While a certain pandemic surely played havoc on the some games' release schedule, the game industry was by and large unaffected by the Coronavirus. If fact, the industry boomed with some massive releases selling very well. The breadth of choice was such that I haven't played some of the years biggest hits - Ghosts of Tsushima and The Last of Us II will have to wait for another year while Animal Crossing was never really my thing to begin with. All three are undoubdedly worthy of any Top 10 list, some even in mine, but I'm sticking to the ones I've played. And if you want to know what those are, check out my rundown after the jump...
Despite a plethora of excellent games, for me, the year was eclipsed by a game that wasn't even entirely digital - Dungeons & Dragons. I took up the game DM'ing with a group of friends in 2019, playing the starter set's Lost Mine of Phandelver but with the necessary switch to online sessions and the start of a full-scale campaign it quickly became one of my favourite things to do.
The second most played game would also require some friends getting together online - Jackbox Party Pack. The seventh in the series released this year, but almost every week we managed to flip between the series each week, playing whatever took our fancy at the time. It was a great way to keep in touch when we couldn't physically get together and more often than not, we had a whale of a time.
Another social endeavour has been Tabletop Simulator. A good friend of mine is in the middle of creating his own board game and has been using Tabletop Simulator to test and fine tune it. Called Hall of Sentient Mirrors, you can check out the progress he's making on the road to Kickstarter on his Facebook page (which I've been constantly promoting on the sidebars to the right). It's a heavily themed tactical board game of three parts, with deep combat, tile-based exploration and a neat memory mechanic to verballly cast spells. The digital version used for testing is great - and you can try it out on Tabletop Simulator here - but I can't wait to try the physical game.
In the Triple-A space, the year was dogged with controversy. UbiSoft had an under-reported rape problem, while CD Project RED had an over-reported glitch problem. Still, add Naughty Dog to the list and all three share a crunch culture problem that the industry as a whole needs to solve. As someone who has a lot of nerdy time-consuming hobbies (can you tell?), I'm a firm believer in a healthy work / life ethic and crunch culture doesn't sit well with that. At all. Unless it is addressed, I can see that the extra-increasing complexity of game development will reach a point where the best talent will jump ship to smaller fare - as evidenced by the success of Hades in both the final product and the anti-crunch ethics Supergiant placed behind the scenes too.
Despite that last little bit of praise, I should explain why Hades isn't on my best-of list - like many others, I didn't play it. The promise of a randomised rogue-like structure put me off. It's a design ethos that I can never get to grips with as I prefer exploring a defined and curated world where area, object and enemy placement have all been carefully thought out. In a procedurally generated level, the three don't always mesh together, despite an algorithm's best intentions, so despite the overall quality and improvements in AI and programming over the years, I tend to skip them. The hype the game has recently been getting has piqued my interest, though.
Anyway, let's move beyond this and begin my own, personal Top 10 games of 2020, starting with...
Beneath a Steel Sky was one of the top-tier point-and-click adventures from the mid 90s that cemented my love for the genre. Developed by Revolution Software, it was overlooked somewhat by the success of Broken Sword. It gives me great joy that a very belated sequal came into fruition in July.
Beyond a Steel Sky is not perfect, though. The graphics and presentation hail from the tired TellTale school of game design giving it a lack of polish that would otherwise place it higher on this list. It has some pacing issues and more than its fair share of bugs when it was first released. I suspect this all harks back to it having the mobile market in the forefront of its mind, releasing first on Apple and Android devices before finding its true home on PCand Mac. As such, the computer versions are little more than ports and you can see where certain areas were cut in order to accomodate the touch screen.
That being said, the game itself could have been a lot worse. It could've been a massive disappointment pushing it far off this list, but in the end the story, characters and scope of its design make up for its shortcomings.
The story begins a little slow, despite the urgency of a kidnapped child. You again play as Robert Foster as he wanders the wasteland known as the Gap and this child abduction sets the story in motion. Except you first have to trundle a desert for days on end before stumbling upon the most annoying of roadblocks on your way to Union City - red tape. This grinds the opening to a halt, but the convoluted puzzles required to proceed prove to any player that this is without a doubt a true adventure game. And in this regard, Beyond a Steel Sky absolutely succeeds.
Over the years, as my free time gets eaten up by a variety of different projects, creative games have been set to the wayside. I could easily spent an entire day crafting a single bespoke building in Planet Coaster, fine tune enemy placement in Mario Maker or tinker with tinkles in Music Creation for the PlayStation (remember that?!). I do try to limit myself with such games but I couldn't help myself with Dreams, Media Molecule's inventive game creation system that trumps anything Little Big Planet could do.
In all honesty, anything I make is absolute shite compared to the user-created content, which spills with inventiveness. Often short, janky experiences they reminded me a lot of Double Fine's Amnesia Fortnight prototypes or the burst of creativity that comes out of Game Jam. I spent hours just trying out random projects.
If there's anything negative to say, it's in the out-of-the-box single player content created by the designers using the very same tools you'll be using. Arts Dream is an abstract series of playstyles with a meta-philosophical storyline that's truly memorable. It's also incredibly short and easy, a departure from Little Big Planet's lengthy and challenging campaign. That being said, this isn't the draw. It's the game creation tools that are simply set up and hard to master, but with some extensive and highly entertaining tutorials, this is a must for any budding game designer out there.
Unlike in the States, this side story cost us full price in the UK, and the 'new normal' full price at that. It had an RRP of £59.99 (just over $80 US), with most online outlets selling it for £51.99 (around $70). When you think that the US sells it for $50 (£36.90) then you know we were ripped off this side of the pond. By comparison, the big budget games over the previous Christmas period averaged at around £44.99 ($60) and the similarly produced stand alone addon that was Uncharted: Lost Legacy cost a more reasonable £24.99 ($33.86).
I caved with Spider-Man: Miles Morales when the price dropped to £47.99 - still the cheapest I've seen it - and I feel a little dirty about. That's way too much for what is ultimately an addon that re-uses most of the the same assets, mechanics and level structure of a fully-featured game. Hell, I'd argue that's too much for a fully-featured game too but we all know inflation and greedy corporations are a bitch.
What's worse is that I really enjoyed it too. The snowy skin of New York gave me a warm Christmassy feeling that was really needed this year, and the overall structure of the game is still incredibly enjoyable. I played it on the PS4 which I plan to keep as my go-to gaming console for the forseeable future so it wasn't the best way to play it - I did encounter a fair few graphical glitches which surprised me quite a bit - but it's still a great accompanyment to the full game from 2018. Just don't spend more than it's worth on it.
As you may or may not know, I love horror. I also love games with a heavy focus on story, so Supermassive Games' new horror franchise ticks all of the boxes for me. Last year, The Man of Medan set on a ghost ship breached my Top 10 and this year a jaunt through a town haunted by witches makes the cut.
In fact, I might actually prefer this most recent Dark Picture. It tells a more emotional and allegorical story as a group of college students and their professor make a fateful diversion through a small town known as Little Hope. Their bus crashes and they soon find themselves trapped in the ghost town by an ever imposing mist.
The goal, it there is such a thing, is to keep everyone alive. This was true to The Man of Medan and their pre-anthology classic Until Dawn, but each death appears to have more meaning here. That was one of my biggest complaints about last years effort - death seemed random and dismissive. Here there is a point, even if you won't understand it completely until the end, and what an ending it is. I have only completed it once, but I suspect there won't be much of a variation depending on who's alive and what's accomplished during yout playthrough, but if that's the case, I'm OK with that.
I got a bit VR crazy when I first bought my PlayStation VR last year, buying a number of new short experiences and old long ones. I found myself going back to the bite-sized games such as Beat Saber and Pinball FX quite a bit, leaving the lengthier likes of Skyrim or Doom barely touched. While not a massive RPG by any means, Room VR: A Dark Matter is one of the meatier titles to grip me.
The previous entries found on mobile devices saw you solving a number intricate puzzle boxes like a cultist summoning forth Pinhead and friends. The environments were a little more abstract with a lot of blank space, so the rooms in Room VR had to be a bit more tangible. And they are.
There are four main locations - a 19th century police station, a museum's warehouse, a gothic church and a witch's cottage - and each one inspires its own sense of wonder. You explore them by jumpin to select nodes, picking up and manipulating contraptions using the PlayStation Move wands (though a controller option is available). It's a little easier than other games in the series but the immersive experience is one that make VR absolutely worth it.
I know there was a lot of backlash towards Resident Evil 3 and some of them are warranted. It is a little too short and the big bad Nemesis is a little predictable and scripted compared to Mr.X and the previous game. Then again, the third Resi game always felt like something of a black sheep. For me at least, that makes it no less enjoyable.
Unlike the previous two or Code Veronica, I haven't returned to it since it first came out back in 1999 and I really enjoyed coming back to it, surprised by how many scenes and locations I could recognise from 20-year-old 32-bit memories.
Ultimately, the main gripes the gaming community had didn't bother me that much. The short length was still fulfilling, with little fluff in there. And when a scripted scene is played for plot, I sometimes appreciate that over fallibly programmed AI. A great game. Not played the multiplayer though.
I was sure this was going to be my number one game of the year. The tumultuous release put a pin in that, but there's no denying there's a stunning experience behind all of the annoying bugs and glitches. I've played it for about 3 hours on the PlayStation 4, but I will dilligently wait for more patches until I enevitably pick it up again.
That being said, the glitches haven't entirely ruined the game for me. I got one crash before the first update and a couple of floating pedestrians after that, but no worse. During actual missions in tower blocks or night clubs, I began to wonder how others managed to break it badly enough to garner millions of YouTube hits. The PS4 was supposed to be the worst version after all, but then again I'm only three hours in and I'm cautious to play more.
Criticism was very much warranted over its release, a delayed game is eventually good, but a rushed game is bad forever. After the year we've all had, gamers would've understood (I hope). A year from now, it might rise up on my list but as of now, I feel the 4th spot is deserved.
If Cyberpunk 2077 wasn't the cyperpunk game we deserved, then VirtuaVerse should more than fit the bill. An indie point-and-click adventure that ticks all of the boxes for any fan of the genre. The pixelated art style has been created to evoke the look and feel of a Commodore 64 or a DOS PC with EGA graphics - except ramped up to the nines. It's what you saw in your mind's eye while still keeping that neon retro-futurist asthetic that's oh-so 80s.
In a distopian future, you wake up in your apartment to find your girlfriend gone. Nathan, for that is your name, then decides to go hunt for her, but not before accidentally stepping on your AVR headset, breaking it. This device is a major aspect of this futuristic cityscape. Everyone has one, and most have one implanted in their brains making our boy Nathan a bit of an anomaly. Essentially this does everything a phone can do and more, including governmental control.
Being from a small developer, there is no voice work, which I feel would be an improvement. The script - translated from its original Italian and German - is very well written and on the casual side so you can almost hear what such a feature would sound like. The folks at Theta Division Games - which consists of just three core people from what I can tell - have an eye for quality and I look forward to what they do next.
The more I think about the Final Fantasy VII Remake, the more I feel it is a work of genius. The original was the first JRPG I played, after pouring over the likes of Final Fantasy VI and Chrono Trigger in the SNES magazines only for them to never get released. I've replayed it many times, so I was a little anxious to play it. Square-Enix have missed the mark a little in their last few entires, but they've updated everything from the all-time-classic without trashing it.
The combat is smooth and frenetic, offering the tactical choices of turn-based combat with the visceral thrill of real-time action. The characters sound and behave as you would imagine and the areas - while they strangely feel a little smaller in scope - are eminently explorable and feel suitably lived-in.
My most contentious aspect was the changes to the story. The dementor-like whispers add a meta element, showng up in numbers whenever a major departure in the story occurs. In this respect, the remake isn't actually a remake, but an altered re-telling from another timeline. I'm still a little concerned as to how future parts will incorporate this. It threatens an almost Kingdom Hearts level of convolution but in this instalment it never crosses that line. I wait in baited breath of what's to come.
No matter how you slice it, it's been a strange year. So, I'm going to throw out all of the rules and choose a stange game for my number one pick. It's not a video game. It wasn't even released in 2020 - at least the module I'm playing. That doesn't stop Dungeons and Dragons from being the most played and enjoyable game I've encountered this year.
I began playing the Starter Set with a small group of friends in 2019, and I was chosen to be the Dungeon Master. It took us until March to complete the included Lost Mines of Phandelver so not long after that a meatier campaign was chosen - Storm King's Thunder. Naturally I dived head first in developing the campaign, my knowledge and my improv skills and enjoyed every moment in Faerun. What was more enjoyable was seeing my friends once a week over Zoom and Roll 20 which kinda kept me sane in an insane year.
So far, we've had an Eladrin Rogue fail to assassinate the newly appointed Lady of a fortified town, encountered a generous cloud giant who acts like an excited 8-year-old, a Tiefling Bard slaughtered a tavern full of drunkards and a Rock Gnome Wizard sneakily used magic to alter the outcome of a bare-knuckle boxing match. And none of that is found in the book! Can't wait to see what's in store for this motley group of adventurers.
Another great indie point-and-click adventure, this time centring around a modern gothic story of vampires and creatures that go bump in the night. It's gory as all heck and not at all suitable for children, but I found the art style and control mechanics was a little too hit and miss for me to place it in my Top 10. The hand-drawn art looks beautiful, but the occasionally janky animation removes any tension the great story is going for. It also behaves as if it was designed for a smartphone, with only the large and obvious hit points interactable. This knocks a few points off it in my book, but it's otherwise well worth your time.
The unmistakeable Amanita Design aesthetics are in full force with Creaks. This time the Machinarium developers created a puzzle platformer. Our hero descends into an underground cavern, landing on the roof of a giant, delapidated, skyscraper of a building. This maze of ladders, floorboards and - I would assume - termites is home to a number of fantastical creatures that turn into inanimate objects under the glow of a lightbulb. Though entertaining, the trial-and-error obstacles do grow thin on occasion, but keep with it and a new puzzle type gets introduced to shake things up a bit. A great time, but still not sure what it's all supposed to mean.
More of the same First-Person Shooter-ing as the 2016 reboot. Just like the first one, I should've known I'd be rubbish at it before I bought it, but I just couldn't resist. I didn't get very far before I rage-quit, but I'm still glad it's in my PS4 collection. I can tell it's a quality game.
The closest to an out-and-out bad game that I came with one of those Humble Bundles. The concept is pretty grand; No Man's Sky meets a sci-fi Dungeon Keeper but with less procedural generation and a space station instead of a torture chamber. It's a neat concept, and it's always fun to slap on a new module to the ship and explore it. They each have their own uses, too, affecting your time on a planet's surface where you gather resources to build more or defend yourself from alien aggressors.Sadly, it's ultimately a little undercooked. The small developers at Radiation Blue couldn't build a truly cohesive game out of it, and it didn't sell well enough or have the financial backing for the developers to keep at it like Hello Games. At least it's ambitious.
That same bundle also had Golf with Your Friends. Being a mini-golf game, you can't expect a triple-A development budget, but the overall package is a lot of fun. The themed worlds contain all of the holes on a single map, each one occasionally interacting with the others. Some are better than others, with a few uninspired holes letting it down a little, but I had a lot of fun with this one.
Speaking of fun, the Jackbox games sure brought a lot of it during lockdown. It was a bit of a mission to set up with internet play. We used a combination of Zoom, Skype and the Internet in the end so we could see each other while we played. That's three deviced for some groups! Other than the classic third iteration of Quiplash, our go-to game in this latest Party Pack was Champ'd Up. Here, you draw something from a desciption and then you draw another based on someone else's picture without seeing the original text. The two then go head-to-dead to see which one best fits and everyone else vote on it. Naturally, the most phallic image would win regardless.
The one-man team of Jean-Baptiste de Clerfayt created this Monty Python inspired point-and-click adventure. You play as Lancelot, the sexiest of knights, who has been ordained by God to find the Holy Grail, fill it with booze and have a merry old piss up. The biggest party England's ever known no less. The visual style takes inspiration from medieval art, animated like a Terry Gilliam short from the Flying Circus. It's filled with nudity and vulgarity and is insanely funny as a result. If you've not heard of this one, go check it out.
Nintendo spent as much effort on Mario's 35th Anniversary collection as they did for his 25th. Although slapping a Super Nintendo ROM on a Wii disc ten years ago was probably worse, but at least they weren't charging £50 for it. I got suckered in by their unscrupulous sales tactic of it only being available for a limited time. I don't wholly regret it - Super Mario 64, Sunshine and Galaxy are almost perfect games after all - but it's not worth it for the money. Stick to emulated versions on PC. They've been running these games better for years.
An excellent first-person platformer that sees you transformed into a tiny bug. Based on the Franz Kafka novella, it diverts the dream-like narrative from a man named Gregor and his unloving family to a man named Gregor and his jaunt at his friend Josef's house. The platforming over books and spoons is smooth enough to escape the curse of such a game with such a viewpoint, but it does feel a little precarious on narrow pathways such as pencils and wires. It's a bit of a whimsical hidden gem that comes highly recommended.
A free upgrade from my original GOG purchase, the upgraded remake does little beyond the basic quality of life improvements. However, this is not a gaming mainstay like Mario that deserves better, this is Neighbours From Hell. The humorous puzzle game about pranking a gruff neighbour and his family for a television show is still a lot of fun. Except now the art is crisper and you can play in widescreen. Yay!
Another tough-as-nails action game I deluded myself into buying. Believe it or not, there was a time when I had the time and patience to learn the ins and outs of such a game and complete it. I did so with Ninja Gaiden on the XBox and the original Demon Souls on my trusty PS3, but the thought of constantly replaying parts of a game to learn patterns and get good doesn't enamour me so much any more. Much like the Souls games, Nioh requires this style of play and is in full force from the outset with little motive to keep at it. At least for me. This is a calculated design feature that caters to a significant number of gamers, but the older I get the more it feels like work. If you're into such things, you're gonna really love it. I just have to remind myself of this when an enticing Nioh 3 comes around.
The last twelve months have been remake and re-release heavy continuing te welcome trend of previous years. We are now seeing some of the lesser-known gems getting the treatment from the Mafia series to SpongeBob SquarePants' surprisingly good outing. But in my view Panzer Dragoon Remake is one of the better ones. This series was the reason why I picked up a Saturn on the cheap in the early 2000s. To this day, they're the only reason I dust the system off on occasion. The updated graphics and framerate do onders to what was already a graphical showcase of the time, and the gameplay still holds up. Definitely one to pick up no matter what system your have.
Pumpkin Jack was a major surprise. It looked like another one of those lower-budget cash grabs banking on nostalgia for Sony's MediEvil. To be fair, it kinda is that, but this is no mere cash grab. The controls are tight, the graphics suitably cartooney and the level and enemy design is a lot of fun. Had this had been a third MediEvil game, I don't think many would have complained. Great fun.
If you have ever played a Shantae game, you know that they of an incredible high quality. I picked this up digitally on my Switch and enjoyed every minute of it. It is very difficult at times, but for some reason this series keeps me coming back to it. If you fancy a bright and cheery 2D metroidvania, then this is it.
I'm sure there are many other future classics I missed in this crazy year, so don't blame me if your fave was missed. That's what the comments are for! Before we get back to the forgotten retro games there's my Top 10 Movies of 2020, so stay tuned for that. Until then, goodbye!