The 2020 edition is late because MF DOOM died. RIP
10. Among Us
I exclusively played this game with a group of friends and I don’t think I could play Among Us any other way. I’m not an AMAZING liar, but I had some flashes of brilliance. Eventually I stopped playing when my friends and I realized that we could figure out when one of us was lying. We got to know each other’s tells pretty well, and while that limited my time with Among Us overall, it provided a pretty unique experience in multi-player gaming.
What I like most about Among Us is the enforced code of silence. Everyone has to remain silent over voice chat, whether you’re a crewman who’s trying to save the ship or an impostor who’s trying to sabotage everyone else. Among Us is also easy to play, and I really appreciated it being so widely available, often for free.
I don’t know that I’ll come back again and again to Among Us, but it was a great way to hang out with friends while making them plead for their life.
Worst Liar: Me
9. Rainy Season
Rainy Season is about being a very specific age. You’re not old enough to ignore adults, but you are old enough to feel restricted by their rules. You’re starting to learn that the world is a big place, full of cool stuff if only you could just get to it. With that knowledge comes the realization that some things, like a trip being cancelled due to heavy rainfall, are beyond everyone’s control.
Playing Rainy Season involves wandering around your grandmother’s house. You’re seeing each room for the first time, but the interjections of the main character make it clear that they have history with this house. There’s a lived in quality to your surroundings, and Rainy Season does a great job of distinguishing between the real and imagined without smoothing over the little oddities of everyday life.
In Rainy Season, you fight boredom by pretending monsters are your roommates and whales dance through the sky. It’s a beautiful game about the kind of freedom that fantasies give you. There’s no utility to these fantasies; you just imagine them because you can. I’m grateful that Rainy Season was able to bring me back to that mindset for a little while.
Coolest Sky Mammal: Sky whales
Nicest NPC: Grandma
8. Umurangi Generation
I have to be honest; I had a hard time playing Umurangi Generation. My body seems to have decided that the older I get, the more prone to motion sickness I’ll be when playing first-person games. This is not Umurangi’s fault; there’s a field-of-view slider that I found after nearly beating the game which fixed everything, and I was able to enjoy the rest of the game, nausea free. Umurangi Generation is difficult in another way, though, in that it makes you confront issues that you would probably rather not think about.
Umurangi has a simple premise. You’re a photographer, and you go through levels taking pictures. Exploring this neon version of Tauranga, New Zealand left me with whiplash that excited and haunted me. Umurangi is at its best when it’s playing with your expectations, and it uses dichotomous imagery to throw you some real curveballs.
It’s easy to forget that humanity is dealing with multiple crises at any given time. Better writers than me have talked about how this game blends Indigenous experiences with post-apocalyptic imagery. Umurangi Generation doesn’t have all the answers to our anxieties, but it does show what resiliency and survival can look like, and I think that’s an expression that is as vital as ever.
Best Monarch: Rat Queen
Best Use of Dolphins: Umurangi Generation
7. Animal Crossing: New Horizons
I’ve played older Animal Crossing games, and the trajectory usually goes like this: I get really into it, donate all the fossils, make a vain attempt at donating all the fish and bugs, fail that and give up. When I first heard about New Horizons, I expected to follow the same path. I’m still going back to it today, though, and it’s become a great “gardening” game as well as a way to stay connected to pals.
I have some real problems with New Horizons. Primarily, it’s taken a series that was already known for its slow pace and sped it down even more. To craft items, you have to have both the recipe and the necessary materials, both of which you have to hunt down on your own. You can only buy a certain amount of clothes at a time, and villager interactions are a lot flatter than in previous games.
And yet! My New Horizons museum is full of fossils and I have projects that I’m working on a little bit each day. It’s never been easier to play with people (although there’s a lot that can improve there as well) and I find myself still getting excited when I get to show off the changes I’ve made to the island. I think that counts for something!
Cutest Villager: Ketchup
Cutest Dog Named Isabelle: Isabelle
6. Banner of the Maid
Banner of the Maid, a strategy RPG set during the French Revolution, is one of the best strategy games I’ve played in years. It’s a shame that the sometimes horny anime aesthetic is bound to turn off some players who would love the gameplay. Banner of the Maid capitalizes on its setting by making each unit type distinct while adhering to the spirit of the era, and I think it’s a great representation, magical girls aside.
You play as Pauline Bonaparte, Napoleon’s younger sister who happens to have the magical ability to inspire her troops to a supernatural degree. Mysteries abound, as they do, and it was fun to see famous historical characters reimagined through an RPG lens. There’s a lot of mission variety, too. While many missions are standard field battles, there were other quirkier ones. There was one mission where I had to attend a ball to mingle with aristocrats and gather intel. Grinding rep with the Jacobins is something I didn’t think I’d be doing in 2020! Also, Marie Antoinette is psychic.
Your units come in five basic types: artillery, line infantry, light infantry, light cavalry and heavy cavalry. All of these units fill different and unique roles. Heavy cavalry get bonuses when charging an enemy that’s facing them, while light cavalry are better suited to flank attacks and get corresponding bonuses. Light infantry are great for breaking ranks of line infantry, and cannons, if positioned in the right way, can decimate enemy ranks despite being very difficult to maneuver.
The map terrain, in turn, is critically important. You could lure a group of enemy infantry over a snowy field and try to pick them off by using snipers while the snow hinders their movement. You might find yourself out of ammo, though, since the cold makes each attack cost two ammo instead of one. Maybe it would be better to send in your cavalry who use sabers? They wouldn’t lose ammo like your snipers would, but since they’re on horseback they’d move even slower than the enemy infantry once they enter the snow tield. This ebb and flow of decision making was refreshing in a genre that’s skewed towards heroic units who seem to succeed through force of will rather than tactical considerations.
Banner of the Maid is a very solid game that I hope Azure Flame Studio follows up on. I love when a game comes out of nowhere and surprises me like this. I hope it gets the chance it deserves!
Game I’m Most Likely to Get Defensive About: Banner of the Maid
5. Crusader Kings 3
This game is great because it gave me the story of Duchess Oda of Meissen.
Oda was the oldest daughter of Otto, and when he passed she inherited the throne since Otto had no sons. What he did have was four daughters, and once he passed Oda found herself having to watch her back constantly since her three other sisters were unfortunately quite power hungry. The biggest problem for them, though, was that Oda’s vassals absolutely loved her. She had great Stewardship, which meant she made a lot of money for the kingdom, and the peasants loved her because she developed a lot of their lands. She also had enough Diplomacy to dissuade any minor lords from starting any shit.
Unfortunately, Oda did have a weakness: she was terminally horny. By the time she died at 74, Oda had 9 children by 5 different men, half of which were landed lords themselves. Normally, this wouldn’t be a big deal; what a medieval woman does in the privacy of her home is no-one’s business but hers. Unfortunately, when you are producing heirs to counties all over Northern Germany, losing track of whose father is whose makes your kingdom ripe for civil war.
Oda died happy in her favourite brothel in a pile of sweaty limbs and bodies. In my game, she died just as her Leisure Palace was completed, and I like to imagine she was buried in it. Unfortunately, Oda’s heir Charibert inherited her libido but none of her charisma. You can probably guess how things went.
Crusader Kings 3 is fun because this is just one of the stories I can tell about the characters that I’ve played as. It’s a mechanically dense game, but if being able to experience stories like Oda’s intrigues you, I recommend picking it up.
Medieval Zoroastrian Simulator of the Year: Crusader Kings 3
Worst Trait: Shy
Best Trait: Gregarious
4.Kentucky Route Zero
I fully believe that Kentucky Route Zero advances storytelling in games. I explained to a friend that if Disco Elysium is all about texture, Kentucky Route Zero is all about form. Disco Elysium uses a streamlined but otherwise standard text-box format to find out how dialogue can be used as both a game mechanic and a story vehicle. Kentucky Route Zero, on the other hand, plays with perspective and how that shapes player’s relationships to the characters they interact with.
Kentucky Route Zero is dreamlike from beginning to end. It’s a magical-realist game about how capitalism erodes its victims and what it looks like when institutions fail, if they ever worked in the first place. It’s also about how relationships act as a lifeline to help us get through. It’s hard to label this game as anything definitive like “bleak” or “hopeful”. As a player I drifted through Kentucky Route Zero, but the game always found ways to snap me back to reality, or the closest thing to it.
I could write so much more about this game but I really think it’s best enjoyed knowing as little as possible. Kentucky Route Zero is a very intentional, curated work. It contains story moments that will always stay with me. I think what it does with perspective and framing is revelatory. Please play it.
Best Dog Name: Blue
3.Yakuza 7: Like a Dragon
Over the last two years, I’ve been playing through the mainline Yakuza series. You mainly play as Kazuma Kiryu, a good-hearted and all-powerful former Yakuza who gets consistently gets wrapped up in events bigger than himself. Yakuza 6: The Song of Life acted as a send-off of for Kazuma, and the developers made clear that Yakuza 7 would be about introducing a new protagonist. The great thing about Ichiban is that he fills the shoes of Kazuma while retaining his own identity.
For all of his kindness, Kazuma sometimes came off as above it all. He frequently brushed shoulders with the elite of the Japanese underworld. Even though he was orphaned as a child, Kazuma was raised by a respected yakuza officer. As for Ichiban, he was born in a soapland, a kind of brothel. His only connection to the Yakuza world (a world which he is far more keen on being a part of than Kazuma) is through the patriarch who took him in, Arakawa. Ichiban took the fall for a murder committed by a Arakawa clan captain, and after finishing his twenty year sentence, Ichiban is betrayed and hung out to dry by his former patriarch. It’s an inciting incident which communicates that Ichiban isn’t going to have the connections that Kazuma relied on in his own story.
The rest of the game sees Ichiban making friends and fighting alongside them as he tries to get answers about Arakawa’s betrayal. Gathering a party is basic for an RPG, but in the Yakuza series it’s a big pivot. Kazuma made friends and allies throughout the series, but at the end of the day it was going to be Kazuma who would be saving the day. By the later games, Kazuma was deployed to solve issues like a missile. Meanwhile, Ichiban depends a great deal on his friends. The game isn’t trying to tell you a “power of friendship” story. Rather, it’s making the point that seeking help isn’t a sign of weakness, which I’m really glad to see.
The other welcome change is the combat. Yakuza 7 marks the series’ first foray into RPG combat. Although there are some hiccups (sometimes characters get stuck in geometry for a few moments when doing attacks), I think it’s an achievement that a turn-based battle system feels as dynamic and exciting as the brawls that Yakuza is known for. Like a Dragon explains that the combat animations which Ichiban sees are representations of his imagination. It’s a fun conceit which emphasises Ichiban as an imaginative, passionate guy.
The music and voice acting are excellent. The mini-games are funny and don’t overstay their welcome. The cameos aren’t overbearing. I found the story predictable in parts, but overall I think it’s a great place to start with the series. Ichiban is a fantastic character and I can’t wait to see where they go with him from here.
Best Job: Breakdancer
Worst Job: Freelancer (too real)
Midway through Hades, I really didn’t think it would rank this high on my list. I was having a lot of fun trying to escape hell to spite my dad, but I didn’t realizing the spell it was casting on me. Every time I wasn’t playing, the mere mention of the game got me thinking: “damn, what if I stopped what I was doing and played more Hades?”
You play as Zagreus, a son of the Greek god the underworld, Hades. Zagreus wants nothing more than to leave the underworld, and so he sets out on escaping the only way he knows how: fighting. Along the way Zagreus runs into enemies, friends and family plucked from Greek myth that are wonderfully realized. I thought I was tired of media based on Greek mythology, but it turns out I just needed the right amount of familial angst.
Hades is a lush game despite its underworld setting. Its colour palette is somehow both stark and vibrant. The stages and characters are a real pleasure to look at; becoming someone’s confidant and unlocking their new character portrait was a thrill because of the brilliant character designs. The soundtrack is the best ever in a Supergiant game. It has a dynamic sound that spurrs you forward on your journey. It also shreds.
Dying sucks in most rogue likes. This is a genre that usually takes pride in the high price they put on dying; it’s a sign of failure, that you got unlucky or that you just weren’t good enough. Hades pulls a neat trick by spinning death into an opportunity. Upon returning to his home, Zagreus can get to know the spirits of the dead, upgrade weapons and strategize for his next escape attempt. You only get to know your divine family members through escape attempts, and so there’s often a silver lining to Zeus' stormclouds.
The writing in Hades is so good that it almost becomes a game mechanic in itself. I wanted to take the time to get to know the Minotaur and find out why he liked the unbearably arrogant Theseus. It was nice to have motivations besides the main goals of the game.
Hades is the best game that Supergiant has ever made, and that’s saying something. I enjoyed Bastion and devoured Pyre, but Hades is a level above (no pun intended).
Best Relative: Artemis
Worst Relative: Zeus
Most Underrated Weapon: Bow
1.Final Fantasy VII: Remake
It’s difficult to even know where to start with this game. Final Fantasy 7 is one of the most beloved video games of all time. It holds a special place in my heart as a game that introduced me to issues of mental health, encroaching corporatism, environmentalism and chocobo breeding. Meanwhile, Remake has the audacity to spin out the first two hours of the original into a sixty hour game. The formerly jagged polygonal characters are now hot, fully voiced and have way more polygons in them. I like that Final Fantasy 7: Remake is a game which challenges its audience to reckon with their nostalgia. I went from loving, to hating, to loving this game and I truly hope that other players get to have this kind of journey with the games they hold dear.
A unique facet of Remake is the developer’s clarity about what fan’s think of the prior game. Final Fantasy 7 is still massively popular, and for the last twenty years fans have asked its creators every possible question about it. Nostalgia is ever-present in Remake. Most of the time it’s used for fun callbacks or plotpoints. However, expectations are also played with, and as the game progressed I realized that I was not going to get what I had anticipated in a remake of Final Fantasy 7. It turns out, that’s good. I didn’t always feel this way, but after almost a year of thinking about it, I’ve decided that refusing to adhere to fan expectations was the only way this game was going to be anything but a hollow replication.
This game is expensive. The voice acting, the animations, the music; part of being able to recreate the best selling RPG of all time is that the funds are there to ensure it’s polished in every conceivable way. I do think this fidelity means some of the old game is lost. The polygonal characters looked silly, but they were also bare enough that your imagination could fill in the blanks. The 3D environments of Remake are fascinating renditions of the static 2D backgrounds, but the colour palette is generally faded compared to the original. There’s still a lot to like in Remake, though.
I adore the changes that they made to the battle system. Rather than the traditional line-up and attack format of the original, Remake has your characters moving around an arena. Actions are taken in real time but when you open up the menu, time reaches a standstill and you get the chance to strategize. This really works because each character plays really differently. Tifa is a glass cannon rushdown character whole Barrett is better for focused range damage. Aerith has extra abilities to boost the number of spells she can fire off at once, while Cloud can take on a lot of enemies at the same time with his big sword swings. No one is useless, and it’s fun to take advantage of their various strengths as the opportunities present themselves.
I could go on. The music is so evocative in this game. There are multiple renditions of the battle and boss themes from the original that all totally work. Rude won’t do damage to Tifa during combat because he has a crush on her, and disables her instead. Enemies that were afterthoughts in the original game get to star in their own sequences. They give more backstory to Jessie, Biggs and Wedge, the three AVALANCHE members you meet in the original. Marlene is adorable and Rufus is a perfect shitheel. Mark Hammill is in it! And again, the music in this game, my god.
Final Fantasy 7: Remake is not a perfect game, but it’s a hell of a lot of fun. There’s no game I’ve thought more about this year or agonized over. There’s a daring to Remake that really impressed me, and even if it ends up falling on its face as new chapters are released, I have loved the ride so far.
Biggest Glowup: Hell House
Kindest Eyes: Barrett Wallace
Best Character Combat: Tifa
Thank you for reading, and gamer salutes to all the freaking gamers out there. Game on.