Its that time of year again, where we subjectively list what we think are the best video games of 2020, then you lot get mad at us for being objectively wrong.
It sort of feels like 2020 has been a bumper year for video games, doesnt it? The pandemic and, therefore, the amount of time people spent playing games probably helped on that score, but the final year of a console generation often is bumper, isnt it? Just look at the roster from 2013, the year the PS4 and Xbox One originally released, and youll see the same thing.
And so, it falls to the team at Thumbsticks to pick the 20 best video games of 2020. Why? Because people like lists, we suppose.
As usual, heres the Q&A/disclaimer before we begin:
Do you like sumptuously simple puzzle games like Stephens Sausage Roll or A Good Snowman is Hard to Build? Games with an economy of design and a purity thats rare in the oft-cluttered space of puzzle designers trying to prove how clever they are?
Well, friend, you will very much enjoy A Monsters Expedition.
From the same designer as A Good Snowman and featuring the same adorable, monstrous protagonist the titular expedition is through a sort of open-world environment, where the puzzles, the gloriously to-the-point puzzles, involve traversing islands to explore the world. On your way through those islands, youll uncover the games narrative through archaeological exhibits from the monsters point of view, of a hubris-filled society that might just seem familiar. In 2020. Teetering on the brink of Brexit oblivion.
The consensus is that Animal Crossing: New Horizons was the right game at the right time. And it was, but throughout 2020 its also proved to be much more than that. When most days pass by as an indistinguishable lockdown blur, Animal Crossing is an anchor to the real world weve missed. The changing seasons, for example, mark the passing of time more effectively than the view from my window. The limited but stress-free online experience provides a place to meet and reconnect with friends while real-life socialising remains off-limits. In a year when Ive been separated from loved ones by border closures, its been an essential alternative to interminable Zoom calls.
Animal Crossing is the world in which wed like to live. The game is not free of drudgery or hard work, but in this crappy year of years, its an experience free of cynicism and idiocy. Friendship, humour, community and a lot of debt make this world go round. A world in which if you gift a face mask to a villager, they will happily wear it without protest. And most likely give you a tank-top in return.
Animal Crossing: New Horizons is the right game, all the time.
For all of the talk of the hardware grunt of the new console generation including blistering-fast solid-state drives and real-time ray tracing the biggest new innovation has been the PS5 DualSense controllers Adaptive Triggers. Its a sort of extreme haptic feedback that allows the player to feel the tension of in-game actions.
And the game that showcases that new tech the best? Its actually Astros Playroom, the free pack-in title that Sony gives away with every PlayStation 5. Its the closest thing to 2006s Wii Sports, and thats a big compliment.
Watching on as a Spanish nudist colony eviscerated my cities while my bubonic plague-ridden son blackmailed me for cheating on his mother with her sister, I figured I must have created the wackiest save file possible withinCrusader Kings 3.But then I looked online and realised that absolutely everybody who played Paradox newest strategy game had an equally bizarre but wholly unique anecdote to share.
In short,Crusader Kings 3is easily one of the most memorable and engrossing strategy games in years. Its gameplay loop is almost endlessly replayable due to the sheer number of stories its innovative systems can tell, while it strips back the overwhelming design of its predecessors for one far more approachable. Yet, its never the technical prowess ofCrusader Kings 3that makes it exceptional. Its the way it ditches the impersonal nature of the strategy genre and puts characters at the forefront, forcing players to consider the human aspects of leadership rather than how many faceless civilizations they can conquer.
When we played Fall Guys at E3 2019 god, do you remember in-person events? we knew it was going to be a hit. Theres just something so universally accessible about its premise, presentation, and playability. Then when it was given away for free with PS Plus, that cemented its place as an enormous success.
Also, Mediatonic capitalised on the massive popularity of Fall Guys and the brands wanting a slice of its social media-friendly success to raise a whopping sum of money for gaming accessibility charity Special Effect. Fall Guys are Good Guys, it would seem.
There are unenviable tasks, and there are unenviable tasks. And then theres remaking Final Fantasy VII, one of the most beloved games ever created. On paper, the best you can hope for is to not absolutely ruin peoples memories of the original, and everything flows downhill from there. Honestly, I can think of few things more daunting.
Luckily, Tetsuya Nomura whilst also simultaneously trying to tie up 18 billion loose ends in Kingdom Hearts 3, the fearless thrill-seeker didnt find it daunting. Or maybe he did and he simply didnt care. But for the longest time, we were labouring under the apprehension that it would be terrible. Then we saw a bit more of it and we allowed ourselves to think it might not be the worst. Then we played a bit at E3 and, to all of our surprise, it was actually looking quite good?
Then the Final Fantasy VII Remake released and it was everything it could have been, and nothing we dared dream it might, all at once. Yes, this selection is drenched with nostalgia, but after getting the opportunity to spend the worst part of a truly terrible year with those old friends Cloud, Tifa, Barret, Aerith, Red XIII, and the Avalanche dorks I couldnt not pick it.
Unlike so many of the games in our honourable mentions section that narrowly missed out on technicalities, Hades manages to scrape into this years GOTY list for the opposite reason. Originally launched in Early Access in 2018, Hades was ineligible for the list that year, brilliant as it was. But in 2020 it received its full release and is, therefore, now allowed to take its rightful place.
And when we say scrape we mean in relation to the rules of our Game of the Year lists. Hades is not scraping into the list by any other metric its flipping brilliant. Just go and play it. Youll see.
If Disc Room (see below) couldnt slice its way onto this list because it is too stressful, I Am Dead finds itself here almost entirely by accident for the opposite reason: because it is just so chill.
Its a hidden objects game with a difference; you play a ghost who can slice inside objects to find their mysteries. Its also very sweet and wholesome and kind, which is fast becoming what we need from games at the moment. Read the inimitable Donlans review of it over on Eurogamer for definitive words on why it is so exquisite.
Lair of the Clockwork God is one of the cleverest games in years, but not in a nasty, adversarial way, that way that puzzle game creators defy you to best them. Its pleasant, kind, and allows you to gently catch on to its brilliance as you work your way through an ingenious mashup of point-and-click and platforming. Its also somehow flown under the radar, so you should amend that post-haste, thanks.
If not for Toms borderline unhealthy adoration for Final Fantasy VII, Lair of the Clockwork God would absolutely have been his pick for 2020. Its that good.
Games have been pulling the you were actually the bad guy all along trick for decades, but none have put their money where their mouth is quite like The Last of Us Part 2. Devoting equal amounts of time to the characters on either side of its vengeance story, TLOU2 is a structurally innovative and emotionally powerful piece of storytelling.
That dual focus means that the game feels a little overlong on an initial playthrough, sure. But Naughty Dogs commitment to the bit means that we come to view both characters as right and very wrong in their own ways, and The Last of Us Part 2 is one of the few AAA games that rewards this kind of analysis.
In the weeks and months following its release, The Last of Us Part 2 has often been dismissed as misery porn by its detractors; a game whose sole message was murder bad. Those criticisms arent supported by the game itself. The Last of Us Part 2 does have real problems, specifically in the ways it handles race with legitimately well-written Black characters becoming grist for the mill of its white heroes stories, and the casts sole Latino character, Manny, falling into some pretty tired racial tropes but the game ultimately tells an unpredictable story about the murkiness of our enduring love for the people in our lives, people who have loved us, and hurt us.
Nothing perhaps better epitomises 2020 than this solo indie project with its atmosphere of overwhelming isolation. Any fear at the prospect of 400 real-time days stuck within an underground, labyrinthine cave system soon gives way to the feeling that this is one of the most original puzzle games in recent years. The exploration involved in guiding The Longings goblinesque creature is more rewarding than any open-world game thanks to its wholly unique mechanical approach to time and the sheer rush involved in uncovering its secrets.
If you can tolerate one of the slowest walking speeds in all of gaming and puzzles that can be taxing without leaning on community guides, youll find a game as excellent as it is without easy parallel.
Microsoft Flight Simulator (2020) is not your dads Microsoft Flight Simulator (1986). Its still a hyper-serious simulation of flight and something of a tech demo for publisher Microsoft, but the 2020 version of Flight Sim uses Microsofts cloud tech for a realistic, 1:1 representation of the world, which is accurate right down to the time-synchronised, real-world weather.
In a year of ambitious games that have missed the mark in one form or another, Microsoft Flight Simulator has hit every schedule it aimed for. Its remarkable.
Everyones fawning over Fall Guys, but its not the only memorable Mediatonic game released in 2020. Murder By Numbers, designed, written and directed by Ed Fear, is the other Mediatonic game you should definitely be aware of.
Like the aforementioned Lair of the Clockwork God, Murder By Numbers is a mash-up of two genres in this instance, its Picross meets the detective visual novel thats better than the sum of its parts. Also, like Clockwork God, its a kind and gentle game in a year of bad news and terrible discourse. And like Clockwork God, Murder By Numbers has also flown under the radar for some reason. You should fix that.
Speaking of unique murder mysteries, heres Paradise Killer!
Far from the linear narrative structure of most video game sleuth-em-ups, Paradise Killer is a free-form, open-world murder mystery, where the player can unravel the mass murder theyve been summoned to solve in whatever way they seem fit.
We wont go into too much detail, lest we spoil any of the weirdness that awaits, but to quote the youth of today: Paradise Killer slaps.
In a year full to the brim with engaging and shocking video game narratives, its a credit to Paper Mario: The Origami King that the story of Bobby the Bob-omb punctured our hearts so memorably. We dont mind admitting that Bobbys plight led to us shedding more than a few tears.
Thankfully, tears of laughter were also in abundance. Origami Kings script is an absolute hoot, combining fan-service with the Nintendo Treehouses trademark warmth and wit. The battle mechanics, free of the input gimmicks found in Color Splash and Sticker Star, are, in fact, the secret best puzzle game of the year. Each fight requires planning, strategy, and no small amount of pluck to overcome some genuinely tough challenges.
Paper Mario: The Origami King might not be the traditional RPG game some fans wanted, but its a brave, exquisitely crafted adventure, and a minor Nintendo classic.
Its more Spelunky. Need we say more?
Spiritfarer is another game that captured our hearts during E3 2019. You play as Stella, the ferry person to the afterlife, helping spirits to cross into the beyond. Youll do that by helping them resolve outstanding concerns from the land of the living, which is presented as a chill builder/management sim on Stellas barge across the river Styx.
Its not perfect, however. Spiritfarer did come under criticism for some inadvertently ableist language which developer Thunder Lotus apologised for and promised to fix, but the game is undoubtedly well-intentioned, beautiful and poignant.
Like Hades, Tony Hawks Pro Skater 1+2 falls on the right side of the rules for inclusion in our GOTY 2020 list, but only just. Why? Because its a remake, not a remaster, so its technically a new game, released for the first time in 2020.
To be fair, it is almost a shot-for-shot remake of the first two Tony Hawks Pro Skater games, so were treading that line, but its the decision to age up the original roster of skaters that tips the scales in its favour. Also, the soundtrack, with original tunes bolstered by a new generation of bands, is still an absolute banger. Also also, its ruddy good.
Umurangi Generation, with its Metal Gear Solid logo font and cyberpunk (lower-case c) visuals, probably isnt the game youre expecting it to be. Set in a shitty future New Zealand, you play as a Mori photographer, completing photography assignments for bounties. And thats it. You take photos, you develop your style, you progress through the game.
Its a sort of Pokmon Snap meets Jet Set Radio, which is a frankly brilliant idea anyway. It sounds and it totally is a super-chill, lo-fi, first-person photography experience. But its also unashamedly anti-fascist in its ideology and the unsettling way its narrative unfolds.
In 2020, Umurangi Generation is the video game we need.
In 2020, Wide Ocean, Big Jacket is also the video game we need, but for different reasons.
Did you ever play an adventure or narrative game that you really loved, but wish there were places it didnt go? You enjoyed Night in the Woods for its characterisation of drifting, shiftless pre-adulthood, but couldve done without the human sacrifice and whatnot? Or you loved Firewatch, for its landscapes and odd-jobbing and its sharp interplay between Henry and Delilah, but wish you couldve just been a park ranger with none of the mystery stalker stuff?
Then, friend, Wide Ocean, Big Jacket, a game made entirely of small moments, is the game for you.
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GOTY 2020: The 20 best video games of 2020 - Thumbsticks
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