This is the first time I’m doing one of these…well, professionally, at least. I was hired at Kotaku right before the world went to shit, and despite a tumultuous year, I’m still here. I broke news. I reviewed the PlayStation 5. I wrote about a digital dog’s butt.
Here are my favourite games of 2020, in a particular order that only matters to me. Thanks for reading.
Kentucky Route Zero: TV Edition
Despite coming out in January, Kentucky Route Zero is by far the most important game of the year. It might even be the most important game of all time.
I spent around a week playing through Kentucky Route Zero, a saga that began on PC all the way back in 2013, when its chapters and interstitials were bundled together on the Nintendo Switch in TV Edition earlier this year. What begins as a “magical realist adventure game about a secret highway running through the caves beneath Kentucky” soon expands into an American parable of labour and community that, in hindsight, feels apropos for releasing just months before the United States government shed its mask and completely abandoned its citizens.
We have all given up a part of ourselves to act as grist in the mill of economic growth. Shareholder returns and executive bonuses are built on a system of shattered bone and splattered brain matter. Kentucky Route Zero feels like the first video game to truly acknowledge our collective scars.
I think the best word to describe Ikenfell is “cosy.” Not because it’s easy or free of conflict, but because everything about it just feels so…nice. The sprite work, the music, the character-driven story all combine into a comfy little package that’s far more than the sum of its parts.
I also love that another role-playing game’s finally leaned so heavily into the “timed hits” mechanics of Super Mario RPG (which, if you haven’t already noticed, is one of my favourite games). While the combat never got quite as complex as I would have liked, the narrative of friendship and acceptance made for a nice reprieve from the usual gaming tropes.
Yakuza: Like a Dragon
There comes a time in every Yakuza game when I completely give up on its entire premise. The series’ former protagonist, Kazuma Kiryu, is portrayed in cutscenes and flashbacks as the ultimate street brawler, a person you don’t want to mess with in a dark alley no matter how long he’s been out of the game. And yet, the sluggish combat made Kiryu feel feeble in every encounter. I typically stick it out to see where the story goes, but I rarely have much fun while doing so.
Yakuza: Like a Dragon is the first great Yakuza game (they’re all pretty good, aforementioned shortcomings aside) in that it actually managed to keep me entertained the whole way through. I want Sega to go back and remake every previous entry with its role-playing battle mechanics. Yes, I know it already did something like that with the Kiwami games, but this is my list and I can make all the demands I want. By getting rid of the mindless button-mashing of its predecessors, Like a Dragon gives the franchise the compelling combat it’s always lacked.
I don’t know what to say about Hades that hasn’t been said already. It may be one of the few games I like more for its aesthetics than its gameplay.
See, Hades is a great roguelike. One of the best. But what’s kept me traversing its hellish landscapes is the opportunity to converse with the pantheon of Greek gods that bestow blessings on its main character. Mythical figures and deities like Charon, Thanatos, Athena, Artemis, and Demeter are all lovingly rendered in the Supergiant style we’ve grown to know and love, in a way far different than any other media have depicted them.
Hades harbours within it an incredible beauty that makes every run like a family reunion.
My favourite mobile game of 2019 is now one of my favourite Switch games of 2020!
When I first wrote about Grindstone last year, I griped about not being able to just pay for the game rather than have to maintain an Apple Arcade subscription to keep it on my phone. Here’s what I wrote at the time:
“Grindstone puts you in the shoes of a hulking barbarian who is tasked with travelling up a mountain and slaying hordes of cute but deadly monsters. You rack up combos by defeating as many of the colour-coded enemies as possible with a single, unbroken line. Deducing clever ways to string together hits and gathering resources has proven to be mighty compelling to my lizard brain.”
I was more than happy to plop money down on Switch and tackle the game from the beginning all over again, and have already spent way too many nights playing “one more level” when I should be sleeping.
Moon: Remix RPG Adventure
Moon, originally released for the PlayStation in 1997, finally got an English translation on Switch this year (with help from former Kotaku video producer Tim Rogers). It’s easily the most unique game I’ve ever played, placing you in the role of child exploring a role-playing world that’s already been ransacked by the game-within-the-game’s hero. It reminded me of when I bought a used copy of Super Mario RPG as a kid and spent a bunch of time exploring the previous owner’s 100% save.
While Moon’s energy system can be a little stressful at first, you’re soon given the ability to walk huge distances without worrying about passing out. This gives you a first-hand look at how the world and its inhabitants operate. There’s nothing more satisfying than nailing down a particular character’s schedule or figuring out an environmental puzzle in the service of reviving creatures the rampaging hero has killed.
Some parts of Moon may not have aged as gracefully as others, but I highly recommend checking out the Switch release if you’re in the mood for a neat, charming little game.
While we usually have to wait months or even years for games to properly utilise the strengths of a new console, I feel like Demon’s Souls is the perfect demonstration of the power of the PlayStation 5. I’m in awe of the graphical feats developer Bluepoint Games was able to achieve with this remake, so much so that I still find myself second-guessing every gorgeous screenshot players produce in its engine.
That said, there were very few ways for the Demon’s Souls remake to fail after its developers decided to simply slap a fresh coat of paint on top of the PlayStation 3 original’s code. Everything functions the same way it did all those years ago, with a few exceptions to iron out some lingering bugs and improve player experience. Other than that, Demon’s Souls on PlayStation 5 perfectly captures the atmosphere of the original and is a must-play for any fan of the Souls series.
Spelunky 2 is more Spelunky, and that’s a very good thing.
Much like the first game, Spelunky 2 is an incredible Rube Goldberg machine of interactive parts. Choices you make on the very first level, like killing a shopkeeper or deciding not to save a dog, can have ramifications all the way to the end of the game. The sequel has also been upgraded with more complex pathing, allowing players of all skill levels to find satisfaction in reaching an ending, even if the super hard “true” ending remains frustratingly out of reach.
World of Horror
Few games are as atmospheric as World of Horror. By combining the aesthetics of an old PC-98 adventure with frights inspired by Japanese manga artist Junji Ito, lone developer panstasz managed to create something that’s wholly unique despite owing inspiration to a variety of sources. Here’s what I wrote earlier this year:
“What truly makes World of Horror special are the little things. Watching the world deteriorate with every successful investigation is chilling. Every new scene is breathtaking. The monsters are simultaneously grotesque and beautiful. And not to spoil anything, but leave the game minimized for a few minutes just to see what happens when you come back. The moment-to-moment gameplay makes such an impression that I can’t help capturing a screenshot (or two) with every step I take. The sheer breadth of the work that must have gone into crafting these environments and the creatures that inhabit them gives me second-hand anxiety. But it more than paid off; World of Horror is like no other experience in video games, even with a little extra fat. It’s both familiar and fresh, a remixed nostalgia that gave me exactly what I wanted in a package I never knew was possible.”
And the game continues to get updated with new content! So if you’re looking for an unsettling experience, turn off the lights and get lost in World of Horror.
Final Fantasy VII Remake
I came into Final Fantasy VII Remake never having played the original role-playing game. I never had a PlayStation growing up and so that entire, crucial experience passed me by until just a few years ago. I had some idea of the major story beats thanks to their importance in gaming canon, of course, but I was completely unprepared for how attached I would become to these stupid anime characters.
Even now, as I think about my time with Cloud, Aerith, Tifa, Barret, Jessie, Biggs, and Wedge in Final Fantasy VII Remake, I can feel a variety of complicated emotions well up in my chest. Knowing what would happen to — and is still on the horizon for — these characters didn’t stop me from becoming wholly invested in their adventure and burgeoning relationships. And this was helped in no small part by the incredible facial animations and voice work.
Sure, the combat can be a little sluggish and the complicated ending wasn’t really meant for a newcomer like me, but I finally understand the obsession with Final Fantasy VII because I too am now obsessed. Bring on part two!
Honorable mentions: 13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim, Hardspace: Shipbreaker, Paper Mario: The Origami King, The Last of Us Part II, Maneater, Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 1+2, Ghost of Tsushima, Astro’s Playroom, Crusader Kings III, Animal Crossing: New Horizons, Helltaker, Blaseball