detailed and has in-flight software and physics that are true to real life. I can’t necessarily speak to that, because I don’t know a damn thing about it, but what I do know is planes are cool and Microsoft Flight Sim is cool.
Those out of the way, let’s get into the top 10 …
10. Assassin’s Creed Valhalla
Valhalla is the most refined, polished, and fun Assassin’s Creed game since Black Flag. Following the reinvention of the series with Origins and Odyssey, Valhalla has trimmed some of the fat off the design, added some creative customization and skill tree elements to let players have more say in how they play the game, and attempted to bring story more to the forefront — with some success. Valhalla’s world is lush and gorgeous, and mercifully a bit smaller than its massive predecessors, though it still feels a good bit larger than it needed to be. The landscape is peppered with things to accomplish, with particular highlights being the various small sidequests that take mere minutes to complete but reward you with some wonderful vignettes of life in the 9th century. The longship feels a bit like an afterthought, but running on autopilot it’s a great way to get from points A to B and have a cinematic view of the landscape while hearing some fun Viking stories and songs that are never quite as great as the sea shanties of Black Flag, but entertaining nonetheless. Once again Ubisofit evidently felt the need to anchor the game to the current modern-day plot of the series, whatever it may be, but does so even less than prior installments. I hope someday soon they scrap this aspect of the series entirely, as I’m fairly certain no one is playing these games itching to find out what happens next to Shaun and … I want to say Lily? Is there a Rebecca in there? I don’t know. The story of our Viking conqueror Eivor is far more engrossing, and at times even manages to be pretty effective. Suffice to say that, while Assassin’s Creed Valhalla is basically just another Assassin’s Creed game, it’s the best one we’ve gotten in the better part of a decade and hopefully signals promising returns in the future.
9. Fall Guys Ultimate Knockout
While it seems like everyone forgot about Fall Guys in favor of a game that came out almost 3 years ago, it may well be the best Battle Royale game on the market right now, or at least the only one I have a shot at winning (which, to me, is the same thing). Fall Guys is colorful, absurd, and chaotic, and is the best BR for a quick pick-up game that won’t leave you with a sour taste in your mouth. The knockouts feel less impactful and frustrating thanks to the fact that the game is simply hysterical to watch unfold, and even if you mess up some of its surprisingly precise bits of platforming or timing, you’re never left feeling like you should’ve done something better, and you’re never down for too long. While Fall Guys is somewhat lacking in variety, its challenges — especially its exceptional batch of final showdown levels — are almost all amusing and exciting, maintaining a pulse-pounding pace better than most other BRs which all inevitably devolve into hiding or waiting for perfect loot. Of course, to compare this to the likes of Fortnite or Apex Legends is a bit disingenuous — where those are fleshed-out, team-based shooters, Fall Guys is a bit more like a gauntlet of the best Mario Party minigames where, instead of Mario and Bowser slapping each other around, it’s enormous jelly beans. Fall Guys is a fun, if shallow, diversion, and it feels every bit as satisfying to win as its competitors in the genre do.
8. The Pathless
The Pathless was a sort of impulse buy for me, looking around on the PlayStation store after hooking up my PS5 and wanting something to try on it. Needless to say, I was pleasantly surprised by its beautiful and gloomy world design, effortless and satisfying movement mechanics, and evocative soundtrack. Many times while playing The Pathless I was reminded of another favorite of mine, thatgamecompany’s 2012 masterpiece Journey. Like Journey, The Pathless gives us control of a robed, silent protagonist, has a creatively fluid way to traverse the landscape, a subtle but haunting score, and a constant visual representation of our ultimate goal visible in the world at all times. But where Journey presented us with harsh desert sands and maze-like cave systems, The Pathless is largely populated with lush, dark forests, mountains, and plains. The Pathless manages to get its message across with very little front-loading or dialog, has an incredibly simple progression system that still manages to feel rewarding, and presents some great little puzzles reminiscent of some of the shrines in Breath of the Wild. The boss fights are tense, but like everything else, don’t overstay their welcome, and feel a bit like some of the more powerful enemies in Horizon: Zero Dawn. While I’m making a lot of comparisons to other games here, it’s only because The Pathless is hard to pin down, and manages to be more than the sum of its parts. Despite having essentially the same set of goals in every area, you never feel like you’re experiencing the same content twice. The Pathless is short and sweet, and more than worth the hours you’ll spend with it.
This is another one that nearly flew under the radar for me. Othercide nearly put me off with its gothic horror-inspired design, which is generally an aesthetic that doesn’t do much for me. However, behind that (admittedly very well-implemented and truly unsettling) monochromatic style, there’s a complex and challenging tactical strategy roguelike built on the pillars of short, condensed missions, limited resources and units at your disposal, and grueling boss encounters. If this sounds at all familiar, it’s likely reminding you of my 2018 GOTY — the phenomenal Into the Breach. While Othercide never quite reaches the simplistic and strategic heights of Into the Breach, the customizability and breadth of XCOM, or the story and character design of the Fire Emblem games, it manages to occupy a niche all its own in the tactical strategy genre — a favorite of mine. The key mechanic here is that your units (which you’ll mostly only be using 3 or 4 of in a given level) can never regain health without sacrificing another unit of equal or greater level. Many of their more powerful abilities come at a health cost, and if they die, you’ll have to expend a rare resource if you want to bring them back. These units, your “daughters”, are all essentially identical — which fits into the game’s narrative — and only fall into one of three categories of fighter, but still manage to feel distinct and valuable. The other unique mechanic in Othercide is the Initiative system, where units all act according to a specific order determined at the start of a fight. A satisfyingly devious puzzle emerges as you begin to juggle the various abilities you can use to move your units up the track or enemy units down it, and tough tactical choices have to be made with regards to the Burst mechanic whereby you can essentially have a unit perform twice as many actions — at the cost of moving much, much further down the track and potentially letting some enemies go 3 or 4 times before them. It’s a grueling and unforgiving challenge, especially since it automatically saves your progress after every move you make, but it never feels unfair. Othercide provides some of the most difficult and rewarding tactical strategy of any game I’ve played, and though its narrative is a little obtuse and vague, it’s a serviceable enough coat of paint for its engrossing mechanics.
6. Doom Eternal
One week into the great eternal lockdown of 202X, people all over the world turned to one of two games to satisfy their need for release. Some turned to Animal Crossing New Horizons, enjoying the fictional denizens of their idyllic island towns, and living out the fantasies of being able to go shopping, speak to your neighbor, or pay off your mortgage. Others turned to Doom Eternal, wanting to slaughter demons with a chainsaw. I fell into the latter camp. Doom Eternal feels like a complete refinement of its predecessor, 2016’s Doom reboot, and does just about everything better. Its level design is streamlined and straightforward in contrast to the labyrinthine marathons of the previous game, and the gunplay is even faster, more ruthless, and more explosive. Doom Eternal gives the player a chance to hone their “twitchy” instinct to a fine point, and at higher difficulties (which I wholeheartedly recommend), you’ll be shocked at the amount of split decisions you’re making every second as you jump back and forth between your arsenal of weapons, remember what every individual demon’s weak points are (made easier by how much more visually distinct everything is now), swap between two grenade types, manage your ammo by means of slaughtering weaker mooks with a chainsaw, refill your health with well-placed glory kills, replenish your armor by lighting enemies ablaze with a flamethrower … Doom Eternal almost feels like a resource-management strategy game disguised as a brutal FPS, and once you unlock the insanely powerful weapons like the BFG (literally the core of a planet-destroying cannon) and the crucible (a sword that can slice literally any enemy in two) it becomes a ridiculous puzzle bathed in demon blood and guts. Add in some fun platforming areas, collectibles to hunt, and a badass metal soundtrack, and you’ve got possibly the best FPS in years. There’s also a grappling hook.
5. Deep Rock Galactic
I had almost no expectations coming into Deep Rock Galactic, but I was blown away by how much fun I’ve had with it. DRG is a cooperative game about mining in caves and killing spiders. There’s not much more to it than that, but the depth and breadth of the game come into play with its procedurally-generated tunnels, customizability of its four playable character classes, and the different types of missions you’ll be embarking upon. Some missions are simpler, finding a preset amount of a particular type of mineral, digging for eggs in giant, gross, organic tunnels, or killing lots of monsters. The more complex missions are where DRG really shines, such as the refinery missions where you have to build skateboard-grindable pipelines to giant geysers, escort missions, and the Deep Dive missions that combine multiple other types. The variety is limited enough that you usually have access to a mission type you really enjoy, but big enough that you won’t get bored too quickly. DRG works best cooperatively — I honestly can’t imagine playing it alone — and it shines tremendously bright once you begin to come up with combinations of abilities and weapons that work well together. It even works well to assign players to specific tasks, like having one player concentrate on building pipelines while another keeps enemies off them, or utilizing combinations of each class’s traversal abilities to build shortcuts around the vast caverns. Each class feels uniquely equipped to handle certain situations, but not so overly vital that you feel like you’re missing out by not having some of them present for a mission. It’s a delicate balance that DRG manages to walk better than some other class-based team games. Deep Rock Galactic is perhaps not much to look at (though I love the way lighting works in its gloomy tunnels), and there’s a dearth of unique enemy types, but overall it’s an immensely enjoyable experience if you’ve got friends to hi-ho with. There’s also a grappling hook.
4. Risk of Rain 2
In a year dense with wonderful roguelikes, Risk of Rain 2 was one of my most anticipated releases. The first was a charming if somewhat obtuse retro platformer in the vain of the classic Metroid games, and when its sequel was announced in 2019 as a fully cooperative 3D shooter, I was impressed, if somewhat skeptical. Needless to say, my guilts were assuaged after spending a couple of minutes in Risk of Rain 2’s visually-simplistic but nonetheless appealing locales, ranging from desert ruins, to swamp ruins, to arctic ruins, to … other ruins. There’s a theme, okay? The playable roster is as diverse as they come, with each unlocked character offering a totally unique style of play, with even further customization coming in the form of the various abilities you can swap in and out as you gain certain achievements with each character. That’s not to mention the vast breadth of items and weapons you’ll pick up through the course of each run, many of which can drastically change your playstyle in an instant. Like the best roguelikes, Risk of Rain 2 allows you to build yourself a unique toolbox every time you start a run, and as you progress through challenging boss fights and densely-packed locations (of which there are, admittedly, too few), you’ll begin to develop your own go-to strategies and methods for taking down enemies quickly that’ll be completely different from every other run you begin. Sometimes, for instance, you’ll build your kit around hunkering down in your shield barrier, accompanied by your turrets that gain all the same benefits as you do. Other times, you’ll be dashing around as an aggressive swordsman, with abilities that let you bring enemies into large clusters and take them all down with elemental powers. Other times still you’ll be blasting enemies with bolts of fire, blocking them with walls of ice, and using an assortment of drones and summoned friends to stave off waves. Each run is an exhilarating marathon that gets tougher and tougher as you continue, and the staggering variety that comes with each different character, loadout of equipment you pick up, area you traverse, and boss you’ll have to contend with makes Risk of Rain 2 nearly impossible to get bored of. There’s also a grappling hook.
3. Ghost of Tsushima
From Sucker Punch studios, the minds behind the excellent superhero-power-trip inFamous series, Ghost of Tsushima brings us to a lush, vibrant rendition of feudal Japan, rife with nods to famous samurai stories like the films of Akira Kurosawa and James Clavell’s Shogun. Ghost of Tsushima boasts an impressive open world, which manages to remain interesting, diverse, and dense with threads to chase down in spite of its enormity. While some of the repeated side missions like finding hot springs, writing haiku, or following foxes to Inari shrines become a bit repetitive, Ghost of Tsushima shines in its narrative and its fluid samurai combat. As Jin Sakai, you’re the sole force staving off a Mongol invasion of the mainland, and the abilities you learn from your myriad comrades — each of whom are fully fleshed-out, realized characters with side missions to expand on their own narratives — make you a force to be reckoned with. The sword-based combat is perhaps the best melee combat I’ve seen in a game to date, and will have you effortlessly swapping between sword stances to contend with whatever type of foe you happen to be facing, parrying blows, tossing explosives, firing arrows, and executing brutal legendary moves that can frighten your enemies and cause them to flee the scene altogether. The landscape is dotted with Mongol camps, which can be infiltrated stealthily a la Assassin’s Creed, or faced head-on with a bona fide samurai standoff, which eventually allows you to take out four or more enemies in one fell swoop. The system of progressing and developing your skills is satisfying, and cleverly trickles in more and more abilities, weapons, and tools for you to rotate and juggle in each encounter. Ghost of Tsushima boasts not only intense and satisfying combat, gorgeous visuals, and an excellent soundtrack, it also happens to have the best story out of any game I played in 2020. Without spoiling too much, the narrative is centered around Sakai and his struggle between maintaining his honor by following the strict code of the samurai and embracing his inner assassin to ruthlessly excise the Mongol threat by any means necessary. Its conflicts are somewhat simple, but incredibly human, and though there aren’t many choices to be made (apart from an important one at the game’s conclusion), it’s still a compelling and engaging tale. There’s also a grappling hook.
I’ve ranted and raved plenty about how great Hades is — see my review — so I’ll keep my extolling of the virtues of Supergiant’s latest home run as brief as I can. Hades is likely the best work from the indie developers behind Bastion, Transistor, and Pyre — all of which were also tremendous games themselves. Here, we have everything Supergiant has honed and fine-tuned over the last decade on the scene, and their personality shines brighter here than anywhere else. The narrative takes a simple premise to every possible extreme while maintaining strong character arcs and motivations, the gameplay is fast, precise, and incredibly intense, and the player feels consistently rewarded with progress of multiple kinds no matter how short their last attempt to escape the Underworld may have been. It’s challenging enough for those looking for trouble, but not impossible unless you want it to be. Little needs to be said about Darren Korb’s usual fantastic composition work. The long and short of it is that if you’re looking for a nail-biting action game that you can pick up and put down in half-hour bursts, but enjoy for upwards of 30 hours, look no further.
1. Monster Train
I’ll be completely honest — Hades very nearly took the crown this year. Over the past several years I’ve had trouble selecting a final choice for the game of the year (2017 was a battle between Mario Odyssey and Breath of the Wild, 2018 pit Into the Breach against God of War, and last year it was down to Three Houses and Slay the Spire), and this may have been the toughest yet. However, as always, I must pick one winner, and despite how much I adore essentially everything about Hades, I adore Monster Train even more. Another deckbuilding roguelike — a bit like Slay the Spire on hefty doses of caffeine — Monster Train is one of the most satisfying experiences I’ve had gaming in quite some time. At the surface it bears quite a few similarities to Slay the Spire — you’ve got a small deck of cards at the start that you enhance and expand upon as you make your way through each run, slaying bosses, buying new cards, and developing new strategies as you go. However, Monster Train’s complexity and depth become ever more apparent the deeper you dig into its tangled web of abilities, status effects, and random events. Between its various playable clans of monsters, each with a choice of unique champions that can define your entire strategy, Monster Train is already as wide as it is deep at the outset of a given run, but as you add and remove cards in your deck, invest upgrades in spells and monsters, encounter strangers on the tracks who could completely flip the script on your entire run with one decision, and choose artifacts that can totally change the way a chunk of your cards operate, your head starts to spin. Then you realize that you can build an entire deck around sending enemies up to the top floor of your train to contend with your Pyre, the engine of your train itself. Or you can build a deck around feeding tiny rocks to your enormous champion who nearly takes up a floor all his own. Or around killing your own units off so you can reform even stronger than before. Or around triggering huge combos of abilities on your monsters every time you cast a spell. Or around having very few cards at all and cycling through the same two spells over and over until you nuke the boss in one hit. The synergies possible here all feel game-breaking, but that’s its beauty. You can feel confident that no one has ever tried that particular combination of cards and artifacts before, and it’s so rewarding to feel your experimentation pay off when you can slaughter the final boss with ease. Monster Train takes everything I like about the deckbuilding genre and does them better than any game before, and though there were plenty of strong contenders, it’s undoubtedly the best game I played in 2020.
Onto the next one, eh?