Best of 2020: Top 15 Games

Ah, 2020 – you came, you saw, you reduced us all to the last shreds of our sanity. But my word; you sure gave us some incredible videogames to fill the time.

This past year brought the interactive goods like it was 2017 all over again: the genuine power behind Dreams’ boundless player expression; the frenetic flow of Doom Eternal; the absolute ton of new content in Persona 5 Royal; the revolutionary VR jaw-dropper Half Life Alyx; the shiny systems sandbox of Watch Dogs Legion; the viral push of Valorant; the unreal ambition of Microsoft Flight Simulator‘s return; the grand scale of Immortals: Fenyx Rising; the unlikely success of long-awaited sequels Crash Bandicoot 4: It’s About Time, Spelunky 2 and Streets of Rage 4.

We had gorgeous remakes like Resident Evil 3, Demons’ Souls and Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 1+2. We had acclaimed games with laser-targeted niches and actual budgets, like Wasteland 3, Star Wars Squadrons and Nioh 2. We had strategic gems like XCOM Chimera Squad, Gears Tactics and Othercide; amazingly fresh indies like Spiritfarer, Carto, Paradise Killer, The Pathless, Bright Memory and Sakuna: Of Rice and Ruin; hugely successful spin-offs like Minecraft Dungeons and Hyrule Warriors: Age of Calamity. And of course, we had the one and only Cyberpunk 2077.

That’s just the stuff that didn’t make my list.

To qualify a game for this top fifteen I need to have played it for more than five hours and/or finished it, unless it’s multiplayer-focused. That disqualifies a lot of good stuff that I was enjoying but stopped playing early due to interruptions, such as plenty of the games I just mentioned but particularly Ikenfell and Sakura Wars. I also cannot use a 2020 re-release of an old game on a new platform unless I didn’t play the original release at all – This last point means some of the best games released this year (A Short Hike, Pikmin 3 Deluxe, Dragon Quest XI S – all of which you should definitely play) cannot count.

Without further ado, these are my fifteen favourite videogames from 2020. Parentheses indicate where I played each game.

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VR BEST OF 2020 DISCLAIMER

This list represents my opinion only. I am not asserting any kind of superiority or self-importance by presenting it as I have. My opinion is not fact. To agree with me 100% is an utterly bizarre coincidence. Respectful disagreement is most welcome.

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15. Animal Crossing: New Horizons (NS)

2020’s Animal Crossing: New Horizons really could have gone anywhere on this list; anyone who got involved in that initial two-month wave of communal playing could tell you that as long as it’s got new content to offer, this is less a game and more a daily life activity on roughly the same level of necessity as brushing your teeth. As a result some people will have this in their number one spot while others may forget to even think about it in the GOTY conversation – and so using it as an introduction of sorts to this list just feels right.

I’ve been playing the Animal Crossing games for almost two decades, so I’ve seen plenty of games in the series get away without adding much shiny new content. Though it’d be easy to see New Horizons as simply another addition to that legacy when looking at the right screenshots, the genius of this one is that it takes the opening moments of most Animal Crossing titles and essentially makes them the endgame of this one. You build up day-by-day from a desolate island with a mere campsite to a bustling remote town with a host of diverse facilities – all with the help of a clever new crafting system – and then eventually you get to terraform the island itself. The secret of Animal Crossing has always been about self-expression, but New Horizons takes the concept through the stratosphere.

14. Genshin Impact (PS4/Mob)

This is a weird one, because I played Genshin Impact for eight hours on its PS4 launch day (my laptop was being repaired at the time), then checked in daily over a couple of weeks for no more than the login bonuses, tried the mightily-impressive (sadly cross-save-incompatible) mobile version for an hour or so, then never went back to it. But I just can’t not have it on the main list; this game may be a confusing pitch blending the gacha mechanics of standard free-to-play mobile RPGs with a distinctly skin-deep Breath of the Wild approach to environment design, but in its moment-to-moment gameplay it is something else entirely. It plays more like an action RPG with on-the-fly elemental mixing mechanics that – bizarrely enough – remind me of Starlink: Battle for Atlas. Its cast of characters bring vastly different playstyles to the table and slot into the story interchangeably without consequence – or emotional investment. Genshin Impact somehow feels like both the shallowest and deepest game I played in 2020, and I’m still trying to reconcile that in my head.

13. Carrion (XBO)

What if you got to play as the malleable radioactive abomination of biomatter from a horror movie? What if it was you stalking the vents of a secret research facility in the depths of the jungle, constantly searching for human prey to consume and satiate your ever-growing hunger? That’s the pitch behind Carrion, one of the year’s most weirdly refreshing gameplay experiences. Powered by smart animation AI, Polish indie developers Phobia Game Studio ensure that moving a mass of increasingly-numerous tentacles and teeth somehow never feels disorienting. It’s not always a walk in the park either, as the monster may be powerful but it’s also rather squishy; balancing offense and stealth while juggling various unlockable abilities to navigate a nightmare facility ends up feeling pretty satisfying. Carrion has one of the most cathartic gameplay loops I played all year, and it doesn’t overstay its welcome either.

12. Bug Fables (NS)

Sometimes stubborn developers of beloved franchises do more for the indie game community than their own reputations when they let said franchises lay dormant for too long. It happened when Advance Wars inspired Tiny Metal and Wargroove; it happened when Final Fantasy Tactics inspired Fell Seal: Arbiter’s Mark (as well as countless others); and it happened when the formula of the first two Paper Mario games inspired Bug Fables.

For a host of reasons – some of them documented, some of them ever-mysterious – Nintendo and Intelligent Systems are unwilling and/or unable to make an entry in the ongoing Paper series that actually resembles a traditional RPG ever since the best game in the series, 2004’s Gamecube gem The Thousand Year Door. That doesn’t mean the series hasn’t produced good games (just hang on for a few paragraphs), but Moonsprout Games’ Bug Fables is proof that the TTYD framework still shines under the right guidance. Every element of the presentation – from the battle system and progression to the graphical style to the sound font – screams early Paper Mario, but the story, characters and world-building are wholly unique creations that stand all on their own. This is a wonderful game that deserves your attention if any part of you is craving a return to the whimsical depth of old Nintendo RPGs.

11. Journey to the Savage Planet (XBO)

Speaking of Nintendo-made gameplay structures taking extended holidays, when was the last time you played a game that made you feel like the glory days of Metroid Prime had returned? While we’re here, has it been long enough since Portal 2 that you miss its humour? Want a pop of bright colour in your next game? Boy, have I got the adventure for you. Journey to the Savage Planet is a brisk dozen-hour adventure with plenty of secrets and a devotion to first-person traversal / puzzle-solving that’s been on the sidelines of mainstream gaming for a good decade. The game has a wild energy about it, enhanced by a scattershot sense of humour that won’t entertain everyone, but got me laughing on quite a few occasions. Above all, though, its progression runs at a serious clip and your character feels great to control. Don’t pass it up.

10. 13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim (PS4)

It seems like every recent year there’s been one of these kind of games: a thrilling Japanese-produced visual novel “with a twist” backed by an entourage of positive reviews that I start playing too late in the year to get anywhere near the big story developments. 13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim joins the likes of AI: The Somnium Files, VA-11 Hall-A and 2020’s own Sakura Wars in this painful category, but I actually reached double-digit hours on this one so it gets to go on my main list.

If you’ve played Odin Sphere or Dragon’s Crown you know how drop-dead gorgeous Vanillaware’s art can be, but 13 Sentinels just takes it up another notch with some frankly stunning lighting; the 2D sprites and their accompanying animations take on an extra dimension under the copious sunsets and sunrises so shrewdly employed throughout the story. And that story is a non-linear doozy: not only does it jump between decades and characters with such earnest belief in itself that it made me get out an actual notebook for the first time in years to keep up with it all; the game also gives the player a certain amount of control over the order that very story is told, and the bite-sized way the tale unfolds makes it very friendly to the time-poor. You can tackle the tower-defense gameplay (which does make sense eventually, but I’m trying to spoil as little as possible) more-or-less at your own pace as well. Now that’s storytelling confidence; and from what I’ve played so far, it’s earned.

9. Spider-Man: Miles Morales (PS5)

What happens when you take one of the best Playstation exclusives of the decade, strip out all the narrative padding, add a fluid new layer to the combat and put it on your shiny next-generation console? You get a game without the same impact, surprise factor or emotional payoff as 2018’s Spider-Man, but arguably a leaner, more immediately rewarding, overall superior (ha) gameplay experience with spectacular skyline visuals (particularly after the December hybrid-graphics-mode patch) and controls that crackle and snap as you swing, punch and zap your way through Miles Morales’ magnetic debut adventure. The game respects your time more than its predecessor, the Christmas vibes of the story’s setting make it a perfect fit for this time of year, and the rest of the story brings Insomniac’s growing narrative chops to the fore once again – with some really effective beats about family. I really hope Sony’s studios continue to follow the cheaper side-story blueprint set up by Uncharted: The Lost Legacy and continued with Miles Morales, because they’re onto a winning trend if you ask me.

8. Paper Mario: The Origami King (NS)

I’ll start with the highest praise I can give to The Origami King: this is only the second Paper Mario game I’ve ever been bothered to finish; the only one to hold my attention for longer than ten or so hours since The Thousand Year Door. This is barely recognisable as an RPG series anymore – at least not in any way approaching the traditional sense – but that is becoming less and less of a reason not to play the games as time goes on. Paper Mario is more of an adventure/puzzle franchise with RPG elements these days, and taking one’s RPG instincts into The Origami King‘s brain-teasing battles will only hamper your experience. Once I let go of my long-programmed need to hoard resources and play defensively, I began to crave the satisfying click of lining up enemies with the game’s sliding ring system, and especially looked forward to the pulse-pounding boss battles.

But it’s the surrounding elements that really bring The Origami King together: a fantastically vibrant interconnected world; a host of wonderful characters including Paper Mario’s best companion yet; a script that’s whimsical, hilarious and occasionally poignant without overplaying its hand; a truly stunning dynamic soundtrack for the ages; and an expansive list of memorable moments – particularly in the second half of the story. If Bug Fables is a tribute to the legacy of Paper Mario’s mechanical framework, The Origami King marks the recapturing of its heart.

7. The Last of Us Part II (PS4)

Hoo boy.

The Last of Us Part II is many outstanding things. It’s one of the best-looking games of the year, and certainly the most expensive-looking title ever to hit a videogame console. Moving to or from any other game that’s trying to tell a realistic story reveals just how far ahead of the pack Naughty Dog’s motion-capture team remains to this day, and the performances well and truly back that up. This is the game with the best options menu in the history of videogames; an astounding level of tweaks are available to customise the experience for all manner of disabilities, skill levels and reserves of patience. The gameplay loop has improved dramatically over the first Last of Us, with far more available combat options, more thrills, and less frustrating busywork.

As you can see, it is not my game of the year: I really don’t like the execution of the final three or four hours (except for the very last scene); the game is too long in general; and the more realistic Naughty Dog’s characters look, the more jarring the difference between their gameplay and cutscene actions. But the bastards got me – these developers actually made me care about a despicable character who does a despicable thing to another, more famous despicable character. It’s a gradual process, done through some wicked gameplay tricks, but they got me. This parallel revenge fable about two survivors named Abbie and Ellie is easily the most daring big-budget videogame story I’ve ever played through, and six months after seeing the credits I just appreciate it even more. It’s okay if the story didn’t work for you; that’s the best thing about this kind of reckless ambition. But I’ll be thrilled to discuss this game with people for years to come, and that alone is enough to nail The Last of Us Part II to the top half of my 2020 list.

6. Haven (XSX/XSS)

At the time of writing I have only just finished playing Haven, which launched at the beginning of December 2020. Describing this game without underselling it is proving to be quite a challenge, but here we go: Haven is a twelve-hour experience built on the simple fundamentals of graceful, gratifying movement (literally powered by an in-game-universe substance called “flow”), minimal-yet-meaningful collectables, a strikingly simple colour palette, a hypnotic low-key soundtrack, and a script that lives and dies by the believability of its two flawed characters.

There are extremely basic turn-based combat, crafting and cooking systems, but they exist in conjunction with a gamepad-dividing control scheme in order to enhance the game’s central themes of complementarity and teamwork in a relationship. There’s a simple plot structure, but it’s just there to frame a bunch of engaging conversations and the resulting character exploration; our dual protagonists Yu and Kay represent a pair of personality types rarely seen together in fiction, and watching their perspectives on the world intersect is constantly entertaining. Haven is shamelessly romantic in a way only a French development studio would dare to design, but its artsy streak never comes off as pretentious. The game propels itself forward on the strength of only the basic elements it requires to sustain the player’s interest, much like the jet-powered hover-boots at the centre of its relaxing gameplay loop; it is a harmonious experience that entranced me from beginning to end.

5. Ghost of Tsushima (PS4)

Oh, Sucker Punch, you spellbinding Seattle superstars – you did it again. After bejewelling the crown of the PS4’s launch window more than half a decade ago with the showcase Infamous: Second Son, one of Playstation’s very best studios returned to cap off the console’s incredible life cycle with an epic samurai tale oozing polish and style. Some of the flower-rich landscapes this game puts in front of your eyeballs simply have to be seen to be believed, and Sucker Punch’s first-party pedigree ensures you’ll be traversing them with full use of the Dualshock 4’s touchpad, controller speaker and light bar – a true rarity in 2020. Ghost of Tsushima can be overwhelming at times, with its wealth of varied side activities and long stretches of dead-serious storytelling bereft of levity – so it’s a good thing the game’s fast-travel load times give several PS5 titles a run for their money. You get out what you put in when it comes to Jin Sakai’s conflicted tale of liberation from an invading force: the more supporting character backstories you experience, the more fulfilling each of the three-act finales becomes; but the wonderful, steadily-evolving combat holds the whole affair together regardless. I enjoyed Ghost of Tsushima so much that it was my first PSN platinum trophy in over three years. Take a bow once more, SP.

4. Yakuza: Like A Dragon (XSX)

I’ve been little more than an admirer on the periphery of the Yakuza series for a long while now; the weird cadence of releases in the west, along with the series’ penchant for seriously impressive game lengths, has never exactly made for an ideal time to start – and Yakuza Zero, the last “best time ever” to get into the series, happened to hit shelves over here during the most intense nightmare release date window of my adult life: Quarter 1 of 2017 (*shudder*).

Enter Yakuza: Like a Dragon, stage left. There are three reasons why this is the one that snared me, at long last: 1) It actually has no direct story connection to the previous six mainline Yakuza stories; 2) It was the only Xbox Series X pseudo-exclusive launch title I cared about; and most importantly 3) This one comes under an entirely-new genre – it’s a JRPG. Not an action game with JRPG elements; an actual, honest-to-goodness JRPG. A JRPG with “spells”, such as a homeless man’s spreading of seeds to call in attack pigeons. A JRPG with a fully-featured Final Fantasy-style job system where you literally go to an employment agency to apply for a new one. A JRPG with a totally-not-Pokedex, which you must fill out by encountering odd people wearing strange clothing around the streets of Yokohama. A JRPG with an epic, decade-spanning story setup about betrayal and ageing and Dragon Quest fandom and a host of genuinely endearing characters. The game’s modern setting basically makes this a Persona game without a high school setting and it. Is. Glorious.

3. Hades (NS)

Stop me if you’ve heard this one sometime in the past three months.

Roguelikes and their more forgiving cousins the roguelites are not usually my bag; I’ve dabbled in one or two over the years but I just didn’t stick to the likes of Binding of Isaac or Dead Cells. I did really like the first Rogue Legacy back when its amazing cross-play support was novel, and the two-player factor ensured I picked up (and adored) Children of Morta far too late for any sort of timely recognition on this site or elsewhere. But Hades is different: the legendary S-tier indie studio Supergiant has thrown all their years of experience doing slightly unusual game concepts with Bastion, Transistor and Pyre into a giant cauldron and let it simmer alongside two years of early-access development of their own roguelite, Hades. The results when the game hit its full release on the Switch (and Steam) this September? Well, you’ve seen them. You probably have at least one friend annoying you with constant hints that you should play it.

The hype is deserved, though. There has never been a roguelite with this much genuine reward after every run through its procedurally-generated gauntlet. Forget slight permanent upgrades you can build towards (although they’re definitely there and they’re great); Hades is just as interested in sliding you some sweet sweet dialogue between its fully-realised versions of Greek gods and their mythical supporting cast. And there sure is a staggering amount of that dialogue, each morsel of it furthering and/or illuminating a relationship in some way. There are mountains upon mountains of weapon/ability build possibilities too, with new abilities and customisations drip-fed to you at a supernaturally intelligent pace throughout your quest to escape your father’s underworld clutches. There are depths to this game that will continue to be plumbed for years to come. Hades is an unbelievable achievement even by the standards of a studio who continuously produces gold-standard videogames.

Play Hades.

2. Ori and the Will of the Wisps (XBO/PC/XSX/XSS)

When I think about gaming in 2020, it will be hard to get the absolute masterpiece that is Ori and the Will of the Wisps out of my head. Like Celeste two years ago, Ori is a game I picked up early in the year and finished near its end; every time I picked it up for a session at the expense of something else I was playing, it felt like I needed to savour the moment then drop the session so I wouldn’t have to think about the game ending. After starting in a distinctly Hollow Knight fashion, complete with minimal initial attack options, purchasable maps for each new area and equippable abilities you need to weigh against each other to settle on an ideal loadout, Ori takes you through an emotionally triumphant mini-arc and then crushes you before beginning to build you up a more permanent progression tree that mirrors our tiny sprite’s symbolic journey – by making him more and more capable as an absolute unit in the world of fiendish movement. Seriously, by the end of the game you’ll be diving, sliding, tunnelling, timing and juggling your way through platforming challenges that make you feel like the most skilled speed-runner in history – and the ending is a corker.

But sensational game design isn’t the only reason I’ll remember this game so fondly, nor the only reason it makes it so high up this list. If you ask me Ori and the Will of the Wisps had the most impressive technical journey of any game in 2020, bar none. After a launch that already included Dolby Atmos audio support to deliver an incredible soundscape of ambient forest noise – not to mention that phenomenal Gareth Coker score – it became one of the only 2D games to feature (wondrous) native ultrawide monitor support on PC. Then a couple of months later developer Moon Studios teamed up with the internet’s most famous HDR super-fan to rebuild the game’s High Dynamic Range presentation from the ground up – and it looked stunning. A couple of months after that, Moon announced they were bringing the rather demanding game to the Nintendo Switch in 60 frames a second. The Digital Foundry collaboration video they put out to explain the black magic behind this feat is an eye-opening window into passionate game design. The year – and my playthrough – naturally ended with Ori‘s next-gen debut, where it runs at 120 frames a second and shaves most of that ghastly opening load time right off. Because of course it does.

So after all this, why isn’t Ori and the Will of the Wisps my game of the year? Well I can tell you it was mighty close, but…

1. Final Fantasy VII Remake (PS4)

By the time I wrapped up my first playthrough of Final Fantasy VII Remake, it had become crystal-clear to me that the project’s greatest disadvantage going into 2020 had become its greatest weapon: hype.

In my lifetime I cannot remember a game from Square Enix – masters of torturously-long development cycles – with more anticipation and anxiety attached to it. Borne from a cruel 2005 tech demo, stoked by a masterful 2015 debut trailer and exacerbated by multiple delays and baffling public announcements afterwards, the team behind FF7R – largely the same team that made the original Final Fantasy VII a staggering 23 years ago – has for me and many others turned the momentum of that crushing hype in their favour with an astonishingly tuned-in RPG packed with entire YouTube channels worth of nods to FF7 fans. Somehow turning five hours of the original game into an entire 30-40-hour arc – complete with massively expanded roles/motivations for supporting characters and a few memorable new ones too – feels so natural that it’s surprisingly easy to just go with the mind-boggling twists in the game’s final moments (you might need a brilliant two-and-a-half-hour theory video featuring one of the internet’s biggest FF7 fans though, idk).

All these things are well and good, but the final word must go to the combat system; I could sing songs about this combat system, but I won’t. Few times in the history of JRPGs has a medley of outside influences coalesced so deliciously well into one impeccably realised, gorgeously animated, amazingly flexible lens through which to control the strategic action of battles. Despite the fireworks show often displayed onscreen, these are fights with a turn-based spirit; you need to keep track of all characters in your party at all times and line up their next move to maximise their positioning and resources – play this like an action game at your peril, but play it like the original game through the lens of the Advent Children movie and you might just find the kind of deep satisfaction that made me do the unthinkable thing I never do: start a new playthrough on a higher difficulty.

“The unknown journey will continue” indeed. Against seemingly all odds, the hype is real once more.

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Honorable Mentions

–Fall Guys: Ultimate Knockout (PS4)

OK come on, you’re probably played/watched this one – you know why it has to be on here.

–Marvel’s Avengers (PS4)

Yes, I know it has an awful online experience with almost no content roadmap, but I really enjoyed the single-player campaign, Tomb Raider DNA and all.

–Superliminal (NS)

A really cool little game with some REALLY cool puzzle design that you can finish in an afternoon and might just give you a bit of hope for the world in the process.

–Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War (XSX)

This isn’t just a direct story sequel to the original Black Ops from ten years ago – it’s also a return to that game’s stuffed-to-the-gills value proposition: great new multiplayer maps, a campaign with branching story paths, fun zombies modes, and the triumphant return of Dead Ops Arcade.

–Godfall (PS5)

Yeah, it hasn’t held up all that well to scrutiny when compared with some of its much cheaper loot-based brethren, but as a PS5 launch title in co-op, I had plenty of fun with it.

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