I don’t think it’s a stretch to pronounce 2020 a real Low and WTF of a year.
Nevertheless, the games continued, and for many, they became even more important than ever. Be they an escape or a source of connection, games took on an outsize role in many people’s lives, even as (ironically) everything going on in the world made videogames seem that much less consequential. However, despite circumstances laying bare just how “nonessential” they can be, the games were good!
2020 was also a year with many truly interesting titles, ranging from the expected slate of mega-hit blockbusters to out-of-nowhere success stories to long-percolating projects that finally saw the light of day.
It was a year with almost too much in it to sum up conveniently, but I’ll try all the same, and I’ll be cribbing GameCritics’ review format to pick a highlight, lowlight, and WTF moment from 2020’s release slate.
HIGH: 13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim was Vanillaware at its best.
Vanillaware’s always been a strong developer with one of the most unique visual styles and aesthetic approaches imaginable, but despite all the acclaim, they’ve struggled to really top Odin Sphere, their debut release — but that’s not really a big problem.
Like the output of Supergiant (developers of Hades), Vanillaware’s titles are in some ways too different from each other to be compared too closely. And yet, the uncertainty lingered. If the most exciting thing about their games is an improved remake of Odin Sphere, was there nowhere to go from there?
As it turns out, there was a somewhere, and it was into the Visual Novel space. Though 13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim has a real-time strategy-style battle system to dip into between story missions, its heart is very much in its dense, inspired sci-fi narrative segments. Unraveled in a way that’s only possible through its videogame format, 13 Sentinels spins one of the best yarns of the year, in a year full-to-bursting with sprawling, lengthy narrative titles.
It would be wrong to say my confidence in Vanillaware was “restored” by 13 Sentinels since I never really lost confidence, but I’m even surer now that they still have places to go after this.
LOW: The ignominious implosion of Cyberpunk 2077
What can be said about the saga of Cyberpunk 2077 that hasn’t already been repeated to the point of cliche?
Arguably the biggest release of the year (or longer!) since people have been slavering in anticipation of it almost since its announcement, the game debuted to highly positive reviews.
That aura lasted until shortly after the wider release, when it became clear that CD Projekt Red had manipulated the press and the conventions of pre-release game reviews to essentially ‘bury’ negative coverage surrounding the woeful technical state of the game, especially on older hardware. And let’s not forget the fact that it literally made some people ill due to the inclusion of epileptic seizure-triggering light patterns that somehow slipped past their nets.
Those little betrayals became a landslide of vilification as a game with technical problems that were bad (but honestly, not the worst I’ve seen in a “finished” commercial release) rapidly became a symbol of everything wrong with the triple-A gaming industry. Between development crunch, bugs after release and an atmosphere of grift and exploitation surrounding it, Cyberpunk 2077 felt like the poster child for it all, deserved or not.
…And that’s a shame, because there’s a pretty decent, open-world cyberpunk-style game under all those (significant) caveats. CD Projekt Red has gone and done the “Deus Ex but mixed with Grand Theft Auto” game that seemingly every kid of a certain age once thought was wicked cool. And in time, the content will likely be patched into greatness, fixed up properly and regarded as fondly as The Witcher 3 is today. Heck, it’s already sold millions of copies despite all the controversy.
Perhaps the best we can hope for is that those who got themselves far too hyped for Cyberpunk 2077 today don’t forget how it launched, and treat that as a cautionary tale about the dangers of over-hype in the future.
WTF: Sakura Wars came out in 2020?!
I was initially thinking of just heading this section with a “*gestures at everything*” and leaving it blank but I feel like that would be a bit tired, so instead I’m going to call out the fact that Sega managed to make another Sakura Wars game and release it.
The series, which is mostly Japan-exclusive (bar the 2005 localization of Sakura Wars: So Long, My Love) was a formative one for my gaming history. It inspired me to learn Japanese, and in some respects, even take up writing about games.
Frankly, it’s wild to see a new, full entry in the series realize that it’s not even my game of the year. That fact alone proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that 2020, despite everything, was a pretty good year for videogames.
Today he continues to write for a living while trying to turn his fledgling knowledge of Japanese into a marketable skill. He is Managing Editor of Japanese culture site Japanator and is a Contributing Editor for Destructoid. He has written for The Escapist, The California Literary Review, Esquire Magazine, and proudly holds the badge as the premier apologist for Star Trek Online.