Games of the Year 2020

Ahh, another year gone by.

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It’s that time again, for me to write up my favorite games in a somewhat unstructured article. I did not play very many different games this year, but I did find a few gems that I really enjoyed a lot. These are presented in chronological order, not in ranking.

AI: The Somnium Files

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This is a game that really surprised me. I’ve heard a lot of good things about the other games by this writer, Kotaro Uchikoshi, but I’ve never touched them myself. Specifically the Nonary Games series, an adventure game series that started on the Nintendo DS. They apparently have a very twisty plot and a lot of interesting characters, but also a tendency to fall into overly elaborate explanations of philosophical concepts or random, obscure trivia.

AI feels like a more mature, complete version of that style of game, I think. The characters are charming, and there are some tangents about obscure topics, but for the most part it is very tight and well-constructed. It makes use of the branching story found in many visual novels to dive deep into different characters, rather than giving you a bunch of bad endings or what-if scenarios. Heck, in many of them, the protagonist, Date, seemingly forgets about the crime he’s supposed to be solving and heads down some other mysterious rabbit hole.

The characters are the real draw here. They are all very well-realized, but don’t shy away from being somewhat prickly, or having off-putting traits, which is very refreshing in a game like this. Too often story-focused games fall into a kind of twee, cozy tone where every character’s rough edges are sanded down once they become part of the core group. In this game, the characters really feel more fully human and well-rounded.

The gameplay is interesting, but not exactly challenging. It involves traversing the subconscious of different characters as Aiba, the AI that lives inside of Date’s cybernetic eyeball. They offer some very interesting stylistic touches, as well some fun little puzzles to solve. But there isn’t a strict separation of the character-building, visual novel-y parts and these segments, they all kind of blend together into a coherent experience.

It is one of those rare story-focused games that is completely satisfying. There are no lingering plot threads, there is no unrealized potential, it’s all right there in a nice little package. If there were a sequel, it would have to be a completely different kind of game or have some new situation, because this one is all wrapped up.

Hades

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I know that Hades didn’t actually fully come out until August, but I played most of it earlier in the year, in early access on steam. It’s an absolutely amazing game, so lushly designed with tight, satisfying gameplay, but I hardly need to spend time talking about that.

The internet has been abuzz with Hades the past couple months. Fan art of the characters, analysis of its structure, praise for it up and down. It’s been a bit odd for me, because I played it so much earlier, it feels like other people are coming late to something I’m already kind of finished with. I’ve been playing it again lately, but it doesn’t have the same spark of discovery that you get in a new game.

Hades is an important example in the business and art of making video games, I think. Every aspect of it is so finely tuned, every i has been dotted and every t crossed, in a way that very few games are. And how did it come out that? By running a large public beta for a couple of years, and banning crunch.

Game directors want to be auteurs, or they want to make money, but neither approach is actually very useful when creating a good video game, at the end of the day. The team behind Hades look out for each other’s wellbeing, and work to make every part of the game collaborative. If you keep everyone healthy and engaged, you end up with a masterpiece every time.

It reminds me of a possibly apocryphal anecdote about the Metal Gear Solid series: Every member of the team was allowed to propose an easter egg. A fun little extra detail to be added to the game. Thus, the games end up having a great sense of character and fun, even as they are grim spy fiction stories of giant nuclear-armed robots. Even as Kojima is praised as this great auteur, his team is the real engine driving the success of Metal Gear, and then Death Stranding.

I don’t need to waste digital ink praising Hades, but I wanted to make note of how its production exposes the toxicity of the culture surrounding game development. People are killing themselves making these games, and that doesn’t even lead to quality work. Just think: if construction workers were putting in 80 hours, walking around the site like zombies, you’d end up with a shitty building that took twice as long to make because everyone is exhausted.

Industries that work primarily in digital media are more prone to overwork because they are less visible to the general public, and also because the perception of this kind of work is that it is not very physically demanding. But: work is work. It can be just as mentally and physically exhausting as anything else! Crunch is cruelty with no purpose.

Trials of Mana

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This is a game I had been looking forward to from the moment it was announced, though with… cautious optimism. Seiken Densetsu 3, now known as Trials of Mana in English, is a big favorite mine going back many years. I played an untranslated ROM back in the early ’00s, making it pretty far for a game I could not understand a lick of.

It is a sequel to the SNES classic Secret of Mana, which I owned and played as a child. The thing is, SD3 had much better actual gameplay than SoM. The combat was faster and more engaging, and it had a much better graphical style. It was the secret, better sequel that we never got, an injustice that has finally been fully mended. A full translation of the original Trials of Mana was released last year as part of the Collection of Mana for the switch, and I played through that then and found it… okay.

You see, the original game was still, well, and SNES game (or a Super Famicom game, really). It had some limitations that were keenly felt, as it was a very late game for the system, and thus was running up against the technical limits. It is one of the few games of that era to have noticeable loading times, every time you opened up the pause menu to change equipment. The entire game had to pause for several seconds whenever you used a special or magical attack.

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So, what of the remake? Well, it’s perfect. In that it is a perfection of the design of the original game, with additional features that enhance its specific appeal even further. This is a game that really needs to be played in context, as a remake of an older game, rather than a brand new one.

What I mean is: It is an extremely charming game if you take it in that context, but may come across as very limited or strangely flat if you don’t. This is a game with a very simple, fairy tale-tinged story, like many early JRPGs, where NPCs are just spouting random nonsense most of the time. I enjoy it, in many ways, for the opposite reasons that I enjoyed AI. Not to say that there aren’t fun characters, I enjoy almost all of the main cast (Carlie…), but it’s not exactly aiming to be the next Disco Elysium, if you catch my drift.

The combat is fantastic, and really captures the kind of punchy feeling of the original. It’s not difficult, but it is engaging, and has some surprisingly tough fights in the latter half. The new systems around spending points on stats to earn different abilities is great, maybe the best form of that kind of point-spending system I’ve ever seen. Again, it’s not aiming for a high level of complexity, but it does give you options with how you want to engage with it that are fun to play around with.

For me, this is the perfect encapsulation of what I look for in a good video game. That may be a bit hyperbolic, but it’s this: it’s not about overcoming some sort of extreme challenge or polishing my skills to a mirror sheen, it’s about experiencing a fun world and playing around with the elements within it.

I can’t explain it perfectly, but I played through this entire game three times in a row with different combinations of characters, so I sure do like it a lot. It came around the same time as the Final Fantasy VII Remake, so it was a bit overshadowed, but I think it’s definitely worth checking out.

Record of Lodoss War -Deedlit in Wonder Labyrinth-

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I love a good metroidvania. I’ve written about a couple of ’em before, both of them throwbacks in different ways, trying to recapture the magic of Castlevania: Symphony of the Night. This one is taking yet another approach, and one no less successful.

Featuring gorgeous pixel art in a classical style, Deedlit in Wonder Labyrinth is a wonderful little game that is sadly still in development. I played through the entire game over the summer, but that turned out to only be about 3 hours of content. Nonetheless, it was such a positive experience that it still stands out to me from the COVID haze that was the year 2020.

The game is operating very much in the mold of SotN: There is equipment and RPG mechanics, but they are also limited and specialized to the character you are controlling. Rather than creating a sort of generic protagonist for you to mold to your will, which is often the case with RPGs, it deals in specifics, which the best metroidvanias do.

This developer’s previous game, Touhou Luna Nights, featured similarly incredible graphics, and a wonderful gimmick. But, I could never really get into it because it was simply too difficult. It was more on the Metroid end of the metroidvania sub-genre, asking for precision play using tricky mechanics, and very challenging bosses, per Touhou tradition.

Deedlit isn’t exactly a cake walk, but the level of difficulty is mitigated by the ability to grind, and to take advantage of elemental weaknesses. It’s at a happy medium between the punishing challenge-based gameplay of something like Hollow Knight and the free-wheeling fun of Bloodstained or the DS IGAvanias.

Which is to say that this game is well-designed in addition to having a beautiful visual style. Often indie games are either one or the other: You get lots of games that are brilliantly designed but ugly as sin, or games that are beautiful but a horrible experience to actually play. This is both! Check it out!

Final Fantasy XIV Online

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Five years ago, I got into FFXIV. I was in a bad place, and I needed something to sink a lot of time into. I had seem some screenshots of some of the raid bosses that looked like Yoshitaka Amano concept art, and that sold me hard on this game.

I had a good time, played through the release of the first expansion, Heavensward, and then dropped it as the endgame grind turned uninteresting. I’ve kind of kept an eye on the game ever since, looking for another opportunity to jump back in, and also dreading the day when I would do so.

I fear becoming addicted to a game, in a proper sense. I get into games and play them a lot, but I also fall out of love with them easily. I’ll play a game for a hundred hours over the course of a month, and then drop it cold and never look back. In the past, this has happened with many an MMORPG, and FFXIV was no different, but there was something compelling about the game that kind of freaked me out.

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But, honestly, I think I have a weirdly healthy relationship with games, including this one. I can pick ’em up or put ’em down. I spotted the perfect time to get back in, which was specifically the release of patch 5.3. The big feature of this patch was fixing up the base game, the experience of the first 50 levels, so it wouldn’t be such a slog. They increased the amount of experience you get, and trimmed a good 20 quests from the A Realm Reborn storyline, and another 20 from the first patch cycle.

Let me say: This is the best MMO on the market. I’ve played a lot of them, and this one unquestionably comes out on top. It has a great plot with actual characters in it, it has fantastic content, and a good community, which is as rare as hen’s teeth in games like this. Many’s the time I’ve had a pleasant chat with random strangers I have been matched with in a duty roulette.

This game found me again at a hard time in my life. Out of work and school for the summer, burnt out on my new discipline of web design, I fell into it like an old mattress and lost a couple of months. Those months refreshed me, and allowed me to continue to thrive, and survive the pandemic. Joining a free company and getting some good socialization was critical for coming out of a depressive spiral over the summer.

FFXIV is a massive time investment, but it’s worth it. You can play casually or pour as much time into as you need to fill for yourself. I’ll probably put it down soon, and then pick it up again with the next big patch. It’s a good game to have as a sub-hobby within games, like dropping into an old roguelike you enjoy, or Diablo 3. I’m glad I rediscovered it this year.

Yakuza: Like a Dragon

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The Yakuza games have always been RPGs masquerading as brawlers, this is just the developers finally being honest about it, and it rules.

It probably helps that I also love the Dragon Quest series, which this game cribs from heavily, but I found the transition of gameplay styles to be extremely smooth. These games already had lots of random battles and boss fights and equipment and basically a class system in 0 and the Kiwamis.

If anything, this shift gets the series away from an outdated game format and into something that fits what they were already doing. The combat in old Yakuza games could be fun, but it was never very deep or particularly engaging. The goal was always to get some broken moves and just do them over and over, and carry enough energy drinks to keep yourself healed up at all times. By slowing things down and limiting the potential chaos of the battle system, they allow for actual interesting decisions.

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Although, like a JRPG, these mostly end up coming in boss fights. The random fights in the street mostly come down to figuring out the most efficient way to win, rather than a death struggle, which is pretty standard.

If I have a criticism of the game, it’s that they are still clinging to some old habits that don’t work as well with the new format. Specifically, they don’t use dungeons enough, but default to kind of pseudo-dungeons that are just a series of fights with some story scenes in between. Clinging to the old paradigm in the face of this new revolution for the series. I hope in the sequels they will shift to more of a JRPG mode, or figure out a way to make this melding of gameplay styles work more effectively.


And… that’s about it! There are other games I played this year, like Spelunky 2 and Control, but I don’t feel like I put enough time into them to really make a solid judgement one way or the other. A large portion of my gaming time was taken up by FFXIV, for obvious reasons.

As I get older, I find myself looking for comfort food in games, rather than some sort of fresh challenge. I want something I can engage with while listening to podcasts, as a break from work, rather than something to sit down and concentrate on exclusively. Thus, there is a very narrow window of what I’m interested in, but those games are ones I end up putting a lot of time into.

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Until next year…!

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