Goodbye 2020 and thanks for all the games!
With 2020 coming to a close, it was time for me to put a list together for the games that I cherished the most. With everything going on, it was certainly nice to have an escape from the harshness of reality and put some time into these titles which, when measured up, are some of the best video games I’ve played in recent years. I certainly have more games that I enjoyed, but the following are my top five for the year:
Astro’s PlayroomNever has a launch title captured the imagination of what’s possible with a brand new system than this one. This encapsulated showcase of everything that is great about the PS5 features the adorable Astro and his robot pals inside of a virtual Playstation 5, and each level shows off an environment based on part of the actual hardware. The platforming is tight and fun, but the real star of the show is the Dualsense controller and its ability to bring the actions on screen to life in your hands.
While not a terribly long experience, every moment will bring a smile to your face, and if you’re looking to expand your time with Astro, there are global leaderboards and tons of unlockables to gobble up. For a mascot-based 3D platforming game, it’s great, and as a free game, it’s simply fantastic.
Sackboy: A Big AdventureIt’s been six long years since we last had an adventure starring Sackboy, but Sumo Digital comes out swinging, with an excellent romp containing so much charm and style as to pack it to nearly bursting from the seams with delight. The controls are spot-on, the characters and story are engaging, and there’s a metric ton of content through varied stages that demonstrate every type of environment imaginable. All of this would fall flat if the core gameplay wasn’t fun, but with some added moves to the control set and some additional co-op options, this is one of Sackboy’s most enjoyable titles to date.
The choice to drop a creative mode, which is something that was even available in the PSP version of LittleBigPlanet, is a big step for the series, but this particular focus on a tight and engaging single or co-op experience more than makes up for its absence. For a game whose very foundation was the expression found in level-creation tools, that says a lot. Sackboy: A Big Adventure had big shoes to fill, but not only did they deliver to the expectation from the series, but they also managed to carve a new path and created a charming dedication to the joy of video games in the process.
When Genshin Impact was first announced, it was quickly dismissed as a Breath of the Wild ripoff. Sporting a nearly identical art style, a similar-looking protagonist who also has hair as wild as their environment, and an enormous open-world environment, ultimately the game set itself apart with a strong anime influence that permeated each character and all the dialogue therein. There’s certainly a lot of similarities, but Genshin shines in the breadth of its nuanced quests and accessibility for new players that a main title in The Legend of Zelda series might otherwise exclude. Additionally, the whole world is alive with dedicated towns that bustle with individual characters, shopkeepers that offer wares, and a guild that has you busy with additional tasks on the daily.
While Genshin Impact often feels like it has the expansiveness of an MMO, there’s a limited amount of interaction you have with other players, with a co-op mode that isn’t as verbose as would be expected, but that’s a small complaint. That certainly won’t stop you from engaging in the nearly endless amount of content, either spending most of that time leveling up your characters and their weapons or enjoying the story itself — the choice is up to you.
Genshin Impact is the most fun I’ve had playing a Zelda-like in a very long time, and even though its gacha system of acquiring new characters can cause some serious problems with people addicted to gambling, I’ve personally played over one hundred hours without spending a cent. It’s a great game that pushes past its influences to stand on its own as a truly excellent, free-to-play title.
From the fantastic minds at Giant Squid, formally the team that brought us Abzû and worked on titles such as the award-winning indie darling Journey comes a fresh adventure that feels both new and somehow familiar. The Pathless stars an archer simply known as The Hunter and her eagle companion. Together, they run and soar through a huge open-world environment, taking down tremendously powerful, towering bosses and solving puzzles to unlock the next area. The traversal mechanic of hitting targets with the timed release of your arrows to give yourself a boost in speed is a clever one that makes the otherwise overwhelming size of the lands easier to tame.
The story is great and provides a purpose behind your fight to rid the world of these hulking beasts. Boss fights are epic and begin by having you chasing the boss, attacking their targets, and finally finishing them off in a close-proximity arena which puts your archery skills to the test. While The Pathless is ultimately a boss fight game similar to Shadow of the Colossus and Praey for the Gods, it uses smart movement systems and clever puzzles to push it into a new realm of genre and ends up telling a beautiful story about companionship and the triumph over evil, no matter the cost.
With a short window between announcement and release, no one knew what to expect from Half-life: Alyx. Most of the gaming community haven’t even thought of Gordon Freeman for years, let alone expected to see a sequel or offshoot in their lifetime, but when the trailer hit, all madness of speculation ensued. Billed as a VR-only title when skepticism of the platform was at an all-time high, the game seemed like a perfect example of too little, too late. Little did we know how impactful and engaging this lowly VR title would be, and how it would likely go down in history as one of the greatest triumphs for the platform.
Featuring one of the greatest VR mechanics in the gravity gloves, accentuated by the release of the Valve Index ‘knuckles’ controllers, players could now fling objects across the room to their hand and throw them or play with them just as easily. It turned the dystopian environments of City 17 into a veritable playground, with weapons and items just as fun as the story itself. Combine soldiers became frighteningly real, and what we had experienced in two-dimensions felt like an extension of our memory into a tangible environment that painted a believably real environment that seemed like it could actually exist. Though it starred Alyx Vance, a protagonist from the ‘Episode’ series of games, the game managed to bridge the gap and solve the problem of the missing ending of Episode 2, released thirteen years ago. Half-life: Alyx isn’t perfect, but it’s the best example of a fully-fleshed out VR title out there and will hopefully encourage other gamers and developers to dive into this amazing platform that manages to put you into the game in ways never before imagined.
While there are plenty of AAA titles that I spent time with, none of them brought true joy to me like these independent games which painted this year in such a memorable light with the wild imagination and innovation that it seems like only they can. I look forward to next year’s array of creativity and can’t wait to see what the future holds for my favorite form of entertainment.