Let’s get it out of the way: what an awful year. One of 2020’s few comforts for me was playing games, and holy shit what a year for games it was. From long-anticipated new console launches to indie sensations that came seemingly out of the blue, 2020—for me—ranks among the industry’s best years, ever.
2020’s lineup was so good that a top 10 alone won’t cut it this year. Adding to this, the pandemic’s lockdown measures gave me new reasons to play: not just for escapism but also for socializing and killing boredom. So the ways I played games, and therefore the ways I looked at games, changed.
Before we get into the full list and honorable mentions, shout outs to the games that didn’t quite make the cut but still deserve a nod: Astro’s Playroom, Assassin’s Creed Valhalla, Carrion, Paper Mario Origami King, Call of Duty: Warzone, DOOM Eternal, Hyrule Warriors Age of Calamity, Dreams, and Crash Bandicoot 4. Bloody hell, what a year.
Tell Me Why (Chapters 1 and 2) – Played on Xbox Series S
Remember Netflix dropped that choose-your-own adventure Black Mirror experiment? While it was a bit divisive, swaths of the TV critic sphere lauded Bandersnatch as the second coming of Christ. But gaming’s been using the format for decades—and in better and more impactful ways to boot.
Tell Me Why is the latest one of those from Dontnod, the guys and girls behind Life Is Strange. Tell Me Why certainly doesn’t push the boat with its gameplay; hell, they could’ve just called it Life Is Strange 3. Rather, it’s Tell Me Why’s narrative that makes it worth an honourable mention.
The story puts you in the shoes of two twins as they unravel the mystery of their mother’s death. One of those twins, Tyler, is trans, so of course the game has been blasted and review-bombed by capital-G Gamers. For me, though, Tell Me Why has clarified transgender identity a little, touching on the transition process, how people might react, and a bunch of other factors I never really thought of.
Honestly, it was an eye-opening experience for me—one that I’m thoroughly enjoying so far and won’t soon forget. Bring on the next chapters!
Genshin Impact – Played on PC and Mobile
Let’s face it: Chinese developers tend to copy concepts from the West and Japan. Genshin Impact’s a little different from those other China-developed games though, as it’s a console-style adventure RPG rather than the more common mobile clones of popular Western titles. However, Genshin still plucks a bunch of successful elements from other games.
It’s open-world in the vein of Breath of the Wild, which again annoyed plenty of capital-G Gamers, who for some reason seem to forget that the games business is derivative. Hell, even their precious Breath of the Wild copied mechanics from Assassin’s Creed and Skyrim.
The way I see it, Genshin gives non-Switch-owners a chance to play a game like Breath of the Wild for free, and that’s pretty rad. ‘’Buyer’’ beware though: Genshin Impact was created for the mobile platform first and operates under the predatory gacha model. If you’re susceptible to those sorts of mechanics, I’d point you toward Immortals Fenyx Rising, another Breath of the Wild-like on other platforms. It might be full price, but Immortals is mostly free of predatory monetization.
Fortnite – Played on PlayStation 5, PC, and Switch
Fortnite’s non-gaming events, brand activations, and IP crossovers have been keeping Epic’s battle royale phenomenon in the spotlight, but that’s not why I’m mentioning it. I’m also not going to say the word metaverse—a buzzword that the industry is currently throwing around after any mention of in-game brand promotions. We’re not there yet, folks.
OK—the Mandalorian and Marvel stuff was right up my alley, and seeing the God of War himself twerk to Megan Thee Stallion’s – ‘’Savage’’ is hilarious. But the real reason Fortnite is my most-played game on PlayStation 5 this year (70 hours and counting) is because it’s given me a way to catch up with my young nephew.
I live in the Netherlands. Pre-pandemic, I’d visit Wales every three months or so to catch up with my family, but corona put a spanner in that one. Now, I jump into Fortnite every couple of days with my nephew, whether that be to mess about in Creative, listen to him complain about his parents not letting him watch Cobra Kai (he’s only eight), or on occasion even play the odd match.
10. Final Fantasy VII Remake – Played on PlayStation 4
The original FFVII wasn’t my Final Fantasy, and it certainly isn’t the pinnacle of JRPGs those rose-tinted glasses would have you believe (my brand of rose-tinted glasses point me toward Chrono Trigger and FFIV).
That said, FFVII was a seminal moment for the JRPG genre, and I still have plenty of nostalgia for it. There are some major issues with its 2020 remake, like its terrible dialogue, its linear, hollow-feeling dungeons, and a JRPG-mandated dose of sexism and racism (fucking unacceptable for 2020, if you ask me).
Despite these issues, the remake’s action-oriented combat, sublime soundtrack, and stunning visuals make it an unmissable experience for any action RPG fan. And if you have any nostalgia for FFVII, you need to play this game.
Seeing this dissolute world with modern-day graphics is incredible, and the sense of scale is amazing. It’s safe to say that the Sector 7 Slums and Midgar now mirror the developers’ original vision. You know a remake’s good when it manages to recapture how a game looked to you when you were eight years old.
Buyer beware: this isn’t a full remake of Final Fantasy VII—it’s the first part of a series, so don’t go in expecting the full story.
9. Fall Guys – Played on PlayStation 4
Mario Party without the annoying-ass board game? Using a Takeshi Castle template? And battle royale mechanics? That’s Fall Guys, and it’s absolutely bonkers. The concept is straightforward enough, so almost anyone can pick up and play. While its meme-making marketing machine was a major part of its success, I think the lockdown measures really pushed Fall Guys to the upper echelon.
Simply put, Fall Guys was exactly what I needed back in August, after the COVID-19 House Party and Skype calls had long lost their novelty. From August to November, I played Fall Guys online with my Welsh mates while catching up over a few beers. At times, it almost felt like we were in the room together, and I’ll always appreciate this game for that.
8. Spider-Man: Miles Morales – Played on PlayStation 5
2018’s Spider-Man on PlayStation 4 is my favourite superhero game of all time: swinging around New York never gets old, the Arkham-style combat system is satisfying, and to top it all off, the narrative had one of the most refreshing takes on Peter Parker I’ve seen.
The 2020 follow up, Miles Morales, is more of a standalone expansion (think Uncharted Lost Legacy and Infamous First Light), but it still manages to improve upon that first game in every way: there are more tricks and abilities, making traversal and combat even better; the game takes place in winter, flaunting a whole new side of New York; and Miles is so likeable as a main protagonist.
The story in Miles is also more self-contained than that first game, tracing the titular character’s pathway to becoming Harlem’s own Spidey—a refreshing change from the save-the-world bullshit we’ve seen time and time again.
I played Miles on PlayStation 5, so the ray tracing, 60 FPS fidelity mode, best-in-class particle effects, and 3D audio took were a cocktail of next-gen goodness. Also, it was refreshing as hell to see a black lead in a game—especially this year.
7. Demon’s Souls – Played on PlayStation 5
Ah, the original Demon’s Souls, the catalyst that kicked off the whole Soulsborne genre back in 2009. We’ve come a long way since then, so I was a little sceptical that this remake could live up to the heights of Bloodborne and Sekiro. I had nothing to worry about.
Turns out FromSoftware hit a homerun on their first swing, as this Demon’s Souls remake stands toe to toe with From’s latest and greatest. While the original gameplay and foundations remain largely untouched, developer Bluepoint has done an astounding job of bringing the visuals to modern-day standards—just as they did with Shadow of the Colossus last gen.
In terms of pure presentation, this game looks better than anything else I’ve seen. I almost feel bad for those who dropped two grand on a new graphics card to play Cyberpunk—almost. Anyway, you know whether or not you gel with these kinds of games, and this is a kick-ass one of those. It won’t convince those who don’t like the Soulsborne genre, but I sure loved it.
6. Ghost of Tsushima – Played on PlayStation 4
Suckerpunch out-Assassin’s-Creeded Assassin’s Creed, in almost every way. Exploration is more fun and fluid; instead of overwhelming the player with a million map icons and HUD elements, Ghost of Tsushima takes cues from Breath of the Wild’s school of design.
Rather than robotically tracking markers and waypoints, you’re following the path of the wind. The particle effects really come into play here. Can’t see the wind’s stream for yourself? Use the blades of grass or a fire’s embers as a cue. It’s so much more organic and—for lack of a better word—immersive than navigation options in other adventure games.
Yet Ghost of Tsushima’s most standout quality is its presentation. The game’s seasonal map makes apt use of the colour palette and is one of the best uses of HDR I’ve seen in any medium. And Suckerpunch’s rendition of Feudal Japan is faithful, respectful, and stunning. Some parts of the gameplay feel a bit Xbox 360, but every other aspect of this game is so refined that this shortcoming is easy to overlook. Best new IP of the generation? It could well be.
5. Ori and the Will of the Wisps – Played on PC & Xbox Series S
Now, I LOVE a Metroidvania game—including the first Ori—so boy was I pumped for the sequel. But when Will of the Wisps first dropped at the start of the year, it was marred by bugs and glitches. The solid foundation was there, and I could see it, but it was held back by its messy launch. Ori humbly sat toward the bottom of this top 10—until I played the Series X|S version in November, that is.
Since launch, Moon Studios have been hard at work streamlining the game’s menus and fixing its bugs, and Ori 2 is now infinitely more enjoyable for it. What’s more, the new Xbox SSD means that zipping between menus and map screens is instant, whereas they hitched for a couple of seconds back in the 1.0 release—pretty damning for a game that’s all about exploration.
The final verdict: Will of the Wisps’ stellar audio design, gorgeous hand-painted visuals, cutesy characters, and gloomy world all come together into one of the best Metroidvania games since Hollow Knight, which Moon Studios has clearly drawn inspiration from. And that 4K 60 mode. Damnnnnnnnn.
4. Animal Crossing: New Horizons – Played on Switch
Animal Crossing: New Horizons is gaming’s biggest cultural phenomenon of 2020—end of. Picking up Among Us for free on mobile and playing a couple of matches is one thing, but mobilizing millions of non-gamers to buy a new console and play it for hundreds of hours just for one game: absolutely insane.
I’ve enjoyed Animal Crossing since the Gamecube release, so seeing my friends, my girlfriend, and even my non-gaming sister playing it digitally alongside me this year has been heartening to say the least. Animal Crossing gave us all a means to socialize, shop, and explore during lockdown—without any sneaky microtransactions thrown in. Nintendo can be backwards at times, but fairplay on this one.
Animal Crossing’s not going to be everyone’s pace, but with 200 hours on the clock, it was a much-needed distraction in those early lockdown blues. While I probably enjoyed playing Spider-Man, Demon’s Souls, and Ori more minute-to-minute, spending time doing chores on my mini island paradise undoubtedly had a more positive impact on my well-being, which was crucial for early 2020.
3. Hades – Played on PC
Hades is the latest from Supergiant, extending their track record of isometric, narrative combat games à la Bastion and Transistor. This time though—like seemingly every indie game—they went down the rogue-like route. I knew they’d nail the combat, Supergiant always does, but the narrative constraints of permadeath had me worried.
Turns out I had nothing to worry about. Without spoiling too much, Hades’ narrative manages to neatly package itself around the die-retry flow. And in classic Supergiant fashion, it’s teeming with character and comedy. I thought I was a bit done with Greek mythology, but this spin on the pantheon makes this ancient setting seem fresh.
The gameplay rocks, too. Like every good rouge-lite, it’s versatile and accommodates endless play styles. My go-to tactic is using a combination of upgrading the fast-fire bow and dash attacks, basically zipping around the map like a psycho, spraying and praying:
My thumbs are wrecked. No regrets.
2. Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 1 + 2 – Played on PlayStation 4
Speaking of wrecked thumbs… If there’s one game that’s shaped – nay, defined – me as a person most, it’s Neversoft‘s seminal skater romp Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater. The game, and its sequel, singlehandedly convinced a 10-year-old me to start skateboarding, listen to metal and punk music, and watch skate documentaries and movies—three things I still do two decades years later. Real talk: Rural Wales isn’t known for its progressive thinking, but THPS helped put me in with a good crowd of people and down a better life path.
This remake has given me a means to relive the magic of those games that changed my life so much. Now that soppy shite’s out of the way, let’s get on to the gameplay. It’s great, it still holds up, and it still has that insatiable just-one-more-go vibe.
THPS 1+2 has all the classic levels and characters we know and love, but on top of that there are thousands upon thousands of super-difficult challenges—goals like comboing across series of obstacles from one side of the map to the other. There’s also a bunch of new blood in the pro-skater roster, which is refreshing to see as a fan of the lifestyle. Old meets new in this remake, and they meld together so well.
Naturally, the soundtrack is phenomenal, as well. It’s a cocktail of tracks from the older titles (hey there, Bad Religion, Goldfinger, and Rage Against the Machine) but also newer tracks from the likes of Billy Talent and DZ Deathrays. And in what is perhaps 2020’s biggest shock of all: Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 1 + 2 introduced me to Machine Gun Kelly’s pop-punk album, which—against all odds—is actually pretty good. Don’t ask…
1. The Last of Us: Part 2 – Played on PlayStation 4
Everyone saw it coming: it’s my game of the year, it’s probably my game of the generation, it’s The Last of Us Part II. There are so many reasons for his, but let’s get this out of the way—it had HUGE boots to fill. Yet, somehow it improves upon the practically perfect first game in every single way. In terms of both gameplay and narrative, The Last of Us Part II raises the bar, and merges its minute-to-minute gameplay with narrative in way that’s never been done before.
Part of this is the tried-and-true environmental storytelling that put Naughty Dog on the map. The world is so believable, it feels lived in, and—just like in that seminal first game—discovering the stories of survivors through left-behind notes and other environmental trinkets really paints a picture of this bleak world.
Complementing this established design is the screenplay itself. While on paper it may seem like your typical cliched revenge plot, one we’ve seen countless times across film, TV, and games already, The Last of Us Part II artfully connects you to the protagonists and the world in ways that just aren’t possible in other mediums.
Simply put, this game toyed with my conscience and morality in ways that I wasn’t expecting. Nothing is as it seems, everything is a shade of grey, and everything you do—every choice you make—will come back to you later. This game will stick with you for months and even years later, and we’ll be talking about it for decades.