2020 was poised to be one of the biggest years for the industry. It had been 7 years since the last consoles launched and the sheer processing power of the PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X/S were supposed to usher in a new era. Unfortunately the coronavirus pandemic put the kibosh on all of those plans and we're frankly lucky to have even received the hardware this year. I actually have nothing but good things to say about the the new consoles. I managed to get a PlayStation 5 and it feels great. The hardware is solid, controller is excellent, and I'm a huge fan of the UX. But the problem is that there are essentially no games that truly showcase the power of the hardware. On the PlayStation 5 the only exclusives are Astro's Playroom, Demon's Souls Remake, and Godfall. The Xbox Series X doesn't even have a single launch exclusive. Their tentpole release was to be Halo Infinite but it showcased so poorly that Microsoft pushed it back an entire year.
That really has been the story of 2020. Games not being just pushed back months but entire years. Halo Infinite, Deathloop, Far Cry 6, Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines 2, Dying Light 2, The Settlers, Digimon Survive, even the Cyberpunk 2077 next-gen console versions are just a select few of the dozens of titles that are now shipping in 2021. With backwards compatibility being more important than ever the question becomes how "next-gen" are these games really going to be? If something has to run on a base PlayStation 4 or Xbox One is a developer really going to spend the time to take advantage of a hard drive that is literally 100X faster than the previous generation?
In addition, working from home seems to be hitting video games particularly hard where the ability to walk over to one another's desk and showcase your work is a critical part of the creative process. With it growing increasingly unlikely that people will be going back to the office in the first half of 2021 I am starting to suspect that it won't be until 2022 until we see some truly next generation games.
But enough of the doom and gloom. I am making it sound like 2021 video games are going to be the leftover rubbish of 2020 which couldn't be farther from the truth. Sure 2020 was another year of major sequels but there were a lot of great games to play and I think that will carry over through all of 2021. So let's go over the games I, Reid Main, played and enjoyed in 2020.
1. Persona 5 Royal
This feels like a cop-out but if I am being truly honest with myself Persona 5 Royal is the best game I played in 2020. I know that Persona 5 was my 2017 Game of the Year and picking an "enhanced" or "definitive edition" of a game may feel like cheating but it simply was the best.
From my Games of the Year 2017: The Good article:
Persona 5 look me about 90 hours to beat and I loved almost every minute of it. The story was engaging, the characters were captivating, the UI was beautiful, the art style was jaw-droppingly gorgeous. There were dozens of quality of life improvements made from the previous Persona games like the streamlined combat controls to the overworld map that made it much easier to understand how to build your social links.
Not only is all of that still true but this time it took me over 100 hours to beat. That may sound like I "only" went 10 hours over my previous playtime but it is much more complicated than that. The developers made so many more quality of life improvements that the game actually progressed much faster this time. It was only because of all the new story content that I managed to eclipse my previous playtime. Several new characters each with their own in-depth backstory, an entire third semester added on to the end of the school year, a bunch of new places around Tokyo to visit, and even the existing characters' storylines got added on to.
Persona 5 Royal is not your typical "definitive edition" cash grab where developers just package up all of the DLC and sell you the game again. Atlus tore Persona 5 apart and rebuilt it into something special. I can unequivocally say that Persona 5 Royal is easily the best JRPG of the last generation and would be my recommendation for anyone who is looking to get into the genre. You're not going to be able to travel to Tokyo anytime soon so why not live vicariously through these amazing teenagers.
2. Yakuza: Like a Dragon
I finally played my first Yakuza game and I could not have been more happy with Yakuza: Like a Dragon. Technically the 7th game in the mainline Yakuza franchise, it follows the tale of Ichiban Kasuga, a boy inducted into the Yakuza as a teenager and his role in the family over the next 25 years of his life.
The Yakuza games had always been described to me as crazy slapstick comedies with surprisingly dark stories and boy howdy is that the truth. I've gone from fighting Yakuza in giant diapers to discovering a friend who hanged themselves to fighting a chimp who has taken over an excavator. Amazingly none of it feels truly out of place because that is just the world that game manages to cultivate so well. You enjoy the absolute nonsense that occurs around the city but crave the deeper human interactions put forth by the main story and its side-quests. I always wanted to do whatever it took to learn more about my companions because their backstories were so raw and interesting.
What I was not expecting from Yakuza: Like a Dragon was for its combat system to work so well. The previous six games in the franchise were all fairly standard beat 'em ups but with ludicrous over the top combos or environmental interactions that always kept it fun. Yakuza: Like a Dragon decided to merge that with JRPG turn-based combat and it worked out much better than it had any right to. The main character, Ichiban, is a huge fan of Dragon Quest so he sees the world as if it were a video game and he is the legendary hero. You're not wielding a sword, instead its a baseball bat. Your mage isn't casting fireball, he's a homless man summoning pidgeons or using his terrible breath. You're not cleaving someone with an axe, you're slapping them around with a fat stack of cash.
I know I just wrote that Persona 5 Royal is the best JRPG of the last generation but right up there with it is Yakuza: Like a Dragon and Dragon Quest XI which seems very fitting as one heavily inspired the other.
If you haven't played a JRPG in the last decade you now have three amazing games that you could easily lose 200-300 hours in. What are you waiting for?
Bugsnax is basically Pokémon Snap but instead of taking pictures of Pokémon, you trap and eat them. Take a peek at this E3 2020 trailer and tell me this game doesn't seem perfect for children.
Personally that trailer did nothing for me. The cutesy nature of it didn't make me want to play the game. But when I got my PlayStation 5 I saw that Bugsnax was free with PS Plus so I figured I should at least give it a shot on my shiny new console. 10 hours later I had 100% the game and got my first platinum trophy on my PS5.
Bugsnax is one of the best examples of when you take a gameplay idea and distill it down to its most pure form. You come to this island and you're immediately told how to capture bugsnax. With every new area you explore you discover another gadget you can use to trap all these bugsnax. Once you have your full complement of gadgets you're basically right at the precipice of the very end of the game. You can either go back and use your gadgets to catch all 100 types of bugsnax or move on and see the end of the story. Very rarely is a game paced so well.
But all that being said let's go back to that trailer. Looked pretty whimsical right? Seems like a game for children? What if I told you that both cannibalism and murder are discussed in this game? The end of the story goes to some weird, dark places so maybe think twice about exposing children to this.
But if you grew up loving Pokémon Snap and are well adjusted enough to handle eating sentient snacks in order to become one then I highly recommend you give Bugsnax a try.
4. Animal Crossing: New Horizons
I know the pandemic is horrible but Nintendo has gotta be silently jumping for joy that they released Animal Crossing: New Horizons just as the lockdowns commenced in March. You're telling me a game about escaping to a tropical island where you can decorate it however you'd like and make friends with anthropomorphic animals did gangbusters when everyone was locked inside?
Joking aside, Animal Crossing: New Horizons is the same fun and addicting franchise it has always been. I will freely admit that for all of March and April I was obsessed with it too. I put over 75 hours into the game and probably the last 20 were me literally terraforming my entire island so I could create a pattern of honeycomb moats for all of my animal friends to live in.
If you are looking for an escapism game to help get you through 2021 you cannot go wrong with Animal Crossing: New Horizons.
5. Spider-Man: Miles Morales
Spider-Man: Miles Morales feels like it is DLC for 2018's Spider-Man game which isn't meant to be a derogatory statement. If you loved the original game this is a fun 10 hour diversion with a bunch of cool new gameplay mechanics that really allow you to differentiate one Spider-Man from another. Personally I wasn't that interested in Miles' story or the primary antagonist. Even though he is a teenager Miles was far more naive than I would have expected but since the story was so short it was easily something I could gloss over. The web swinging and combat still are a ton of fun and the 60 FPS of the PlayStation 5 version felt amazing. Also the loading times were so fast that I literally could not read any of the game tips on the loading screen. Hopefully this is a glimpse of what is going to become the default for all PS5 games.
The best thing I can say about Spider-Man: Miles Morales is that it has made me super excited for a Spider-Man 2 where you can play both Peter Parker and Miles Morales. The first 30 minutes of this game where they work together was an absolute blast. I very much want to see more of that in the future.
6. Astro's Playroom
Astro's Playroom may be a tech demo for the PlayStation 5 but it is also a great game in its own right. Like Bugsnax it focuses purely on gameplay. Each of the four worlds have their own unique mechanics that showcase something interesting about the PlayStation 5. Nothing overstays its welcome and after 4-5 hours you've seen everything there is and are ready to move onto another game. Astro's Playroom revels in not having to be like most games where replay value is the highest priority. It knows what it is supposed to teach the player and knocks it out of the park.
Astro's Playroom also has the distinct honour of being the only next-gen exclusive on this list.
7. XCOM: Chimera Squad
XCOM: Chimera Squad is neither a sequel nor expansion to XCOM 2. A small team inside Firaxis got permission to experiment with the XCOM formula and while I don't agree entirely with the decisions they made, I am really glad they got the opportunity.
Instead of commanding a resistance force battling aliens across the globe, you are a SWAT team in the first city where humans and aliens live alongside one another. The Geoscape is gone and has been replaced with a simple map of the city's districts. The combat has been overhauled to focus on how to start engagements rather than the standard turn-based combat of the previous XCOMs. All of your soldiers are also named characters that cannot die. They have their own unique skillsets and you only get to take four of them into battle at once. Personally, I found myself leaning on the same four every time because there was no reason to risk experimentation.
Now I am actually not a fan of any of these changes but that doesn't make them bad. This game is only $20 and it's combat is much faster paced which may actually be preferable for some people. XCOM: Chimera Squad is a very enjoyable game. I am just a fan of the old XCOM way of doing things.
Back in my May retrospective I wrote:
The metaphor I like to use is that the mainline XCOM games are a fine glass of whiskey, while Chimera Squad is some bootleg moonshine. Sure it's gonna get you drunk but I'd rather have a smooth glass of Johnnie Walker that I sip on slowly instead.
I must have been drinking some Johnnie Walker when I wrote that because I have absolutely no memory of it. But it actually is quite apt.
I am happy to see the XCOM team not resting on their laurels and experimenting with their tried and true formula. My biggest fear is that Firaxis will play it safe with XCOM 3 and not take any major risks. But I hope that games like XCOM: Chimera Squad and Phoenix Point showcase how this genre could grow and help Firaxis create a great game with XCOM 3.#GamesOfTheYear