TheGamer Editor’s Choices Of 2020 – Cian Maher

Before starting this piece, I tried to count how many games I played this year and lost track at exactly 43, at which point I said, “Hang on, Cian – you’ve already counted Age of Calamity you big eejit.” Despite my clear mathematical ineptitude, I’m fairly certain that – if we include games that didn’t necessarily come out in 2020 – I’ve put at least five hours into at least 50 games this year, with the average across the lot coming to around 30. You don’t believe me? Persona 5 Royal. Assassin’s Creed Valhalla. Seven million Hades runs. The average is 30, alright?

Anyway, by that logic, I’ve supposedly clocked at least 1,500 hours in games this year alone. That’s a lot of hours, but then again, this year was a load of shite and games proved to be a rare solace. I know I’m technically a games journalist, but we don’t just sit around playing Warzone all day. We have to write, and interview people, and conduct research, and sometimes tell a joke or two to blow off some Steam when Valve releases the first Half-Life game in 16 years, but it’s VR-gated.

Despite playing a lot of games for a lot of hours this year, putting together a list of my favourites wasn’t actually that hard. The hard part was taking my way-over-the-limit list of 25 and cutting it down to just ten games, which have changed more than the weather on an Irish beach in the last few days. If you’re not Irish, that means they have changed a lot. Like, once every seven or eight minutes.

Before I get into my top ten, I’d like to mention a few other games that didn’t quite make the cut. Baldur’s Gate 3 may not be finished yet, but I adored the time I spent shoving little goblin pricks off of large pillars in Early Access. Temtem is another game that’s still gradually gearing up for a full release, but I genuinely reckon it’s got the potential to finally make Mr. Nintendo say, “We should probably rewrite the battle code we’ve been using since Pokemon Ruby & Sapphire.” Horizon’s Gate is a rare indie gem that has been woefully underappreciated among the deluge of other games that rained down on us in this year of total bollocks. Immortals Fenyx Rising oozes enthusiasm, to the extent that it can be unanimously enjoyed by kids and adults alike. Also, despite all of the discourse surrounding it, I genuinely enjoyed Cyberpunk 2077. I could go on, but I digress: here are my top ten games of 2020.

10. Paradise Killer

I specifically booted up Paradise Killer earlier this week because I knew for a fact it would fall into my top ten somewhere. I’m a real sucker for when a game nails its aesthetic, and I’m even more invested in soundtracks that are stacked with one banger after another. You play as Lady Love Dies, a detective who has been exiled from Paradise for three million days. While your main objective is to solve a string of murders involving demons, subterfuge, and sycophantic narcissists, you can also scull glasses of gorgeous whiskey and swap shards of coagulated blood for tasty secrets. It’s a game that set its ambition in the stratosphere and came within a hair’s breadth of reaching it, and although it’s imbued with immense gravity, it’s something you’ll be in no rush to finish purely because of how absurd the ride is.

9. Assassin’s Creed Valhalla

If you told me I could play a game where I can smash Viking drengrs in ale-drinking contests, you’d better believe I’m on board from the get-go. The thing is, Valhalla is about much more than Vikings. While it is certainly – and obviously – interested in Norse mythology, Valhalla teems with human stories capable of eliciting every emotion under the sun out of you for shits and giggles. We often laud games for being gorgeous, but holy shit is Valhalla gorgeous. It’s one of those single-player games that doesn’t exhaust itself by hurtling towards its denouement, in that there’s always something else to do in Norway, England, Asgard, or Vinland. I was as much invested in weird cursed zones and hidden bureaus as I was in pursuing Eivor’s story, and that says a lot about how well Valhalla succeeds in maintaining narrative pace without sacrificing world scale. This is a game I won’t be uninstalling any time soon – what if I want to dip in for a round of Orlog? Or smack a stupid Zealot over his stupid head for being a stupid Order of the Ancients sympathizer? The fact a game like this can sit as low as number nine says a whole lot about the quality of the games we got this year.

8. Genshin Impact

Genshin Impact was my first ever gacha game, so it was a bit weird for me at first. I initially loved aimlessly meandering through its massive, Ghibliesque world and didn’t really care much for AR (Arse Rank), but eventually Stormterror sank its corrupted talons into me and I was hopelessly invested before I could say Emergency Food. While the sum of its parts is impressive, what I truly love about Genshin is that each individual part has its own merits. The soundtrack is phenomenal, the variety of aesthetics across its regions is remarkable, and moment-to-moment play is sufficiently well-paced for you to seamlessly flit between chilling out in Diluc’s vineyard and engaging in all-out elemental brawls with gargantuan ice wolves and weird ocean spirits who use zoomorphic tidal waves to attack you with ducks made out of water.

7. Ori and the Will of the Wisps

Ori and the Will of the Wisps has consistently held a place in my top ten since it launched way back in March. I’m a huge fan of Ori in general, mind, but Will of the Wisps takes everything the Blind Forest was renowned for and sets the amp to 11. Gareth Coker’s heavily oboeish soundtrack sings as you dart from devilish precipices into imposing mounds of congealed muck. While the combat here – something introduced in the wake of Blind Forest’s lack thereof – is excellent, the real kicker is Will of the Wisps’ mobility system, which allows for some of the most versatile and responsive obstacle-coursing I’ve ever seen in a platformer. I know I’ve been banging on about art for most of the games so far – and believe me, that’s not about to stop – but wow are the environments here lush. The natural ebb and flow of whizzing from tranquil forests to solemn desertscapes fall into perfect cadence with both the music and the environments themselves, to the extent that Will of the Wisps is one of the most singularly cohesive artistic endeavors I’ve ever seen realized in a game.

6. Necrobarista

I’m not sure if I ever thought that necromancy and coffee could be as complementary as Guinness and The Witcher, but I’m not too proud to admit that I was wrong on that one. Necrobarista is about so much more than its expositional elements would ever betray themselves into saying, which makes it a rare gem in evocative storytelling. It’s stylistically simplistic at first, but the juxtaposition of freeze frames with synth-pop and acid jazz becomes almost imposingly charming less than ten minutes into the game. My favourite aspect of Necrobarista, though, was definitely the story, which unexpectedly gut-punched me with the force of a thousand suns. One second it’s all a bit of a laugh, the next it’s like… What? No, there’s something in my eye. I’m not crying. Shut up, I’m trying to play Necrobarista here.

5. The Last of Us Part 2

The Last of Us Part 2 was probably the most polarizing game of the year until Cyberpunk 2077 launched earlier this month. I reckon its greatest success was its ability to enrapture audiences with its almost invasively affecting story while also pissing off manbabies all over the world. It made me love a character I hated and begin to dislike a character I loved, all without ever letting me become conscious of the process in which that was even happening. Its narrative structure was ambitious but perfectly measured – if you told me Naughty Dog invested millions into risk assessment, I’d probably believe you, because every single facet of this game navigated the delicate balance of risk and reward with the finesse of Cirque du Soleil’s best tightrope walker. I’m not sure if I want to play it again any time soon, because it’s a really difficult story to return to when you know each and every painful narrative beat – and yet, one day, eventually, I’ll go back to Jackson and go through all of the hurt all over again, simply because The Last of Us Part 2 is a bonafide masterclass in video game storytelling.

4. Hyrule Warriors: Age of Calamity

I’ve got a confession: I liked Breath of the Wild, but I didn’t love it half as much as everybody else seemed to. I’ve been a Zelda fan since I was four years old and have played every mainline entry in the series since. Breath of the Wild is a spectacular game, but it just didn’t scratch that same Zelda itch for me. The open world was at drastic odds with the constrained dungeons I was used to, and while I generally enjoy the solitary clarity of silently wandering through a world that makes you feel small – looking at you, Shadow of the Colossus – I missed the raucous and rapturous comedy of older Zelda games. Age of Calamity resurrected the sense of silliness I missed so dearly and dropped it bang smack into the middle of a boisterous musou game. It wasn’t Dynasty Warriors with a Zelda skin – it was Zelda experimenting with a formula that it didn’t quite nail the last time around. When I look back at 2020, there’s a good chance this game might retroactively place far higher in this list – as it stands, though, I have to go with the top three I’ve settled on.

3. Doom Eternal

I was pretty late to the party with Doom Eternal. I originally bought Animal Crossing instead because I thought, “Pandemic bad, cutesy game about anthropomorphized capitalist tanukis with pals good,” but I was horrifically – or, perhaps more accurately, demonically – wrong. Doom Eternal is the best shooter I’ve played in years. It’s silky smooth despite being viciously violent, with even the onerously sluggish crucibles and chainguns feeling wicked fast and responsive. The world is frankly incredible, somehow managing to perfectly juxtapose the dread-drenched recesses of Hell with a kind of sublimity that’s oddly beautiful. And to top it all off, you literally get to punch demons in their putrescent faces while listening to filthy djent riffs in drop D. It’s basically the demonologic sum of all of my interests, to be honest.

2. Persona 5 Royal

I actually wrote a piece on how Persona 5 Royal was my game of the year a couple of months ago, and at the time it genuinely was. This game couldn’t possibly have come at a better time for me. The pandemic had just started, I had personal things going on that I won’t get into in an article about my favourite video games, and everything across the board was just a bit shite. I adored Persona 5, and so when Royal came out I thought, “Fuck it, I’ll spend the money – at least there’s something new here.” Little did I know that Royal was going to come back with not just the same endlessly stomping bangers, the same mesmerizingly stylish aesthetic, and the same endlessly compelling characters – Royal came with so much more. I’ve already started a second playthrough and have been slowly but surely exploring the mean streets of Tokyo, helping my pals out and studying for in-game exams instead of reading physical books to make my real-life brain bigger. Because ultimately, Persona 5 Royal makes my brain a whole lot happier, and I think that’s far more worthwhile in the long run.

1. Hades

Although I loved each and every one of the games listed above, there was no real contest when it boiled down to choosing my number one. As I mentioned above, I’ve entertained the idea of Persona 5 Royal being my game of the year on occasion, but that usually ended up with me walking towards a mirror, taking a long hard look at myself, and giving my skull a quick rapping before going, “That’s what you get for being an idiot, mate.” To be completely honest, I genuinely believe that Hades is the best game to have come out in years. It’s ambitious. It’s compelling. It’s approachable. It’s a game that I genuinely struggle to take issue with, because every single aspect of it feels so refined that it’s almost as if I’m being tricked by the mischievous gods it tells stories about. I could bang on about any aspect of it – how infinitely replayable it is, how unique its approach to character-driven storytelling is, how immensely well-adjusted its stylish environments and integral soundtrack are to one another… but to do that with a game like Hades is to sell it short, because you need to play the game to truly understand just how good it is. With that, it’s time to sign off for the year – all I’ll say is this: if you’ve been considering having a crack at Hades, stop wasting time wondering about whether you should or not and just do it. Once you do, you’ll understand why there’s no escape for any of us who already have.

Next: TheGamer Editor’s Choices Of 2020 – Kirk McKeand

  • TheGamer Originals
  • Doom Eternal
  • Ori and the Will of the Wisps
  • Persona 5: Royal
  • Genshin Impact
  • Assassin's Creed Valhalla
  • Necrobarista
  • Hades
  • Paradise Killer
  • The Last Of Us Part 2
  • Hyrule Warriors: Age of Calamity

Cian Maher is the Lead Features Editor at TheGamer. He’s also had work published in The Guardian, The Washington Post, The Verge, Vice, Wired, and more. You can find him on Twitter @cianmaher0.

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