2020 was a year of repetition. For some that was a comfort, a bastion during a time when the hits kept on coming. For me, months of lockdown turned into a struggle to find meaning in the mundane.
Working from home in my PJs sounded like the dream at first. But even my introverted soul was eventually worn down by staring at the same screen and taking walks in the same neighborhood. This drudgery took its toll on my gaming habits, at times feeling like I was playing to keep up with the conversation instead of to have fun. Even huge events like The Game Awards came across as more of an obligation than a celebration. What I needed most was a reminder that there’s beauty in the things we take for granted–and 2020’s game’s delivered.
Some of these games surprised me by putting a new spin on mechanics I thought I fully figured out. Others kept me connected to friends, laughing as though we weren’t separated by a deadly pandemic. But the ones that had the most impact on me were the ones that baked thoughtful, emotional storytelling into their gameplay. I’m working on leaving 2020 behind with a more optimistic outlook, and it’s because of the superheroes, beans, and runaway lovers I met along the way.
My first experience with Strategy RPGs was on the Game Boy Advance. I’m one of those weirdos that played Final Fantasy Tactics Advance but never touched the original FF Tactics. I was obsessed with how detailed the world and characters were despite the small screen. Much of that was thanks to the vivid storybook setting. Fire Emblem also used vibrant color schemes to make characters stand out in a field of soldiers.
Fae Tactics benefits from being a modern PC game, but still calls back to the days of color-based character design. It also uses grid maps and turn-based combat, but isn’t content to just mine nostalgia. Fae Tactics adds more varied actions and an elemental system to the SRPG mix, as well as intelligent enemy AI. It’s never unfair, though, reaching a sweet spot of challenge that elevates it to a must-play for SRPG fans.
Animal Crossing: New Horizons
There’s no denying that Animal Crossing: New Horizons got a huge boost from being “the game we need right now.” as lockdowns started. If that was all, however, the game would have died out in weeks. Instead, it evolved into a social hub. Friends held birthday parties complete with games and decorations. One person started an in-game talk show, scoring celebrity guests and musical performances from the likes of Shaggy and Sting. Joe Biden used the game to campaign.
The funny thing is, I don’t actually own a copy of New Horizons. I’ve played some, but the vast majority of my experience comes from seeing posts and editing articles about it. But the fact that I even considered adding this game to my list without hours of playtime is a testament to its power. The base game is lovely enough, but the way it inspired fans to establish a creative community is pure Nintendo magic.
Hyrule Warriors: Age Of Calamity
The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild gave Zelda herself an actual character arc, something fans have wanted for years. The first Hyrule Warriors made Zelda playable and able to fight. Age of Calamity took both of these concepts and ran with them.
Princess Zelda becomes the main character of the story by revealing relatable insecurities and overcoming them in a satisfying way. In battle, she unleashes the full power of the Sheikah Slate to hilarious and destructive effect. Zelda stories and gameplay are often limited by Link’s need to be silent and gradually gain abilities as he progresses. Age of Calamity went full Cucco on those traditions and is all the better for it.
Final Fantasy 7 Remake
I was all ready for FF7R to be just another prettier version of a classic game. Instead, I got a fleshed-out version of Midgar that examines corruption and what keeps people going when the deck is stacked against them. In fact, I felt more for the oppressed of Midgar than I did the residents of a certain other dystopian city. Sourpuss Cloud had a moving arc under all that sarcasm, and the genuine friendship of the party had me in their corner.
FF7R is far from perfect, as the dungeons are too simple and the “good guys triumph through sheer willpower” sentiment is even simpler. But that optimistic ending note mixed with promises of a fresh future stuck with me. I didn’t know I needed a Final Fantasy game to be an uplifting rallying cry, especially when I signed up expecting to see Aerith die in HD.
Ninjala first grabbed me with its youthful energy and bizarre world, a very Splatoon-like combination. It kept me with its fighting game take on battle royale. It’s a nice change of pace from shooter battle royales, where map memory and lucky loot often decide the victor. In Ninjala, the winner is the one who can master the art of surprise and a rock-paper-scissors parry system in equal measure. Pursuit of this mastery sparked an obsession I haven’t felt since I got deep into competitive Smash. My biggest issue on release was the stingy microtransactions, but this has since been fixed with generous events.
Fall Guys: Ultimate Knockout
Fall Guys was a joyous reminder that multiplayer games can be fun. It’s impossible to stay stressed after entering this candy-colored world of bean people set to an infectious soundtrack. And yet the stakes are always high, as this weird floating game show hides some tough platforming courses. It’s there that levels like Slime Climb will separate the wheat from the chaff. Fall Guys is a brilliant blend of viral appeal and hardcore challenge for those who get invested.
Unfortunately, Fall Guys’ time in the spotlight was all too brief. Looking at the meme-y humor of the game’s Twitter account, and its penchant for adding chaos for the sake of it, one might guess that it tried too hard to stay relevant. Among Us swept in, and its popularity is deserved–try not to get emotional as you watch the four-person development team accept its Game Award. But personally, I’d rather stick with Fall Guys. It’s a game I can jump into after a tough day and just enjoy. I’ll take that over being killed because someone kept spamming “red sus.”
Assassin’s Creed Valhalla
Coming off the heels of Watch Dogs: Legion, I was expecting Valhalla to be another gigantic Ubisoft world with lots of things to do but little incentive to do them. Instead, I found an awesome Viking RPG filled with amusing characters and well-written side quests. I’m not even into Vikings, but I found myself seeking out opportunities to learn more about this era of history and its people.
That’s because the side quests actually feel like snippets of peoples’ lives. Very daft people, to be sure, but Eivor isn’t collecting unimportant letters or eavesdropping on random bad guys. She’s helping a delusional old Viking get one last battle, or deciding whether or not to let a druid kill herself to perform a blood ritual. The way the game addresses players’ gender choice is also fascinating, somehow canonizing both options and yet forcing neither.
Jackbox Party Pack 7
I could not have gotten through months of social distancing without Jackbox. By the time this installment released in the Fall, our group had worn out the previous six. We knew what games we would start with, which we hated, and which we had to convince the others to play just once. Jackbox 7 was welcome for bringing new content, but it also had a curated list of cherished favorites to contend with.
Boy did Jackbox 7 deliver. A new Quiplash was guaranteed to succeed, but even the most experimental game, a devil family sitcom simulator, is a blast. Champ’d Up is also worth mentioning, as it rivals the legendary Tee KO for best drawing game. One game is about delivering a speech, and therefore not the best for Discord play. But that just makes me excited to play it in person someday. Jackbox 7 will definitely be a regular in our group’s rotation, perhaps the biggest compliment I can give to a party game.
Spider-Man: Miles Morales
This one was a Christmas gift, and one I spent that whole weekend binging. That weekend of web-swinging reminded me why I love Spider-Man. Not just the action-packed segments–although those are improved thanks to the way Miles’ powers re-contextualize stealth and combat against large enemies–but the heart behind the hero.
Miles’ first solo outing sees him embrace his role as Harlem’s Friendly Neighborhood Spider-Man. The shorter runtime prompted this narrowed focus, but it works because it spotlights the individual people Miles is fighting for. It’s a lively group of activist teens, deaf street artists, and cat-lovers. We see Miles save these people, and how they help him in return. Like the best Spidey stories, it shows that true power is the ability to do the right thing. Yet this more modern Spider-Man isn’t content to say the good guys won and roll credits.
Miles’ story touches on many topics that concern actual teens: corrupt corporations, marginalization, and contending with older generations who won’t forfeit the status quo. These problems are too big for one game, or even one Spider-Man, to handle. You can punch away the bad guys of this particular incident, but there’s a sense that there’s more work to do. It’s a refreshingly honest type of optimism. Miles can tackle these problems in a way Peter Parker can’t, and it’s inspiring to see a triple-A product acknowledge that.
In a future where the government decides who you marry, two lovers run to an uninhabited planet to be together. There they start a new life together while exploring their new home. Based on that, and initial trailers, Haven comes across as a relaxed survival-lite game. It is, for the most part, but its genius lies in how it weaves gameplay and story together.
When the couple gets hungry, you mix ingredients to make their dinner. When they go out on expeditions, you pack their bag. By finding seeds, you can maintain a small garden. Along the way, the couple develops inside jokes or even a little rivalry over who collects the most seeds. If it sounds mundane, that’s because it is. You’re guiding their everyday life, and they couldn’t be happier living it. All they need is to be together, and the charming performances make you want that for them. Playing co-op adds another layer as all activities, even dialogue choices, are done together. You have to compromise and work together, just like in a relationship.
If action is more your thing, Haven has that too. A real-time battle system encourages co-op strategy and requires skill instead of overleveling. Secret bosses are there for those who want a greater challenge. But at the heart of it all is two people in love, and a message to appreciate the time you get with those you love. There’s even joy to be found in cooking the same old dinner if you’re open to looking for it. It’s the message I needed most in 2020, wrapped in a chill survival RPG. If you have Xbox Game Pass, you need to play Haven.
Next: TheGamer Editors’ Picks Of 2020 – Sam Watanuki
- TheGamer Originals
- Animal Crossing: New Horizons
- final fantasy 7 remake
- Assassin's Creed Valhalla
- Spider-Man: Miles Morales
- Fae Tactics
- Jackbox Party Pack 7
- Fall Guys: Ultimate Knockout
- Hyrule Warriors: Age of Calamity
Sergio is the Lead News Editor for TheGamer. But usually he asks people to call him “Serg” because he wants to sound cool like the guy from System of a Down. He began as a convention reporter for FLiP Magazine and Albany Radio’s The Shaw Report to get free badges to Comic-Con. Eventually he realized he liked talking to game developers and discovering weird new indie games. Now he brings that love of weird games to TheGamer, where he tries to talk about them in clickable ways so you grow to love them too. When he’s not stressing over how to do that, he’s a DM, Cleric of Bahamut, cosplay boyfriend, and occasional actor.
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