Year in Review
2020 was a terrible year. If you need to be reminded of the awful/horrifying things that happened last year, checkout Rami Ismail’s is2020over.com. I was fortunate/lucky enough to keep my job and work from home since March of last year, but like for most people, it wasn’t without its challenges. While it’s been one of the most depressing/lonely times of my life, I’ve had more than enough time to play video games and I feel very grateful for that privilege. Talking/writing about video games has helped me stay focused/motivated since the pandemic started, so if you haven’t done so already, checkout both my 2020 Q4 post where I summarize everything I’ve played during the final few months of 2020 (which also links back to my other quarterly posts for the year) and my Gaming in 2020: In-Review. So, without further adieu, here are my honorable mentions (in no particular order) followed by my top 10 games of 2020:
HM. Streets of Rage 4: Streets of Rage 4 (SoR4), developed by Dotemu, Lizardcube, and Guard Crush Games, is the return to form many fans, including myself, have been waiting for. Sega has had sort of a redemption arc lately with the rousing success that was Sonic Mania, the rising popularity and localization of all things Yakuza and the release of Phantasy Star Online 2 in the west. Needless to say, it feels good to be a Sega fan again. So, what other dormant/forgotten Sega franchises/IPs have been overdue for a time in the spotlight? Why not Streets of Rage? I grew-up with the original SoR trilogy on the Sega Genesis and while there have been a few modern-day beat-em-ups over the past decade or so, there’s nothing quite like SoR in terms of classic brawlers and SoR4 nails it like a bat to Donovan’s head.
If I’m being brutally honest, I think a lot of the appeal of the original games were the soundtracks by Yuzo Koshiro. They’ve always been solid beat-em-ups, but they’re still relatively simple games, mechanically speaking, and they don’t really need to be anything beyond what they offer on a surface level. You’ll walk from left to right, beating up thugs and eating giant turkeys to restore health until you reach the boss at the end of a stage. While there’s sometimes the occasional hazard (like explosive barrels or pits), the level design has never been the main focus. The stage design in SoR4 doesn’t stray too far from the previous games, unfortunately, and I honestly wish it would have taken a few more risks. There’s new and old characters with distinct play-styles and abilities too, but nearly everyone can juggle/bounce enemies off of the screen (which is super satisfying by the way). It’s a relatively safe game in terms of its scope, but a very good one at that so it’s hard to criticize and question “what could have been”.
If there’s one thing I was slightly disappointment in with SoR4, it was how they didn’t lean into its story/world-building more. Apparently, Mr. Y and his baddies are using music to brainwash folks on the street, but it just doesn’t come across as well as I would have liked it to. I was expecting to see enemies in cool idle animations by a boombox, listening to intoxicating beats before they pick a fight with you. Or maybe there could have been loud speakers visible throughout the city, blaring music and riling up thugs before they jump you on the pavement. Given the franchise’s soundtrack legacy and the inclusion of multiple composers this time around (Yuzo Koshiro, Olivier Deriviere, Motohiro Kawashima, for example), you would think there would have been more of a focus on implementing the music into the atmosphere, but alas, the plot isn’t very interesting (but it also doesn’t really have to be). I liked SoR4 a lot; its sprite-work is some of the best in the business, the backgrounds are colorful and detailed and the music is outstanding. I just wish I resonated more with the game than I did. Perhaps I’ll have to revisit SoR4 down the road again.
HM. The Last of Us: Part II: If there’s one thing Naughty Dog does well with their post-Uncharted titles, it’s the illusion of choice and the subversion of your expectations. The Last of Us: Part II is still a campaign-driven, chapter-by-chapter, 3rd-person shooter at its core, but it’s definitely more ambitious and larger in-scope compared to their previous games. Many of the environments/areas offer multiple paths, even though they ultimately lead to the same destination. It’s this illusion of chase that makes your surroundings feel more believable/organic, which is something the original game did to an extent, too. Then there’s spaces like Seattle Day 1, or what I’d like to call, The Last of Us: Part II’s “God of War 2018/Breath of the Wild” moment. As you’re galloping through a lush, dense forest with Dina on horseback (I swore I was playing Dino Crisis 2 for a moment as I fully expected a raptor to jump out at me from the tall grass), you ride out of the thicket to a vista that nearly captured the feelings I got when I first paddled out to the Lake of Nine in God of War 2018 or when I emerged from the starting shrine in Breath of the Wild. What’s super interesting about this section is that it’s the first (and only) time in the game where you have pure freedom to do as you please. There are non-linear objectives and landmarks calling for your attention in every corner of this field. If you do choose to partake in these side excursions, you’re greeted to great world-building and characterization between the two protagonists.
It’s the small details that go a long way during Seattle Day 1, too. Ellie will pull out a map and checkoff areas you’ve explored as you progress and they even implemented the organic conversation system that God of War 2018 had when you get on and off the boat mid conversation (in this game’s case, it’s a horse). Unfortunately, there really isn’t an area like this anywhere else in the game. I honestly wanted to see more chapters structured like Seattle Day 1, but the rest of the game is still rather linear. While it seems unavoidable, there are parts of The Last of Us: Part II that feel somewhat dated still. You’ll encounter a ton of “walk & talk” moments (made notorious by the Gears of War games) where certain parts of the scene feel caged-off, which is what I like to call the “zoo effect”. In the introduction, there’s an NPC in a greenhouse who’s pouring an endless amount of water from a bucket over some crops. It’s not the end of the world by any stretch of the imagination, but for a game so rooted/grounded in realism, moments like this certainly break the immersion factor.
The Last of Us: Part II is probably my favorite Naughty Dog game in terms of mechanics/playability, next to the original Jak & Daxter. It just feels good to play. The Last of Us: Part II is very long, but because it’s a much bigger game, there’s far more room to breathe, so-to-speak, when it comes to the combat options/opportunities at your disposal. The game still utilizes a pretty standardized upgrade/skill tree, but everything feels viable and more interesting to engage with due to the abundance of enemy encounters and the openness of the environments. With the inclusion of a jump button, there’s even light platforming now (and rope swinging, too) which makes the game feel more adventurous. It’s arguably runoff/carryover mechanics from the Uncharted titles, but they’re certainly welcome here. As I mentioned earlier, the game does a wonderful job of subverting your expectations during combat scenarios. There’s one moment where you’ll approach a workbench to make some upgrades to your weapons (which is something you’ve done countless times prior to this encounter) and just as you’re about to open the crafting menu, an enemy rushes you from behind and pulls you out of the menu in attempt to ambush you. In another instance, there’s an unsuspecting door blocking your way and just as your about to open it, an axe-wielding brute busts through the frame. There’s numerous moments like this and they’re some of the most memorable gameplay experiences I had with the game.
Stealth just feels right in this game, too. It’s somewhere between Hitman and Metal Gear Solid (MGS) yet it’s extremely satisfying. Enemy patrols will spot you, check the area appropriately, and they will call out to others by name (which reminds me of how each soldier in MGS2, for example, had individual dog tags with unique names). Human enemies will check corners and ambush you if you’re hiding behind cover, which also interrupts your potential stealth-kill animation. There are no longer expendable shivs (for Ellie, at least), which makes the combat-loop feel more forgiving. It may have been my imagination, but it also felt like her throat-slitting animation became quicker/more efficient overtime, which would have been an organic way to signal to the player that she’s getting better at, I don’t know, murdering people? Glass breaking is also super satisfying and tossing a brick/bottle and rushing towards the enemy to grab/strike them is a wonderful (yet brutal) feeling. Speaking of enemies, monsters and the infected, there were (finally) new enemy types as well! The dogs were an interesting/welcome addition, despite how immoral it felt to let them track your scent to a trip-mine you so conveniently placed around the corner. There’s the “Stalkers” too, which I believe were a cross between traditional runners and clickers. Finally, the barbarian, tribal-like cult (the Scars) used whistling for communication during combat. My favorite gameplay touch, however, was when all of the enemies were defeated in an area, the characters would comment on how the area has been cleared, letting the player know that they can finally rest and explore without hesitation.
Finally, as a gay man who’s been out for almost 4 years now, there’s a scene that struck a chord with me early-on involving Ellie, Dina and her ex-boyfriend, Jesse. Dina reveals to Ellie that’s she pregnant from her ex, but when Ellie returns with Jessie to their secret hideout, Dina’s shocked to see that he’s been injured. Dina pays more attention to him and comes off as being more concerned about him than she is for Ellie (despite also having some sort of on & off relationship with her). Ellie’s reaction, and the way she walks off from the scene, really stuck with me. For whatever reason, this scene reminded me of how I navigated my current job of eight years as a gay man. I’ve had crushes on straight men I’ve either worked directly with or met in passing at my place of business. These men were co-workers and the like, but I would never pursue anything for obvious reasons. The way (I think) Ellie felt in this moment was a reflection of how I felt when a lot of these men’s wives/girlfriends would show up at work. For a long time prior to coming out, I had built-up some sort of false, non-existent potential relationship in my head with some of these men. It was some sort of future that wasn’t real and it was incredibly depressing/defeating, to say the least. It was an imaginary “chase” that I had to talk myself out of over time and it’s something I’d like to think Ellie felt during this particular moment.
It took me a long time to come around to The Last of Us for a variety of reasons (which you can read about here), but I played through The Last of Us: Part II over the course of a few months and I had a lot to say about it. The Last of Us: Part II was essentially a game about making you feel like shit no matter what you were doing or who’s perspective you were playing from. There’s nothing feel-good about this game and while I do believe it’s a worthy follow-up to the original, it’s probably something I’ll never want to play again for a very long time. 2020 was a horrifyingly depressing year as it is, so watching these characters torture themselves over misguided anger/revenge isn’t exactly what I would call a good time. With that said, the game itself was extremely well-made. It’s beautifully shot with an all-star cast and it had some of the best, most memorable gameplay moments I’ve experienced all year.
HM. Crash Bandicoot 4: It’s About Time: 3D platformers have had sort of a renaissance over the past few years. With the Crash Bandicoot N. Sane Trilogy releasing three years prior, the developers, Toys for Bob (the minds behind 2018’s Spyro Reignited Trilogy), are back at again with Crash Bandicoot 4: It’s About Time. Right out of the gate, Crash Bandicoot 4 feels familiar and comfortable for those who grew-up with the franchise (like myself). The worlds are colorful, classically themed and beautifully detailed. While most of the levels have you running towards the screen like in the previous games, the camera angles are much more dynamic this time around (think Ratchet & Clank in terms of camera positioning at times) as you’ll often find yourself going from 3D sections to 2D platforming segments over the course of a stage. Crash and company (yes, he’s brought some friends back, unfortunately) control as well as you would expect them to (if you’re familiar with the core trilogy developed by Naughty Dog). You can run, double jump and spin into crates. but this time there are masks that grant you new (temporary) abilities. The story technically picks-up after the events of Crash Bandicoot: Warped, but none of that matters, really. It’s a Saturday morning cartoon through and through and unless you’re a child, everything will likely go in one ear and out the other.
My time spent with Crash Bandicoot 4 can be best described as a curved arc. I went from having an enjoyable romp through a re-imagined part of my childhood to wanting to uninstall the game as soon as I completed it. While the levels are competently designed, they’re far too long and become ridiculously challenging the further you progress. Despite being nominated for “Best Family Game” at Geoff Keighley’s The Game Awards 2020, Crash Bandicoot 4 is the furthest thing from “Fun for the whole family!”. As someone who’s been playing 2D/3D platformers for decades, Crash Bandicoot 4 is a hardcore 2D/3D platformer for super fans of the genre. Sure, there’s a “Pass N. Play” feature that lets you and another player (presumably a family member, roommate or significant other) play through levels together, but the further you get, the quicker you’ll realize this isn’t a game for just anyone. As someone who’s also a completionist at heart, I’ve never wanted to bounce off from the idea of 100%’ing something as I did with Crash Bandicoot 4.
The game is densely packed with collectables, time trails and other optional challenges, but sometimes there can be too much of a good thing. One of the worst things about Crash Bandicoot 4 is the crate placement. Typically, you need to destroy every crate to earn a much sought-after gem. In Crash Bandicoot 4, not only do most levels pack somewhere between 250-400 crates per stage, some of them are ridiculously placed off-screen. Unless you move the right-analog stick to point the camera towards a suspicious section of the screen, good luck finding everything without a guide! It’s infuriating and downright demotivating to reach the end of a stage only to be told that you missed a single crate that was hidden behind a piece of the environment you couldn’t see. The way I feel about playing Crash Bandicoot 4 as an adult was the way I felt about re-playing Super Mario World 2: Yoshi’s Island; fun to play through casually, but a nightmare to 100%. I beat the game at around 50% completion and uninstalled it immediately. Maybe when I’m feeling extra masochistic I’ll revisit the game down the road.
HM. Final Fantasy VII: Remake: I’ve been playing Final Fantasy (FF) games/RPGs since the SNES era and while I was there for the original release of FFVII on the PS1 and remembered enjoying it as a kid, I wasn’t obsessed with the game like others were. I respect the game for what it was/what it did for the genre at the time, but I discovered other RPGs and franchises that became my new favorites as time moved forward, so to speak. While it most certainly opened the flood gates for more Japanese RPGs in the west, certain aspects of FFVII haven’t aged as well as I’d like to think. With that said, fans have been begging for a remake of FFVII for well over two decades now, so here we are, in 2020, during a global pandemic, playing the stuff of dreams… sort of. The biggest question(s) leading up to the game’s official announcement/release was how much of the remake was going to encompass the original game? FFVII is most notable for its near-future, industrialized metropolis known as Midgar, but it’s certainly a much larger game than what the first handful of hours would suggest. So, did Square Enix ever intend on recreating the PS1 version in its entirety? The answer, unfortunately, was a big, fat “no”. To no one’s surprise, the Final Fantasy VII Remake (FF7R) was only going to be an expanded/re-imagined take on the Midgar portions of the original game… and that’s exactly what this is (for better or worse). FF7R is a mostly faithful trip down memory lane, but with a few twists and liberties taken along the way.
The other concern most fans had was with how the battle system was going to be implemented. Surely, traditional-turn based games have no place in 2020 (which I disagree with), especially considering Square Enix’s recent affairs. A lot of players were worried that it would have been a combination of Kingdom Hearts and FFXV (the latter of which was a mess), so questions/concerns prior to release were most certainly valid. What we ended up receiving was a fairly decent compromise, however. FF7R is without a doubt, an action-RPG at its core, but there are still turn-based elements present. Battles can comprise of up to three playable characters, each with their own unique capabilities. Barret, for example, can easily destroy aerial enemies and Cloud is obviously better for more direct, aggressive enemies on the ground. Regular attacks build up your traditional ATB bar, which allows you to perform abilities, use items or cast spells at the expense of a segment on your meter, which in turn freezes the combat in a spectacular display of particle effects. It’s a surprisingly decent battle system that encourages the player to switch between characters on the fly. Unfortunately, this isn’t immediately apparent to the player as some of the layered, more complex aspects of the battle system are not thoroughly explained. Weapons, accessories and Materia are back as well, which allow further customization options during battle. Weapons have skill-trees (which look similar to the Crystarium system from FFXIII) and can grant you passive stat bonuses or additional Materia slots, but only when said weapon is equipped. It’s certainly not my favorite battle system from a FF game, but it’s better than what FFXV offered. What I disliked about the battle system the most was the menus and character management. Equipping weapons and swapping Materia and such between characters is cumbersome, to say the least.
One of the best aspects of FF7R was its characterization, however. While Cloud, Barret, Tifa and Aerith act/feel similar to their polygonal counterparts, the secondary members of the Avalanche crew; Jessie, Biggs and Wedge (otherwise known as eco-terrorists) were further fleshed-out and given actual personalities. There was one chapter in particular towards the beginning of the game that really stood out to me. In this chapter, you’re plan is to infiltrate an Shinra base, but you need an access card from Jessie’s parents’ house first. While you’re there, some members of Avalanche join Jessie’s mom for some pizza. It’s quite honestly something you would have seen from a Yakuza game; moments that ground the characters and make them feel more human, endearing and genuine. It’s a scene that probably wouldn’t have been effective in the original game, but it’s moments like this that sets the remake apart from anything else. With that said, the re-imagining and scope of Midgar felt grand/impressive at first, but what’s actually explorable outside of the linear, chapter-based “dungeons”, sequences and set-pieces was extremely disappointing. A lot of people have criticized FFXIII over the years for being too linear, but at least the environments were colorful, vibrant and varied. Gran Pulse may have just been a large, arguably empty field of enemy encounters and secret boss fights, but if my memory serves correctly, it felt like a much larger space to explore than the few junkyards, tunnels and valleys of rubble at your disposal in FF7R. Perhaps the dilapidated pathways and claustrophobic spaces lend themselves to how suffocating the city feels to the citizens of Midgar, but outside of Aerith’s beautiful garden, the environments aren’t exactly spacious/welcoming. Outside of a chapter or two, I never felt like I understood when/where I could go to level-up or tinker with my Materia/equipment. The game is constantly moving forward (for better or worse).
Once I realized that the few areas in-between Aerith’s church and Wall Market were the only breathable areas to explore, so to speak, any highs I hit were met with some very low lows (and there were definitely plenty of moments that left me scratching my head and asking “why?”). The honeymoon period didn’t last very long, to say the least. I understand that Midgar is an industrialized city covered by a huge plate comprised of reactors, factories, neighborhoods and slums dividing its levels, but I wish the developers could have found a more interesting way to develop the city aesthetically/structurally. Perhaps its still too ambitious of a project because the hardware limitations are clearly present (those JPEG image backgrounds are tough on the eyes) despite the game looking gorgeous most of the time. I also couldn’t stop thinking about the Yakuza games while I played this remake. If you’re familiar with the series, I sort of imagined or pictured a modern-day re-imagination of Midgar to feel more like Kamurocho, at least in terms of its liveliness, personality and density. I think most, if not all of the side-quests in FF7R range from being forgettable to just plain bad, too. There’s nothing even remotely close to capturing even the most minor of side-stories from Yakuza 0, such as the sub-story where you track down a thief who stole a video game for his estranged son, for example. Months after finishing the game, I can’t recall any side-quest outside of saving some cats, clearing out rat-like creatures and finding music disks for a little girl. The remake added some much appreciated world-building (like the giant artificial lighting/heating lamps that kept the slums bright and warm below), but the side content left a lot to be desired.
While I’m extremely critical of FF7R (given it’s pedigree and troubled development cycle, I think it’s only fair), I really did enjoy most of my time spent with the game. As someone who loves FF and RPGs alike, there’s a lot to admire about FF7R despite its (many) shortcomings. I’m looking forward to Square Enix delivering the rest of the game in 20XX, when democracy is dead and reploids rule the earth.
HM. Biped: Biped, by NExT Studios, could quite possibly be my favorite indie puzzle-platformer of the year. There aren’t a lot of games that successfully use the Dual Analog control stick scheme today, if any. The way this game controls/plays reminded me of the time when I first played Ape Escape on the original PlayStation. Whether you’re playing single-player or cooperatively, moving the left and right analog stick forward will make your little robot buddy take a single step. It’s a control scheme that’s a bit difficult to describe, but it’s best to think of it as a “1, 2, 1, 2” motion on the left and right analog stick, respectively. If you hold both analog sticks down/forward at the same time, your robot will start to dash/glide around the playing space, giving you much more control and freedom over your movement.
Biped doesn’t have much of a story; it’s simply a collection of linear stages that can either be played solo or with a partner. You’ll solve simple yet satisfying environmental and physics-based puzzles while collecting coins along the way. Coins can also be traded for cosmetic items, but there’s nothing you haven’t seen here before in terms of unlocks/features. The real star of the show is playing the game cooperatively, however. Although you’ll play the same levels in both single-player and multiplayer, they are significantly different in their design and there’s also “Pro” levels specifically designed for multiplayer. Playing by yourself, for example, you’ll balance a seesaw in one stage with a surprisingly competent AI-controlled robot buddy, but in multiplayer, you’ll have to cooperate with your real-life partner to navigate the same puzzle. It’s imperative that you’re in-sync with your partner too or you’ll find yourself failing a challenge/sequence often (and you’re even given a rating it at the end of the stages depending on how well you and your partner performed).
Finally, I’d like to note one of the advertisements/trailers I saw online prior to the game’s release. The publisher/developers released a very Nintendo-esque commercial, complete with families and friends playing the game together on a couch, acting goofy and having a grand old time. Despite its somewhat generic robot/futuristic aesthetics, Biped feels like a game crafted with the same kind of care most first-party Nintendo games would have received, so I thought it was super interesting that the marketing for this game pivoted itself towards Nintendo’s more family-friendly appearance. Due to the pandemic, I haven’t been able to play this game locally, but I Share Played with a friend on PSN and it was an absolute blast. I don’t think I’ve laughed/smiled as much as I have all year while playing this game with a partner. I finished the solo levels on PS4 and completed a handful of the cooperative stages with a friend.
HM. Carrion: Carrion, developed by Phobia Game Studio, feels like you’re playing an entire game based around the final sequence from Playdead’s INSIDE. While Carrion is a 2D Metroid-like at its core, there’s no actual platforming. Instead, you control an unwieldy gelatinous blob as you wail around rooms causing havoc, destroying lab equipment, and other facilities, all the while eating scientists and soldiers wandering the halls of what appears to be an underground laboratory. It’s controlled chaos at its finest. There are save points scattered about the environment which restore health and allow you to spread your virus throughout the underground lab (in order to proceed). Visually, it’s very Stranger Things-like as your safe havens become nest-like enclosures that begin to eat away at the surroundings. It’s a very cool visual effect and cements the fact that you’re essentially a virus, spreading your corruption throughout the area.
Like any decent Metroid-like, you’ll gain new abilities that allow you travel to new parts of the lab and solve puzzles, some of which require you to remove parts of yourself as certain abilities are locked to particular levels of mutation. There are pools of special-looking water that allow you to dump a piece of your blob off in its waters, for example, which has an effect on the level of mutation you carry. While there’s no traditional map, the game’s rather linear so it’s not too difficult to get lost. The game does become a bit opened-ended towards the end, so some players have criticized the game for its lack of direction at times (despite there being digital signs pointing you in the right direction – most of the time). There are a handful of optional secrets areas/items to discover, which aren’t too difficult to track down, either. I completed the game at 100% with all of the Achievements unlocked. I really enjoyed my short time with Carrion and I’d love to see a more fleshed-out (pun intended) sequel.
HM. Maneater: Outside of Disaster Report 4: Summer Memories, Tripwire Interactive’s Maneater is one of the most PS2 era feeling games I’ve played all year. I’m likely dating myself, but games like E.V.O Search for Eden on the SNES, Seventh Cross: Evolution for the Dreamcast or even Jaws Unleashed for the PS2/Xbox come to mind when playing this game. I started playing Maneater during the summer months because it allowed me to take out my frustrations on not being able to travel or go swimming due to the pandemic. Maneater is pure, dumb fun. With the said, the story is pretty ridiculous and a lot more thoughtful than it needed to be. A bunch of hillbillies and a crew filming a reality TV show set out on a hunt for an adult shark. Upon capturing said shark, she happens to be pregnant and a baby shark is gutted from her stomach. Naturally, the baby shark retaliates, bites off the shark hunter’s arm and escapes into the waters. Now, as a young shark, your goal is to eat and evolve your way to adulthood to enact revenge on the monsters that destroyed your lineage. Yeah…
The entire game feels like you’re swimming in the surrounding waters to some city from an open world, GTA-style game. When you surface in particular spots, you can see skyscrapers, resorts, golf courses and other industrialized buildings (I swore the city from Crackdown is in the background). There are also landmarks to discover both on land and underwater (which act as one of the game’s collectables/objectives) and they provide some of the game’s more lighthearted moments, including some hit/miss social commentary. Speaking of social commentary, there’s a ton of it. The developers definitely make you want to hate humanity and given how 2020 has been in the United States, I’m not too fond of people right now, either. Devouring stupid humans on shorelines/boats feels good and after you cause so much devastation, you build-up a GTA-style “wanted meter” of sorts which will cause hunter boats to stalk you. Maneater’s core gameplay loop is rewarding/satisfying, although it does get repetitive the further you progress. Fortunately, the game doesn’t overstay its welcome. I completed the game with 100% completion and the Platinum trophy earned.
HM. Resident Evil 3: While Capcom’s Resident Evil 3 (RE3) remake may not be as impressive as the Resident Evil 2 (RE2) remake that came before it, it’s still a competently made companion piece, similar to how the original release was perceived back in 199X. There’s something missing from the RE3 remake that’s hard to describe, however. Outside of some major areas from the PS1 game that are conveniently missing (the clock tower, for example), it feels as if it’s almost a bit too refined/streamlined. It’s way more action-oriented than RE2, but so was the PS1 version, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. The flow of the game is much more linear and there’s an abundance of ammunition and high-powered guns at your disposal, too. There’s also a dodge mechanic that’s certainly welcome, which happens to feel more realized and useful than it was in the original game.
I really liked the new character models for all of the returning characters and I enjoyed listening to the voice actors/actresses that were chosen to play their roles, too. I think this game has my favorite characterization of Jill Valentine, too. She’s always been a confident, no-nonsense woman, but there’s just something about her in this remake that elevates her even higher. Finally, one of the more interesting aspects about the RE3 remake was how the game started in first-person view. After Resident Evil VII’s first-person direction (which was new for a mainline entry at the time), many questioned if all RE games were going to be first-person going forward, considering the former game’s success. Capcom is clearly not done with their first-person experimentation either as the upcoming Resident Evil VIII is going to be, once again, in first-person view.
In retrospect, now that I’ve played the majority of The Last of Us: Part II, it’s interesting looking back on my time spent with the RE3 remake, considering they’re two 3rd-person survival horror games released in 2020. I think they’re both on opposite ends of the spectrum, at least in terms of one being perhaps a bit too lean while the other feels too lengthy and somewhat bloated. I think Capcom and Naughty Dog could learn a thing or two from each other, but as someone who’s a bigger RE fan than The Last of Us, I sort of wish both RE2 & RE3 received the same treatment/budget that Naughty Dog can clearly flex. I completed the game on Normal difficulty, but due to its short length, the game’s highly replayable and there’s a plethora of unlocks to pursue and difficulties to challenge down the road.
HM. DOOM Eternal: I grew-up with DooM, but I didn’t play it as obsessively as other kids did when I was younger. Around the release of DOOM³ back on the original Xbox (where I first played it), I started to drift away from the franchise and FPS games in general. DOOM 2016, however, was sort of a soft-reboot for the IP and having finally finished the game for the first time last year, I really enjoyed my time spent on Mars slaying demons. DOOM Eternal, id Software’s follow-up/sequel to the 2016 remake-of-sorts, similar to Animal Crossing: New Horizons, released at the start of the 2020 global pandemic back in March. Needless to say, I wasn’t particularly in the mood to play a game about Hell on Earth when the state of the real world didn’t feel too far off from it. Since the release of the game, however, I’ve been playing a mission or two and I finally finished a play-through in the middle of December.
I’m not sure if I’m the first person to say this, but DOOM Eternal plays like a first-person character-action game like Devil May Cry (DMC), but it feels more like the latest Mortal Kombat games in tone. Compared to DOOM 2016 (which was also a fast/relentless FPS), DOOM Eternal runs miles around it. To put it simply, it’s a super exhausting action game that happens to be in first-person. It’s unrelenting (particularly in its final stages) and asks the player to juggle far too many tools/options in order to reasonably complete an encounter. The game slowly doles out new weapons and armaments to do battle with the never-ending hordes of demons, including ice grenades, a devastating punch, a shoulder-mounted flamethrower and the classic chainsaw. All of these combat options must be cycled during encounters in order to replenish your health/ammo, which didn’t seem to resonate with a portion of the community. It’s not a FPS where you can go guns blazing, which seems counter-intuitive to what makes DOOM, well… DooM. Each enemy is arguably a puzzle that must be solved and the solution is your gun of choice, as you’ll find certain weapons are better utilized to destroy their weak-points in order to perform the (extremely) satisfying glory kills.
The levels are incredibly well-designed and much like the previous game, DOOM Eternal scratches that first-person adventure itch that Retro Studio’s Metroid Prime games mastered and delivered. The missions have you primarily moving from point A to B with a heavy emphasis on platforming and arena-based combat encounters, but there’s the occasional secret area or two where you can take a breather and explore (trust me, you’ll need it). There are even secret battle encounters that are similar to the Secret Missions found from the DMC games and they can be incredibly challenging. The game has tons of collectables scattered around the 12 missions, too. A lot of these collectables are displayed at your base of operations (in space…) where you can discover even more secrets and upgrades if you have the proper currencies/collectables. It’s a dense experience, to say the least. At the end of the day, I felt as torn about my time spent with DOOM Eternal as the excessive amounts of limbs/body parts that I ripped off of demons and discarded on the floor. Regardless, I like id Software’s DOOM titles and they just feel good to play, so I’ll be there for whatever is next.
HM. Hotshot Racing: I don’t normally play racing games, but when I do, I prefer kart racers like Mario Kart or the more arcade-like experiences like Sumo Digital and Lucky Mountain Games’ Hotshot Racing. This developer has been known for their racing games over the years, but if you’ll excuse the pun, Hotshot Racing put the pedal to the metal and left its competition in the dust. The more realistic, sim-like racing games out there don’t even a fraction of the personality that’s found in Hotshot Racing. Each racer/character has their own endings and they’ll even comment on each track with unique dialogue/quips. There’s even a Wave Race 64-like announcer at the start of a race that instantly teleported me back to the seat of a 90s era racing game. The visuals are simplistic, overtly polygonal by design, yet the game is just bursting with color/detail. The tracks are all appropriately themed too, including a snowy mountain village, a seaside town and a prehistoric race track with a Jurassic Park gate and a T-Rex that roars at you on the 3rd lap. It’s got everything.
Hotshot Racing is incredibly easy to pick-up and play, but difficult to master on the higher difficulties. The controls are super responsive and the drifting just feels sublime. The more you drift, the more your boost meter fills-up. Once you reach a segment on your meter, you can expend it to boost ahead of the gang. You can also choose from four different cars with slight stat differences for each character and while you can customize things to a degree, tinkering with your cars is not required to win 1st place. There are parts and aesthetic details that you can unlock with cash earned from races and there’s a variety of online/multiplayer modes if you’re in the mood for some competition. Hotshot Racing is the total retro racing package. It’s packed with content and feel-good vibes. I completed the game with Gold trophies on all Grand Prix (GP) difficulties and saw all of the character endings. I’ve found myself coming back to Hotshot Racing often and for that reason alone, it’s my favorite racing game of the year.
My Top 10 Games of 2020
10. Disaster Report 4: Summer Memories: Disaster Report 4 was supposed to release back in March of 2011 for the PS3, a day before the devastating Tohoku earthquake and tsunami in Japan, but it was cancelled and the developer, IREM, and their games division would soon dissolve. Some members from the original development team would eventually form a new studio under the name, Granzella, and acquire the rights to the IP. Nearly 10 years later, Disaster Report 4 would finally see the light of day and release worldwide… in 2020 of all years, during a global pandemic. Great timing, right? Disaster Report (known as Zettai Zetsumei Toshi in Japan) is a survival-adventure game series where you navigate fictional locations during the aftermath of a natural disaster. The player must avoid falling debris, flooding and other hazards while they search for a means to escape. These games are janky, quirky, and clearly made for Japanese audiences, but there’s nothing else quite like them.
Next to Maneater, Disaster Report 4 is the most PS2 era game I’ve played all year. It doesn’t look like a modern game and at launch, the game was marred with performance issues (particularly on the Nintendo Switch). With the said, the game’s not without its charm/endearing qualities. I’ve played the original Disaster Report to completion back in the day, but I never did finish its sequel (known in the west as Raw Danger). The fourth entry doesn’t stray too far off from its PS2 predecessors, but there’s certainly a larger emphasis on the adventure elements this time around. Nearly every question lobbed at the player prompts a plethora of multiple-choice responses. You can clearly be a good person with a moral compass or an evil thief without a care in the world. The choices you make are reflected throughout and can cause some pretty interesting story beats along the way. Surprisingly, there’s also less city destruction/hazards to avoid than in previous titles. It’s more about the interpersonal relationships between the survivors you meet along the way and the human drama that unfolds.
Some of the scenarios in Disaster Report 4 can be very serious/dark, but just like the previous games, it’s not without its goofy moments. In one instance, you’re persuaded to help a cult sway scattered civilians to join their cause and the next minute you’re mourning the loss of a school teacher surrounded by crying students. It’s a roller coaster ride of emotions, but isn’t that life? Considering the game’s troubled development history, it’s a miracle Disaster Report 4 came out to begin with. The story has its fair share of twists/turns and there’s even ties back to the older games for the fans who have stuck around all these years (there’s dozens of us!). Disaster Report 4 is an unpolished gem with a lot of rough edges, but it’s such a genuine/earnest affair that it’s hard to dislike. I completed the game with one of the endings, but I’ll definitely replay it down the road when the mood strikes me again. I can’t wait to see what Granzella does next.
9. Huntdown: Huntdown is one of the best 2D Run N’ Gun Contra/Metal Slug-likes I’ve ever played. Developed by Easy Trigger Games, Huntdown is set in what appears to be an 80s-inspired, cyberpunk fueled, post-apocalyptic world where you play as one of three bounty hunters who are quite literally tasked to hunt-down numerous gangs/crime syndicates. Each mercenary plays mostly the same; they can run, jump, hide behind cover and shoot, but each character also comes equipped with unique side-weapons. The game is comprised of a handful of stages that take place in a seedy, futuristic city. Each gang leader’s subordinates must be eleminated in order to unlock the boss stage for each territory. Levels are relatively straight forward; get from point A to point B while collecting weapons/ammo and shooting baddies along the way. Stages don’t overstay their welcome and they’re all appropriately themed based on the part of the city that you’re in. Nowadays, it feels like there are hundreds of 2D side-scrollers released in a single month, but Huntdown certainly stands above the rest (I also preferred it to 2019’s Blazing Chrome, another highly recommended Run N’ Gun shooter).
Huntdown is just oozing with style and its overall presentation is one worth noting, too. In one stage, for example, a deranged hockey team has overtaken a part of the city. In the final area, as you approach the leader/boss, you slowly ride an elevator upwards to a stadium where you can hear the boss giving his speech in the background set to the backdrop of a roaring crowd. As you’re ascending the elevator, flickering lights adorn the sides of buildings and you can even see a shady group of thugs sitting at a dimly lit table (perhaps plotting their next move against the town). There are small moments and details like this everywhere and it’s what sets the game apart from any of its contemporaries. The game’s relatively short, but it’s highly replayable, too. There are secret caches to collect and medals for killing a certain amount of enemies in each stage while not dying. There are even multiple difficulties, but I only managed to complete the game at 100% on Normal (which was challenging enough). If you were only going to checkout/play one retro-inspired Run N’ Gun from 2020, Huntdown is it. I’ve got my laser-sight locked on these developers, so hopefully they stick around for a sequel (or two).
8. Creaks: I wanted 2020 to be over just like everyone else did, but in terms of new game releases, 2020 was an embarrassment of riches. Naturally, a ton of great, less-talked about games have fallen through the cracks, one of which is Amanita Design’s Creaks. Similar to the developer’s previous titles, Creaks is another 2D puzzle-adventure game, but for the first time in the developer’s history, instead of pointing your cursor and clicking where to move, you actually have full control of your character’s movement. In Creaks, you play as a common man, living in his apartment, until what appears to be an earthquake that unveils a hidden crawlspace to a neighboring world. In retrospect, now that I’ve been mostly in quarantine for nearly a year now, the introduction really hit me hard. In my head, the character you play as was a reflection of ourselves during this global pandemic; someone who was looking for an escape from this reality by any means necessary. This hidden world, however, is inhabited by strange bird-like creatures who speak in gibberish. What’s worse is that there are robotic dogs and squid-like sea creatures that turn into pieces of furniture and coat racks upon touching light. You’ll solve extremely clever environmental puzzles by following patterns, pulling switches and manipulating lights in order to proceed. The game can be quite challenging at times, but the solutions are mostly reasonable and super satisfying once everything clicks.
Creaks also has a beautiful art style, an incredible, dynamic soundtrack and some truly clever concepts. The OST, in particular, is phenomenal. It’s moody and atmospheric, but furthermore, it’ll change pitch/tone once you’re on the right track to solving a room’s puzzle. Throughout the game, you’ll also find interactive paintings that are essentially mini-puzzles within themselves. Each painting will have levers and buttons which can be manipulated in order to find the solution. In one painting, a woman is attempting to sing to her audience and by moving a lever up and down, you’ll change her pitch. Another button will change her singing style as there are four people in the audience you’re trying to impress specifically. If the crowd starts to react positively, you’re on the right track, but if they start to hold their hands over their ears, you’ll fail. Finally, one of my favorite aspects of the game is the world map. The visual progression in Creaks is extremely satisfying. You’ll slowly make your way down a beautifully illustrated tower-of-sorts as the game maps out your progress along the way.
Creaks was a slow burn for me, but I couldn’t stop thinking about it when I wasn’t playing it. It’s a surreal experience that I can’t recommend enough, especially if you like puzzle games. I completed the game with all of the paintings found and the Platinum trophy earned. At this point, I hope the rest of the developer’s back-catalog makes its way to consoles, but at the very least, Amanita Design has my eyes on them for the foreseeable future. At the time of writing this, the developer announced their new game for PC and Nintendo Switch called, “Happy Game”, and it looks horrifyingly glorious.
7. Ori and the Will of the Wisps: I liked Ori and the Blind Forest well enough (which you can read about here), but it wasn’t without its problems. The sequel, Ori and the Will of the Wisps, developed by Moon Studios, is a follow-up which takes place after the events of the original game. At first, I was having trouble getting into the game during the first few hours. The intro cinematic attempts to hit the same emotional highs that the first game provided, but it’s not as powerful. The original game was also mostly comprised of a single, interconnected jungle/forest with the standard fire and ice areas you’d expect from the genre. The sequel starts mostly the same with a dark, damp swamp and it didn’t feel as inspired as I was hoping it was going to be. Once I discovered the first major town, its respective dungeon and boss fight (something that was missing from the first game), my impression of the game completely flipped and I fell in love with it.
At a glance, Ori and the Will of the Wisps doesn’t look/play too differently from the first game, but there are small touches that certainly set it apart from its predecessor. Both Ori games have some of the best movement in a 2D platformer to date; the burrowing technique (which is new to the Will of the Wisps), the tried and true Bash maneuver from the first game or even the triple jump, each traversal ability gives you so much control/freedom over Ori’s movement. The new town hub, which you can restore over the course of the game by completing quests and such was a much needed/appreciated layer missing from the first game, too. Clearly, Moon Studios has some of the finest environmental artists and animators in the business. Ori and the Blind Forest was beautiful, but somehow they’ve outdone themselves with the sequel. The areas are much more diverse and appropriately themed than the first game, too. There’s a pitch-dark cavern infested with spiders, a wasteland ravaged by a giant sand worm and a tropical biome flooded by water (my favorite area), among other feasts for the eyes. At one point, you can see an abandoned water mill in the background from the starting area and once you restore the structure and you return to that same spot, you can see it moving/functional in the background. It’s little touches like this that give the world its sense of place and make the game truly special.
Finally, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Gareth Coker’s incredible soundtrack. I often found myself putting the controller down and just listening to the music as Ori sat idle on the screen. It’s that good. I completed the game on Hard difficulty, but I haven’t gone back to 100% the game yet. I’ll likely revisit Ori and the Will of the Wisps to checkout its enhancements on the Xbox Series X in the near future.
6. Bugsnax: I’m talkin’ ’bout that Bugsnax. Young Horses’ second outing is easily one of my favorite games of 2020. Having just finished Octodad: Dadliest Catch for the first time a few weeks ago, Bugsnax quickly became one of my most anticipated games of the year and boy did it deliver. Prior to the game’s release, what grabbed/spiked my interest wasn’t the ever-so-popular theme song, but the developer’s inspirations; Pokemon Snap, Ape Escape, Dark Cloud and Viva Pinata. To put it simply, they had me at the mere mention of “Ape Escape”. In Bugsnax, you’re a journalist who’s sent to an island that is said to be the home of Bugsnax; delicious, food-based creatures who also happen to be adorable little pets. A group of individuals (Grumpuses) have traveled to this island to start new lives, so to speak, and the leader of this new “family” has gone missing. It’s your job to investigate the disappearance of a particular person who’s paramount to the survival of the community. By interviewing each island resident, feeding them Bugsnax and solving their problems, you’ll find yourself one step closer to solving the island’s mystery.
At its core, your main goal is to catch Bugsnax by using a variety of tools. Some of the tools are pretty basic such as a net or a slingshot, but there are also more interesting gadgets like a launchpad and a trip-wire, which can be combined in interesting ways to capture the more elusive Bugsnax. Each Bugsnax has unique behaviors/patterns and with the right tools/timing, you can capture (most) of them with relative ease. Day/night cycles and even the weather can have an effect on which Bugsnax spawn, too. The game is also divided into multiple environments which extend outward from the main town and it also serves as your base of operations. With that said, some of the Bugsnax are simply variants of existing ones, but their clever name usage and Pokemon-like voice clips more than makes up for the lack of variety. There are even bosses which culminate in some truly interesting battles that make use of a your tools in clever ways. Bugsnax is a game with a lot of heart, too. It’s also very queer and inclusive in how the game represents its diverse cast of characters. The characters on this island are truly some of the most memorable individuals I’ve met all year and as you get to know them and solve their problems, you become instantly attached because of how relatable they are. After I finished the game, I couldn’t get these characters out of my head for days. The story goes to some pretty dark places too and the ending is not what I was expecting.
Finally, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Kero Kero Bonito’s Bugsnax song, “It’s Bugsnax”. I was afraid that the hype surrounding the announcement/launch of the game was riding too closely on the popularity of this song (and for good reason, it’s a catchy track), but it seems like the game’s a success or at least making its rounds in certain communities/circles as a must-play. I completed the game with the Platinum trophy earned and even though I more or less saw and did everything there was to do in the game, Bugsnax has a deep grind for those who are completionists at heart. At some point in the game, you will come across a villager who upgrades one of your tools so that you can randomize the appearance of the town-folk based on the Bugsnax you fed them. What this means is that you could potentially feed all 100 unique species of Bugsnax to EACH villager, which would allow them to transform into hundreds of different combinations. There’s no in-game reward for doing this, but the fact that it’s there speaks volumes to the systems at play here. While I would love a sequel or another game that takes place in this world, I’d also welcome an entirely new experience as it seems like they’re too talented of a team to dwell on one particular idea. I really enjoyed my time with Bugsnax and Young Horses are permanently on my list of developers to keep an eye on.
5. Animal Crossing: New Horizons: Animal Crossing: New Horizons has been quite the success story. It’s one of the best selling games for the Nintendo Switch and it hasn’t even been out for a full year yet. The game launched during the initial height of a global pandemic, so while most people were stuck at home, dealing with existential dread, anxiety and stress, why not live your life vicariously through overly positive animal friends? Plus, you can decorate a home on a tropical island, a travel destination that still feels like a distant dream, even today, in the middle of January as I write this. I grew-up with and still love Nintendo, but for whatever reason, there are a handful of franchises I’ve yet to spend any significant time with, Animal Crossing being one of them. I’ve surprisingly purchased most of the games in the past, dating all the way back to the original GameCube release, but I’ve only dipped my toes into an entry or two before dropping them. New Horizons, however, has completely won me over.
I’ve never been too hot on games like Sim City, Harvest Moon or even the Sims; games where there’s seemingly no end in sight and the onus is placed on you, at least in terms of creating your own fun or setting your own goals. My understanding of Animal Crossing prior to playing New Horizons was that it was similar to those aforementioned titles, only with Nintendo’s usual polish/charm. Boy, did I underestimate how much time I would have spent with this game. In the beginning, I was mostly interested in the game’s structure/mechanics. As someone who enjoys studying game design, I was most interested in how features, unlocks and mechanics were doled out over the course of the game. For Animal Crossing, I’ve always been on the outside looking in, so I didn’t have much of a reference point. At the start of the game, you can create your character and choose your island from a random selection of topography. From there, the game slowly eases you into many layered systems that aren’t immediately apparent/explained to the player. You’re also assigned a random fruit at the beginning, which can be grown and then sold on other player’s island for more bells (the game’s currency), which is to encourage you to partake in the multiplayer components (which could be better).
At its core, Animal Crossing is a day-to-day life simulator, complete with day/night cycles, annual events and other festivities. On most days, you’ll find yourself harvesting materials, helping villagers with menial tasks, catching bugs/fish for your museum collection and crafting items to make your house/island more beautiful, but there’s much more here if you’re willing to invest the time. Visiting other player’s islands or having them come see your creations is an integral part of the game. Some seasonal items are exclusive to other player’s shops and other activities (such as bug/fish tournaments) can be completed more efficiently with friends. I’ve been fortunate enough to have a group of long-distance friends who are more versed with Animal Crossing, so my experience playing with others has certainly been fruitful. One (dangerous) hole I found myself digging into during the first few months was the Stalk Market; buying turnips at a low price and then selling them high. Every Sunday, a sweet, old lady can be found on your shorelines selling turnips for a random price. What’s interesting, however, is that the price could potentially be lower on other player’s islands, so you’re incentivized to “ask around”, so to speak, to find the cheapest price. From Monday through Saturday, you have an opportunity to sell these turnips at your shop, but the amount you can sell them for fluctuates. To make things more complicated, your turnips will rot if you don’t sell them by the following Sunday. It’s a simple risk/reward system that adds a degree of pressure/anxiety during your week, if you decide to partake in such an investment.
Once you craft all of your necessary tools, gain access to every area on your island and pay off all of your home extensions, it’s easy to find yourself lost to the daily grind. While there are Nook Miles to complete (the in-game achievement system), a lot of them require you to play the game extensively and perform tasks like catching/crafting “X” amount of fish/bugs and items, respectively. So, unless you have some grand image for your island, the game’s really about making your own fun/setting your own goals. After 100 or so hours, I found myself at a crossroad in terms of decorating/customizing my island. It’s easy to just throw anything down with no rhyme/reason, but your island can become quite chaotic and messy, so where’s the satisfaction in that? I hardly ever role-play when I play sim-like games or MMOs, but there’s a first time for everything. I named my island Phantomile, which is the name of the imaginary kingdom from a PS1 era platformer called, Klonoa: Door to Phantomile. It’s one of my all-time favorite games, but it’s been dormant for quite some time now, so why not pay tribute to the game since Namco Bandai has no intention on bringing the franchise back (I’m not bitter, I swear). In Klonoa, you’re a dream traveler who falls asleep and drifts to a dream world in peril. On my island, I’m acting as if my villagers are dreaming about their previous lives and their dreams (which I write on the town’s sign board) are then reflected on the island visually/aesthetically.
I’ve logged well over 300 hours since launch and I don’t see myself stopping anytime soon. Although I’ve seen the “credits” (K.K. Slider has visited my island), there’s really no end to Animal Crossing. I’ve gone on island tours, participated in meteorite shower gatherings and fishing tournaments with long-distance friends, earned millions of Bells through the turnip exchange and purchased all of my home expansions. One of these days I’ll have a 5-Star Island, too! But in the meantime, it’s been my “morning coffee” game when I login to work from home. Animal Crossing: New Horizons will forever be known as the “quarantine game”, too. Having released at the end of March 2020, it provided a virtual escape to a getaway island where nothing could seemingly go wrong. It gave you control over a space that you could nurture and cultivate when everything on the outside world was (and continues to be) in chaos.
4. Paper Mario: The Origami King: Paper Mario: The Origami King is the sixth official entry in the long-running Paper Mario series. While most fans have disliked entries beyond the GameCube title, The Thousand-Year Door, each game has tried something new/different since (for better or worse). Put me in the camp that actually enjoyed certain aspects of Super Paper Mario (Wii), Paper Mario: Sticker Star (3DS) and Paper Mario: Color Splash (Wii U), respectively. The Origami King (TOK) attempts to bridge the former trilogy and the latter games together as sort of the ultimate compromise for the (very) divided fan-base and the results were mostly for the better.
If you’ll excuse the pun, TOK’s story is a mixed bag of confetti. The overarching plot is simple; an evil Origami King has invaded the Mushroom Kingdom and has folded all of its inhabitants (including Princess Peach and Bowser) into lifeless puppets. It’s Mario’s job, along with the evil king’s sister, Olivia, to journey through the kingdom undoing the origami machinations that have enveloped the land. Just like Color Splash before it, the writing is some of the best in the series. It’s clever, heart-felt and actually really funny at times, too. TOK might have one of the darkest yet emotionally-charged scenes in Paper Mario history and it’s easily one of the most memorable gaming moments I had all year. With that said, the Origami King himself doesn’t have the greatest presence throughout the story. The game could have used some in-between-chapter scenes to develop the villain further, similar to what the older games would do at the conclusion of a chapter. I think I also surprisingly preferred Huey from Color Splash, as I found Olivia to be a relatively uninteresting partner.
While TOK is still a turn-based RPG at its core, it’s much more of an adventure game than anything else. For the first time since The Thousand-Year Door, TOK’s world is interconnected and fully realized. Each area is beautifully designed with secrets, shortcuts and set-pieces that truly elevate the game to some impressive heights. There’s even an entire chapter/area that’s essentially a recreation of The Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker! At the culmination of an area/dungeon, there are boss battles which are probably some of the most unique and clever encounters you’ll find in the franchise’s history. As I mentioned earlier, combat is still turn-based, but battles take place on a circular grid with panels that can be manipulated in order to lineup attacks (think of it as a flat Rubik’s Cube). Boss fights, however, flip the script on the battle system’s fundamentals by providing unique variables/conditions you won’t see anywhere else in the game. In one instance, you’ll be fighting a hole puncher and it will punch holes on certain panels of the grid so that you can’t walk over them. Each boss (and there are many of them) offer unique variables/conditions like this and they’re truly engaging/memorable encounters. Outside of the bosses, regular enemy encounters can be a bit of a drag, unfortunately.
While solving the panel-swapping puzzle elements during battles felt satisfying at first (and arguably more strategic than any other Paper Mario combat system to date), there’s not a whole lot of variety during the regular enemy encounters. You’ll simply lineup the enemies so they’re either in a row of 4 or a quadrant of 4 (2 x 2) and then follow-up with your hammer/boots of choice (which degrade over time, outside of the default pair of equipment). TOK makes an attempt to throw some much needed wrinkles into the combat during the final few hours of the game, but it’s a case of being too little, too late, unfortunately. Just like in Color Splash, enemies can attack you in waves if you approach multiple monsters on the field at once, which helps reduce repeat encounters. One of the downsides to TOK’s battle system was the fact that the usefulness of items wasn’t as clear to the player as they’ve been in the past. While there are ice/fire-based enemies, using the appropriate elemental flower/hammer to counter these types of enemies felt underutilized or irrelevant at times, as the game is generally very easy. TOK could have benefited from having a “Hard Mode” accessory too (similar to the recent, wannabe Paper Mario-like game, Bug Fables: The Everlasting Sapling). With that said, there are minor rewards for completing the game with no accessories/deaths, which is arguably the game’s “Hard” mode.
The vocal fan-base seems to share a similar sentiment when it comes to the more recent Paper Mario titles. Many have said that Nintendo/Intelligent Systems should just scrap the RPG elements/turn-based combat in favor of a more action-adventure oriented approach. TOK does have moments where you battle paper machete enemies in real-time and it’s a fun diversion to the traditional turn-based battles. Going forward, I would still prefer that the series remains the RPG-lite hybrid it’s always been, however, I do understand that Paper Mario needs a bit more depth if they’re going to stubbornly remain under the guise of an RPG. With that said, the world and environments are so well-designed, it’s hard not to appreciate their efforts to try new things. Sure, there is an abundance of coins and currency has replaced the traditional leveling system found in previous games, but the game’s economy is so tightly integrated into the entire experience that I still found the whole loop rewarding. Finally, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the incredible soundtrack. A wide-range of composers worked on this game and there’s some truly incredible pieces throughout.
I wrote this in a previous post as I also completed Color Splash for the first time a few months ago, but it bears repeating; if your enjoyment of Paper Mario hinges on the fact that there’s no experience points after battle, then you’re probably never going to like anything beyond Sticker Star. I personally feel like it’s a misguided hangup, however. While I understand things like badges and partners added some much needed depth/customization to an already relatively simple turn-based combat system, those aren’t the only factors that define Paper Mario. Even with some questionable design decisions and lack of traditional character progression, if you’re simply a fan of Mario/adventure games with light RPG elements, TOK is a lovingly-crafted, charming adventure that’s well worth your time.
3. moon: After nearly 23 years, Onion Games has officially released the English version of the cult-classic, anti-RPG, Moon: Remix RPG Adventure (now stylized as simply, moon) , which has arguably paved the way for the indie darlings of today. While “Indie” games have become the recognizable, respectful, and successful sub-genre and anti-“AAA” space that it is today, games like moon were ahead of the curve, subverting your expectations as early as 1997. In moon, much like Little King’s Story, you play as a young boy who gets whisked away to a fantasy world where you essentially play cleanup after a so-called “Hero” devastates and pillages the land. Your goal is to collect as much “Love” as you can by solving people’s problems and saving the souls of dead monsters the “Hero” has slain. moon is mostly a text-based adventure game, however. Despite looking like a top-down, pre-rendered PS1 era RPG, there is no combat in moon. Instead, you’ll follow and observe peoples’ behaviors while solving their requests along the way. The game also has a day/night cycle and a weekly calendar where certain events trigger on particular days at specific times. In the beginning, you only have so much stamina/energy to perform a certain amount of “actions” until you collect more “Love”. If your stamina/energy runs out, your character will collapse which will result in a game over, so you’re immediately incentivized to talk to people and resolve their issues so that you can see more of the game.
If you’re not used to writing down actual notes while playing the game, you’re going to have a difficult time getting through moon, which is a big ask for a lot of people by today’s standards. There’s lots of trial & error in moon and it’s the type of game that certainly doesn’t hold your hand. Figuring out which item to use on each person can become a bit tedious, as the solution to a lot of the puzzles/requests are not particularly obvious. Furthermore, a lot of the scenarios require multiple days to pass in-game, which means you’ll be going to sleep a lot and checking in on people in order to advance the story. In one instance, there’s a family that’s essentially the depiction of the “American Dream”. They’re a traditional/nuclear family consisting of a mother, father, daughter and a dog (of course) living in a white picket fence house. The married couple stays up late watching TV each night and at some point, the father will return to his bedroom to work on his comics as he’s an inspiring artist. The two also sleep in separate beds (like it’s in the 1950s) and the father will even get up some mornings to mow the lawn. Every family has its secrets, however, as the mother has been donating money to a church that’s actually a front to a secret underground laboratory that’s attempting to build a ship to the moon, presumably with her donations. Did I also mention that this church has a teleporter than transports you to a futuristic, off-shore city where loan sharks/salary-men dance the night away at a club? Yes, this is moon.
If you meet the game on its own terms, it’s one of the most memorable, empathetic and heartfelt gaming experiences you’ll ever have. Toby Fox, the mind behind the extremely successful, modern-day indie title, Undertale, has gone on record recently stating how important/inspirational moon was to him, too. I haven’t beaten moon yet and I rarely put games I haven’t finished on my top 10 list, but that’s how strongly I feel about the game. I’m in the final act, but like a lot of RPGs from this era, it can be a bit too cryptic at times. I’ve also been trying my best to avoid walkthroughs as almost all of the enjoyment from moon stems from discovering its puzzle solutions and story moments on your own. With that said, I have hit a wall or two and I may have to resort to a guide at some point if I can’t progress. If you enjoy weird, quirky games with a lot of heart, there’s no better time to take a trip to the moon.
2. Astro’s Playroom: PlayStation has had its mascot-like characters each generation. From Crash Bandicoot and Spyro the Dragon to Ratchet & Clank and Jak & Daxter, PlayStation consoles have seen their fair share of marsupials, dragons, robots and the like over the years. In 2013, however, Astro arguably made its first appearance in Japan Studio’s The Playroom for the PS4, a free downloadable mini-game collection for the system’s launch that made use of augmented reality (AR). In 2016, Astro would make its true debut, however, in The Playroom VR. While The Playroom VR was yet another collection of mini-games to showcase the capabilities of PlayStation VR (PSVR), the popularity of a single level featuring everyone’s favorite robot would soon elevate the little guy to spectacular heights. In 2018, Astro Bot: Rescue Mission released which cemented its place as one of the greatest 3D platformers of all time and a crowning achievement of what PSVR could offer. Now, in the godforsaken year that has been 2020, Astro’s Playroom has graced the launch of the PS5 as a freely installed tech demo of sorts that’s far beyond anything we could have imagined.
Utilizing PS5’s new controller capabilities (haptic feedback and adaptive triggers), Astro’s Playroom beautifully illustrates the potential of the new hardware while simultaneously letting you explore PlayStation’s history/legacy. Similar to how I felt about Astro Bot: Rescue Mission, Astro’s Playroom might appear to be a relatively simple, yet traditional 3D platformer, but because of the hardware (in this case, the DualSense controller), experiencing Astro’s Playroom is like nothing else you’ll play in 2020. Vibration, gyro controls, IR pointers and the like have graced controllers for decades, but the DualSense provides an unmatched level of feedback that quite honestly can’t be compared to anything else. It’s what the HD Rumble for Nintendo Switch’s Joy-Cons should have been. To put it simply; every action you take in Astro’s Playroom, whether it’s walking, running or jumping, has a particular texture/feel to it. You’ll run across sand, grass or even metal plating and each tile-set, so to speak, has a particular feel on the controller. This level of detail extends to every element the game throws at you including wind and rain, too.
Astro’s Playroom is sensory overload, to say the least. It’s an audio/visual tour de force that left me nearly speechless at times. As I mentioned earlier, outside of how the game controls/plays, Astro’s Playroom is a competent and clever 3D platformer that’s enriched by PlayStation’s history/legacy. You’ll collect Sony-branded accessories, hardware and other odds & ends from previous generations, some of which you’ve likely never seen/heard of before. You’ll even be greeted by dozens of references to other popular game franchises/IPs that have graced each console since the original PS1. The cameo appearances are handled with the utmost care too and they’re adorable demonstrations that you’ll find littered across the game’s four distinct worlds. Did I also mention that the entire game is essentially the innards of the PS5 itself? It’s the kind of game you simply have to experience as no amount of writing/talking can do it justice. I completed the game at 100% with the Platinum trophy earned. The future is certainly bright for Astro and its robot buddies and I cannot wait to see what they’re up to next.
1. 13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim: Vanillaware’s 13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim is the perfect example of the phrase, “Don’t judge a book by its cover.” While the developer is known for their beautiful 2D artwork, engrossing stories and interesting characters, Vanillaware has gone above and beyond with 13 Sentinels. It’s a once-in-a-generation game that has even been championed by some of the most respected creators in the industry. Both Yoko Taro and Masahiro Sakurai, for example, have given the game their highest regards. If you’ve only seen the game at a glance, your first impression might be that it’s simply a tale of Japanese school kids who happen to pilot giant robots in order to defeat invading Kaijū. This assessment is not entirely wrong, however, there’s much more to 13 Sentinels than what meets the eye. The game requires a leap of faith, so to speak, on the player’s behalf. There’s a certain level of trust required to engage with the game, whether it’s been built-up/recommended by the community at large or if you’ve had faith in the quality of the developer’s previous titles. Unless you’re a JRPG/Visual Novel (VN) aficionado, 13 Sentinels can be a hard sell without spoiling the entire experience, but boy is it one wild trip worth taking.
13 Sentinels is mostly a VN, but it also has tactical battles that feel more like a real-time strategy (RTS) game. You’ll mostly play episodic-like scenarios from 13 different perspectives, but in-between these story segments, you’ll be asked to participate in relatively low-key RPG battles that are a lot more fun/engaging once you accept them for what they are. At first, I felt completely overwhelmed by the user interface (UI); all of the stats, the character perks/abilities you can unlock/upgrade, and choosing between 13 different characters to take into battle, it’s all rather… a lot. The battles take place on a city-like grid, with paths that can be traversed or flown over depending on the sentinel’s model/generation (aesthetically, it looks like the world maps from the older Persona/SMT games). While there are passive/support abilities, the majority of your attacks have direct/area effects, like metal-arm punches and swarms of missiles, respectively. Visually, you could argue that watching the combat play out in 13 Sentinels is as exciting as a game of chess, but with more explosives. Outside of the explosions and missiles firing from your position (including some crazy on-screen damage numbers), it’s not going to win many people over from afar. The battles really grew on me as I became more invested in the story, however. I just loved how high-stakes/relentless each encounter was and the OST and dynamic music transitions kept me engaged. There are also well-animated movies that demonstrate your abilities prior to selecting them, which were appreciated.
One of the most interesting things about 13 Sentinels, however, is how it tells its story. The game can be played in a non-linear fashion, to a degree. You’ll jump from character to character and each protagonist’s story takes place at different points during the timeline. It’s purposefully confusing and if you’re questioning the game at every turn, it’s doing its job correctly. With every plot-twist and reveal, your head will be spinning until the very end, but the payoff is worth it. I haven’t played anything like 13 Sentinels all year and it was a game I couldn’t get out of my head even weeks after completing it. Every year, when I’m trying to decide what my game of the year is, I look for an experience that makes me put my controller down so that I can idle as I reflect on what I’m seeing/hearing. Whether it was some crazy plot reveal that left my jaw on the floor or the incredible soundtrack that kept me on edge during a combat encounter, 13 Sentinels took me to places in 2020 when there was nowhere else to go. Play this game, go in as blind as you can and lose yourself in its world and characters.
See you next time…