While 2020 has been a true nightmare for everyone, there were luckily a few good things in it. First off, I’m back on the West Coast. Second, I’ve been able to spend a lot more time streaming and had fun revealing my long lost Sonic OC. And third, there were some pretty cool games out this year despite all the delays! While a lot of things kept me from engaging with some of the biggest games this year, these 5 stood out as the best I played.
Phantasy Star Online 2
I know PSO2 is a game originally released in 2012, but this year it FINALLY came state-side. Does it live up to the originals? No, not at all. How could it live up to one of my top 3 games of all time? Fact is, the move towards more MMO trapping in conjunction with the monetization model gets in the way of an otherwise super fun experience.
Shovel Knight: King of Cards
King of Cards is a really awesome game, but some of the other Shovel Knight games are just better. Really this is getting up here for the entire Treasure Trove package, which is possibly one of the best packages of the whole decade. The only thing in it that isn’t fantastic is the weird fighting game thing they tossed in there. But seriously, all the Shovel Knight games are really good.
XCOM: Chimera Squad
XCOM: Chimera Squad didn’t make the cut due to living in the shadow of its predecessor. While it made fun and interesting changes in the moment-to-moment combat encounters, particularly with the turn-order system, it also took away a key piece of what made the older game so engaging. Chimera Squad replaces the soldiers and emergent stories with specific characters that had too much development to fill in the blanks and not enough to make any satisfying arcs. Not to mention the basic plot of being a group of super cops using violence as the means of enforcement. Unfortunate timing aside, I can’t wait to see the tactical mechanics pushed forward into another full XCOM experience.
5 – Ghostrunner
First-person platforming is extremely hard to get right. Until now, the Mirror’s Edge games might be the only ones that really nailed it, allowing the movement and conservation of momentum to flow into each other without getting bogged down in the precision type of difficulty 2D games excel at. Ghostrunner follows in these footsteps while using some combat mechanics to carve out its own identity. What they manage to create is an extremely fast-paced platforming game full of movement puzzle rooms, where many of the solutions are as freeform as the parkour inspirations. Then they slapped a cool as hell cyberpunk aesthetic on it!
4 – Ori and the Will of the Wisps
Ori and the Blind Forest floored me in 2015 by marrying carefully-crafted 2D platforming and surprisingly emotional themes into a beautiful pathfinding (often called “metroidvania”) game. Now, 5 years later, the sequel builds on that by including an expanded combat system, NPCs with side-quests, and even more breathtaking visuals. The new boss fights are awesome, and the new powers grant exciting ways to traverse. Almost everything in this game is a strict improvement.
Yet the storytelling this time around tries too hard to strike the same beats of the original and leaves off with a message that is much less impactful. At times the number of effects on the screen become overwhelming in ways the original never did. And one of the coolest things from the first game, the ability to create your own checkpoints, is completely gone and replaced with a standard automatic system. While it doesn’t quite live up to the magic of the original, Ori and the Will of the Wisps is still a fantastic experience that I highly recommend.
3 – Visage
The first thing I am going to say about Visage is that I never want to play it ever again. Not because it is bad though. In fact, it is extremely good at what it sets out to do; scare the shit out of you. The reason this game is on my top 5 despite how much I don’t like playing horror games is that it does so much more than just set you off to explore in a creepy place. With puzzles and small details, it tells stories of this house and those that lived in it before you. And it tells stories about your character too, weaving together threads in a way that reminds me of what made games like Silent Hill 2 stand out so long ago.
While the game does have one chapter that feels out of place from the rest of the game, each chapter manages to create a vibe that just reaches down into the pit of your stomach to make you scream. If you are even the slightest bit interested in horror games, this one is a real gem among them.
2 – Risk of Rain 2
If you were to tell me that the little 2D action rogue-like from 2013 known as Risk of Rain would not just work but be incredible when translated into the 3D space, I would not have believed you. As your time-played each run increases so too does the difficulty through number of enemies, enemy types, and modifiers, while you build up your character into some broken monstrosity. This leads to some of the most exciting and tense experiences I had all year. Couple that with secrets to discover on each level, every character with drastically different approaches to combat, and tons of small challenges to complete, unlocking variant moves and more! Not to mention how the climax interacts with how you got there in such a cool and terrifying way.
Then you get to take all this and do it with up to 3 of your friends, adding to the chaos. I absolutely loved the time I spent with this game, and I continue to listen to the music from it. Seriously, this game has an incredible set of post-rock songs by Chris Christodoulou. Just do yourself a favor and go listen to The Rain Formerly Known as Purple, it is so good.
1 – Hades
Supergiant Games have an extremely good track record through this decade, but they really hit it out of the park with Hades this year. They built an incredibly solid isometric action game at the base, with 6 weapon sets that are all fun to use, and then built a run-based upgrade system on top of it. Does it have the wild variance and broken combos of games like The Binding of Isaac? No, but it still has enough there to keep every run feeling unique and exciting, while giving players all the tools they need for steady improvement, as well as increased difficulty to really fine tune their experiences.
The thing that truly makes Hades stand out from the rest is how it engages with narrative, world building, and character development inside of this rogue-like framework. Every death is another chance to talk to Achilles and the other residents of the house, help Dusa clean up, and pet big cute Cerberus. Every run a chance to hear a song from Eurydice, have a chat with Sisyphus, or even escape the realm of the underworld. The way these characters have been fleshed out makes failed attempts rewarding in the same way that successful ones are and really keeps the drive alive, instead of leading to frustration. And the ways they use this narrative in game, each successful run driving towards that emotional climax, is masterful.
Treat yourself, and go pick this game up.