game of the year
Trevor's Top Ten Games of 2020
Trevor | January 5, 2021
Good Riddance 2020. Fortunately, no matter how bad 2020 was, it couldn't stop new games from coming out.
Okay. It’s time to stop making vague, nihilistic commentary on the overall year as a preamble to these lists. I keep putting that out into the world, and the next year gets progressively worse. And then what did we get? 2020. So this time, we’re going right to the games.
10. Tony Hawk Pro Skater 1 + 2
The Bird is back, baby.
Tony Hawk Pro Skater 1 + 2 is exactly what it promises, which, when you consider how god awful Tony Hawk Pro Skater 5 was, is a relief.
The best news here is this game feels great to play. It’s snappy, responsive, tight. The complete opposite of Tony Hawk 5’s very odd, floaty mechanics. Also gone is the odd lobby system, which resulted in an extensive amount of waiting between objectives. Multiplayer is still here, but it is now optional rather than compulsory. In the hands of developer Vicarious Visions, The Tony Hawk Pro Skater name is restored to its former glory.
There’s two major points in THPS 1+2’s favor that put it on the GOTY board. This game beautifully redesigns every stage from the original two entries, taking care to adjust the scale appropriately. Every stage and challenge you want, it’s here. The Helicopter Drop, School 2, even Skater Heaven is back. Even the bull looks better than ever.
Here’s the flipkick, though — in the original two games, the park editor was severely limited by the technology of the time. There was only so much space for park elements, and only so many shapes. Not to mention, with no network connection, you could only share your park physically, either by trading memory cards or simply inviting people over.
THPS 1+2’s park creator is unreal. You can swivel elements, expand structures, create freeform rails, build monstrosities the world has never seen. The creativity of Tony Hawk fans is where I really got supreme enjoyment this year, diving in and out of an endless playlist of skating nightmares.
As we move on to this next entry, please enjoy this roller coaster.
9. Granblue Fantasy: Versus
In a rough year for the fighting genre, none had it rougher than Granblue Fantasy: Versus. Released in North America on February 6th, this title only had a month to establish a fan base before COVID came along and destroyed most of the fighting game scene. And what Covid didn’t destroy, the community did internally.
The end result is a rather strong fighter with a pitifully small fanbase. Fortunately Arc Systems has continued to support GBFV through our barren fighter wasteland, adding new stages and fighters. Sadly it remains unpopular for online play due to rather poor netcode (a common complaint among all of Arc Systems titles), but one can hope it will find a dedicated audience once live events return.
In the meantime however, there’s still plenty to like about Granblue Fantasy: Versus. Perhaps its most recognizable feature is a simple operation button for specials. By default, RB (or R1) plus a direction will easily activate a move without the need of half-circle motions or DP inputs. Hoever, the technical inputs still exist for additional damage, providing a reward for those willing to engage with the higher skill ceiling. Nonetheless, this simple button makes it more accessible than the usual fighter, and allows brand new players to stay competitive.
If fighting human opponents isn’t what you’re after, Granblue Fantasy Versus offers a rather robust story mode too. There’s a full adventure here, complete with character recruitment, levels, and equipment. Some stages behave more like side-scrolling platformers even, which works better than it really should. Unlike the Dragon Ball Fighter Z version of story mode, Arc Systems has continued supporting it with each update, meaning all the DLC characters make an appearance and are recruitable somewhere on the world map.
If what you want from a fighter is more focus on the neutral game, where combos and specials are (relatively) simple, or if you’re new to the genre and are wondering where to start, this is the place to jump in.
8. Kentucky Route Zero
Act V dropped for Kentucky Route Zero in January, finally completing this nine year project. If you’ve not yet heard of Kentucky Route Zero, it is perhaps the closest thing to a living painting. It teems with a magical realism — a world unconstrained by logic and reason, where the unbelivable is taken at face value. This is a place where highways have different destinations if you go in reverse. A place where gas stations float out on a river. A place where city employees do clerical work inside a bat sanctuary.
The game begins with a simple premise — Conway is an old man who delivers antiques, out to make his last delivery to the mysterious 5 Dogwood Drive. But, unfortunately, Dogwood Drive is on the Zero, and Conway has no clue how to find it. Along the way to make his final delivery, Conway makes the acquaintance of several friends who join his efforts, and the gang goes from Highway Zero to Here and There Along The Echo, in search of this elusive address. What follows is an endless series of snapshot stories about mystery and magic hiding out in Midwest America.
If you haven’t been following development, it’s been quite common for some curious interlude project to drop on the website then vanish for a time, contributing to the overall mystique. Thankfully, this complete edition includes every interlude released, positioned in such a way on the title screen you can’t miss where they fell during the timeline. It’s a fantastic way to give people a chance to experience everything in the order of release.
Kentucky Route Zero is a waking dream of a game, a dazed walk through still life paintings and mysterious backroads in the American Midwest.
Haven is a feeling. A chill experience spent drifting around a shattered planet rife with life and vegetation.
Haven is the second game from The Game Bakers, makers of Furi, my number 6 entry from 2016. As a follow up, Haven is a curious direction to go. The previous game was a pulse-pounding boss rush, an adrenaline-charged onslaught of laser swords and guns.
But now, here’s Haven, where you float around. Pick some vegetables. Scrub some rust off the surface. Maybe pet some of the wildlife? And later on, it’s time to cook and nap.
The main characters of Haven are Yu and Kay, who fled their technocratic homeworld to live alone on Source. In many ways, their relationship is the game. All the exploring, fighting, and collecting is in service of bettering their lives here on their romantic getaway planet. In a rather clever move, the only place the duo can use most healing items is at camp or home in The Nest, thus always ensuring the player always ends up naturally drawn to return home and trigger a moment with Yu and Kay. The game falls into a loop where you venture out in the day to explore and collect, then head home at night to create new meals, fix up your nest, and enjoy some sort of cutesy story.
In a lot of other games, this is where I’d get out the “no horny” bat and start bashing away, but Haven’s romantic subplot — both sexual and otherwise — is handled with an impressive tact and wit. In many other games, the pursuit is all there is. You fill up the relationship meter with your chosen girl or guy, enjoy some spicy scenes as the relationship gets underway, and then you’re done. Haven instead starts with a couple in an established relationship, and in doing so, explores so much more about love and connection. The sexual content never feels intended to titillate like other games, and is instead simply presented as a fact of life. There are a handful of scenes in particular I dare not spoil where the sexual content becomes a punchline to a far more nuanced adult joke than I'm used to seeing. Your reward for successful explorations is more of these scenes of connection, as Kay and Yu enjoy their spoils in the nest.
There is combat in Haven, but I wouldn’t call it the draw. In single player, your d-pad controls Kay and the buttons control Yu. Each button is mapped to a particular action, which you charge and release to activate. By timing a simultaneous release, Kay and Yu will unleash a stronger, coordinated attack. There’s some more nuance as the game goes on, such as choosing when to shield or stronger consumable attacks, but it stays fairly basic throughout.
The game is also playable in co-op, which adds a new dynamic to battles. Navigating the world however, leaves something to be desired. One person takes point while the other snatches up rust and vegetables in the back. It mostly works, but there is a little bit of jank from time to time. My critique lies squarely on the camera in co-op, as it sometimes struggles to keep both of you on screen. It’s a fairly enjoyable co-op experience, but considering the main characters are two young people always one second away from boning, pick your company carefully.
6. Yakuza: Like a Dragon
Yakuza is a turn-based RPG now. Deal with it.
Yakuza: Like a Dragon is the latest entry in the Yakuza series, and while the combat may be a significant departure, the rest is not.
Enter Ichiban Kasuga, a young Yakuza with a heart of gold who dreams of being a hero. After taking the fall to save his clan from shame, Ichiban leaves jail 18 years later to find nobody waiting for him. Abandoned by his clan, Kasuga walks the streets alone and homeless, determined to find out why he’s been forsaken by the Arakawa family.
Somehow this leads to go-karts. Collecting bottles. Managing a fortune 500 company? Why not! Taking tests at a vocational school. And uh, let’s see... befriending a crawfish? Playing Virtua Fighter 5 entirely within the confines of Yakuza: Like A Dragon? Sure! In Yakuza, the world is your oyster. Sure, the plot is there and you can do it, if you so desire, but there’s an endless bombardment of side content to engage with as well. There are plenty of open world games where the side content isn’t terribly engaging, but in Yakuza, it’s practically the draw. You never know what will lead to an entirely new game inside this other game.
The actual combat system is reminiscent of RPGs with a slightly more active element, such as Super Mario RPG or Legend of Dragoon. Special attacks feature inputs to maximize damage, and likewise, timed defensive presses reduce damage. At first everyone will have only their default job, but once you reach a certain point in your story chapters, you’ll unlock the ability to swap job classes. These get... unbelievably ridiculous.
Yakuza manages to ride a line between earnest and ridiculous quite well. The cast of characters are all 40-something washouts who barely function in society, but they all have a heart of gold and sense of justice to drive them forward. Things achieve peak absurdity in the side-quest content, while the main story remains rather earnest. This does lead to an odd disconnect, where using the more eccentric jobs like Dragon Rocker or Breakdancer means Ichiban turns into a rock god right after some major emotional beat. Still though, a big draw of Yakuza: Like a Dragon is Ichiban’s earnest yet stupid energy, always striving to do the heroic thing.
And sometimes, that means bringing a monkey to a board meeting.
Underlords officially launched in February, meaning it is finally eligible for this list. To avoid repeating everything I said last year, we’ll mostly focus on what’s new in 1.0. For general thoughts, please refer to last year’s Honorable Mentions.
In addition to some roster updates and balance changes, 2020 saw the addition of the Underlords themselves. Juul, Enno, Anessix, and Hobgen fight for control of white spire, and in round 10, the one of your choice joinz the team. Juul contributes tankiness, Enno is a thieving rascal, Anessix is the spell and minion master, and Hobgen is the worst.
Also new is the City Crawl, a set of challenges in White Spire starring the Underlords. Some objectives require playing proper matches to complete, white others will be simple streetfights against AI opponents. The best content on this map, I think, is the puzzle battles. You’re presented with a situation, a pre-set choice of weapons, and a limited supply of money. From there, you have the freedom to assemble the dream team and see how they perform.
What keeps Underlords from climbing any higher on this list is a general lack of regular support near the back half of the year. For a while, there were weekly challenges with unique puzzles...and then around August, they stopped. We got one major update at the end of summer that shook up the lineup, added new alliances, and made all previous weekly challenges available.
And then nothing since. Crickets.
Underlords is a fantastic game, and I hope Valve does not let it die. Signs point concerningly to “yes,” and it’s all that keeps this one from climbing higher.
4. 13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim
13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim is the best wild card of the year. An unexpected release from Vanillaware, 13 Sentinels is part visual novel and part role-playing tower defense game. It is perhaps one of the finest examples of how to use an ensemble cast this year, as each character’s story weaves into another.
3. Ghost of Tsushima
I don’t have a lot of patience for giant, sprawling sandbox games littered with icons these days. I slept on both Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla and Immortals: Phoenix Rising because I simply feel many of these games don’t respect the player’s time in a meaningful way. There's a zillion collectibles, towers to climb, feathers to pick up or whatever, and none of it is in service of anything other than stuff to do.
I had similar concerns about Ghost of Tsushima, but as you can tell from that big #3 next to the title above, it put all those concerns to rest and then some.
Let’s start with the most striking thing about Ghost of Tsushima — it is visually stunning. I mean, look at this.
Fields, hot springs, spires of snow, and fields of vibrant flowers. Everywhere you go in Ghost is somewhere you want to just soak in and enjoy. Much of Ghost of Tsushima feels like playing a classic Samurai film. There’s a gorgeous sweeping score, cinematically framed cutscenes, and many Kurosawa-esque showdowns.
Ghost of Tsushima is set in the Kamakura period of Japan, right at the start of the First Mongolian Invasion. The story opens on Komoda Beach, where an alliance of Samurai clans lie dead after a failed defense. Jin Sakai is left to die among them, while the patriarch of his clan, Lord Shimura, is taken hostage. As Jin, you are turned loose on an island now occupied by Mongols with two clear goals — save your Uncle, and free your home.
Gameplay in Ghosts of Tsushima falls into a freeform loop. At first, the map has no icons on it and the fog of war obscures your view. It works like this from there;
As you are riding around Tsushima, you come across Mongols harassing a citizen.
You save said citizen, who then informs you they were fleeing from a (town/hotel/camp/shrine) somewhere, where (Mongols have taken over/something unusual is happening in the woods/highwaymen are robbing travelers). This location is then added to your map.
You retrace their footsteps until you happen upon this incident and investigate.
This method keeps clutter on your map to a minimum, and helps minimize the side objective overload I often experience in open world games. More importantly though, every side quest has a unique storyline reminiscent of a bhuddist parable, something designed to make you ruminate on your own inner philosophy upon the conclusion, with no real clear-cut right and wrong answers. And, for those of you who care not to grapple with consequentialism versus deontology, great news, the rewards for these sidequests often help you kill people better. Many new bows, gadgets, and weapons await upon their conclusion. Ghost’s ability to layer on new tools and mechanics right up until the final act is astounding. There’s always something new to play with.
There’s also another set of optional quests in Ghosts of Tsushima, all of which relate to the direct cast you’ll encounter. Each person you meet is working towards their own goals and ambitions, while also helping Jin reclaim their home. You don’t have to continue their stories to continue the game, but it always felt worthwhile to do so. They’re a rich cast of thieves, dishonored samurai, and shady merchants, and their personal stories are just as fully realized and fleshed out as the main campaign.
The setting and narrative, both in the main plot and these side quests, is curiously exceptional. I felt tremendously motivated to press on as the story kept unfolding. Each Act is punctuated by some sort of major event that completely changes the state of the conflict, or the nature of Jin’s relationship with his friends and family. It’s an unrelenting tale of sacrifice and honor right to the end.
This is a strange one to write about, because the iron hot enthusiasm I normally have for an entry this high somewhat tapered. I’ve been playing Hades since early 2019 on the Epic Game Store. As a result, I’ve gotten to see the incremental additions every month or two. A new weapon here, a new character there. Following the journey has been enlightening, but it does mean I was much more impressed last year when Hades was new and novel. Looking at 2019’s list, I suspect it would’ve easily been Game of the Year had I rated it then... it may be time to end my “no early access games” policy.
Here’s my controversial opening — Hades fixed roguelikes.
That’s right, you heard me. Roguelikes were broken until Hades showed up. For someone like me who’s tastes trend towards narrative enjoyment, roguelikes just typically don’t have enough of a hook. You die, you start over. There might be different endings based on the route or choices you make along the way, but none of this is often enough to keep me engaged. I enjoy them all for a time and then quickly move on.
Hades gripped me and never let go.
Zagreus, son of Hades, is immortal — like Gods do. This means when he dies, the clock doesn’t reset. He simply emerges from the Pool of Styx once more, ready to plot another escape. Everyone you meet along the way remembers your failed attempts, and might even be hanging out in the house of Hades to chat with you about it after.
Initially, I was concerned Hades couldn’t maintain this consistently, and sure enough, the unique voice lines did eventually drop off... but it took almost 40 hours before I began to hear any repeated dialogue lines. The amount of work that went into keeping everything fresh for a long period of time is unreal. To go a step further, this carries along right into the ending — or endings, I should say. Remember, one of my key frustrations with roguelikes has always been that once they’re done, they’re done. Hades manages to provide a narrative hook to encourage multiple escapes. Even wins are just part of the story continuing to unfold. Once I escaped for the first time, I felt more motivated to try again, rather than feeling as though I’d completed the game and could move on to something new.
And wouldn’t you know it, I’ve gone this whole time describing the systems and story that inform the gameplay, rather than the gameplay itself. The loop is quite simple here. Step one, pick a weapon from your arsenal. These range from a basic sword to a gun-like creation called the Adamant Rail. Step two, set foot in Tartarus. Step three, battle through an endless gamut of Hades’ minions and champions until you reach the gates to the Underworld. Along the way, you’ll gain the favor of many an Olympian God, who will augment your weapons and abilities. The interplay between the different boons and what works with each weapon is perhaps the main gameplay draw of Hades. You come up with a theory, grab a weapon, and try to hunt down those boons to put a theory to the test. When you get the dream build, everything just melts around you.
And when you don’t have a great run? It’s down the river Styx and back to the House of Hades to see who’s kicking around.
1. Final Fantasy VII: Remake
I’m going to spoil the fuck out of this entry. There’s simply no way to discuss why it is #1 on this list otherwise.
If you want to find out why for yourself, punch out now.
Let's start with this — There's absolutely no way a tried-and-true Final Fantasy VII: Remake could’ve lived up to the hype. There are few entries in the series with such a passionate, rabid fan base. In fact, I would even say Final Fantasy VII is one of the most foundational games in my own palette, and I have a tremendous reverence for this cast of eco-terrorists and their journey. There is, quite frankly, no way a perfect recreation could've lived up to childhood memory.
So it’s a good thing Final Fantasy VII: Remake didn’t try.
Final Fantasy VII: Remake takes nostalgia and wields it like a weapon. Everything happens similar to what you remember, but not quite right. And then, eventually the turn gets more serious. Cloud is dismissed from the group before the next operation. Characters aren’t in the areas you remember them being, or aren't meeting at the right times. Whenever the story deviates far from the expected norms, something unusual happens.
They show up and wreak havoc until everything falls in line the canonically correct way. Any deviation gets set right while you’re distracted battling these phantasmic friends known as Whispers. It happens again and again, and since it’s usually helpful, the heroes let it slide... until you approach the end. Everyone is aware the threads of destiny are pushing them towards a singular path, and in a most Final Fantasy fashion, decide to cut the threads that bind.
For the future of the series, this is a tremendous direction to go. It announces, rather clearly and loudly, what you expect to happen has been tossed out the window. There was a perfectly viable roadmap ahead, and Square Enix chose to nuke it from orbit to pave way for a new tale.
But, on another, more meta-level, it creates something more profound than a straight remake. Making Final Fantasy VII again is an impossible task, but what about a game about those pressures, those expectations? It’s a story that acknowledges the overwhelming popularity of Final Fantasy VII and brings it front and center, and the end result is something far more compelling than simply Final Fantasy VII, but again. There's a risk in this approach of leaning too far into sardonic derision, mocking fans for their madness and presenting a subpar representation. But Remake achieves quite the contrary — by filling out the first third of the original game into a full 50 hour experience, it gives fans far more time to enjoy the world and the people in it. Jessie, Biggs, and Wedge in particular benefit greatly from this expansion, as 3 NPCS with only a handful of speaking lines turn into full-fledged characters.
Final Fantasy VII: Remake is a fantastic glimpse into a world where instead of taking some puritanical approach to remasters, we ask instead what new angle we can take, and incorporate commentary and advancements since the original release. It’s entirely possible this gambit ends in disaster and the next segment horribly undermines all promise, but for right now, I’ll put skin in the game and say this is the most exciting title of 2020.
Sticking to the “no early access games” rule gets harder every year, and between this and Hades, it might be time to do away with it.
Phasmophobia is a game about ghost hunting, but not the Ghostbusters style of exorcising with proton packs and traps. Instead, the experience is more akin to one of those dime-a-dozen shows on daytime TV. You’ve got EMF meters, cameras, voice recorders, Oujia boards, all that good stuff. Your crew of 2-4 players picks a house (or more recently, an asylum or school) and gets ghost hunting.
The goal is to identify what type of haunting resides in the location and collect any evidence possible. All the fun and spooks to be had are in the process of said evidence collection. Phasmophobia requires the use of a microphone to communicate with the spirit from beyond, and depending on the type of spirit, it can respond in a variety of ways. One such way is to manifest in the shadows and snap your neck, so watch out for that.
Of all games to hit Early Access this year, I’m most excited to see where Phasmophobia goes. Support for it has been consistent and active, so there could be some great things on the horizon for it.
Wave Break is like someone looked inside my brain and made a game out of what happens in there.
Wave Break is a Neon 80’s synthwave dream brought to life, featuring gun-toting animals and large bodies of water. Wave Break draws some obvious inspiration from Tony Hawk Pro Skater, plus some slight early Grand Theft Auto influences. You’re gonna be doing lots of fancy boat tricks in swimming pools, mine shafts, and arctic oil rigs, all while occasionally gunning people down from the comfort of your nautical craft.
The controls aren’t quite as tight as Tony Hawk Pro Skater, but everything you would expect to do there, you can do here. Grinds, jumps, manuals, special moves — all systems present and accounted for. The game even adopts the two-minute timer formula, and leaves it up to you to decide which objectives to knock out in each run.
There’s plenty of multiplayer options here as well. Turf War is akin to Tony Hawk’s popular graffiti mode, where in order to steal a piece of land you’ll have to land a big point combo. What Wave Break offers Tony Hawk does not is a mode where you can gun down your friends while they attempt to land tricks. What can you do?
While it didn’t crack the top ten, Wave Break left a strong impression worthy of recognition.
Shantae And the Seven Sirens
As someone who played and enjoyed all the Shantae games, it’s upsetting to cut this one from the list. Every Shante release since T@P’s founding has placed until now.
Shantae and the Seven Sirens ticks many boxes for a Shantae game. Bright vibrant colors, yes. Great animation, yes. A progression of unlockable abilities and transformations, yes. Snarky wit? Yes, in excess.
Where Seven Sirens fell flat was in none of these areas; Instead, all my frustrations fall squarely on the level design itself. Where previous Shantae entries run you through a number of different environments and challenges, this one instead sends you back to the same dungeon repeatedly. Your new transformations open up paths, but it’s still the self-same dungeon you’ve seen all game, with similar foes and chambers. There’s no true sense of progression, few new enemies to see, and you’ll have to traverse the same corridors repeatedly.
It’s reminiscent of a Metroidvania, like Symphony of the Night or more recently Bloodstained, but in those games you often move from one environment to the next. The fact everything feels quite samey from start to finish here is unfortunate.
This is not a bad game in the grand scheme of things, but as a Shantae game, it falls quite short — especially as a follow up to ½ Genie Hero.
Sidenote — technically this came out on iOS in late 2019 and consoles in 2020, but I wanted to gripe anyway.
There’s just so much game here. And it just came out. There’s no way I could possibly pass judgement yet, not without sacrificing an authentic experience. Or sleep.
Tell Me Why
Now here’s a game I could never get into the right headspace for. I just knew there was no way I walk away from this feeling refreshed and invigorated, ready to tackle the rest of the year, and thus couldn't summon up the emotional courage. I’ve a great affection for all of DONTNOD’s work, and it hurts to end 2020 leaving this one on the table.
Persona 5: Royal
Only thing surprising here is it didn’t make the full list — it is a remaster of our 2017 Game of the Year, after all.
Persona 5: Royal is a fantastic update to a fantastic game. But despite the new content and multitude of quality of life changes, the overall plot hits the same beats. The end result is a game I will highly recommend to anyone who’s not yet played Persona 5, but as for me, I’m having trouble powering through a story I already know to see the new additions. I know substantial changes awaits me at certain junctures, but that’s still about 50-70 hours of gameplay I've already seen. Tough to muster up the motivation among a sea of other new stories out there.