I had a strong year of gaming in 2020, although this was almost exclusively based on games released from other years. Trying to come up with a top 10 of releases from 2020 proved impossible — many new releases I played were poor, and I have yet to play certain high-profile releases (and in some cases, never will). Therefore, I have fudged this a bit and gone for a Top 5 released this year and a Top 5 games I simply played in 2020.
My Top 5 2020 releases
5 – Doom Eternal
Doom Eternal makes my list almost by default. It is by no means a bad game, but with the standard set by Doom (2016) it falls short due to some design choices. The minute-by-minute gameplay is still enjoyable — fast-paced shooting and visceral violence are key parts of what Doom Eternal does right. However, this is diluted by an increased focus on lore and platforming sections.
I have always seen the Doom experience as one about fast and simple gameplay, but for me, Doom Eternal moves too far away from this formula by adding too many systems. Compounded by infuriating platforming and lore that I had little interest in, Doom Eternal is bloated, and my biggest gaming disappointment of 2020 despite making this list.
4 – Final Fantasy VII Remake
The original release of Final Fantasy VII is one of the most important points in my gaming life, helping to turn a child’s hobby into a lifelong love. It was a spectacular experience that transported me to a different world. However, it has not aged well due to blocky characters and an awfully translated script, and so was an ideal candidate for a remake.
In some ways the developers do a great job. For example, Midgar looks amazing, and having a new over-the-shoulder perspective gives the city an oppressive feel. In other ways, it finds a perfect balance between the old and the new, as demonstrated by an updated and reworked soundtrack and combat which successfully blends real-time and active-time elements.
However, the developers fail to maintain this balance in the story. In particular, I’m thinking about the changes that occur during the endgame. I have no problem with story changes, but I don’t see who these changes serve. For newcomers without the context of playing the original, the significance of these changes may lack impact while fans of the original may become disgruntled after expecting a faithful remake. It adds to the sense that the Final Fantasy series is going through a bit of an identity crisis.
With the Final Fantasy VII remake only covering the first section of the original game, there are questions about where this is going, and given Square Enix’s recent track record I do not have much confidence in them. There were times I felt that familiar love I had of the original, but at other times I felt frustration at the direction Square Enix went in.
3 – Doom 64
As a long time Doom fan, I’ve always felt like there was a Doom 64-shaped hole in my life — a feeling that only increased when I replayed the classic Dooms at the start of the year. When I heard that a port of Doom 64 was going to be included with a preorder of Doom Eternal, I pulled the trigger.
It was an interesting contrast to play Doom 64 concurrently with Doom Eternal — it highlighted the flaws in Doom Eternal and how it departs from the rest of the series. Where Doom Eternal has a bloated feel, Doom 64 has the simple gameplay I craved and I ended up enjoying my time with it more than the newer one.
It’s also very much its own game. On its original release, there was a feeling that this was yet another port of the original Doom and that may have contributed to it being overlooked. However, it has its own sense of style thanks to with brightly-colored 3D levels, skies filled with animated flames, and a sense of atmosphere bolstered by an ambient/horror soundtrack, although this is undercut by dated enemy sprites.
Dated enemy sprites aren’t the only flaw found in Doom 64, though — the simple shooting may feel antiquated to modern players, and ironically, it also has its own annoying platforming sections. Despite these flaws, I loved Doom 64, and since it was the first game I reviewed for Gamecritics, it will always be a special game for me.
2 – Superliminal
I’m always on the lookout for games that inject mindbending elements into their gameplay. Videogames seem the perfect medium for these types of experiences so I was keen to try Superliminal, especially since Corey and Carlos gave it such a glowing review on the So Videogames podcast, not to mention that it was development by a Gamecritics alumni.
It’s a hard game to describe, though to put it simply, it’s a game designed around forced perspective puzzles where items can be resized via camera manipulation. If you place an item and view it from a perspective that makes it appear larger, it’ll change to that size. This central mechanic is one that the developers mine for lots of creative puzzles, and for the majority of Superliminal these are logical and satisfying to solve.
There have been some criticisms that suggest that Superliminal doesn’t take advantage of its dreamlike setting with mundane environments, but I would argue that these heighten the times when something strange does happen. It also means that the player is constantly surprised and pays off in a big way at the end when Superliminal fully embraces a psychedelic experience. This last level has remained near the top of my game experiences of the year and deserves to be enjoyed by as many people as possible.
1 – Hypnospace Outlaw
Since I began writing for Gamecritics, I’ve been hoping to unearth a few gems by taking a chance on games I would normally overlook. Hypnospace Outlaw is that gem and makes the awful games I played through worth it.time.
Hypnospace Outlaw is basically a pitch-perfect satire of late ’90s internet. For someone who experienced this period firsthand I could see how accurate it was, not just in terms of the amateurish style and wonderful musical parodies that echo the likes of Kid Rock and Linkin Park, but also the feeling of excitement amongst its users in coming to grips with this new way of communicating,
However, what elevates Hypnospace Outlaw is how it also appears to be a comment on contemporary internet and social media. With the player taking the role of a Hypnospace enforcer, there are several instances of issues of harassment, bullying and culture wars which are very much a part of the internet we experience today. The story also starts to go down a conspiracy route, and whilst this plays on Y2K paranoia, it finds modern reflections in the unchecked power and influence of platforms such as Facebook.
Hypnospace Outlaw is a special game to me and will always be one thanks to being able to review it for Gamecritics and accidentally finding such a strong and unexpected experience. I can only hope that as I continue to review games that I will find others that live up to its high standard.
The Top 5 Non-2020 Games I played in 2020
5 – Call of Duty World War 2
In the late part of 2020, I found myself playing through the Call of Duty series. I loved Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare but checked out of the series soon afterwards — I didn’t like the idea of paying full price for a short campaign, particularly since I had no interest in multiplayer, not to mention the dodgy politics of these games which I didn’t want to be supporting. But now, where I am always appreciative of shorter games, and where older iterations of the series can be found for less than £5 for used copies, I was ready to revisit the series.
Black Ops proved to be a high point in this revisit — I can see why it has such a great reputation and it was due to make an appearance on this list until I was able to purchase a used copy of World War 2 for £6 and is now my second favourite game of the series.
A lot of this is due to the return of the World War 2 setting. I thought I had moved on from the setting, but by returning to it, it feels like the developers have been able to strip off some of the excess of other titles in the series to tell a more grounded story. It still has those big over-the-top set pieces and won’t be winning any prizes for its narrative, but it looks like there was a genuine attempt at telling a story.
4 – Red Dead Redemption 2
I have become disillusioned with open world games in the last couple of years. I think they can be aimless and repetitive experiences that often come at the expense of a strong story. But, I ‘ve always loved the Western genre and the original Red Dead Redemption remains one of my favourite games. This didn’t stop me from putting off playing its sequel — I had read that it was slow-paced and had a massive open world, and I always find reports of development crunch distasteful. However, I got it for my birthday and could no longer avoid playing.
Red Dead Redemption 2 is a gorgeous-looking game — it’s incredibly lifelike and the amount of detail is impressive. Being a lover of westerns, I got completely sucked into this world, and was able to play out my fantasies of living in the Wild West (although it’s set more in the East). I got hooked on buying new outfits from the various shops and mixing and matching them at the start of each day. I would constantly take pictures in front of open plains, mountains and setting suns. I would style my beard and hair in lots of different ways and spent a lot of money on hair tonics, which help to quicken hair growth. It is safe to say that I fell in love with Red Dead Redemption 2.
It also happens to have one of the best narratives I’ve come across in videogames, with the inevitable fall of the main character, Arthur Morgan and his gang playing out like a tragedy. I liked and cared for Arthur and the members of his gang, all of whom are well-written. Its narrative is one of the reasons I was able to ignore my usual problems with open world games. I was also able to ignore the slowness of Red Dead Redemption 2, I often get angry at games that waste my time, but here it felt immersive and a deliberate choice. This is not an easy way to live, and the cumbersome gameplay reflects it.
So why isn’t it higher in my list? Sadly, Red Dead Redemption 2 outstays its welcome. Just as the game comes to a logical and satisfying conclusion, the player is confronted with a post-credits epilogue that lasts another 8 hours. It’s already a big game, and I was emotionally exhausted by the time the credits rolled. I was already emotionally exhausted at this point, and with it being such a big game, it felt like overkill and dampened the experience.
3 – Blasphemous
Blasphemous is proof that good graphics do not require photorealism. It’s a beautiful game with artwork that draws on Spanish and Catholic imagery for a strange mix between beauty and the macabre.
Gameplay is also a strength of Blasphemous. The combat has a slow and methodical feel, offering a satisfying block/parry system. I love games that give a feeling of weight to combat, and Blasphemous does this well.
However, the reason it makes this list has a lot to do with how strange it is. This is partly due to how it looks, but also in the story it tells. There were times I was flummoxed by Blasphemous with a story that often felt impossible to decipher, and laden with dread, but it helped to draw me into its odd but bewitching world.
2 – What Remains of Edith Finch
2020 was the year I got into narrative-driven games, and What Remains of Edith Finch has been the best of these. I’ve always been a fan of strong narratives in gaming, and sometimes a focus on gameplay can get in the way of this. Complaining about too much gameplay may seem daft, but sometimes I just want to play in a relaxing way and drink in the narrative. This genre is perfect for that, and 2020 was the year to enjoy games in a relatively stress-free way.
I say relatively, because What Remains of Edith Finch is an emotional, and at times upsetting, journey. The central conceit involves exploring a large and oddly-designed house belonging to the titular character’s family. Each member of her clan — all deceased — have their own room in the house, and upon finding them, the player goes into a section that outlines the circumstances of their deaths. These can often be distressing, with one particular section involving a baby. But what really lends a bittersweet tone to the proceedings is the creativity in each of these vignettes with constant changes in gameplay style and presentation.
1 – God of War
I tend to ignore triple-A games on their first release and purchase a cheaper used copy after the hype has died down. This also means that I generally can make a more informed choice about how I spend my money based on whether a game’s reputation has increased, or how overlooked issues have become more obvious. God of War was a game I had my eye on since release, and unlike many others, God of War’s reputation has only grown.
Having finally gotten around to playing it this year, I can say that for me, it lives up to its reputation. I found a gorgeous looking title — in some ways the best-looking I’ve ever played — with a visceral and weighty combat system that never got old. Whilst the rest of the series has had these elements, the change to an over-the-shoulder perspective ensures that the player is more immersed and it heightens these elements with a real sense of scale.
However, it earns its place at the top of this list due to the relationship between Kratos and his son Atreus. I was surprised that a game with a history like this one would have a father/son relationship at its core, and I was equally surprised by how well it’s written and how much restraint and subtlety was used in presenting it. I never thought I’d see a rage-driven Kratos reach out to his son in grief, but God of War has many moments like these.
There have been criticisms surrounding the length of God of War, and I understand these complaints, particularly since I’m constantly aware of how long games are and how I don’t like games wasting my time, but in this case, I think the length works in God of War’s favor. With this extra space, nothing about the central relationship between Kratos and his son felt forced, and was allowed to flourish and develop naturally. I never got bored of spending time with these two, and because of their wonderful relationship, God of War is my game of the year.
— Gareth Payne