I should preface: this only exists because I played lots of games in 2020, I hope to play even more (looking at you Crusader Kings 3) and think it’s important to document art history of which video games are apart of. In spite of my harsh words on occasion, I love all of these games. More than that, I want this to be a time capsule more than anything, a transporting document to one of the strangest years we were unable to share together. Also, no current generation games (new console year baby! Still rocking the old hardware). Enjoy!
The following essay was written on New Years day. The subsequent articles were written in between Late November 2020 and Early February 2021.
It’s so easy to see the world through our own eyes. The accessibility, proximity and intelligibility of our surroundings often keeps us rooted, for better or worse, within ourselves. Art has that rare privilege, as a medium, to extend and expand the vision of others. It’s one of the few spaces in which rather than being in conflict with the difference of the other we can actually feel resolute pleasure at receiving a perspective that is not our own.
The maturation of video games has been a long, slow ascent that has accelerated rapidly in recent years, in the wake of exhaustive and thorough technological victories. Developers are imbuing their creations with refined finesse and an impressive fidelity. Perhaps, as a byproduct of this, video games are finally growing out of simply being an attraction, allowing for a broader range of perspectives that are ultimately more difficult to digest but perhaps all the more valuable to the art form
Hyperbole aside, 2020 was a really hard year. We were all quarantined and isolated by the pandemic ravaging an already divided world adding another layer of reason for suspicious people to distrust each other, on top of that, yet another, improbably divisive election. My city protested for one-hundred and seven days in the wake of the murder of George Floyd, tear-gas flooded the blocks of downtown Portland that surrounded the courthouse, there was a mandatory curfew, cops and the department of homeland security forced people back into their homes through intimidation and fear, bridges connecting the city were cut off by armed officers, many people awoke to how easily the government was willing to revoke the “rights” it had supposedly bestowed upon its citizens while denying it to others and some sat back in denial. Then the rest of America saw a picture slapped on the front page of the New York Times of a young naked woman with her legs spread at the police, as if her white vagina did anything for black bodies anywhere, it was madness, and in all the haze of tear-gas and “white guilt”, corporate America and white bourgeois everywhere somehow found a way to make it about themselves once again, even the white supremacists found a way to recenter the conversation around their antics rather than the legislation that needs to be enacted in order for genuine change to occur. Meanwhile people posted black squares and used reductive hashtags, latching onto anything they could to satiate the feeling they were “doing right” on either side, all the while not recognizing it was as it had always been proletariat eating proletariat all while the fat cats sat back and watched small businesses everywhere go belly-up, plotting their next move as we became more entrenched in our opposition against one another. The writing on the wall is this: everyone is succumbing to madness, perhaps, it was best that we were locked away from one another, protecting ourselves from our own insanity and thirst for violence, retribution, that we were accelerating towards at breakneck pace, because it wouldn’t have been struck or even aimed at the capitalists who twist our motivations into intangible knots, elite and bourgeoise, just at ourselves.
As a result, everything personal in our lives has been made political. Hannah Arendt in Origins of Totalitarianism argues that fascism thrives and succeeds when there is no part of our lives untouched by the political sphere. So, we’ve lost, Deleuze, Guatarri and Foucault wanted to give us an introduction to the non-fascist life and some, each in our own solitude managed to win private, individual battles against the system because that network became larger and more unstoppable than it ever had been before, more appealing and genuinely undetectable in it’s influence, it’s size unknowable, a true body-without-organs, always seeking it’s limit, whose crisis only attacked little people like you and I, dear reader by inscribing it’s cruelty on the privatization and alienation of our bodies from each other, subject only to the claims of territoriality upon our beings.
As films failed us, and have become, quite obviously (as many have been since its inception), ideological beacons of the ruling-class, pandering documents of profit, even as the workers involved, struggled to scrape by, Disney+, HBO Max and Hulu began to expand their reign, far and away from “saving” the film industry, they will alter it irretrievably, conglomerates are going to win unless we do something crazy and demand different.
In this mess, music (though live venues faltered and painfully quieted), people (in spite of themselves perhaps) and video games were glowing, radiant glimmers of hope in an otherwise brutal, unforgiving year. I’ve never had so many songs on my yearly list before, I made it to eight-hundred with only ten repeat artists, all of which had no more than three songs on the list. They are all great, contextualizing and making beautiful, ugly, hard times. I also recorded three projects this year, a solo record, an album with my band Ishroyale and another EP with that same band, making plans for multiple records and big moves in 2021, it was a sobering era, a call to action for all the things I had been putting off until college was over, until I could “focus”. School was revealed to be what it always was, an excuse for delaying my life’s beginning. So I began it, gladly and ungracefully, but with much gusto, change and vigor. Which I couldn’t have done if it had not been for all the incredible humans who surround me, who, should they read this, I love deeply and will fight to the ends of the Earth for, I can’t express how much each one of you means to me, you too, dear reader, I am grateful for, so very happy you are well, alive and choosing to give my silly little ramblings your attention. Growing up is very much a process of loss and consolidation, many people were left behind, moved on, some died and many more will, but as a result our priorities were realigned, solidified, those who remain and those who have gone all mean the most for being and having been at all.
So games, in their rapid expansion, met us exactly where we were at and gave us what we needed, not just a reprieve but a genuine aid, a rewarding salve in dire straits. I played more games in 2020 than I hopefully ever will be able to again, but I genuinely appreciate the amount of content I’ve been able to pursue without guilt about the outside world moving on without me, after a year and a half of spiritual isolation, I finally felt company in a completing and gratifying manifestation. I cannot express the admiration I have for developers who managed to finish these games remotely, the design challenges must have been immense but our collective experience would’ve been lessened without them and in a year that threatened the integrity of other art forms, y’all kept us playing, you managed to manifest the personal as political, and made us infinitely less alone in the process, even if shared experiences were threatened as they never had been before.
- Paradise Killer
Developer: Kaizen Game Works
Publisher: Fellow Traveler
Platform(s): Switch, PC, MacOS
Rating: 5 out of 5
Truth is negation. In order to arrive at a conclusion one is tasked with eliminating a myriad of possibilities in order for that fact to retain its authority.
Paradise Killer is a devastating video game. The week and a half in which it took my friend and I to untangle this dastardly, godly conspiracy was fraught with uncertainty and debate. We taped up a wall of suspects and clues on sheets of notepaper to help us track the various details and movements of the plot as it developed. We ranked the potential murderers in terms of most suspicious to least, a list that was continually upset as new revelations and evidence came to light.
As Lady Love Dies, the player is tasked with investigating the murder of a group of immortal beings, known as The Syndicate, who worship the magic of gods, both good and evil, in order to gain favor, fortune and hierarchical status. The leaders of The Syndicate appear to have been murdered by a citizen, a human named Henry who’s been possessed by a demon, but Lady Love Dies soon learns not all is as it seems. Lady Love Dies, being a prisoner herself for millions of years as a result of dealing with godly magic, has her own personal stake in her renewed freedom and a new position as the Island’s lead investigator, in addition to her own relationships with the possible killers. As Love Dies, you traverse a landscape that is essentially the upchuck of a vaporwave after-party to a bopping city-pop soundtrack as you piece together this film noir distilled through the memory of a pill-popping 90’s macintosh. When the game’s last hour transitions into a courtroom drama, all the facts you’ve amassed are seamlessly woven together in a dense, vivid and complex conspiracy. In a year that yielded a more slick version of the already decked-out-to-the-nines Persona 5, Paradise Killer is perhaps the year’s most stylish game.
Your investigation is saddled with the extra pressure of the end of the world as you know it and the birth of a new “perfect” one. In the world of Paradise Killer the Earth is ruled by powerful gods that the citizens worship, those closest to the gods are in The Syndicate and they are effectively the society’s “ruling class” and in your conversations with your peers you have the opportunity to persist in the vile tradition of hatred within that class or facilitate some bridge of understanding, exemplified best by the dialogue options with Henry’s friendship during the game’s “hang out” sections. The Syndicate has created and destroyed the universe twenty-four times, always ending in their members transitioning into a new “island”, retaining their immortality while the citizens participate in a ritual mass suicide. You come to realize fairly quickly that this world fucking sucks and so too, do the people in it, yourself included.
So how are we to judge? What facts and fictions are valuable to an investigation so nihilistic and futile? Justice is impossible when holding the powerful accountable, the investigation, even in the face of progress, feels like a constant setback because no one on the island believes any narrative besides their own even as yours becomes increasingly solid and believable.
I found every fact there possibly was to find in this game. My friend and I left no stones unturned. We laid out the clues on legal paper and taped them to the wall next to the television, tracking every lead until it’s end. We watched every youtube walkthrough (before the trials, of course) to see if there was some little thing that wasn’t there that should have been. It was crushing as some avenues we believed incredibly important initially quickly became irrelevant; they nonetheless colored and contextualized our narrative.
So if justice is a story, it’s a damned messy one. And while I knew, when all was said and done, I had got my men (and women) right where I wanted them, full of startling confessions, reversals and confirmations playing out before me in the courtroom, and sudden testimony that reinforced my truths. It all added up.
Then a funny thing happened.
I succeeded. The bad guys got what they deserved, sentenced to a swift death, that I myself delivered. Then the Island died. And I left for the new one.
As I walked towards my vehicle to leave, the pain in my heart was piercing and acute, during the trial I felt l had wrapped up this colossal shitshow honestly and intelligently, but in it’s aftermath I felt empty and helpless, the price of my truth weighing on me. All the death just beget more death and now I was alone with a new job, leaving behind a mystery I might have cracked but failed to wholly understand.
I was devastated.
- Kentucky Route Zero
Developer: Cardboard Games
Publisher: Annapurna Interactive, Cardboard Games
Platform(s): PS4, Xbox One, PC, MacOS
Rating: 5 out of 5
I’ve spent much of the last three years in various parts of the United States: Tennessee, Texas, Pennsylvania, Oregon, New Mexico, Florida, California and Washington, traveling largely by car as I traversed the distances between these places. There are so many small towns in our country, full of histories and cultures anonymous to the world at large. Their magnetism was palpable but so to, was their ushering for you to leave, imploring you to stay as long as you’d like as long on their terms and expelling you the moment those conditions were breached. These areas have a spirit that feels overgrown, a town-wide umbrella protecting the little world from the onslaught of data and information rushing in from the one outside. And just as you think you understand this town, you move forward, you are just passing through.
In David Byrne’s True Stories, the songwriter charts a course across a town in Texas, capturing their local festivities. Aspects are fictionalized while others are documentary in quality, and in it’s goofy, sentimental way it displays the innocuous soul of the American worker-consumerist village. Today it reads as a bit idyllic, however, it’s so bright, witty and lovely any criticisms in that area seem pretentious and selfish. Kentucky Route Zero catches up with the towns Byrne films in his quasi-documentary thirty years later, it’s journey to completion as strenuous and exhaustive as a cross-country movement.
Act I of Kentucky Route Zero released in 2013. I was a fourteen year old old then, three years deep into PC gaming, but all I really played was Mafia 2, Team Fortress, Counter-Strike, and Left 4 Dead. I was into weirder stuff as well, especially point n’ click adventures, resonating particularly with Telltale’s Back to the Future series. It was through this rabbit hole that I stumbled upon Kentucky Route Zero. Everything I heard about it sounded incredible, the limited things I knew at that time about surrealism, poetry, music, art, and all things “Lynchian” all rang loudly in my young brain, like the game was screaming at me “look! Find me!”. I discovered later that the game was unfinished and I contemplated enduring the first episode and then waiting for the rest to release.
I decided to hold off until I could experience the whole story. So I waited.
When 2020 started, I was drinking too much. I was approaching the end of what had more or less been a two-year bender accompanied by a deep, painful, and compromising suicidal depression. During this time, perhaps as a result of the more insular lifestyle I was living, I became more interested in video games than I ever had been before. When the lockdown began, it only furthered my retreat inwards and increased my drinking. In May I came out of this daze and declared sobriety. After some continued struggles with alcohol, a bipolar 1 diagnosis, some unfortunate and detrimental relapses, I am in a place where I can safely say that I am doing better.
With that comes a space where I am in debt to a lot of people.
Kentucky Route Zero begins with a delivery man named Conway, as he and his dog attempt to unload their final package at 5 Dogwood Drive. I won’t say any more about the tale just that the perspective of the narrative is malleable, shocking and disorienting. Parts of the story are told in first-person, others from camera feeds and the mouths of characters engaging from events you participated in from the outside looking in as they explicate your narrative to you poetically, personally and with just the perfect amount of artistic disconnect, the atmosphere is so overwhelming and consistent that there is never any question of this story being reality, only how much it resembles it.
Conway’s journey is a hard one. The trajectory is inevitable, and it is following this curve that the game becomes ephemeral, and solidifies the magnificence of it’s enterprise. Moments disappear through each other, from their stacking of one upon the other until you look back and the distance between you and where you began is entirely irreconcilable, everyone has been altered and transformed. And this gets at one of the game’s most poignant themes: change. Storm’s wash away all, leaving basin’s, swamps and dilapidated towns in their wake, the Zero is distinctly left behind. It’s inhabitants are all in a state of transit, and in this way they are constantly getting ahead of themselves in the process forcing something into the past.
Much has been made of its depiction of rural American life, and I suspect this is a truer glimpse for some than it is for others. While towns like these undeniably exist in our country, there is much romanticisation and fictionalization that transpires and in that way it escapes our conventional logic which makes it a truly surrealist work, laced with contradictions, non-sequiturs and inexplicability. So it’s dizzying list of references are justified by it’s execution, a game which is truly postmodern because in the act of processing its own indebtedness Kentucky Route Zero arrives at something that is deeply personal, shifting and revolving, in short: intimidatingly original.
- Persona 5 Royal
Developer: Atlus, P Studio
Publisher: Atlus, Sega
Platform(s): PS4 and PS5
Rating: 5 out of 5
Persona 5 is one of my favorite games ever made. So I expected this expansion/remake to be my easy game of the year, and it is a testament to the quality of the titles listed above that it’s ranked in the third spot. Persona 5 Royal is a better version of the greatest JRPG of the last generation. The already engaging and playful cast of characters that inhabit the sprawling narrative are given meatier plotlines in this update in addition to a fresh party member and a new confidant. This adds about twenty to thirty hours to a game that was originally over a hundred. Its scope is truly epic, like the narrative arc of an anime its sweeping, broad and unevenly paced but its charm is all the more idiosyncratic as a result. JRPG’s come and go, but there is only one Persona.
To those unfamiliar with the concept, in Persona 5 you control a high school student, code-named Joker, the leader of the Phantom Thieves, a group of teenagers who travel into an alternate dimension within the broken psyche’s of powerful adults, (the physical manifestations of these zones called “Palaces”) and “steal their hearts”, a process which forces the victim to confess their dark crimes that have calcified their distorted reality. As aforementioned in my write-up about Paradise Killer, justice is messy and while these baddies get what they have coming for them, this game does not simply let you off the hook by painting them as one-dimensional characters, there are enemies you might find yourself considerably more invested in than you’d previously expected. It’s an expertly written game, each detail is revealed at the perfect moment and everything coalesces in peaks and valleys of gameplay that blends seamlessly with the story thanks to the game’s calendar structure. At the end of each heist it feels like the ending to an arc of anime or a manga; there is a conclusive element while simultaneously propelling multiple characters towards new plotlines.
It’s also remarkably addictive, it’s dense but incredibly gratifying, it never holds you back from enjoying the world and immersing yourself in it, you might look at your watch and find that you’ve given a solid eight-hour chunk to the game without batting an eye. And while that sounds like commitment (it is), Persona 5 Royal always keeps you moving forward, it’s difficult to not make progress in both the story and gameplay, it’s hard to just put in thirty minutes but in that way, Persona 5 Royal never feels like it’s not worth your time. Never does the gameplay get repetitive because it’s introducing new elements until the game’s final moments, each layer interconnecting with the other. It’s a perfect video game. Having played Persona 5 once, the additional narratives, quality of life improvements and the attention to detail graphically, spiritually and gameplay, Persona 5 Royal is a new favorite way to play one of my favorite video games.
- Spelunky 2
Developer: Mossmouth, Blitworks
Platform: PS4, PC, Xbox One
Rating: 5 out of 5
Playing Spelunky 2 is a religious, ritualistic experience with all the masochism therein. There’s just something going on in those caves. Each run has a mind of its own, some days it feels as if the cave wants you there, other days the traps, enemies and beasts reject you like a disease upon its cultivated biome. But you almost swear it wants you there anyway. So you keep coming back in spite of the endless chain-reactions that send you back to square one. Your buddy accidentally swings his whip at you? Well good luck, your body will bounce off the wall, hit him in the face, you will bounce off the top off of a passing bat, unconscious and dazed until you land in a pit of spikes.
None of my friends had played the original Spelunky, but the release of it’s sequel quickly infested my apartment. I would often exit the shower to find a full living room of people intently focused on their next run, laughing raucously from whatever blunder they have just encountered, or eminently frustrated with each other because of a failed attempt botched at the swing of a rope or the careless maneuvers of whoever controls the camera.
My history with Spelunky goes deep, my friend David Atkin and I, who was my best friend in early childhood into middle school, ravenously poured hours into this game, he was addicted to ultra-hard platformers, especially adept at Super Meat Boy, another platinum indie-hit of the era. We loved everything about the original but were awful at it, constantly submitting ourselves to run after run. It was as perfect a game as they come, iterating on such excellence would surely be a monumental task.
I managed to avoid the game’s announcement and subsequent press, so when Polygon posted a glowing review and the game appeared on the playstation store it was a pretty clear decision. I purchased the game before any of my friends had awoken on that particular day, and when my buddy Owen emerged from his room and my homies Askhat and Brandon from the floor below. They looked at the simple graphics and bouncy music, watching me get mercilessly wrecked by the myriad of dangers lurking in the mines. I left the controller on the table and left to hustle some errands. When I returned everyone had a controller in their hands, grinding away, they had even discovered the game’s incredible versus mode and thus began an obsession that persists to this day. Though we have yet to discover all the secrets or even reach the end of the game, we are seldom unwilling to jump back into those caves and test our collective merit.
- The Last of Us Pt. 2
Developer: Naughty Dog
Publisher: Sony Interactive Entertainment
Platform: PS4 and PS5
Rating: 4.5 out of 5
“If I should ever lose you, I’d surely lose myself…”
It’s hard not to be wounded by The Last of Us Part 2
As a follow-up to one of the most acclaimed games on the PS3 roster, this game was altering and reopening a story held sacrosanct by the videogame community. The ending of the first game is unforgettable, and while it seemed like there were two camps: “I agree with what Joel did” or “I don’t”, perhaps as a result the softening, clouding ambiguity of time, shades of grey and uncertainty have crept into Joel’s story. Details in the beginning of the game about his past and his history as an arms/drug dealer for the sake of survival is seemingly transcended throughout the duration of The Last of Us as he helps them both achieve grace by aiding Ellie in fulfilling her purpose, and he making proud the daughter who was taken away from him, that humility and temporary morality are challenged here and the content of these characters is interrogated in more scrutinous detail.
The Last of Us Part 2 recontextualizes everything you believed about the characters of the first game, and without spoiling anything, asks you to criticize them in an extremely thoughtful and meaningful manner. Characters shouldn’t have to be likable or emulate our morals back to us, if anything stories are often the most interesting when they create friction between ourselves and the characters they present, it calls our spirit to action, in a way regurgitated sentiment does not. There are some deeply troubling and upsetting moments in the narrative, some completely disagreeable decision making. This is incorporated brilliantly into the structure, however, as every moment, action, consequence, feels horrendously inevitable, at every turn feeling like a sense of control is slowly slipping further and further from you, effectively squashing your agency, forcing you to bare witness and take part in equal measure.
So to save myself from further indulging in story content, I’m going to talk about something I loved equally: the gameplay. I was a huge Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain fan, in my less than humble opinion, it is one of the best playing games ever made, featuring incredible stealth, mobility and meaningful choice in combat, that to this day, is unprecedented. The Last of Us Part 2 essentially developed this level of fidelity and combat for an apocalyptic setting. Carefully coordinated attacks are often interrupted by chaotic mayhem forcing you to alter your approach on the fly resulting in a satisfying mixture of gritty, loud firefights and weighty, vicious stealth combat that, when rendered with the fidelity of Naughty Dog’s resources, graphical and auditory, makes for especially visceral and persistently tense experience. Between the first game and this sequel, Naughty Dog has razed to the ground two whole console generations, delivering the ultimate finale for outgoing hardware.
Now to get ethical: let’s kill crunch. I don’t think I am alone in saying that, waiting another few months for this game, even years, for the developers to not knock off valuable time of their lives in not sleeping, overworking themselves and leaving them exhausted at the end of a development cycle is preferable to having the game as-soon-as-possible. While Neil Druchman may be an incredible writer, a hardened creative personality and an electric leader, that does not justify treating employees like they are worth less than they are. Creatives are workers, let us not forget, the hierarchy needs to be reworked, made more equitable and perhaps most radically, transformed into something resoundingly humane. I can’t talk about this game in the same way after it won Best Direction at Geoff Keihley’s bizarre, but ever-so-satisfying yearly event: The Game Awards. This is particularly egregious when aligned with other games like Hades, where Supergiant (leader Greg Kasovan) has made a name for themselves not only making incredible video games, but also sponsoring a positive, loving work-culture. We can do better, and we should.
Developer: Supergiant Games
Publisher: Supergiant Games
Platform(s): PC and Switch
Rating: 4.5 out of 5
Supergiant games made Transistor which is, for all intents and purposes, one of my favorite games ever made. The combat system is one of the most novel and innovative in recent memory, that has yet to be mimicked, perhaps only, by Hades. While Hades is not 1:1 in comparison, the continuously combining and swapping of abilities, does inform a similar joy. At the beginning of a round, Zagerus, the protagonist starts with just a weapon and a single ability but by the end each upgrade spot will be decked out in connected powers of the gods, imbuing each one of your attacks with a special ability or buffer that are handed to you until the very final moments of a run.
Supergiant’s other games: Transistor, Bastion and Pyre all feature incredible narratives and some of the best writing one is to find in video games. Hades is no exception, pulling a cue from Children of Morta’s playbook, the story is told through dialogue and moments that occur both in individual runs and in the “hub” area, in Hades’ case it’s the House of Hades, whose inhabitants become your friends and confidants as you become further embroiled in this messy-godly familial drama. The “villain”, the titular Hades, is not depicted so much as a bad guy just as he is someone engaging with the politics, limitations and rules of being an olympian god. He is only allowed to make himself be insofar as his position allows, Hades loves Zagerus, he wants to protect him in many ways, because Hades himself has been hurt by the olympians which Zagerus now wishes to leave his father for. He can be cold in his speech but his sentiment betrays him, he wishes at once to see you succeed and on the other side he recognizes the danger in your ambition. It’s a family drama of the highest caliber.
The House of Hades makes for a home for you and your underworld inhabitants, as you finance its construction and development, a sense of attachment overcomes you, while you are trying to escape, it is your home. There is a maturity lent to this “teenager trying to escape” plot that is so rare, where runaways are often characterized as mischievous and rebellious, their past treated with callousness, Zagerus is entirely genuine in his attachment to his peers and his fellow residents, which gives his fight for freedom all the more weight, he has to let go in order to move on. Which is treated as such a passive activity so often in these kinds of stories that it is downright refreshing to see the amount of care Zagerus and his companions have for one another, everyone has an active stake in his quest, and in the complex nature in which it captures this network of relationships. Ultimately this is a game about family politics, the power structures and hierarchies therein.
And most radically perhaps, it demands that love and bonds persist between all of them, even as the situation grows more fraught with Hades and Zagerus hurtling towards direct confrontation with one another, the inhabitants of the House of Hades are sympathetic and aware of the developing conflict, each with equal attentiveness for you and your father’s emotions. The sisyphean nature of roguelikes, of having to repeat action after action just to be thrown back to the beginning, is meta not just because of the actually presence of the great boulder pusher himself, but also because unlike Sisyhpus, and even to contrast a Camus statement directly, Zagerus does not suffer alone, and neither does anyone in the underworld, not the souls of the dead or those tending to them, the sense of togetherness is overwhelming. And to affirm a Camus statement, one would have to imagine Sisyphus happy so long as he is in the company of others, his greatest punishment would not be pushing a rock up a hill for all eternity to just have it slide back down (which Camus and Sartre had a fetishization for repetition because when it broke they were forced to reckon with the absurd of change), but the fact that he would have to do it alone without community. And perhaps there is no greater punishment for man or god than to isolate them from others, it is company which we seek, and it is in company which we thrive.
Also the Theseus jokes worked for me, that quarter-truth, half-truth thing had me rolling, philosophy jokes are cool y’all! Not dorky at all. And the Sisyphus joke, he’s always happy. I mean come on, these are just good times.
- The Pathless
Developer: Giant Squid
Publisher: Annapurna Interactive
Platform: PS4, PS5, iOS
Rating: 4.5 out of 5
True to its name, The Pathless provides you with no map, but each moment is so fluid and joyously navigable never once did it strike me as a problem. The gameplay is somewhere between The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild (BotW specifically because of the free form exploration and simple, environmental puzzle solving) and Shadow of the Colossus-esque behemoth monsters containing tortured, aching, primordial souls. The story of The Pathless is set years after a great war and devastation instigated by The Godslayer who has enslaved the creatures of the land to his tyrannical, plaguish control in order to make himself into a god. Ruins and decaying architecture emerge from the grassy plains and snow-capped forests. Each environment has a unique sense of trajectory and verticality which emphasizes the game’s strongest component: traversal.
As the Hunter, the player is tasked with freeing four spirits from the possession of The Godslayer who has contorted them into menacing beasts that now terrorize the beautiful land laid to waste in the wake of this grand conflict. The melancholy that haunts the valley is that of thousands of lost lives, glimpses of this calamity can be witnessed in brief echoes left behind by the dead, short yet effective spurts of text. While this technique has grown stale for me elsewhere, the crushing absence is similar to that of Giant Squid’s last game Abzu, the monuments and achievements of a civilization long since passed, the fleeting glances at the seconds before their deaths give credence and weight to your journey. While the main character is driven and headstrong and her winged companion the emotional center of the game, it’s these brief moments in between the massive boss battles and speedy movement that imbue the world with a sense of tragedy and your tale with one of hope. For example: reading the thoughts of two dead enemy soldiers who killed each other, it is revealed that in their last moments they prayed with one another but failed to reconcile the other’s point of view, one of them even mentioned how it was impossible for him to locate humanity in the other’s eyes. The Hunter seeks to restore the land to overcome this history and begin it anew. The ending brings a particularly stunning chef’s-kiss to this theme, this one doesn’t take long to beat, so should any gamer scour this list looking for something that is emotionally resonant, innovative, perfectly playable and also completely beatable in its brevity, look no further.
The soundtrack to this game is one of the year’s best with a roster of mystical chants and epic string arrangements interspersed throughout exploration and combat alike. The sense of progression in tandem with the game’s story is a rare feat, at each turn the reward for finding more is receiving upgrades that engender that same ability, moving becomes easier and easier until during the finale the Hunter is a vibrant machine full of grace. The character is driven and propulsive, never tarrying from the goal which makes a haunting parallel with the fanaticism of the Godslayer and the perished people’s of the land however, the game argues that the ambition of an individual full of hope willing to sacrifice control for uncertainty will always be more noble than an oppressor who seeks to dictate the shape of a land solely on their own diabolical vision.
Of all the novel systems at play and in merger with one another in The Pathless the most impactful is the giant red storm that bombard the game’s four areas. While exploring these small open worlds there is a torrential, restless cloud of fire and ash that will move around the map sporadically, from a purely gameplay perspective they appear to have their own system tied to them, maybe it’s just a random timer but the closest thing I can like it to is the Nemesis/Mr. X system form Resident Evil 2 and 3, whereas they are horrific monsters, there is an insurmountable inexplicability to the condition of these storms. They feel equally dynamic as those encounters with the aforementioned foes, offering equal chance for failure and escape.
- Ori and the Will of the Wisps
Developer: Moon Studios
Publisher(s): Xbox Game Studios, iam8bit (Switch edition)
Platform(s): Xbox One, Xbox Series X, Switch
Rating: 4.5 out of 5
I went into Ori and the Will of the Wisps with such vague memories of the first game I questioned whether I had played it at all and was a bit concerned about how ready I was for it’s sequel. The story picks up right where the first left off and fortunately, the devastating conclusion came rushing back to me because it’s implications were immediately present to me in the narrative. In Will of the Wisps, the titular character is tasked with being the guardian of a young owl as it blossoms into early adolescence, this child just so happens to be the offspring of your enemy in the first game, a gargantuan, evil owl. I went into this game cynical and mean, instantly criticizing the familiar pixar visual storytelling and all the whimsy was just getting to me.
But here is the thing. Ori and the Will of the Wisps plays like a god damned dream.
Before I knew it I had completed the first fourth of the game without even batting an eye, a whole afternoon gobbled up right before my eyes. The breathtaking environments (even on the downgraded Switch version which I played) and bafflingly smooth platforming cohere into a heartwarming and touching adventure, would be lying if I said I managed to avoid tears, but I just couldn’t help myself.
The exploration is smooth and natural, at every point, each discovery feels organic, just begging you to go a bit further into the world, pick up a new power, gain a skill that allows you access to uncharted areas. The structure of the narrative too, is quite satisfying, the halfway point feels like an early climax and then the game spurs you towards new terrain with a renewed sense of purpose, momentum and pulse. Much like Hollow Knight, another peak in metroidvania game design, Ori is subtly expansive there’s so much to find, yet the game seldom forces players towards certain solutions, the gameplay becomes complex quick, the chase sections in particular, before and occasionally during boss battles really put on display how refined and acutely designed this game’s mechanics are. In a crowded independent game space, Ori and the Will of the Wisps establishes this two-entry franchise with a towering, impressive legacy.
- Assassins Creed: Valhalla
Developer: Ubisoft Montreal
Platform(s): Xbox One, Xbox Series X, PS4, PS5, PC
Rating: 4.5 out of 5
I have not purchased an Assassins Creed game since Black Flag. After the atrocity that was Unity’s launch and my (then) increasing disinclination towards video games for their repetitive nature. I would dabble in the franchise if I got the chance, I have fond memories of putting some hours into the fully realized open world London in Syndicate on my freshman roommates Playstation (Ubisoft really likes it as a location considering they’ve iterated on it three times now), which was the last of “Assassin’s Creed as we knew it” before the series made an audacious leap into role-playing territory in Origins and Odyssey, which, while looking like awesome video games, simply seemed like too great of time sinks for me to justify a purchase.
How did I arrive at Valhalla then? Vikings are cool as hell. Duh! And after Ghosts of Tsushima which I did enjoy, but did not love nearly as much as the gaming community at large as a result of it’s repetitive side-missions and stale combat (for those interested, there’s a long form piece on that in here as well) though I adore samurai flicks, it got me thirsty for a proper Assassins Creed experience as it was more or less iterative on the franchise just with a bit more heart on it’s sleeve.
This is my new forever game, I never want to stop playing it, and I fully intended to buy every single piece of DLC that drops, Ubisoft can burn for offering experience upgrades as in-game-purchases, but I prefer to take the slow route, uncover every secret, follow every breadcrumb trail of story and will likely not even have completed the main narrative by the first batch of DLC that releases just because I am so damn addicted to scouring this world for resources and grinding to create the strongest viking in the land, my Eivor is a valiant badass equally adept at flyting as she is at fighting (not to mention, quite the passionate bisexual lover). Valhalla much like Black Flag’s greatest strength lies in the fact it effectively gamifies a way of being, in a similar fashion to grandiose pirate ship battles on the open sea full of sea shanties and massive explosions, which served additionally as a base building mechanic as you upgraded your ship with new rows of cannons and fortified defenses. Valhalla is all the best parts of that game, immersing you in a specific historical position in addition to making that particular existence into a satisfying gameplay loop with a diverse array of activities.
And perhaps it’s most endearing quality is the fact that it’s a lovably weird game. Sure, the parkour is of remarkable ease, the stamina system makes combat consistently interesting (especially since enemies are leveled, not every enemy in the game is an easy dispatch), the skill tree has a thrilling amount of depth, and the world is beautifully realized, each detail pops and screams for you to plunder, finding gear or some long lost treasure. But it’s in the small flourishes: a man with an axe in his head, who begs you to remove it, only to die when it is dislodged. A couple whose struggling sex life needs your aid, so, you set there house on fire. A small hut that is ravaged by farts. The “wolloper” who needs you to fight him and not lose in one punch so he can be relieved of his legacy of murdering humans with a single punch. Egwald, the “king” of a small island. The blind man seeking the path to Alfeheim. A nudist who stands atop a mountain, recently expelled from the cult of his founding because he is “too radical” and demands nobody wear clothes ever, not just remain naked but never be clothed. The sacred and untouchable throne of a deceased king, whose arrows that ended his life remain in the chair to commemorate his death. The Roman ruins littering the English countryside. And perhaps, most notably, the series willingness to minimize the assassin experience and make big goobers of the “hidden ones” all the while making a genuine system to garner information and new targets, a deft balancing act as the series has never seen before. Flyting which is basically viking battle-rap. Orlog, a massively fun viking card game. All the while retaining the political intrigue and grandiose scale necessary for a viking simulator. It will likely remain an undoubtedly risky and interesting game whose accolades are only threatened by the title which it bares, and for my money is the second best game sandwiched between the Assassins Creed 2 and Black Flag.
To exemplify why this game is so great, a word from an assassinated character:
“The price of my ale drinking was murder. Sad really.”
But seriously, what the fuck are Ubisoft points, and why do they want me to buy them so bad? Yo homies, I like playing games, not spending needless amounts of cash for virtual currency, y’all blow hard for that.
Developer: The Game Band
Publisher: The Game Band
Platform: PC, MacOS
Rating: 4.5 out of 5
I never stop playing Blaseball. It’s always open in my tabs unless it’s a siesta or the offseason and even the I check in periodically for any juicy updates to the lore and rules that have changed or been altered. And though it’s basically just digital, online gambling mixed with absurdist literature and a dense community, there is something radically simplistic and manageably compelling, never demanding too much. I jumped in during the beginning of the Expansion Era so I missed eleven seasons but was quickly smitten with the lore and malleable rules, and my own agency within the in-game world, however minimal and unexpected the turns of the world become. I myself am not a gambler but Blaseball has made me one by giving me a verbose, wholesome niche of people who build out the game in art and stories that extend outside of the text-and-number-based “gameplay”. It’s a wild, audacious post-modern gambit that always pays off, a bit D&D, lots of gambling, amusing writing, shocking rule-sets cohere into one of the most original games of the past few years. Playing Blaseball, you learn a language. Here’s hoping it keeps growing, please, the first eleven seasons were an insane ride that I chide myself for missing. Expand and unspool over the entire world, conquer, win, you are what humans need right now.
- Yakuza 7: Like a Dragon
Developer: Ryu Ga Gotoku Studio
Platform: Xbox One, Xbox Series X, PS4, PS5, PC
Rating: 4.5 out of 5
So now I have played two Yakuza games. Definitely the top of my list in terms of series’ I wish to play each entry in but these games are long and with a new entry each year, occasionally biyearly, including the apparently fantastic spin-off from 2019, Judgement, it’s hard to keep up with these folks. Luckily for newcomers such as myself Yakuza 7: Like a Dragon is a hard reset button for the series (although there are some familiar faces and locations along the way) and moves the franchise forward into uncharted territory: the turn-based RPG.
Yakuza 7: Like a Dragon features one of the best new coming protagonists of the year in Ichiban Kazuga. He is obsessed with Dragon Quest and being a good dude, remaining consistent in both those areas throughout the entire runtime. The game pulls some smart mechanics from Persona 5 which has basically become the gold-standard for the genre moving forward so it feels more like smart additions to the franchise formula rather than shameless aping. The combat in Yakuza games is generally similar to fighting games with a series of outlandish combos and moves that I feared would be replaced by bland RPG battle animations, instead they transition the ridiculous fights to the RPG sphere with remarkable ease, adding a timing system akin to those found in Paper Mario: The Origami King and Ikenfell, also from this year, for increased damage. You can even still beat up dudes with bikes, it’s awesome. Now that I’ve played Yakuza 0 and Like a Dragon, all that’s left for me is to play the other seven entries that fill the gaps in between… excuse me while I never leave my apartment ever again.
- If Found…
Publisher: Annapurna Interactive
Platform(s): iOS, Mac, PC
Rating: 4.5 out of 5
I’ve cried about If Found… exactly twice. The first came during the game’s excruciatingly poignant conclusion as I completed it on an airplane, I will not indulge in spoilers, because, just go play the freaking game, it’s a masterpiece of storytelling and gameplay that serves both as a central thematic metaphor and a physical function of the game. The second was also on an airplane, weeks after I had completed the narrative, and I recalled the particular aforementioned moment, and somehow, remembering it, turned me into a liquidy, puddley mess in front of a row of strangers who proceeded to look at me as my teardrops were caught in my mask. Coming out is hard. And if I could go back and “erase” all the nights when I told myself “you are not gay” or consumed copious amounts of drugs and alcohol attempting to escape my queerness and bipolarity, even though some of those substances (Psilocybin mushrooms, alcohol and cocaine particularly) thrust me hurtling towards a cataclysmic meeting with both at dangerous speed.
This is one of the most beautiful “visual novel” experiences on the market, if you have a subscription to Apple Arcade, you are making a complete mistake in not engaging with this work. It’s proudly, resoundingly Irish, and loudly, lovingly queer. An unforgettable story of an Irish transgender woman named Kaiso returning home in the 90’s after she has recently spent a year in Dublin truly discovering herself and becoming what she’d always known herself to be but growing up in an Irish-catholic-community fraught with tradition and repression, she never had the space to be Kaiso. I don’t want to spoil why you are erasing the contents of your diary but it includes a blackhole and a decrepit, decaying cliffside manor.
Erasure is a double-edged theme: we are both eclipsed and covered over by the greater system and many hide ourselves in order to live. The stories of queer people are historically deleted or at best reduced to expression via suppression and oppression, I often think of Rock Hudson, who was even able to squeeze a little gay out of The Duke himself. Like Zizek’s interpretation of Full Metal Jacket and the military system at large from his Plague of Fantasies, where the libidinal economy is based precisely on a self-censorship of homosexuality, which ever present, can never manifest itself in the physical sex act or romantic feelings but is encouraged in the form of jabs, physical ridicule and jokes, a control over the amount of “gay” dispensed: Clinton’s “don’t ask, don’t tell”. We exist in marginalized spaces, even cities such as Portland (the place where I currently live), a zone that prides itself on being a “safe space” for queer people, encourages a certain uniform of queerness that one must wear as a badge in order to enact themselves publicly and be recognized as such, mind you, still an American city, with overt ideological distance and interest in identification that either fits the community or it doesn’t, encouraging exposure as a form of survival, when, for so long, erasure has been the operative form for queer people to exist within, in rooms, clubs, and buildings of their own making, Kaiso similarly has no agency over this striking from the record herself, by the end, she is doing it for warmth, to stay alive, the loneliness of such an enterprise is overwhelming, especially when you have been abandoned, not just by those in your community, but also by your family, your birthright.
Queer alienation is not a new concept either spiritually, financially, materially or physically but If Found… presents it in such a radiantly, passionately caring fashion in tandem with a potent metaphor/gameplay-technique that makes for one of the most incredible experiences of the year. Not to be missed, commit it to memory before someone can strike it from the record. We are here to stay.
- Paper Mario: The Origami King
Developer: Intelligent Systems
Rating:4.5 out of 5
I unquestionably dug deep on RPG’s this year, turns out, they are my favorite genre, outside of weird experimental independent games. The only other Paper Mario game I have played is the Wii-edition whose intro I never made it past as a kid because I didn’t really understand the combat system and only really knew Mario as a dude who jumped and stuff, very disturbed that the game never had me doing such a thing. Reviews were not kind to this latest entry in the series, and when I heard about an odd game-breaking bug, I decided that maybe the series wasn’t for me.
So happy I overcame that stigma, Paper Mario: The Origami King is one of the sweetest treats of the year. Not only does it boast an incredible, lovably odd, and unique combat system, it’s some of the best and funniest writing in games that I have seen all year. I frequently cackled and chortled at the world’s inhabitants which is beautifully rendered in a striking Origami art-style. Grandsappy’s song is just one of my favorite things I have ever seen, the fact that he and his tree companions didn’t sing in words but there were lyrics displayed on the screen just made me smile in ways I didn’t even know I could, it might be my favorite moment in gaming this year, and though there are plenty of other incredible scenes, this one was the instant where I realized that this was a game I was going to see through to the credits, that there was not a chance I didn’t want to open every door and explore each opportunity. For crying out loud, when you cross a bridge it goes “do re mi fa so la ti do” in bright, chippy voices, play this game, the critics had it all wrong, inevitably when I start a twitch I would like to stream this entire series in addition to each Luigi’s Mansion because these lovable oddities are just something to be experienced for oneself, full of personality and unexpected flavor.
Developer: Happy Ray Games
Publisher: Chevy Ray
Platform(s): Switch, PC, MacOS, PS4, Xbox One
Rating: 4.5 out of 5
I had extremely low expectations for Ikenfell for no other reason than that Steam told me I would not be able to run the game on the latest MacOs. I stubbornly bought it anyway, and good gracious am I glad that it ran properly, because this game, in addition to featuring one of the best soundtracks of the year, is also just a stellar turn-based RPG. Featuring a stellar cast of witches who all have their own personal goals and neurosis, you play Maritte as you look for your sister at the famed titular magic-academy. The gameplay is simple but rewarding, the timing-based nature of attacks and blocking, ensures you are always an active participant in combat, where some RPG’s, especially when you perfect a build, feel like just tapping away at certain inputs until you get a victory screen, Ikenfell always keeps you on your toes. Creating a party of lovable oddballs is a jolly experience, the story takes some twists and turns but is always light on its feet, and will have you pushing forward to see the credits, but most of all you will stay for the enjoyable, pleasant world, bouncy soundtrack and awesome combat encounters.
Developer: Sean Young
Platform(s): Switch, MacOS, PC
Rating: 4.5 out of 5
Like Nioh 2, Littlewood is a game that should be higher on my list, however, after twenty hours of gameplay given to my lovely village of Ishroyalista, my progress was mysteriously deleted. Heartbroken, so I began anew with Ishistan. So technical issues aside, this game is a treat. And even then, the haste with which I began a new village should be an indication as just how freaking charming this game is. More Stardew Valley than Animal Crossing, Littlewood casts you as the hero of a now saved land, once befallen by the evil of the dark wizard. You awake with no memory of the battle, just a few companions who task you with expanding and cultivating a village in place of the once war-torn society.
Also, you can seduce every single person in this village, as an extremely lonely pansexual, this tickled me deeply, naturally, everyone ended up falling in love with Skot, which admittedly is mildly dubious as you play the hero of the overworld “Solemn”, so power dynamics aside, I cultivated some extremely lovely and tender romances. Each character has a robust and likable personality, it’s hard to deny anyone (except for the clingy witch lady, I liked her, just not that way also the bird guy who moves in pretty late in the game, not Busby, he is hot, but the other one? Is that bad?) and responding to their requests is a gratifying process. Everyone is so thoughtful and kind, it’s an incredibly positive game making AC: New Horizons and Stardew look a bit shallow by comparison. And like Stardew, Littlewood lights a quiet fire under the ass of the Animal Crossing developers, if the latter series is going to persist in retaining it’s cultural relevance until the next entry, the designers would be smart in heading some of the lessons that Littlewood seems overjoyed to teach it.
I mean, you can terraform right out of the gate… I’ve put one hundred and ten hours into Animal Crossing and I can’t get Mabel to move into my village or change the shape of my island, step up your game Nintendo! Your village can be instantly crafted to your vision and moved around whenever you like, and the best part, it doesn’t cost anything, you are the leader, why nintendo hasn’t figured out it would be way more fun to play as Tom Nook, the greedy racoon himself instead relegating you to an errand-running, debt-paying devotee is beside the point when a game as consumable and lovable as Littlewood already exists.
- Sakura Wars
Developer(s): Sega, Sega CS2 R&D
Rating: 4 out of 5
Firstly, the game’s soundtrack is just insanely good, that opening theme… just absolutely whips.
Sakura Wars feels like a long lost relic from the Wii-era, a strange, underfunded RPG with an incredibly big heart at it’s center. Starring Kawiyama, a well-meaning (only creepy if you make him be) captain of a mech-controlling, demon-vanquishing theater troupe: The Imperial Theater Revue AKA The Flower Division. From what I’ve read about the franchise the series has played around with different combat styles, from turn-based-action to real-time-strategy but this game employs a more stylish action system in between the relationship and team-building events which make up most of the game’s duration. The battles don’t have tremendous depth but they are a great deal of fun, a bit more entertaining and less dry than the Dynasty Warriors series, especially as the team becomes closer, their moves become more elaborate and destructive as a unit.
The arc of the game is classic anime, but most of the best JRPG’s are basically playable anime’s in terms of beats and moments, Sakura Wars, however, has a particular atmosphere, flair for kindness and fabulously rendered steampunk world that it transcends any criticisms surrounding familiarity. Unlike some of these games on this list, it commands you to continue through and follow the plot to the end because each character is just so lovable and some of your objectives around theater are just too strange for description, but I will do my best.
Early in the game you are tasked with eavesdropping on the patrons of the theater because, let’s be honest, the plays you initially put on suck. They stink. As the main form of income for this band of demon-fighting cohorts, Kawiyama’s first job is getting the theater in shape, drawing crowds with striking, heartfelt stories. So while it’s largely a fetch quest and finding people in the theater to hear, there are a number of moments and interactions with your crew because they don’t know that it’s you that are just priceless, the writing is deeply amusing. Also Peanut makes this: “Bwoooooooot” sound that kills me every single time, it’s just the silliest thing, it never ceases to bring a smile to my face. One of the few games on this list whose charm is impossible to articulate because the world will just suck you in, it’s a magnetic, perfectly realized world.
So I’ll leave you with this: “Village Rule #79: Don’t take snacks as a bribe”.
- Animal Crossing: New Horizons
Developer: Nintendo, Nintendo Entertainment Planning and Development
Rating: 4 out of 5
So…. not that this is a particularly special note, but Animal Crossing: New Horizons was without question the game I spent the most time with in 2020. Around one-hundred and seven hours according to my Switch, perhaps only rivaled by Persona 5 Royal, which due to my not having completed it (I cannot wait to experience the new ending), is second to this cutesy island-community builder that took the world by storm in those wee hours of the pandemic, when we thought this was going to be a brief, passing event.
I was still drinking too much then (really, my life changed the night I watched David Byrne’s True Stories for the first time with a friend in the middle of May this year), my days were littered with attempting to craft new cocktails with my buddies with whom I was quarantined, watching anime and mindless television, occasionally glancing up from my Switch to see them plowing through the GTA V campaign for the millionth time or attempting to play the stocks in the game so they had an infinite wellspring of cash.
My journey began on Tanjiro (yes, named after the Demon Slayer protagonist) humbly and modestly, I was obsessed with cultivating flower designs. The first order was to build an elaborate path of them between the museum, my home, and the town square. As villagers began flooding in, Kat, Apple, Skye and Anchovy (always my favorite, you nervous trainwreck of wrapped nerves) I was overcome with company. I bullied Apple hard initially. They were just so positive, my world was oppressively bleak, my friends and I, comical cynics in response. It was only after some time, and much grief, that in spite of my whacking them with various instruments, they continued to give me compliments, radiate positivity and be a shining light in my world. So after my switch account was hacked, and I was forced to restart on the same island under a different account, again as Skot, a virtual carbon copy of the previous Skot, albeit with slightly longer hair as an album cycle had made me hairy and unkempt, Apple had nothing but lovely things to say about the islands former inhabitant and founder who apparently I looked like and made two peas in a pod with, everyone kept asking me what this other version of myself favorite sport was, what food they liked, where they could possibly be.
Teaching me something a little about unconditional love, it was then, with this clean state, that I completely outfitted Apple’s house to be the most beautiful on the island, a fully cultivated backyard with flowers, bushes and a haystack for enjoying the island sunshine. They love fashion and always compliment me when I have a good outfit day (which I prided myself on) so I provided them with a loom and a spinning wheel, though I wish they were able to interact with both (so many improvements could be made to this game, but that’s a story for another day, also, how many parentheticals have I used in this essay alone? Drink every time, I dare you). So if you haven’t played this game, get out from under your rock, and rack up those virtual debts baby, teach yourself about capitalism, and never escape it, just do it with the most cheerful gang of gibberish speaking animals and greatest level of fidelity the AC series has ever seen.
- Star Renegades
Developer: Massive Damage Inc.
Publisher: Raw Fury
Platform(s): PS4, Switch, Xbox One, PC
Rating: 4 out of 5
In a year full of amazing rougelites and roguelikes, it was easy to get lost in the shuffle, but Star Renegades has more than enough to offer both for fans of those genres and for Real-Time-Strategy enthusiasts. The game’s most dynamic feature is the ability to track your opponent’s moves in the top of the screen on a timeline, much like the similarly fantastic Into the Breach the game becomes as much about preventing the enemy executing their moves as it does about defeating them. This makes each combat scenario an insanely enjoyable form of tug-of-war where you and the enemy are constantly negotiating for whose move will land, this becomes even more fun as the game progresses, when the profundity of the design shines most brightly.
The world too is full of care, all the pixel art in gorgeous backdrops and the characters’ striking attack animations make each brawl an event. I seldom skipped the back-and-forth during combat sections just because it’s so lovely to look at. The story is solid and worth seeing through to the end, not the best in roguelites as Children of Morta and Hades have become the gold standard but one loaded with fun, zany and quirky characters whose humour tempers the intensity of your goal: which is to save your respective dimension from annihilation only to be transported to another upon defeat. Getting familiar with them during rests at campfires and the game’s card-mechanic, which are just temporary abilities similar to those you can purchase in Hades that last for a few encounters rather than the entire run, is a blast, each one offers both genuine intrigue and wit.
- 13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim
Publisher: Atlus, Sega
Rating: 4 out of 5
This is surely to be the great game of 2020 that only the biggest nerds played. I am very happy to be one of those gargantuan dweebs because 13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim is one of the best video game narratives of the year. It’s an anime-visual-novel where you inhabit a cast of high schoolers as they work through time-loops, apocalypse, shared nightmares, science fiction obsessions, alien invasions, mechs, and crushes resulting from the aforementioned continuum alteration that ravage the continuity of their experience. The art-style is somewhere between manga and storybook, with bold visuals and detailed environments, it’s gorgeous, each scene like a page out of the most fully realized coloring book you’ve ever seen, bursting with beauty, rendering some of the apocalyptic scenarios with stylistic precision. The game has an incredible thought-system where you connect various elements of the plot, characters and items together to learn more about them, then in between “memories” of the game’s myriad of characters you can view the learned narrative threads in linear fashion, only further highlighting how little knowledge you currently possess, it just entices you to go deeper.
Also, occasionally, it’s a strategy game. While these parts are undoubtedly less successful than the story it presents, the blending of these two formulas make for an enthralling combination as bits and pieces of the narrative become more important as you witness and participate in the final battle that you only hear about, and figuring out, exactly which battle is taking place, is just part of the fun as the nonlinearity of the story convolutes, distorts and surprises but ultimately coheres into an incredible narrative.
- Crash Bandicoot 4: It’s About Time
Developer: Toys for Bob
Platform: PS4, Switch
Rating: 4 out of 5
This one almost slipped through the cracks. Had it not been for the final holiday sale of the year on the Playstation store, I would not have had the financial motivation to dip my toes into this startlingly tight and innovative platformer. My buddy Brandon, who one-hundred-percented both Crash 2: Cortex Strikes Back and Crash 3: Warped as a young kid watched on in awe as he slowly became convinced that he needed to own this game. Not only is this a great Crash game, this is the best in the entire franchise.
The level design is some of the best I have seen all year and it’s progressive escalation is a joy to behold. The first level is genuinely difficult, Brandon and I were guffawing at what stood before us, playing through the first area in a night just because the game makes it so easy for you to propel forward, it’s the first game since Bloodborne that has genuinely made my entire body sweat, my hands were a soggy mess and the controller defiled with my stinky scent. At each turn you say: “no way… I cannot do this”, and much like From’s seminal series, you always can, you just need a dose of endurance and patience.
It’s About Time, additionally has engaging new features like multiple characters and a mask wearing mechanic that allows you different abilities, most of which make the game more complex and genuinely hard. Where so many games are power fantasies Crash is a precision fantasy, an artfully and smartly woven platformer, that begs you to return for more punishment. With plenty of levels, hidden secrets and bonuses, it wants you to keep coming back for a long time.
- Resident Evil 3
Platform(s): Xbox One, PS4, PC
Rating: 4 out of 5
Any year there is a Resident Evil game, as long as it’s not titled Revelations, Darkside Chronicles, Umbrella Chronicles or 6, it will inevitably land in my top ten of the year. Not the case with Resident Evil 3 because the games listed above are really just that good. While some criticized the length of it’s campaign, I adored every single second of the thrill ride, completing it in a single sitting. The genius of the level design is apparent from jump, the first area is one of the great masterpiece sequences of the series thus far, easily on par with the opening section of 4, the puzzles build so seamlessly atop each other and blend so effortlessly, you will find yourself solving the game without having intended to, and this, for me, at least, is what sets this entry apart from the rest. If every Resident Evil game can be this fluid then they may resolve their biggest problem as a series; scaring away those who don’t know the formula. Every Resident Evil game is more or less the same, even the “shooters” of 5 and 6 have similar atmospheres of chaos and dread in their settings, usually tasking you with finding a series of keys for locked doors and surviving the zombies within that area, and those games lacked some of the ammo scarcity which had come to define the series. This resource management can be intimidating to newcomers who feel confident in the first half of the game using ammo, but who find themselves, by the end, low on bullets and ravaged by enemy encounters. This only happens if you don’t know that you aren’t supposed to be killing all of these zombies, sometimes a shot to the knee is just enough, it’s a survival horror game in the truest sense because you aren’t necessarily intended to kill every single zombie you run across, just outlive them. It’s truly about survival and the series always has been, I even love the idea of these missions that characters are often being sent (or sending themselves) on “rescues” or even in 2 and 3 where the only solution is to destroy Racoon City, there is a helplessness in the world that isolates the character in their situation, though 5 and 6 went to great lengths to connect these individuals in a grander conflict, this remake, that of 2 in 2019 and even 7 from a number of years ago, all recenter around this theme. And in some way the series has returned home, it thought it had to imitate and mimic other games in order to stay relevant but the Resident Evil series has always, at its core, been a unique ireplicable experience.
So the game itself: is the best controlling game in the franchise, all the precision of 2 with the welcome addition of a dodge mechanic that I was worried would diminish the frights but only served to add another layer of tension. Nemesis is a hulking beast of an enemy who makes Mr. X look docile by comparison. Clompping boots in the police station were one thing, a weapon of mass murder descending from the sky or bursting through walls is undoubtedly worse. The determination of Nemesis to see you murdered with his tentacle arms and chain-gun, gives him a sadistic-programmed resolve: part-machine, fully-monster. While the campaign zips along at lightning speed, Jill Valentine’s story never loses its forward motion, it is perhaps, of all the games in the franchise, the one with the most momentum and sense of pace, equally discerning in escalation and release.
- Desperados 3
Developer(s): Mimimi Games, Mimimi Games GmbH
Publisher: THQ Nordic
Platform(s): PS4, Xbox One, PC
Rating: 4 out of 5
Desperados 3 is a terrific, pitch-perfectly designed stealth-tactics games whose only hit I can throw against it, is that I am just not that into this particular genre, however, it’s indicative of the quality that it’s this high on my list and completely outside my wheelhouse. Desperados 3 is just impossible not to respect in terms of development, what initially appears as complicated quickly becomes streamlined, precise and eerily satisfying. One of the first kills you accomplish in the game is using a horse to kick someone in the head, its absolutely brutal but undeniably gratifying setting up a perfect cocktail of strategically and elaborately staged death.
Each level is thoroughly and gorgeously rendered like playable western dioramas at the state fair, with multiple passes to success (and failure) therein. The cast of characters, is equally interesting both in personalities and abilities, the first addition to the team, the purple poncho’d Dr. McCoy is sassy, antagonistic and debonair, he’s a badass. Similarly the main character is a gruff lone-wolf who quickly acclimates to the company of his band of murderers out of necessity, and getting to know their individual skill sets and abilities makes each of the levels all the more dynamic, especially as they interlock to create smoothly curated symphonies of murder. After the level is over, the game zooms out to map-view and repeats back to you each one of your moves, reveling in your victories and blunders, occasionally you’ll have a head-slapping moment viewing them that just begs you to go back and try again for a more “perfect” run.
Also, maybe my favorite title card of the year, a young Cooper practicing his knife throw at a tree, that’s just Wild West classicism right there… move over Red Dead, Desperados 3 nailed it.
Developer: Thunder Lotus Games
Publisher: Thunder Lotus Games
Platform(s): PS4, Xbox One, PC, Switch
Rating: 4 out of 5
This was a big year for town-builders, between Littlewood and AC: New Horizons, though none had as big of a heart as Spiritfarer. Though it features as many grindy elements as the latter and not as much ease of play as the former, neither of those games will make you openly weep. In Spiritfarer you take over for Charon as the guide for lost souls on their way to death, helping them along with pain, unfinished memories and wants they had during their life. You build each of them homes and buildings tailored towards their skills and interests. Each resident packs with them their own mini-game which vary in degrees of enjoyment, which is where the game sometimes falls a bit short, after the twentieth time of collecting lightning in a bottle, it becomes a weary and tired process, but helping the people on your ship always encourages you through the moments of repetition and annoyance. It also has cooperative play which makes divvying up the tasks much more manageable and less menial, they feel accomplishable and not so daunting. And like I said, you and whoever you are playing with will want to accomplish everything just so you can bring peace to these poor wayward anthropomorphic animals… Alice the hedgehog, rip my heart out. Spiritfarer also features a community-building method that is especially inspired, stacking buildings atop one another on the limited space on your boat is one of the most surprisingly thrilling aspects of the game, a practical and methodical version of Tetris without the pressure, and more architecture necessary for utility as it will aid in traversing the ship and completing some of the resource collecting mini-games.
- Doom Eternal
Developer: id Software, Panic Button Games
Publisher: Bethesda Softworks
Platform(s): PS4, PS5, Switch, Xbox One, Xbox Series X and S, PC
Rating: 3.5 out of 5
There is so much to love about Doom Eternal. From the perfection of the speedy, exhausting combat of the first reboot installment, to the increased color palette of the corridors, hallways and battlefields in which to stain with the blood of a flood of demons, it’s a sequel that goes farther than it needed to, and in some ways, goes much too far. Doom Eternal is a great game with terrible boss battles. Just horrible. So bad they threaten to derail the entire experience. What is otherwise a colorful, adrenaline-fueled aggressive adventure through the bowels of Hell and earth is in awkward incongruity with tedious boss battles and one of the most annoying enemies ever created in a game whose design (if you played the game, you know about The Marauder) is based solely on momentum. The platforming too, while an admirable attempt at injecting some gameplay diversity, really slows an otherwise gripping experience, because the battlefields, are incredibly designed, in many cases, some of the most knockout game design of the year, it’s astonishing how much they feel like playgrounds built for murder, and in these moments, the game wears an ironclad grin on it’s face, but is sapped by moments of diminishing returns that fail to outweigh the sheer quality of work put in by id Softworks.
Developer: Phobia Game Studio
Publisher: Devolver Digital
Platform(s): Switch, MacOs, Xbox One, PC
Rating: 3.5 out of 5
I wrote a much lengthier piece on Carrion that I highly recommend looking up on this blog, because it’s placement in this ranked list does not do proper justice to what this game meant to me earlier last year. While the game has issues with navigation that threaten, at times, to derail the whole experience, Carrion remains compelling due to its singular nature, you just won’t play another game like this. You play the Biomass, a meaty, disgusting, Carpenter-Cronenberg-esque monster that crawls through vents and munches on unsuspecting guards, growing larger and more lethal in the process. The game doesn’t let you know when you kill an enemy, so you just have to crunch and bite at them until they dissolve into your massive, fleshy form, it’s one of the strongest components, even in the final stage when you reach a point of brute omnipotence, there is a viciousness afforded throughout rarely encouraged to players in video games, and usually takes place in ridiculous, juvenile games like Bulletstorm, which while a beloved game, does lack the weighty, maturity of Carrion both thematically on a gameplay front.
- Nioh 2
Developer(s): Team Ninja, Koei Tecmo
Publisher: Koei Tecmo, Sony Interactive Entertainment
Platform(s): Xbox One, PC, PS4
Rating: 3.5 out of 5
Nioh 2 should be much higher on this list. I played the living crap out of this game upon release and made it to the game’s second to final stage, in any soulslike, a massive victory. Alas I did not get to see the credits roll, however, as a glitch stopped me from being able to employ the game’s crucial “Burst Counter” mechanic and while this left a bad taste in my mouth for months after I deleted the game in a fit of rage, it does not negate the many joyous hours I spent grinding through this game.
Each weapon is remarkably satisfying, the multiple combat positions make each encounter about mastery of improvisation and really put Ghosts of Thushima’s “positional combat” to shame in terms of depth and gratification. Taking down enemies is more of a dance than it is a fight as you prance around enemies with defiant grace. Bosses are obviously the biggest part of Soulslikes and this game does not disappoint. The first one will give you the most trouble as you are extremely underleveled for the encounter, but grinding, charting out a path to kill enemies most efficiently and maximize the amount of experience you are collecting is a delirious joy that propels you through the toughest of challenges.
- Little Orpheus
Developer: The Chinese Room
Publisher: Sumo Digtial
Platform(s): Apple Arcade
Rating: 3.5 out of 5
Little Orpheus is a platforming-adventure game about the misadventures of Ivan Ivanovich as he recounts his journey to the center of the earth back to his superiors, namely, The General who wishes to destroy the titular bomb beneath the crust so the Russian government can trace the massive energy source and map whatever exists inside. What exists inside, is under intense and comical scrutiny for the duration of the narrative. This is a game that single handedly restores the mantle “adventure-platformer” with a heavy emphasis on the former half of that title.
The story is hilarious, twisting and humorous as Ivan Ivanovich, king of unreliable narrators, delivers a narrative that is preposterous, silly and thrilling, full of surprises that are completely fabricated, even his background becomes increasingly dubious as the adventure goes on. The gameplay is a bit simple, but seldom obtrusive to enjoying the richly funny, engaging story. It’s a perfect Apple Arcade title as the episodes only take fifteen minutes, you might find yourself staying on the bathroom seat a bit longer than you had anticipated and forgoing your copies of State & Revolution, Quotations from Chairman Mao and The Communist Manifesto for an episode of Little Orpheus (and no! That irony is not entirely lost one me).
Developer: Harmonix Music Systems
Platform(s): Switch, Xbox One, PS4
Rating: 3.5 out of 5
Each time I pick up Fuser my face hurts. I smile so big and so wide while I play this game that my jaw becomes sore and my cheeks hurt. As a musician, something as difficult as weaving disparate songs together for a DJ set, which is not necessarily hard in practice, but takes a great deal of skill, patience, practice and capital to engage with so Fuser providing the high of being a festival DJ with none of the lows or tedium of musicianship (which are part of it’s rewards but of which, there are many). Fuser is a perfect sweet-spot of a game. While there is little to accomplish outside of the campaign missions, pleasing the demands and wants of the crowd always adds an additional layer of creativity, mediating your interests with theirs. And the song selection is genuinely inspired, mixing Kenny Chesney with Donna Summer rules so hard, and though that might fall into some DJ’s sets, in 2020, where festivals have become massive, trendy, corporate events that can’t even happen anymore, the distinctly uncool playlist is positively refreshing and encouragement of experimentation.
- Alba: A Wildlife Adventure
Publisher: Ustwo, Plug In Digital, PID Games
Platform(s): Switch, Xbox One, PS4, iOS
Rating: 3.5 out of 5
There will not be a warmer game from 2020 than Alba: A Wildlife Adventure. Yes because it’s a game about climate change but also because in the game you play a big-hearted little girl, the titular Alba, who runs around the island getting signatures to save the local wildlife preserve from a new hotel that threatens to invade the small plot of land it resides upon while taking pictures of local birds in Pokemon Snap-esque fashion. Along the journey you amalgamate a trove of friendships who sign your petition after completing small tasks for them that usually clean up the island in some way or resolve short squabbles and difficulties for them. The game’s shining star is in it’s capturing of the miniaturized politics of childhood experience, how big problems seem all the larger when looking up at the world from such a low angle. She runs in a constant airplane position which never fails to induce an “awe” across the game’s brief runtime, it’s an extremely welcome island vacation.
- Journey to the Savage Planet
Publisher(s): 505 Games, Stadia Games and Entertainment
Developer(s): Typhoon, Typhoon Studios
Platform(s): Xbox One, PS4, Switch, Stadia, PC
Rating: 3.5 out of 5
Questionable naming choices aside, this completely fun, underrated title about space-colonialism and hyper-consumerism is basically a Larry Cohen (The Stuff, Q) directed Gamecube game that never came to fruition during the consoles lifetime but has blessed our consoles in our contemporary era. While not perfect by any means, you’d be hard pressed to find a game that scratches the itch opened up by Metroid Prime when Nintendo dropped the ball and prematurely announced Metroid Prime 4. And while not perfect, you’d be hard pressed to find a better B-video game released in 2020, while Bugsnax threatened this title, it was not half as playable or charming as Journey to the Savage Planet. I completed almost every side objective, including the one to get back to Earth, because, of course, your bosses didn’t send you with enough fuel to get home. As the lone crew member sent out to chart-out and discover the secrets of this untouched planet, your job is to discover information on the wildlife, which is where the game makes its first profound point. You can photograph them all you want, scanning them Prime-style, but inevitably, you have to whack them with your hand, resulting in these adorable, unassuming creatures, bursting into a thick pussy goo. I was horrified at myself. While a deeply silly experience full of pop-fueled 80’s aesthetics, no game captured the language of imperialism quite like Journey to the Savage Planet.
- Ghosts of Tsushima
Developer: Sucker Punch Productions
Publisher: Sony Interactive Entertainment
Rating: 3 out of 5
Ghosts of Tsushima is an odd release. Without question, one of the biggest games of the year, dominating many publications GOTY discussions. I had never played an Infamous game which Sucker Punch has made its name on (although I loved the Sly Cooper games as a kid), and this game genuinely made me curious to check them out as I suspect them to be a more perilous developer than this. Ghosts of Tshushima is one of the most oddly safe games of the year. What could have been a banger of a closer for the PS4/One generation is instead a decidedly comfortable game that feels a bit like the Japan-set Assassins Creed game consumers have been clamoring at for years but have never received. The base-attacks feel ripped straight out of Far Cry, which lack all the dynamism of approach that those games offer, basically falling into two camps: the “ghost” path which is the “quiet” route and the more traditional samurai battle mode which is centered around collecting four stances to fight different enemies, which initially begins as an awesome division in combat, however, they both reveal themselves to comprise extremely narrow scenarios, essentially repeating the same moves for the entire game. Especially if you engage in the side-content, you will likely unlock each stance before the first island has been seized. The missions prove themselves to be equally familiar, even the grand set-piece battles feel extremely contrived. There are some fascinating characters throughout the journey yet they rarely amount to little more than set-dressing for the narrative. Though the ending is satisfying, I’m just happy I didn’t have to see it myself and instead was able to watch a friend reach the finale, completing the experience on a resonant note.
- Wasteland 3
Developer: inXile Entertainment
Publisher(s): inXile Entertainment, Deep Silver, Koch Media
Platform(s): PC, PS4, Xbox One, MacOS
Rating: 3 out of 5
When my friend and I began the adventures of Bigus Dickus, Smallus Phallus, Meatus Penus and Rockus Calkus a squad of punk-rock-wasteland crusaders, we had no idea we’d befriend cowboy hatted cats, be bribing officials to release prisoners from execution, hanging out in nightclubs with people named “G-String Theory” and generally making the most badass rag-tag crew of apocalypse survivors the west has ever seen. That is to say, we had never played a Wasteland game, and as Fallout die-hards we were quickly charmed by what we found. This is a bleak world, even people who initially seem pleasant like Brygo, head of The Little Vegas casino and lounge (home of the aforementioned “G-String Theory”), keeps a pimp in the backroom who he has made “smooth like a ken doll” so he can be a more effective overseer of the brothel. “Ken Doll” the pimp explicates the different doors behind him, all named after playing card, behind “the Joker” door he says “there are no safe words” so naturally that was the one I choose for my character, the horror awaiting me on the other side just needs to be witnessed, the disgust and repulsion of my teammates was undeniable (it was a goat).
Then we walked outside and received a call, a woman in a nearby apartment building is reporting suspicious activity from her nextdoor neighbors, she has no expectations about our arrival as we learn “marshalls” (essentially the hierarchical police force of this post-apocalyptic society) often have a failure to come through for their citizens. The woman was surprised when we arrived. The door to the apartment was locked so we had to break down the door with melee attacks. After the door opened we encountered a group of mad scientists and a firefight immediately ensued, it was a mess that my team and I were extremely lucky to make it out of with our lives.
A small interaction perhaps best encounters the game’s fraying morality. The initial tension between Lucia (a party member that can be acquired fairly on in the experience) and Marshall Kwon about Kwon taking money for the jobs he does when he kills people and Lucia accusing him of having “low morals”. Though she judged him in this moment, their relationship would eventually develop and the both revealed themselves, in many instances, not to be “immoral” by any means but just having wildly contrasting ideas of what the right thing to do is. In Wasteland 3 it’s up to you to decide what the post-apocalypse looks like.
- Super Meat Boy: Forever
Developer: Team Meat
Publisher: Team Meat
Platform(s): PC, MacOS, Android, PS4, PS5, Xbox One, Xbox Series X and S, Switch
Rating: 3 out of 5
Super Meat Boy: Forever was announced years ago, met with immediate skepticism from Meat Boy fans. The original masterpiece would be followed up by an… auto-runner? Any excitement was muted and it didn’t help when it became perpetually delayed. Released in a narrow slow at the end of 2020 when GOTY conversations and press were wrapping up quickly, it seemed the game was destined for obscurity. While it’s not a great game, or anywhere near a perfect one like the original, it is a good game. For Meat Boy die-hards it offers a new chapter in the cute and occasionally violent saga between Mr. Fetus, Meat Boy and Bandage Girl but also iterates on some of the tight, creative platforming of the original. While there is less player agency as your character is always moving, as a result, each level becomes a kind of movement puzzle where timing is everything and inputs are more important than momentum. The boss levels in particular shine brightly as some pretty extraordinary level design, playing like rhythmic exercises in skill. While it won’t keep our attention forever, there’s certainly enough to satiate Meat Boy cravings.
- Mortal Shell
Developer: Cold Symmetry
Platform(s): PS4, PS5, Xbox One, Xbox Series X and Series S, PC
Rating: 3 out of 5
“Soulslikes” have grown to be a frustrating designation that often obfuscates actual gameplay to conflate works with From’s seminal series. Mortal Shell, however, plays like a miniaturized Dark Souls, and while it lacks the dense systematic progression of that game which has an extraordinary stat and leveling system, in addition to a diverse array of classes and playstyles, Mortal Shell pumps enough fresh blood into the formula to make for a worthwhile experience. There’s no “block” per se, instead the player acquires “shells” that harden upon incoming attacks which becomes a strategic benefit as you follow through with attacks once the defense breaks, so timing becomes essential in a fairly novel fashion. The game’s leveling, while not as extensive or interesting as the actual Souls series does have some novel subversions and reductions that nudge the genre forward ever so slightly without offering anything too compelling as to make it essential for every Souls game moving forward, however, the minimal narrative and brooding lore typical of a “soulslike” does see some interesting evolution, especially the final boss fight which without spoiling anything becomes a game-length mission that when completed results in an epic and terrifying fight. While not a masterpiece, the game sticks out as a compelling rendition of a beloved genre.
Developer: Amanita Design
Publisher: Amanita Design
Platform(s): PC, PS4, Xbox One, Switch, iOS
Rating: 3 out of 5
Creaks will sink its talons (because of the bird people) into you. It’s a surrealist puzzle game inhabited by creaky, shifty apartments, ornate subterranean wonderlands, ominous animatronic tableux’s and bird people. Grizzly death animations assault the dorky protagonist in his drab tweed as he traverses the hand-drawn environments of libraries, pipe organs and stained glass windows. It’s all soundtracked in groovy sax, bass and drums reminiscent of a badbadnotgood outtake session. The puzzles have just enough challenge that they give you something to chew on but seldom hold you back from major progress. My only major complaint being, I wish there was a bit more variety in them, they are a bit one note, and though solvable, detract from the game’s mystique and atmosphere which are it’s immediate hooks… *ahem*, talons.
- Risk of Rain 2
Developer(s): Hopoo Games, PlayEveryWare
Publisher(s): Hopoo Games, Gearbox Software, Gearbox Publishing
Platform(s): Switch, PS4, Xbox One, PC, Stadia
Rating: 3 out of 5
Risk of Rain 2 is the coolest game no one ever played. At least not on Switch, I could never get into a game, however, I’ve watched footage of the multiplayer battles and they look incredible, so much is going on at once between you and your co-op buddies. I wanted to love this game but couldn’t jump in with a good community, perhaps in the future a purchase with some friends is in order so I can see everything this game has to offer but in single player, after ten hours it starts to wear on you but I can see that there is a great game in here, just not sure I got to play it.
- Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 1+2
Developer: Vicarious Visions
Platform(s): PC, PS4, PS5, Xbox One, Xbox X and Series X
Rating: 3 out of 5
These games were already great, it would take deliberate effort to make them bad. Turns out skating games are still fun, however, my following complaint may be ridiculous, even blasphemous to some… I hate this soundtrack. I know we all have nostalgia for the tunes therein, but it makes playing the game actively difficult in between the pop-punk and ska that has aged like an expired avocado. The controls are better than ever though, and it boasts all the maps from 1 and 2 so it’s a hard package to ignore. Lesson from the story: more skating games and less bad ska and pop-punk.
Developer: Media Molecule
Publisher: Sony Interactive Entertainment
Platform(s): PS4, PS5
Rating: 3 out of 5
Media Molecule and Dreams deserved better. This is one of the most brilliant concepts arguably in the whole of gaming history and is likely to churn out a series of insanely creative, talented gamers turned developers, however, it has just not received the proper support either from Sony or from gamers at large. If anything, aspects of the game represent how broken the gaming community and the internet as a whole is in many respects. For instance, the consistently trending experiences in Dreams are often playable, insufferable memes featuring famous characters from other properties, while I’m sure some get a kick out of this, it often serves to bury the genuinely interesting and compelling content that other creators and curators in the world are crafting. Because there is some genuinely awesome stuff in Dreams, you just have to sift through hours and hours of useless garbage to find it, so Media Molecule is partially to blame as they could make their algorithm a bit stronger, perhaps even increase their active participation in selection, however, this is unlikely and outside of the games Early Access period, it would seem the industry at large has moved on from this outrageously ambitious title. A shame, because it’s really something special when it’s firing off, basically a Youtube for video games, with all the drawbacks that entails.
Developer(s): Flying Oak Games, E-Studio
Publisher(s): Dear Villagers, Yooreka Studio, Plug In Digital
Platform(s): PS VITA, Xbox One, MacOs, PC, Switch
Rating: 3 out of 5
In the early months of the Pandy (the affectionate term for the Pandemic) there was a drought in video game releases, we were all, then, excited for Cyberpunk in spite of a myriad of delays that would continue throughout the year but most of us were caught in the capitalistic grind of Animal Crossing: New Horizons so I took to some early access releases and was greeted kindly by Scourebringer. The core loop of Scourgebringer is the same as any roguelite, master the same areas repeatedly and gain permanent abilities and upgrades that will ensure your success in future runs, all the while learning bits and pieces of a story that is completely unobtrusive from your enjoyment of the game. Where the game stands out is in the insanely fast-paced, precise combat that should carry you through the twelve to fifteen hours it takes to complete the game. Anchored by incredible mobility Scourgebringer is certainly not going to stand above a crowded market, though if you are especially interested in rapid, overwhelming combat, this game just might be for you, don’t expect anything too novel outside of that though.
- Fenyx: Immortal Rising
Developer: Ubisoft Quebec, Ubisoft Milan, Ubisfot
Platform(s): Switch, Stadia, Xbox One, Xbox Series X and S, PS4, PS5, PC
Rating: 3 out of 5
Fenyx: Immortal Rising makes an incredibly strong first impression, which amounts to little more than the fact that it’s a completely solid rip-off of the highs of Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild with a healthy dose of infuriatingly frustrating attempts at “comedy” throughout the adventure that do little more than turn an otherwise palatable adventure into an incredible slog. The world is vibrant and alive, full of discovery and wonder, however, at each interaction with the story, one is forced to reckon with the storyteller Zeus, attempting to make arrogant jokes about the tale, that will likely draw some chuckles out of Fenyx’s least discerning players, children, whom this game is obviously intended for, but will make adults groan and ultimately add blemishes to an otherwise awesome experience. The gameplay is completely competent and though the combat is fine, it’s really in how navigable and lushly detailed this cartoony world is, the colors pop and the childish, almost toybox aesthetic takes the Miyazaki-esque world of BotW into a more comfortable, nostalgic realm of childhood play. Ubisoft, that gargantuan corporate behemoth who will continue to gobble up our money because they admittedly make very cool products but alike Disney or Amazon, are making a mad-dash to be our corporate overlords, pulled off a feat and released three quality openworld experiences this year, some with more life than others. Fenyx is a perfect game for the kiddos, inoffensive unlike Watch Dogs but also not quite scraping the highs of their flagship AC games as what it lacks in identity, it makes up for in polish and sheer enjoyment.
- Signs of the Sojourner
Developer(s): Echo Nights, LLC, Bromio
Publisher(s): Echo Nights, LLC, Bromio
Platform(s): Switch, MacOs, PS4, Xbox One, PC
Rating: 3 out of 5
A lovely, small tale of grief and friendship that is occasionally hampered down by the card-playing system that forms the crux of it’s interactions. While sometimes fun, the back-and-forth lacks development and dynamism, and though the quaint, carefully drawn characters are a blast to share this quirky post-apocalyptic landscape with, they are often interrupted by a half-baked card-playing game, semi-interesting from a thematic standpoint as successful interactions are depicted as a tug-of-war, the metaphor of conversations as card-game is poignant, it fails to be engaging. Which is a massive bummer, because the game features a great cast of characters who deserve time to shine but your interactions with them and what you say is unfortunately completely dependent upon the card game that inhibits complete enjoyment of the Signs of the Sojourner.
Platform(s): Switch, Xbox One, PS4, MacOs, PC
Rating: 3 out of 5
With the aesthetic of an unreleased dungeon crawling Gamecube title Undermine pleases with it’s blend of combat, exploration and rougelite elements. For many it was a tough year to stand out amongst a herd of excellent rouglite options, and Undermine suffers on this point. It’s an awkward game to play compared to Hades or Children of Morta, which are similarly top-down action experiences, and the latter is co-op! So the game’s systems suffer from a lack of innovation and are just not that engaging. There’s a good five-to-six hours of roguelite fun within though for those who dare to engage with it, and maybe even something a little more for those who stick around.
- Watch Dogs Legion
Developer: Ubisoft Milan, Ubisoft Toronto
Publisher: Ubisoft, Ubisoft Milan
Platform(s): PS4, PS5, Xbox One, Xbox Series X and S, PC, Stadia
Rating: 2.5 out of 5
Watch Dogs: Legion is by far one of the most baffling and confounding big-studio projects since Death Stranding, the concept’s brilliance far and away exceeds it’s execution. In another wild parallel, Ubisoft may have pioneered a new genre whose most similar predecessor is perhaps Streets of Rogue, which is to say they’ve basically created a storyteller generator in Ubisoft clothes. It’s risky, bold absolutely broken in areas (AI’s walk in and out of the void when they enter and exit buildings) but it’s commitment to procedural storytelling ultimately keeps you coming back for more in spite of the repetitive mission design, disingenuous story and disheartening cynicism of an anti-fascist, anti-corporate game by Ubisoft who have more-or-less become the evil shadow company Abstergo from their Assassin’s Creed games, one need only look at the last two years of allegations leveled at senior members of the company to catch a whiff of the nastiness. It bleeds through in this monstrosity. This game is gross. It makes attempts at Rockstar-esque-”satire” (these quotes are in fact intended to be demeaning) and falls flat on its face in the process.
For the first thirty minutes of play time, two boneheaded radio hosts talked about fake news, restarting from the beginning each instance of me hopping in a new vehicle, needless to say this was a grating and frustrating introduction. So the writing is horrible, what did I expect? Video games are generally speaking, badly written, because the industry at large allows such a tradition to persist (Cyberpunk I am glaring at you from across the room right now). And it makes sense, video games are about play not about listening, however, I would argue listening to strong information can inform and calcify the play, Watch Dogs: Legion is at it’s best when the gameplay surprises- develop this- is as far is it can get from the writing the team has put together with the overarching narrative, so to succeed in you having a good time the only knowledge you need is how to wash, rinse and repeat. In spite of the diverse array of “team members” they all largely play the same. Not only that, it’s almost entirely irrelevant what angle you approach an issue from because most team members can hack, shoot and stealth which are the three things you are going to be doing the entire time, oh yeah, and none of them feel good to control. Also your rebellion can be completely hollow, should you choose, you can be entirely more evil than the people you are attempting to overthrow, and while the game doesn’t encourage you down this path, it’s a little bizarre botching an encounter, murdering an entire warehouse full of people and then the AI acting as if you are some hopeful regime or worse yet delivering contradictory statements like “There’s such a thing as too much violence”, into “Who said violence never solved anything”. So there is no political content in spite of what the game presents, because it doesn’t mean anything, it’s just set-dressing and at worst, in the most minimizing fashion, uses “anarchy” and “revolution” as aesthetic approaches rather than bonafide actualites of our world and necessities which will drive history. When you save a group of sex-trafficked slaves, there is a cut scene where they attempt to overtake their captor, quickly dispatched by her pistol, the carelessness which Ubisoft treats their bodies, and the effort in which they’ve afforded hers, is absolutely tasteless and deplorable.
So is the game fun? So much freaking fun. My buddies and I were unable to boot this game up without cackling in our seats, the sheer mayhem caused by hacking controls is comparable only to the Saints Row and Just Cause series in terms of the cause-and-effect insanity. The unbelievable level of jank launched with the game makes it all the more charming, there are wonky glitches littered about but they are often far more hilarious than they are disruptive (except for that game breaking one, I guess) and the way it congeals and intermingles with the systematic narrative-creator is the game’s most compelling aspect. Being able to recruit anyone in London engenders new stories throughout the game’s duration even where the narrative-missions fail. Though, you will be completing the same five-or-so tasks in order to enlist somebody, it almost never plays out the same way thanks to the diverse roster of characters and their abilities, and while they feel basically the same, once you begin personalizing your characters look, it feels like you are rotating through a secret society that you’ve created. While there is more blend across the characters than there probably should be, it’s a ludicrously joyous occasion whose frivolity outweighs it’s intentions. Simply put the best worst game of the year.
Developer: Paper Cult
Publisher: Paper Cult
Platform(s): Switch, PS4, PC
Rating: 2.5 out of 5
Skateboarding games had a big nostalgia moment this year with Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 1+2 remaster and Bloodroots. While you never hit ollies in Bloodroots, you rack up combos in a similar manner as the famed skaters iconic series, just with murder instead of tricks. The tale is a bloody revenge tale that is often enjoyable but equally ignorable if you want to stick to the high stakes mayhem. The game’s cartoon aesthetic makes these elaborate sandboxes of death plushy, it lacks weight to it but orchestrating a plan is satisfying. A fun, if inoffensive title.
- Dear Reader
Developer: Local No. 12, LLC
Publisher: Local No. 12, LLC
Platform(s): MacOs, Apple Arcade
Rating: 2.5 out of 5
Dear Reader is a briefly fun game, and a throwback to a much simpler era of phone games. Instead of a console-level production, Dear Reader settles for being extremely playable and always enjoyable, meant to be ingested in short chunks waiting for food or just before bed. Through a series of missing words, the reader is tasked with filling in the blanks in classic works of literature, this amongst various rearrangement challenges. The most fun the game offers is accidentally ingesting the plots of literary classics all while playing a mildly difficult puzzle game. You’ll find yourself engaging with the books more than the games themselves though as the puzzles lose their luster afters a few hours or so.
Developer: Young Horses
Publisher: Young Horses
Platform(s): PS4, PS5, MacOS, PC
Rating: 2.5 out of 5
I wouldn’t be playing Bugsnax if not for Kero Kero Bonito. That song rocks. It’s catchy, quirky and just damn charming. What it does not convey though, is that Bugsnax is a horror game. In multiple respects.
What begins as a body horror game quickly degrades into a remnant of PS2-era game design. And in a year that yielded the equally petrifying Carrion, Bugsnax’ colony of cheerful self-mutilating addicts whose bracingly calm disposition and approach towards transforming their husks into a conglomerate of contrasting foods is quietly liberating. These characters inhabit a world that is dominated by their cravings for these tasty snacks who demand to be eaten alive to be enjoyed completely (it’s in the lore?).
Rebuilding Snaxburg is initially a joyful experience. You play a reporter sent to this island inhabited by Bugsnax in order to solve the disappearance of the community’s leader Lizbert. The village is now being headed by the deeply untrustworthy, and second fiddle, best-friend of Lizbert, Filbo. He is a charming and entertaining guy, even if his first mission for you is to feed him Bugsnax as quickly as possible and when his hand transforms into a Strabby (a strawberry with little spindly-rapid spider legs) the look on his face is pure delight.
Each Bugsnack (I think that’s the singular?) has its own noise, kind of like a Pokemon (which this game is basically Pokemon Snap for all you weirdos out there still clamoring for a sequel), however, this aspect is made hilarious in Bugsnax because, what I am assuming were members of the team or even professional voice actors, craft the sounds each Bugsnax makes. My favorite in the early areas was “shiskabug” who screams his name when he is running from bush to bush.
Catching Bugsnax is an immediate joy as the puzzles to capture them are based around playing their biological functions off one another, while this is a blast in the opening, towards the end it becomes a process of banging one’s head against the wall and lengthy back-tracking, in addition to a lame-ending and resolution to what is actually genuine intrigue amidst it’s kooky cast of characters, the ending leaves a decidedly sour note.
This does not dilute what became the primary highlight: that aforementioned cast. I loved each Grumpus in my village, and completed every side mission (in spite of their mundanity) just to reach the conclusion of their personal arcs. They are really what I recall most fondly from the game: Filbo’s rack of sashes, Wiggles playing banjo to the overworld-soundtrack, stealing Filbo’s Bugsnack poop for Wambus to attempt to grow Bugsnax in the garden as he attempts to unravel their origins, the romance between Snorpy and Chandlo, Beefica’s gossiping, Cromdo’s insatiable thirst for capital, Gramble’s sleepwalking or sleep-feeding I should say, and Shelda’s seemingly hippie vibe as she denounces eating Bugsnax but has you suspiciously deliver them to her in a box, though her body continues to change, she maintains her position. These moments, in spite of a flawed narrative and increasingly underwhelming returns on gameplay are what propelled me to seek credits and overcome the often frustrating back-half of the game.
Developer: Wonderbelly Games
Publisher: Wonderbelly Games, The Quantum Astrophysics Guild
Platform(s): Switch, PS4, Xbox One, PC, iOS, MacOS
Rating: 2.5 out of 5
Essentially Peggle-by-way-of-Pinball-roguelike-edition; Roundguard is instantly fun even if it struggles to retain its appeal after the first few hours. The player shoots their ball shaped character (who is one of three classes) through dungeons and castles at ogres, goblins and spiders, pretty much all your classic fantasy tropes. The game is satisfying to watch initially as you make moves and watch them play out hypnotically, altered by gravity and obstacles, however, the boring and uninventive aesthetic leaves longer matches feeling dry and unfulfilling. The satisfaction of winning (or losing for that matter) is severely hampered by this quality, everything feels bland and unsurprising. This is one I wanted to love (and made a good bathroom game for a month or so), however, Roundgard is a bit of an empty exercise.
- Fury Unleashed
Developer: Awesome Games Studio
Publisher: Awesome Games Studio
Platform(s): Switch, PS4, Xbox One, PC, MacOS
Rating: 2.5 out of 5
Rougelikes are in a flourishing abundance and Fury Unleashed was hurt as a result. In a market of hyper-saturation it’s hard to remain distinct and noteworthy. Outside of some fun co-op there’s really not much to note about this unfortunate fallen soldier in the genre. While it plays well and there are a plethora of upgrades on the skill tree, the juvenile faux-comic-book art style really does an already unremarkable product no favors whatsoever, though there is some fun to be had for a few hours with a good buddy sitting next to you.
- Final Fantasy VI Remake
Developer: Square Enix, Square Enix First Development Division
Publisher: Square Enix
Platform(s): PS4, PS5
Rating: 2.5 out of 5
Okay, first off, the first four chapters of this game are awesome. Roughly everything until the stupid demontors arrive is earneslty fantastic. The battle system is incredible, the attack animations are jaw-dropping in their detail and the particle effects flowing off Cloud’s Buster-sword jump like electricity around the battlefield. Now that we’ve got that out of the way: having never touched an entry in this series outside of the first six hours of the original (in preparation for this game), this shit is nuts. What are y’all doing? The characters sigh or gasp twenty to thirty times per dialogue sequence. The main protagonist’s entire arc is that he begins the game with no emotions and by the end has just slightly more; not to mention his repressed sexual tension with every single female character. From my understanding there is a bunch of unnecessary content that was added, entire characters and subplots not featured in the original title which makes an already eclectic narrative about radical environmental terrorism, friendship, trauma, government oppression, mercenaries, classism and growing into your feelings all the stranger.
The game is exhausting, it’s much too long and a stunning amount of the content therein is wasted space. The portion size is just broken, what was six hours in the original game has been ballooned out to a twenty-five to forty hour action-RPG, every four hours of this game there is a moment that feels like credits could roll, but then it just keeps going. The side-content is shocking in its frivolity but the loving commitment to the original is endearing and palpable, fighting rats probably wasn’t that exciting of a diversion in 1997 and it’s even less so in 2020, however, you feel the love even when you are chasing down cats. It’s a hot, high-budget mess and occasionally a flawed masterpiece. Some environments are breathing entities, bustling and alive with vibrant characters, lore and activities, other’s are bracingly plain and barren, particularly many of the side-mission zones. When areas like these are so obviously neglected in contrast to the striking character details and particle effects in combat it makes the game all the more curious as a product. It’s such a painstakingly laborious project in every facet: loyalty to the source material, production value, length, the journey sometimes even feels worth all that hullabaloo but it’s oddities are glarging and sometimes infuriating.
There is a section devoted to puzzles where you control giant robot arms in a ruined underground highway, the entire section is a filler zone that could be in anything from Call of Duty to Astral Chain to Darksiders, for such a passionately painted world these muted tones are shocking in their disparity. So much filler and increasingly diminishing returns in the killer area. And full disclosure: I didn’t finish this game. In all honesty I think I barely brushed the halfway point, I stopped playing at an arena with a giant-demon-house boss whose zaniness was quickly hampered by how tedious the encounter was, it was obvious what I needed to do but this stretch of the game, Chapter 8 and 9 in particular were the most draining and bland thus far, the game had begun repeating itself, and after Chapter 7, which ended with an extraordinary boss fight, it felt like the game had plateaued and was really forcing itself to keep ongoing for the sake of the narrative. So maybe I’ll finish it someday… Midgar can wait.
I did look up and read about the ending though… that shit is absolutely nuts and admittedly kinda cool.
- Super Mario 3D All Stars
Developer: Nintendo Entertainment Planning and Development
Rating: 2 out of 5
What should have been the ultimate museum collectors item for gamers including three of Mario’s greatest 3D adventures in one bundle became an exercise in digital scarcity. Why? No idea, greed maybe, but people will never stop buying these games as long as we all shall live, so on that note, why couldn’t these have a bit more detail on them, a Master Chief Collection-esque feature of switching the graphics between the old-versions and remastered, high fidelity environments with new textures, it’s confusing. These games are Nintendo’s calling cards, a ubiquitously recognized symbol of fun and play, so why the limited time offer and lackluster support… could it be they are preparing us to have to buy all three of these games individually again when they receive full remasters in the coming years? It’s genuinely baffling and a little hurtful as a consumer to see such thoughtlessness from one of gaming’s most beloved and generally supportive companies that has generated a mass of ill-will from it’s fans in 2020 tempered only by Animal Crossing: New Horizons.
- Part Time UFO
Developer: HAL Laboratory
Publisher: Nintendo, HAL Laboratory
Platform(s): Switch, Android, iOS
Rating: 1.5 out of 5
I wanted so badly to love this oddity from the creators of Kirby but it’s a fairly limited release that is basically a mini-game from their Kirby: Epic Yarn expanded into a bite-sized and completely unmemorable package. While the art-style is incredibly charming, there is just nothing about this game that is particularly resonant, nothing sticks and at worst, it’s deeply frustrating, coming across more like a cutting-room-floor section from a past release expanded into a full game for seemingly no reason with aggravating physics and mind-numbingly simple mechanics, instead of comfort food it tastes a bit more like a stale bag of chips, you shrug and eat it anyway, but in the back of your mind, you are always aware there are more substantive meals out there for you, even better bags of chips (analogies are not my strong suit!). Part Time UFO is doomed to remain an inexplicable one-off that it’s very unlikely anyone besides myself will ever play or write about and if someone is able to manage to write more about this title than what remains above, kudos, you’ve managed to get more out of this game than what is actually there.
- Mafia Collection
Developer: Hangar 13
Publisher: 2K Games
Platform(s): PS4, Xbox One, PC
Rating: 1 out of 5
Let’s start at the beginning:
When my buddy Owen (of Ishroyale fame) and I (also of Ishroyale fame) first started becoming friends, Mafia 2 was a massive factor in our relationship. He had rented it on his Playstation and convinced me to buy it because one of the collectibles was finding Playboy magazines throughout the world. Our porn-riddled adolescent minds could not have been more engaged. We came for the soft porn but ended up staying for the amalgamation of Mafia tropes, and to this day one of my favorite things in any game ever: stores that constantly replenish themselves after being robbed.
When we played on my PC he would control the shooting mechanics and I would control the movement, we put an easy one-hundred and forty hours into what is roughly a fifteen-to-twenty hour video game just because we got such a thrill out of trying to Bonny and Clyde our way through the world, robbing every store in a limited time, trying to master our craft. No game since has attempted such a feat but the emergent storytelling from driving around the map, ditching the cops and trying to get in-and-out of miniature heists as quickly as possible remains peak fun for me in any video game.
There was a hitch, however, neither of us ever beat the game due to a shared glitch. When he rented it the year before, he encountered a glitch in the fourteenth chapter in which he was unable to pay off his debt to the loan sharks. We were excited to finally break that barrier on my computer copy, but encountered the same glitch, unable to experience the ending to a game we were completely enthralled with.
Flash forward to the mid-pandemic dry spell of releases and they announced a full remaster of the trilogy, I was too excited, I’d finally be able to finish this game. First offense, the remaster looked exactly as remembered, that is to say, like a PS3-360 era game, it was immediately distressing, I wanted it so badly to look better than it had originally, alas it was an HD remaster that still featured a terrible framerate. So right out of the gate, I was skeptical. While I enjoyed the narrative again, it’s attempts at depicting racism in the 40’s mostly resulted in a display of the team’s own stereotypes and prejudices which was often more grating than immersive. And then, to cap it all off, the same glitch persisted on my copy of the remaster. The rage-delete was immediate and I hopped into the third game, which was just as conflicted of a game as I recalled: repetitive and enlightening in equal measure. Though the gunplay in both still felt great, it was not enough to demand forgiveness of their glaring issues.
I almost didn’t hop into the first game, but a friend recommended it to me at the end of the year and it was on sale for a reasonable price. Pleasantly surprised by a mechanic not seen since Sleeping Dogs, a dedicated button when driving that allows you to throw your car into other vehicles, I was enjoying the deluge of tropes which are just as ridiculous in this first entry as they would be throughout the entire series. I appreciated how much these games commit to mundanity as an essential part of the Mafia experience, in Mafia being a taxi driver and picking up menial gigs which inevitably intertwines your fate with that of some local gangsters, and in Mafia 2 picking up boxes until you can’t handle it anymore. The origins are very interesting and make you yearn that other open-world developers would be similarly brave in mission design and character arcs. The gunplay was competent and there was a decidedly early open-world game attempt at mission variety that was admirable (perhaps more so in the original release but the dedication to the original material felt more like a byproduct of laziness than conscious choice). Things fall off the rails pretty quick. While it’s a beautiful, detailed depiction of Prohibition-era America, I did not see a single black or Asain American in the entire game, not to mention any representation of Irish, Scottish or Dutch immigrants, which if one takes even a brief glance at history, should be everywhere in this city. Basically, it’s a city full of Italians, and this focus on just the story and main characters also contributes to a lack of side-missions which significantly dampens the enjoyment of the experience. For such a vibrant world there is a stunning lack of life and inhabitation.
So this trilogy dropped the ball, and while persisting in displaying the complicated legacy of this franchise, did little in the way of making arguments for us carrying it through with us into the next generation.
Developer: One More Level, 3D Realms, Slipgate Ironworks
Publisher: 505 Games, All in! Games SA
Platform(s): PS4, Xbox One, PC, PS5, Xbox Series X and S,
Rating: 1 out of 5
I gave a good four hours of my life to completing Ghostrunner, I kept hoping it would improve and coalesce into the thing everyone was talking about in their reviews: a successor to Mirror’s Edge, in an awesome cyberpunk setting. Instead… this game sucks, I was pulling out my hair the entire time because of the terrible controls and pitiful framerate dips. On top of not being good, it contains puzzles for absolutely no reason and one of the lamest video game narratives of the year that goes nowhere so quickly and relies on a trove of gaming tropes that were exhausting ten years ago much less in 2020. It does feel like a lost PS3/360 title, and in a year of oddball throwbacks like Journey to the Savage Planet (basically a Gamecube game), Bugsnax (basically a PS2 game), and Sakura Wars (the greatest Wii game never made), Ghostrunner should have been a stunning revitalization of the first-person platforming parkour genre, instead it’s a deeply annoying, repetitive release, that is lame and limping out of the gate frequently stunting any forward momentum it believes itself to have with terrible level-design, imprecise platforming and a throwaway narrative.
54. Trials of Mana
Developer: Square Enix
Publisher: Square Enix
Platform(s): Switch, PS4, PC
Rating: 1 out of 5
Okay… everyone who is a Square-Enix fan seems to be very pleased with them this year as they restored two of their tentpole franchises to what many people consider to be their rightful place in the canon. I badly want to play Secret of Mana someday when I have the opportunity to do so cooperatively, I’m sure it is one of the greatest games of all time, same goes for Chrono Trigger and Final Fantasy VI, they are top of the list in terms of holes in my gaming knowledge.
Trials of Mana starts off well-enough, but you can immediately ruin your game if you make one fatal mistake. Should you choose Charlotte, you will spend the twenty-five hours of the game wishing you just did not exist. She is one of the most grating and insufferable characters I’ve ever encountered in an RPG. Her feigned speech impediment is that of an adult trying to sound like an adorable child, which as it has been pointed out elsewhere (particular in a fabulous piece by Jeff Cork formerly of Gameinformer about AC: Valhalla and Cyberpunk 2077) just never comes across as realistic, and does more to annoy than it does to immerse. I get it, this is some silly fantasy garbage, but after ten hours with the game I was simply unwilling to go back to the beginning just so I didn’t have to be in “Charwolette’s” presence ever again.
And the combat was fine. Aggressively so, especially after the FFVI: Remake, which though I had my issues with, at least had a competent, occasionally awesome battle system.
55. Cyberpunk 2077
Developer: CD Projekt Red
Publisher: CD Projekt
Platform(s): Xbox Series X and S, Xbox One, PC, PS4, PS5
Rating: 0.5 out of 5
I feel awful for CD Projekt Red, they tried so hard to satisfy everyone, and the toxicity of this entry in their catalogue can be blamed only partially on them because let us never forget this Marxist teaching: base informs superstructure. We are an appendage of the base (proletariat, workers, bourgeois), they are a limb of the superstructure (everything encompassed under ideology: art, commerce, politics, science). Our response is part of the problem, the myriad of complaints are technical which is to say that aspect simply covers-over the actual issues: the content.
Cyberpunk 2077 is an embarrassing video game. I played the first two Witcher games and missed the third just because I felt it was much too big for the time I had in 2015, I was a high school junior, running around being in bands, making movies, going to shows, selling drugs and generally just being a weirdo, but in the years since I have often contemplated going back and engaging with what is considered one of the greatest RPGs ever made. So ignoring the controversy, the hype, the expectations: this game is still terrible. I never touched the tabletop board game but the world therein is absolutely insufferable. It takes place in the future but everyone speaks with all the charm (which is to say gracelessness) of a 90’s frat party. The darkness of the game is never tempered by an intelligence and worse yet a pulse, it’s just boorish, nasty ugliness for the sake of disgust. This game is compromised, and is indicative of this underbelly of gaming that has slowly been pushed to the margins, unstable, lonely, angry people whose opinions range from “this game is broken” and “gamers are picky”, never agreeing because the only ideas they’ve entertained are strictly reactionary and impulsive. To bring chairman Mao into this, these are the people he warned of. What’s wrong with this game is extremely detectable, while you can blame it on tech, CD Projekt Red, or the industry at large, the unfortunate kernel is that this game is spiritually degradative and nothing more than a reflection of our own souls.
The “scale” and “impressive” world are tempered by some of the worst writing that’s ever been present in a game this large, and only so bad because it is in fact, the world. Many reviewers have noted that you should always click on the blue dialogue options to expand your understanding of the intricacies of this landscape, yet, you are rewarded with technological psychobabble and having to endure your character engage in various levels of douchiness, while some might argue this is what they wanted to portray with the character, there is never option that makes V in anyway durable, and if you can stand him or worse yet, find him interesting, you are part of the enablement of games like this persisting.
Because that’s what this game made me do, my harsh reaction (which you can catch more than a whiff of above) felt entirely unjustified by the technical issues, I loved Assassin’s Creed Valhalla which is unfinished on last-gen consoles, in an obvious Apple-esque push to force users into new technology. While those games are optimized like a dream by comparison, I bring up Ubisoft because they are equally spiritually compromised as an industry titan (I’ve mentioned their track record of abuse in my essays on both of those games), Watch Dogs: Legion is especially nasty in it’s false sentiment, but it has no illusions, the only people who could ever be duped by the game’s intentions are those who are going to be consistently fooled by strong sentiment of any kind, to return to Mao, reactionaries. Cyberpunk 2077 in contrast, is completely disingenuous, the offensiveness of the game is baked in, between the lack of respect for consumers (broken console versions, no epilepsy warning, blatant racial stereotypes, which many have defended as carrying over from the table top and transphobia) and the disturbing distaste for the characters in their own world, there is the feeling that while the developers may have enjoyed and even loved making this game, there is never once a moment where you get the notion that they like these characters, or even liked bringing them to life.
While this may seem harsh, there are characters named “Johnny Silverhand” who says awesome things like “I love it when your mad, gets my southern blood pumping” moments after telling groupies to get their lives together, Johnny is played by Keanu Reeves who brings nothing but a shameless cash-grab tone to this role, while I’ve heard his character grows more interesting as the narrative goes on, even him commenting on the “morality” or lack thereof initially is frustrating on multiple levels. Firstly, on a meta-level, hearing a performer who has existed on the periphery of gaming (I too love John Wick but good god gamers, did you know there are cooler action movies than that, and smarter movies than the Matrix? It would seem not) is only there for a selling-point. This feels downright disingenuous especially given the terrorist-rebellious nature of that character, which is once again, oddly and disturbingly self-aware, the first intermission in which you control him you immediately see how little stock he actually has in tackling “corporate colonialism”, which if we are focusing on hollow attitudes, a company that made it’s money back on one of the biggest games of all time in under a week of the game being out when it’s not just unfinished but also despicable in substance that “rails” (without intellect) against buzz-words like “capitalism” and “oppression”. The writer of the tabletop world issuing the proclamation that this world is a “warning” is completely invalidated because it’s not so much premonative as it is an actual document at the hearts and minds of people everywhere, their fears and prejudices cast outward, extrapolated out over decades.
Secondly the “morality” of this game is being an asshole or being more of an asshole. Now, this could have been a comment on the devotion to the procession of capital movements, that there is no way to spiritually suspend yourself from the afflictions of a capitalist, technocracy and the attacks it launches on individuals who are fundamentally good but are forced to justify exploitation through increasingly ideological, material and inhumane ways. Instead the game is nothing more than an echo of other silly, floundering, weak willed ideologies filtered through an industry trend that no one can justify. What is Cyberpunk? A meaningless aesthetic that is instantly identifiable but ultimately amounts to little more than a series of hollow signifiers: neon lights, sex, drugs, violence, debauchery, hacking, bursting colors, cybermetic implants, but it’s soul? Don’t try to look for one, because it’s not there.
So to conclude, my least favorite game of the year has nothing to do with it’s “unfinished” quality or it’s gameplay (which sometimes feels great? Combat is a blast both on a shooting and gameplay front, driving is a mess and the RPG elements are drastically overstated, this is much more of an open-world game than anything), but has everything to do with the fact that this game is a monument of so many qualities that are persistently troubling about the game industry: crunch (see: The Last of Us Part 2, which although a game I love is ethically reprehensible), painful delays and pressure on both developers and consumers, and a confusing, convoluted relationship to identity politics where at every point of satiating the demands of the herd, it attempts to satisfy the most grotesque aspects of our culture which in turn has responded in an equally despicable manner. The foot-traffic on media-platforms around this game, the most played single player game on Steam at any given point, and a seemingly endless onslaught of complaints, frustrations and critiques, which, perhaps valid, are only indicative of the deeply infantile culture that we’ve cultivated.