My Favorite Games from 2020
I played so many damn video games this year. With COVID-19 rampaging through the world — paired with the constant reminder that we elected a reality show host to run our federal government — I felt compelled to retreat into virtual worlds this year. Since I found myself leaving the house maybe once a week video games were the perfect escapism. Well, that and anime. Maybe I’ll write up a whole post about that later.
Because I spent so many hours clearing my backlog this year, I decided to make two lists: one for the top new games I played this year and one for the top games I played that came out before this year.
Let’s start with 2020 games. I didn’t get around to a lot of the big games this year. So you’re not going to find Last of Us Part II, Hades, Spiderman Miles Morales, Half Life: Alyx or Final Fantasy 7 Remake on this list. Maybe they’ll make the backlog list some other year.
#5 Ghost of Tsushima
I think for a lot of people this will be their game of the year. Ghost of Tsushima is a big budget open world stealth action game set in 1200s Japan. Open world stealth action games are a dime a dozen in the AAA space. Like super hero movies, it has become the defacto genre for all big budget games. Ghost of Tsushima is the best possible version of that game.
Ghost of Tsushima is like The Force Awakens. It’s predictable, doesn’t feel like it was made by real human being and has clear influences yet only wears them skin deep. It still kind of rules though. It gives you exactly what you’re looking for and leaves you more than satisfied. Its combat rules, its stealth rules, its story rules and its multiplayer rules. It’s an easy recommendation, but I doubt it’ll stay with me like the great art it pays constant homage to.
This kind of solid genre fare has been a huge part of this year for me. There’s comfort in knowing what to expect when you sit down to play a game. Even though the real world felt unpredictable and the cruelty and nihilism of our public leaders continued to plunge to new depths, sometimes it’s felt nice to open a book, pop in a DVD, or boot up a PS4 and be swept away into a world where the good guys win because that’s just the way it is.
And yes I did say “pop in a DVD”. So many old movies are only available on DVD at the library these days. Why doesn’t HBO Max have Harakiri? What are these idiots doing over there?
#4 Ori and The Will of the Wisps
Ori and the Will of the Wisps was my most anticipated game to come out this year. Yes, I was as pumped for Cyberpunk as anyone else, but by the third delay my hype had died down quite a bit. Ori 2 was different.
Ori and the Blind Forest holds a special place in my heart. It was one of the first indie games I got into back when I started really diving deep into the video game world. I heard it had a similar structure to Guacamelee, my first exposure to the indie scene, and from what I could tell the graphics were gorgeous. After winning three straight Super Smash Brothers Melee money matches against my buddy Drew, I bought Ori and the Blind Forest.
Ori 1 is a great game. It’s fun to play, tough as hell, gorgeous to look, at and packs a surprisingly potent emotional punch. In 2017, while I was watching my first E3 press conference, a teaser trailer for Ori 2 was released. For the very first time I felt hyped for a video game.
Three years of hype is a lot for any game, let alone a short indie title. After years of eager anticipation, I finished Ori 2 in less than two weeks. My hype was still so voracious I watched my favorite twitch streamer — Ray Navarez Jr. — do his own playthrough of it just so I could experience it longer.
It was an awesome 14 hours though! It improved on the original game in almost every way. More emotional moments, more platforming abilities, more boss fights, actual real combat. It’s going to be hard going back to the original. It managed to live up to three years of hype, no small feat.
#3 Cyberpunk 2077
Speaking of hype, let’s talk about Cyberpunk 2077. I don’t think I’ve ever seen hype like the kind this game got. For a full year and a half Cyberpunk was atop Gamespot’s top upcoming games list. When that 48 minute trailer dropped in 2018, people lost their damn minds, myself included. It looked impossible. Turns out it was.
However, the hype and botched release of Cyberpunk has obscured what is actually a pretty fun game. Once you peel aside the bugs and broken promises, what remains is a solid story, great characters, cool RPG systems, fantastic music and one of the best video game cities of all time. Night City is a marvel. If Cyberpunk 2077 was dropped on the world like a Beyoncé album I feel like the conversation around this game would be totally different.
Cyberpunk does have issues. In many ways it feels like a 1980s vision of the future. Everyone is hyper-masculine. Neon lights are everywhere. Corporations rule Night City and its citizens have long since stopped trying to change that. The only way to make a name for yourself is through taking it by force against your own social class. Don’t aim too high, because structural change is impossible. Even if you bomb a corporate building, it’ll be rebuilt like nothing ever happened. Some of this feels precinct, some of it feels dated, but none of it is boring.
Cyberpunk 2077 is a compulsive, addicting game to experience. Although it’s in the well worn same open world stealth action genre as Ghost of Tsushima, Cyberpunk’s lack of polish is weirdly refreshing. CD Project Red could have given us The Witcher 4, instead they swung for the fences, bringing us a multitude of systems, half of which are either unbalanced or broken, and placing all of it in an open world unlike anything else on the market. It feels like an ambitious game made by human beings, which is so so rare to see in the AAA space.
#2 Crusader Kings 3
Crusader Kings III is the best strategy game I’ve ever played. It manages to blend a multitude of deep strategic systems with an RPG like attention to human relationships. It’s so easy for strategy games to bury that human element under a mountain of abstraction. Civilization games, for example, have you playing as a single world leader who micromanages every decision made by every citizen throughout a vast empire — while also living for thousands of years. Everything is abstract and gamified. The thing that makes Crusader Kings III special is that it never forgets the human element. It’s infinitely better for it.
Here’s a good example of what I mean. My friend and I were playing a multiplayer game. Using the excellent create a ruler function, we made two characters with maxed out stats. Now my friend plays CK3 like a madman. He actively tries to create the most illness ridden, genetically messed up family he can while subversively messing with every nearby ruler’s personal life. I usually play the more traditional game, starting wars and setting up a healthy prosperous empire.
Soon into the game something odd started happening. One by one all of my children were dying mysteriously. “What the hell is going on?” I yelled through Discord. After my third child and my 2nd wife dropped dead, my character suddenly died from stress. Stunned, I clicked the “play as next heir” button and found myself playing as my 0 year old granddaughter. My friend then admitted that he killed my whole family.
So here I was, playing as a newborn. I couldn’t even scheme to kill my friend back because the game told me I was too young. I just had to slowly grow up while kids in the palace bullied me and my friend started a secret family with the King’s wife.
Crusader Kings is amazing.
#1 Yakuza: Like a Dragon
This has been the year of “where has this been my whole life?” When the lockdowns started, I stopped caring about looking like a weeb or a loser and just started watching things that made me happy. I finally watched Miyazaki’s films. I finished Neon Genesis Evangelion which blew my damn mind in half. I started reading Manga for god’s sake. Lone Wolf and Cub is really good. Go read it. Sitting through My Neighbor Totoro I thought to myself, “Where has this been my whole life? Why didn’t my childhood have this movie in it?”
One of these small revelations has been the Yakuza series. Yakuza games have been around for a while. Not counting remasters, there’s something like eight of them at this point. Ever since I watched Dunkey’s review on Yakuza 0, I was intrigued, but it wasn’t until Like a Dragon came out years later that I finally played one.
Yo, where has this series been all my life? This game has everything I like. Great characters, dumb as hell mini games, an intriguing plot and bucket of hilarious batshit side stories. I feel like I cheated myself not getting into this series earlier. It’s amazing.
The thing that puts Yakuza: Like a Dragon at the top of my list for games this year is its protagonist Ichiban Kasuga. Ichiban is a fountain of joy. He is kind, clever, and fiercely loyal. Although I’ve loved a lot of games this year, being around characters like V from Cyberpunk or Jin from Ghost of Tsushima can get grating. It’s unbelievably refreshing to play as a character who is so sure of himself, so optimistic and so crushingly kind he obliterates the cynicism of those around him. Just by existing he makes his world a better place. More of that in our video games please.
In case you want to read about my favorite backlog games I played this year, here’s the link to that.