2020: My year in video games

This year I rolled credits on 37 games and 6 DLC expansions across 3 consoles. They were my escape from long evenings contemplating COVID-19, parental frustration, lockdowns and furloughing. I overindulged, to say the least, ensuing quite a large hit to my mental health. I sought counselling, tried to talk some friends, but mainly managed to work through things with my partner (still ongoing). Video games are great, especially when you need distracting or relaxing, but they can quickly become everything you think about every waking second of every day, if you’re not careful; for me, at least. The benefits of video games to our lives is a hill I will die on, don’t get me wrong, but it turns out eating too much chocolate will make you vomit (chocolate=video games, vomit=mental breakdown).

Right, umm, now that’s out of the way, let’s get onto what I actually want to talk about; a celebration of all the amazing video games I’ve played this year! I’ll talk about ones I’ve finished and also a few I’ve dabbled in. This list isn’t restricted to games released this year, I should say: the most recent game I’ve finished is Marvel’s Spider-Man: Miles Morales (2020), and the oldest, Final Fantasy VII (1997) *insert shrug emoji*. Okay, onwards to January 2020.

January

Pokémon Sword & Shield (2019)

In the hazy light of a sharp, snapping cold day, I spent my Christmas money on a pastel yellow Nintendo Switch Lite. Tearing open the plastic shrink-wrap, I launched Luigi’s Mansion 3, spending many hours working my way through the cutesy-whimsical-horror hotel, with all the typical bounciness of a Mario game and it was… okay? Before the Nintendogs come and tear me limb from limb, let my final words be, “Nintendo games are great except I don’t like them”. Assuming you haven’t closed the page, deleted your history, and/or incinerated your phone, in my defence, not everyone should/can/will like every game, so just chill. I have never finished a Zelda game, I have no interest in Breath of the Wild, in Mario, in Toad, in Super Smash Bros., etc. etc. I have tried many of these games. I have played Twilight Princess, Link to the Past, that Zelda game where you turn 2D, that other Zelda game where there’s a big moon thing, that Mario game, that other Mario game but it’s 3D. No, no, no no no no. No. It has never meshed with me. I have given up.

After hoovering ghosts, I spent about 50 hours (!?) in the world of Pokemon Shield, a wonderfully controversial game because people on the internet want the same thing but also not the same thing at the same time. I enjoyed it; particular highlights included the fact that you can see Pokémon in the over-world, that my water starter ended up with a sniper rifle, and how I defeated a bunch of scary looking monsters with a large swirly sentient cream thing. I love Pokémon and it was arguably the only reason I bought a Switch, and it was great. The two expansions, however, were quite disappointing. Both the Isle of Armor and Crown Tundra were rather “meh” – quite short, with some rather dull questing. All I’d like in an expansion would be a new area with some gyms to tackle; I suspect these were targeted to a younger audience, with a very anime/TV-type setup present in both stories. Hey, you know what, I paid £26.99 to get a Heracross and I’m relatively content.

Staying with Switch titles, I delved into the brilliant Astral Chain; Platinum Games once again making a great action game, akin to Nier Automata, except with massive Psycho-Pass vibes. I adored the story, the combat and even swinging my chain around beasts using the teeny-tiny R-stick on the Lite wasn’t too torturous. After these three big titles, I jumped between a few indie games, namely, Gris (the soundtrack and super melancholic art style were great), Celeste (both of which I’ve reviewed in a previous postCeleste in particular is one of my favourite games of all time; an astoundingly good platformer and a heartfelt story tackling mental health issues), Super Crush KO (it’s actually fun!?), Black Future ’88 (rogue-like, so bounced off it), Katana Zero (great game, but I ran out of steam), Thronebreaker (same again, no patience, but really in depth card battling), and the utterly fantastic VA-11-Hall-A; cyberpunk bartender action. Yes, that was the highlight. What a game, I mean, it’s just mixing drinks and listening to your regulars’ stories, as well as overcoming massive emotional turmoil inside yourself, but man, it really hit me. The cyberpunk vibe, aesthetic and the characters were so well written, I’d love to return to that world again.

February

Journey to the Savage Planet (2020)

A friend and I decided to embark upon a multiplayer journey together, suitably entitled, Journey to the Savage Planet. The trailers looked cool; like Ratchet and Clank mixed with No Man’s Sky. And in our 15+ hours or so we belly-laughed to no end… but perhaps not in the way the devs intended. We had a hard time just navigating in this game, mainly because of the first-person platforming up massive vine-like alien towers. We’d start off strong, getting to the objective, except soon after one of us might fall half a ‘klick down a mountain, end up in a new area, do our own thing for a while, before realising, “hey there’s this door thing we need to open and I’m here trying to find this weird bug thing,” while the other person is “oh yeah, I jumped over that and now there’s like two big scorpion things killing me”. The frustrating platforming was compounded by the non-linear traversal across the world. Additionally, certain upgrades were needed to get past certain sections, such as a double jump, but I’m pretty sure we skipped some of them and cheesed our way through. This game was super confusing and annoying, made hilarious by our co-operative failure. One part which had my friend in tears had both of us defending a large blue barrier so that it charged up (or something) from electric bug things which kamikaze run towards it, blowing it and themselves up. It seemed to me that I had to protect the shield until all the bugs were gone. I had been doing this for about 15 minutes when my friend bounced over and asked me what I was doing. He insisted there had to be something we were missing because this looked endless. I was determined that the bugs would stop, leading to the next several minutes of laughter where he tried to sabotage me. Eventually, for some reason I can’t quite remember, I think we respawned, a percentage counter appeared that counted up until the barrier held (or it might have been a countdown timer, who knows) – a tiny glitch. Man, the game had many things like that. So yeah, the game was bad, and would’ve been awful had I been playing it alone. Nothing was really explained. The final boss fight was a bit of a joke – but it was the friends we made along the way that was the real journey to the savage planet.

In February, I traded in my old Nintendo 3DS (only Pokémon games on there, promise) and my PSVR in order to commit the ultimate betrayal; I purchased an Xbox One S (not to be confused with the recently released Xbox Series S). I had been a PlayStation gamer since the ’90s, not for silly loyalty reasons, rather because of my friends, because of Crash Bandicoot and Ratchet and Clank and WipeOut. I managed to catch up on Remedy’s cerebral and slick sci-fi Quantum Break, Gears of War 4, Forza Horizon (particularly the cheerful LEGO expansion) and Man-eater (Shark simulator 2020 which was fun for about 30 minutes). “Game Pass”, a £7.99/pm subscription service whereby you have access to most Xbox 1st party titles and 100s of 3rd party ones, was a very interesting change of pace from the PlayStation infrastructure. I have a bad habit of shelling out cash for cool looking indie games before giving up a few hours in – a guilt that is eliminated somewhat with Game Pass. I guess it’s like going to a buffet vs. à la carte; both have pros and cons. The downside of Game Pass was I never felt the need to finish any game, and I can’t quite remember too much of what I played. Quantum Break was really fun, and I loved the unique structure of having random TV episodes within the game. I love a good time-travel story and this really scratched an itch – a very underrated title in my opinion.

Gears 4 was meh; I have never been a Gears-head, and I played Gears 5 co-op with my aforementioned Journey… friend. A super generic, 3rd person shooter. Very pretty, and the skiff sections were a lot of fun (ha), but the story was poor, and I really didn’t care about anything in the game. We both found it hilarious that my friend chose to play solely as Jack the super God-like drone, while I kept dying as Kait Diaz, who’s mom, or grandmother or whatever was the big bad, uh, I don’t know – whatever Gears of War. (We also played some Sea of Thieves together via cross-play, but pirates, with a Fortnite-like art style didn’t do it for me. I need that narrative juice!)

After we finished Gears, I bounced between a few games (honourable mention: Observation) but ended up selling the Xbox in the summer, waving goodbye to my brief affair with a younger, hotter, console, but never feeling as fulfilled as I did with my good, old reliable PS4.

March

Death Stranding (2019)

With the Switch and Xbox in full tow, the PS4 was feeling neglected. In fact, never before in my life had I achieved the trifecta, but, much like the truism, “Never meet your heroes”, it wasn’t all it’s cracked up to be. It turns out that the bottleneck was time. I had no time to play any one console for a significant amount of time, with ~2 hours free per day. It was like being in the candy shop, overwhelmed and struck by choice paralysis. I wouldn’t recommend it. The Xbox was the first sacrifice, and after the next two games, so was the PS4.

I sunk 80+ hours into The Division 2; a 3rd person shooter, looter, online multiplayer, viral-pandemic relevant Ubi-smörgåsbord game. The story was dull, the enemies can feel very bullet spongey, to the point where my right index finger ached after a few hours (only game I’ve ever had that), it can feel very repetitive, it’s an online service game type thing so you can shell out for cosmetics/expansions etc., and I was instantly turned off from the get-go. But, large ‘but’ here, we were going into lockdown and I wanted to maintain at least one social link beyond my family, so my co-op friend, let’s call him Mr. X although I should have done that earlier, jumped on the £7.99 price cut for Div2. It was extremely fun. And actually good? We had a blast playing through missions together, and I’d even play outside of our weekly sessions, levelling up and then dropping in every week to bring Mr. X up to speed. Eventually, however, I started to play far too much that I hit saturation point – it was becoming “grindy”, as the kids say these days. We both mopped up the game, and I felt quite hollow afterwards. A third mutual friend hopped on and I saw him playing online a lot too; why was this game so addictive? It’s like Ubisoft perfected the action-reward feedback loop, and we were all suckers to this forgettable game.

My final game on the PS4 until June (you’ll see why below) was the critically acclaimed Death Stranding, a genre-breaking game (social-strand system hello), where you deliver packages across a desolate and bleakly beautiful America, while listening to Low Roar. Kojima-san’s oddball masterpiece hooked me terribly, which surprised me; I have bounced off the Metal Gear Solid series, after trying 4, and 5, and even watching a let’s play of 1 and 3. But Death Stranding was different – it was exactly what I needed at the time; a super zen, therapeutic experience, incredibly OTT, cinematic and very, very weird. I have written about it on a separate blog post, so have a look if you want to read more.

April/May

In Other Waters (2020)

April and May were a weird few months. The UK went into full lockdown with schools and even my work starting to shutdown, and I had a lot of family time, with no real break. My mental health took a large dive here, and I only dipped into a few short games, which helped. Unfortunately, when things slowly became more normal, I played even more games and that was a bad decision (*nervous laughter*). I played the wonderfully chill In Other Waters, a subtle sci-fi xenobiologist-sim narrative adventure game with a very cool UI; Transistor, for the 4th or 5th time (can’t get enough of Korb’s OST on here); Hotline Miami, whereby I would go to sleep every night with my head buzzing; The Red Strings Club, which in retrospect made a wonderful pairing with VA-11-Hall-A, another cyberpunk bartender game with an excellent soundtrack, and a brilliant story. The mechanic that stood out was how making different drinks would get your customer to reveal info that could change the ending of the game.

June/July

During these two months a new child was born unto me. She took up all our time, as well as looking after our preexisting 2 year old, so obviously it was the perfect time for Sony to release two of the best PS4 exclusives of the generation: The Last of Us Part II and Ghost of Tsushima. I have briefly spoken about these two masterpieces in a previous blog post, mainly because they were both so brilliant. Ghost was similar to 2018’s Spider-Man, a satisfying “clear the map” game, with jaw-droppingly beautiful landscapes, new ideas on how to navigate an open world, and a legitimately engrossing story. I am a sucker for a good samurai story, so much so that I rewatched a bunch of Kurasawa films in preparation; one in particular I will mention is Sanjuro, the ending of which sums up the combat in Ghost perfectly. Ghost is also the best Assassin’s Creed game I’ve played. Feudal Japan has been a regular cry-from-the-rafters for the Ubi-community and here, Sucker Punch (devs of Infamous) have beaten them to the punch. I really don’t think Ubisoft could do it better. Ghost was also one of my 4 platinum trophies this year too – not something I usually undertake.

Ah, The Last of Us. What can I say that hasn’t been said? Ignoring the hate, this game cemented itself as my favourite of all time. A direct sequel to the “un-topable” 2013 PS3 game, Part II comes full circle on Joel and Ellie’s story and tackles themes of love and hate with astonishing and controversial ideas. It’s as tense as the best TV series you’ve ever seen, from Breaking Bad to True Detective. Nothing, in my opinion, comes close to achieving such narrative perfection as this duology of games. In every single way, Part II elevates the former game while carving out its own unique and perspective-switching story. What a game. If I say anything more I’ll turn into the Tom Gauld pigeon comic and ultimately fail to convey how personal and affecting this experience was for me. Play it. Moving on.

August/September

Final Fantasy VII Remake (2020)

Another strange few months with some games ending, others starting only to be left for later in the year, or never. I played an expansion for Control, the excellent 2019 weird-sci-fi-office-physics-telekinetic game which was “alright” I guess. The subsequent DLC, “AWE” was also subpar, and really only leant itself well to fans of Alan Wake (I watched a let’s play of this and I now understand its cult following), a direction in which a Control sequel seems to be going.

Vanquish remastered on PS4 was a fun nostalgic throwback, as was a replay of 2018’s Spider-Man, in anticipation of the November release of spin-off Miles Morales. I also played a bit of Bayonetta (never finished), which was a little too trashy for me (very DMCV); the ruthless Below (never finished); Manifold Garden (a.k.a. M.C. Escher: the game, but it didn’t keep my interest long); Return of the Obra Dinn, a game that looked like I’d really enjoy, Lucas Pope’s follow up to Paper’s Please, but unfortunately I bounced off it; and Void Bastards – I don’t have the energy to recall any memory of that game.

September came kicking and I dipped my feet into the cosy Spiritfarer, which I do keep meaning to go back to. It’s a lovely cup of tea + blanket game; a boat management sim where you ship people to the land of the dead. See? Cosy. Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater remastered was a mistake of a purchase; I instantly regretted it as I played about 2 hours and have zero intention of going back. I realised that I actually don’t want to recall my school years where I listened to grunge/punk and thought skateboarders were the height of cool. On the contrary, Final Fantasy VII Remake was also an impulse buy and holy moly how lucky I was.

When I was a kid, a friend and I would play the opening chapter of the OG Final Fantasy VII, right up to the scorpion tail-laser boss dude. We never ever got past that point. That super short intro section took up our lives for months and months. I had never played an unforgiving RPG before, which relied on using potions, planning attacks and strategising, especially right at the beginning. We kept trying, but eventually it was tossed aside for other games. I never forgot the music, or that opening cutscene of Aerith, the mako, the footsteps, the sounds of the city, the massive logo, a train, back to the city, the train, zooming into the city, then we go onto the train, and boom, I can hear the opening music now, Cloud jumps down, and we’re in. 20 years later, playing Remake, with its insanely beautiful graphics and modernised gameplay, I was sent back in time. The opening section took me 45 minutes and from there it was all brand new. Later, I found out that the Remake actually departs rather wildly from the original source material, with the entirety of the first game in this new series set solely in Midgar. 30 hours later and I was leaving the reactor-city behind, with the classic foursome of Aerith, Barret, Cloud and Tifa, walking into pastures new. I am absolutely stoked for the next game in this series, as well as being the only Final Fantasy I’ve ever completed – making it extra special. It was such a great game, with a beautifully engrossing story, a shockingly relevant take on our current climate change crisis (you play as a bunch of eco-terrorists trying to take down the evil mako-guzzling Shinra corp), that I decided as soon I finished it, I would send it off to my old friend. He received it a few weeks ago now and is also just starting his own journey, continuing off where he left it 20 years back. Nostalgia overload!

After finishing Remake, I had the urge to fill in my FF library and bought 7 through 12 on the Switch during a sale. Bad decision, not because they’re bad games, perish the thought, arguably some of the best games in the history of the universe, no, because I’m an idiot and never finish games when I buy more than one. I’ve played about 3 hours of OG FFVII, just leaving Midgar, and haven’t touched the others. Oh well, maybe during the lull of the relatively empty autumn season of gami- Oh wait.

October

I played some scary games in October, as one should. Starting off with the recent-ish Resident Evil 2 remake, I managed to coax myself into making it through both Leon and Claire’s gruesome and horrific story, with zero enjoyment, but man did it look pretty. Carrion on the Switch was an excellent horror-reversal game, where you play as the monster, but the lack of a map made it ever so slightly frustrating. Thankfully, it was still super satisfying to tentacle-crunch and murder innocent scientists in an underground lab. For the umpteenth time I attempted to resume my Alien Isolation play-through, a game I started back in 2015, but nope, couldn’t do it; quit, delete application. An expansion for both Pokémon and Control took some of my time but they were sub-par as I’ve described previously (should I pitch a Pokémon/Control crossover game!?).

For actual Hallowe’en, Mr X. and I played through the slightly tedious but rather funny Little Hope, Supermassive games’ follow-up to Man of Medan (more like Man of meh-dan amirite), a follow-up to the actually very good Until Dawn. A decision based interactive movie, Little Hope intersperses a foggy ghost-town story set in now-times with the macabre Salem Witch Trials of the past. I personally found the story a lot better than Medan, but the decision-making mechanic was opaque until well into the endgame. Decisions we made early on didn’t seem to have any instant effect, but much later on, when one character died, the game showed that “if bla had bla trait, then they could’ve saved themselves”, I suppose incentivising subsequent play-throughs. Given the very slow setup, I doubt I will be revisiting the game. Mechanics such as the diary decision results in Life is Strange, or the fully transparent networks in Detroit: Become Human, let you see behind the scenes, showing “how your decisions are affecting the game” at key stages, which is much more satisfying – you can decide if you are happy with your choices/or just want to carry on, or want to redo it. Little Hope plays as one long B-movie where if you make a mistake you really couldn’t be bothered to go back and replay those 5 hours. By the end we decided to try and kill everyone, which we almost did! Take that teens!

The exception to the scary games rule of October was a surprise gift I received from a friend: Crash Bandicoot 4, the sequel to 1998’s Warped. Crash is beautiful, with lots of QoL improvements but with little change to the core gameplay. You can probably get through it in a dozen hours, but that’s avoiding all the crates, which isn’t how I play it. I refuse to not collect every single box. I have actually stopped playing it now after several fiendish ice-levels that I will not subject myself to for a while until I have recuperated from the sheer number of deaths. Crash is the Dark Souls of platformers; there I said it. I simultanaeously hate it and love it – OH MY GOD IT’S SO F&*(ING HARD! Just stop it, Crash. Stop it.

November

Marvel’s Spider-Man: Miles Morales (2020)

An exciting month for sure. Multiple console launches, lots of new games and even the launch of Cyberpunk 2077 (!?) – except that last one was delayed (to December 10th). Again (September 17th). Again (April 16th). (Remember when it was first announced during the PS3 era?). I was very lucky to be able to secure a PlayStation 5 preorder, and thankfully my Amazon driver did not steal my delivery, or replace it with cat litter or a microwave (seriously, this happened in the UK). Two of my friends also secured their next-gen consoles and in recent weeks we have been chatting endlessly about all the new games: Miles Morales! Assassin’s Creed Valhalla! Bugsnax!

Before that however, I managed to blaze through The Witcher 3 on Switch; long overdue, I know. I chose the Switch because I had tried playing in on PS4 back in 2015 to no avail. It never clicked with me. Yes, an open-world revitalising game, critically acclaimed, won awards, it’s Zelda all over again. Anyway, I played it in many hour-long sessions in bed, unable to sleep – enjoying being tucked in with Geralt ;). The first 10 hours were really, really good. The rest were tiring. Perhaps it was open-world fatigue, hell, by this point I’d played so many games this year I was 100% burned out. I mainlined the game, finishing it in a blisteringly quick 25 hours. I supplemented my play-through by reading Andrzej Sapkowski’s The Last Wish, the book upon which the Netflix TV series is based on, which was far more enjoyable than the slog through muddy Velen.

On November 19th, the PS5 arrived and once the kids were asleep I managed about an hour of Astro’s Playroom, a free, pre-installed game that was an excellent nostalgia/Sony marketing/Dualsense showcase. I acquired the Platinum trophy in about 4 hours, jaunting through each of the platforming worlds, showcasing each of the previous 4 mainline consoles with wonderful artefacts to collect, puzzle pieces, and hilarious Astro-themed references to previous exclusive games, all visualised in eye-melting 4k, and felt through a haptically-sentient controller. Astro’s is a must play if you jump on the next-gen bandwagon (the PS1 start-up sound features in one level and if that doesn’t excite you then I am at a loss). The Dualsense is the true highlight here, with so many normal events becoming a magical dance on your fingertips: “Oh look I can feel the rain!” / “I can feel his footsteps!” / “The ice skating actually feels like ice!” / “I swear there’s a zipper inside the touchpad” / “How the hell have they done this with the triggers”. You really need to experience it for yourself.

The next game on my list was Miles Morales, a direct spin-off/continuation of the story following 2018’s Spider-Man. This launch game is utterly (runs out of adjectives). While only slightly changing things from 2018, Miles Morales etches its own story into the new video game Spider-Man canon, with resounding success. A short, 10 hour story cuts out all the excess fat from its predecessor (not that there was much in the first place), and trims the action and spectacle heavy game into what feels sometimes like a fully-fledged movie. There’s a large upgrade to the cutscenes, especially in the cinematography department, as well as improved animations, a wonderfully new “venom” ability that all but showcases the PS5’s ray tracing, and best of all, there’s a new suit with a cat in a backpack. Cat. In. A. Backpack. Need I go on? Controversially, I think I love Miles Morales more than the 2018 game, but I guess the latter couldn’t have existed without the other. I also think I prefer Miles as a protagonist, not just because of the wonderful perspective we get of being “Harlem’s Spider-Man”, or the epically remixed OST, but just that Miles is still learning the ropes here; this is a brilliant way to get that origin story itch out into the ether, without treading old ground with Peter’s story. Miles’ story is more personal and heartbreaking than Peter’s, and the sense of friendship and community really ekes out of it in spades. It’s an amazing, spectacular game and a joy to have at launch.

Special mention to left-field Bugsnax for doing something utterly different. It is so delightfully weird, except after playing a few hours I’m not sure I’ll go back having been freaked out by the grotesque foodie body-horror. Yes, I know what I wrote.

December

Assassin’s Creed Valhalla (2020)

It’s getting cold now. Properly cold. I’m dressing up my 2.5 year old in a borrowed skiing suit and once or twice I’ve worn leggings underneath my trousers. It maybe feels even colder because all the games I’ve played recently are all set in snow. Miles Morales was a Christmas video game, with snow flurries in fully gorgeous 4k, the snowy bit in Astro’s too is lodged in my memory, and even Little Hope’s foggy town made me want to curl up in a blanket. Now, sitting down with Ubisoft’s cross-gen, cross-platform launch title, Assassin’s Creed Valhalla, I’m once again transported to the icy depths of winter. This time, the team have drawn on Norse legend, with Eivor’s story starting in the frozen mountains of Norway. Viking raiding in frozen rivers, scaling powder-snow peaks, wrapped in a hooded cloak, it all feels cold. And I love it. I can’t give a recommendation yet, as I’ve only played a few hours, but it looks ridiculously beautiful, and the frame rate has been a pretty consistent looking 60fps. It does lots of things similar to 2018’s Odyssey, but also some different. Side missions and the such have disappeared into strange glowing orbs across the maps, with no idea as to what they are, and I also ran into a cave and was obliterated by some crazy Norse dude – there’s something called power levels, tied to your skills rather than a overarching traditional RPG level, which is scary and cool, so I have no idea if I’m ready to enter an area until I try. There’s lots of throwbacks to old school AC too, emphasising stealth and the hidden blade, juxtaposed with the new “LET’S RAID AND PILLAGE!” every few minutes with your longboat crew. I can’t wait to get lost in this world – look out for my final thoughts sometime next year.

I have made the decision not to buy Cyberpunk 2077 this year, until a definitive PS5 upgrade appears in 2021, so yeah. It looks great. I love cyberpunk. I love Neuromancer, William Gibson, Altered Carbon, Blade Runner, Ghost in the Shell, Judge Dredd, Philip K Dick, and The Matrix. But I’m not ready this year, CD Projekt Red. Not this year. Instead I will be playing the whimsical Temtem, an MMO Pokémon clone in all but name, releasing on the PS5 in early access. “Mom, can we get Cyberpunk? No, honey, we have Cyberpunk at home.”

Wrap-up

>5000 words later and here we are. I played a lot of games this year. Too many, perhaps. Well, hope everyone has a great holiday, and manages to spend time with at least some loved ones (damn you COVID!). Thanks for reading! Until 2021, laters!