Jesus Fucking Christ, 2020 is finally over. I don’t need to dwell on it, but this year has been a shit show in dozens of ways. But hey, I have a few reasons to not completely throw the whole year in the garbage, like video games for example. There were an impressive amount of excellent new releases that capped off the final year of the PS4 and Xbox One generation and a bunch of older titles I was happy to finally get around to. So, let’s take a little bit of time from complaining about quarantines and praying for the death of corrupt politicians to shine a light on some of the best games of 2020, and some other years too.

As always, we’ll start off with my favorite games of last year that didn’t actually release last year, followed by games I most want to play in this new year that I have yet to get to. Then I’ll be counting down my top 5 honorable mentions and my top 5 games of the year overall. So, let’s get this started, shall we?

Favorite Games of Yesteryear (Sponsored by Titanfall 2)

5) New Super Lucky’s Tale (2019)

Xbox Game Pass Ultimate has been a blessing throughout most of this year, as many of the games on this list I played because it was available on the service. One of my loves from the service is New Super Lucky’s Tale, a very rarely talked about platformer that made its way to other platforms after launching on Switch in 2019. It looked endearing enough, so I booted it up on PC and good Lord did this game charm the hell outta me. Now, I knew this was a follow up to regular ol’ Super Lucky’s Tale, a game that stumbled a bit due to it’s fixed camera. But not only did they add full camera control with the left stick, but they also added new levels with new mechanics, and redid many of the levels that already existed. I never played the original to compare, but what I did get was one of the smoothest and most adorable games I’ve played this past year.

I haven’t beaten it yet, which is gonna be the case for a lot of this list, but I’m surprised that I still haven’t done so. The game has such an intense amount of variety that it feels like I’ve seen damn near every idea in the game. From lumber mills made to cut watermelons to beach parties thrown by a self-absorbed cat, every time I load up a new area I’m greeted with a brand new environment and slight twists to the platforming gameplay I’ve been enjoying. At 60FPS, even on console, the game feels smooth to play and all of its secrets are just far enough out of reach to feel satisfying to find yet rarely annoying enough to skip.

Its silly charters and cute plot stayed heartwarming throughout, and with the way 2020 has been going, I really craved a game with this vibe. As I said, I have a lot more of it to play, but I can’t recommend it enough. If you have Game Pass (and if you’re on PC, a controller as well unless you’re a maniac who plays platformers on a keyboard), you should definitely give this game a shot if you like classic platformers like Ratchet and Clank and Banjo-Kazooie.

4) Apex Legends (2019)

Back in 2019 when Apex Legends came out, I played it a decent amount. It was the first new entry in the Titanfall series in 3 years, and despite it not having the same exact movement and gunplay as my beloved Titanfall 2, I gave it a real shot. But I could never stick with it because it didn’t scratch the very specific itch that its predecessor did. So I abandoned it, only returning every few months to see if new content would suck me in finally.

Well, I never did get sucked in, and that remained the case for all of 2019 and most of 2020. But come early November, the new, more sci-fi heavy map, Olympus, reminded me of one of my favorite PlayStation franchises. And speaking of that franchise, the new Legend, Horizon, seemed to be implementing some more vertical gameplay in line with Titanfall 2. So I got excited about the new update, and once it dropped, everything finally clicked for me. But Apex didn’t suddenly feel like Titanfall 2 this time, instead, long enough had passed to where I wasn’t expecting for it to be Titanfall anymore.

This opened me up to see that this isn’t a better Titanfall, it’s a better Overwatch. I liked Overwatch quite a bit back when I played it more in 2016. But I didn’t stick with it because its moment to moment gameplay just felt way too simplistic. It felt like every character could only do about 3-4 things at any given moment, but the lack of universality between classes made it a chore to learn those 3-4 abilities for each of the, now, 32 Heroes. Apex not only has a more manageable roster (for now at least) but also every character plays similarly to one another. None have exclusive weapons that you are locked into using, they all have access to the same guns and loot. This gives their individual abilities room to substantially change the game mid-combat, and it’s been a joy switch between all the characters to see how they do so.

Plus, the simplistic gunplay of Overwatch is replaced with something closer to Call of Duty‘s classic gunplay, just without the near-instant time to kill. It means that guns feel consistent while also feeling rewarding, especially when nailing headshots. But unlike Call of Duty, the game is overflowing with personality at every turn, from unique character dialogue for call outs to vibrant and expressive costumes and animations. In fact, as someone who played the latest Modern Warfare for most of 2020, it was eye-opening to see how much character Apex Legends had when compared to MW while still having gunplay just as satisfying and skill-based. I wish I could have seen through my Titanfall 2 love earlier because I have been avoiding my favorite battle royale game of all time for way too long. But now that I’m halfway through the season seven battle pass with over 70 hours played, I plan to continue making up for that lost time.

3) Yoku’s Island Express (2018)

This was a charming little title I finally got around to in 2020. I love me a good Metroidvania, as you know thanks to my love of Guacamelee, but I also have a huge soft spot for pinball, as my many hours with Zen Pinball 2 back in the day can prove. So I was immediately interested to see a game combine both genres, especially when it has such a cute art style. Despite having access to it through Game Pass for years, I didn’t get around to Yoku’s Island Express until picking it up for cheap on Switch, and I’m so glad I finally made time for it.

One reason I don’t play as many pinball games as I want is that they quickly become repetitive. Once you learn all the routes and intricacies of a table, all there is to do is to last as long as possible while hitting all the same point hotspots. Yoku’s Island Express doesn’t have this issue at all, because, by way of it being a Metroidvania, it varies up its pinball locations way more often. And it doesn’t just switch up flippers and bumpers, but you eventually visit entirely different biomes with new characters and color palates. The art style of this game, alongside its whimsical tone, gives the entire game the vibe of one of those storybooks your 2nd-grade teacher would read to the class, like The Rainbow Fish or If You Give a Mouse a Cookie.

As a Metroidvania, it’s also very engaging thanks to how pinball is so integral to the experience. Where most games in the genre depend on the ability to jump, in this game you can’t, so you depend on the flippers around the world to launch Yoku where you need to go. It still asks you to be precise about your timing, like regular platformers, just in a very different way specific to pinball. This blending also helps to fix another core issue of pinball. Because you could so easily farm the most easily accessible areas of a regular pinball table for points, you would be rewarded for trapping yourself in a repetitive gameplay loop. But the specific challenges of Yoku’s forces you into hard-to-reach areas of its pinball arenas and therefore makes you feel like you’re actually improving at pinball. Add the fact that all of this great name design and art was wrapped up in less than 10 hours, with plenty of secrets left to find, then you end up with one of my favorite games of 2018…that I wish I played in 2018.

2) Metro Exodus (2019)

This was the main game I wanted to sink my teeth into in 2020, as it was the game I most regretted skipping out on in 2019. I suspected that I would enjoy it, and I was right on the money with that prediction. That initial snow level impressed me both with how open it was and how fun it was to explore. Well, what I came to discover was that the game is so much more than another open-world shooter. In games like these, I usually crave some kind of overarching progression system, so the much more subtle upgrades of Exodus are surprising in how compelling they are. I could walk the wasteland for hours and only come back with a few pieces of scrap, a few NPC conversations, a few mutant fights, and a new gas mask upgrade, but the trek feels worth it every time. And to lessen the impact of these massive play spaces, every open-world area gives you a vehicle to traverse that is specific to that level.

But there are a surprising number of linear, more traditional corridor missions sprinkled in between the larger levels. And often the urgency of these sequences would be a refreshing change of pace when compared to the slower-paced exploration and scavaging of wider levels. The only thing I’m kicking myself now over is the fact that I still haven’t gotten around to beating it. This means all of the narrative threads I’ve been invested in have screeched to a halt in my head, and I risk forgetting them before I return to the game. But 4A Games has promised to bring a next-generation update to Exodus sometime in 2021, so I’ll gladly wait even longer to finish out the game in 60FPS eventually on Xbox Series X.

1) The Surge 2 (2019)

Sometimes, a game just catches you completely by surprise, and The Surge 2 is the best example of that happening to me in 2020. It’s a souls-like title, and though it puts a sci-fi spin on those familiar mechanics, I wasn’t anticipating it heavily. I played the original but fell off very early due to a steep increase in difficulty after the first boss. But thanks to Xbox Game Pass, I picked up the sequel to complete a Game Pass Quest. Once I completed the quest, I figured I might as well keep playing until I inevitably hit the same brick wall of difficulty.

The opening hours were certainly challenging, more so than most other games I play. But that unclimbable wall never seemed to come. I kept progressing through the dystopian corridors of Jericho City at a reasonable pace, gathering plenty of resources along the way. I slowly learned the intricacies of the armor system, and how the risk and reward nature of its dismemberment ties into that armor progression. I slowly began to discover shortcuts and alternate routes around the city. And even when I lost hundreds of thousands of Tech Scrap multiple times, I found myself coming right back for more.

Thanks to The Surge 2, I finally began to understand a whole genre that has eluded me for years. That feeling of overcoming overwhelming odds was never appealing to me because the dozens of deaths necessary to learn the scale of those odds always sounded annoying. But The Surge 2 made sure that I had just enough tiny victories in between the punishments that my motivation never faded. And even when I lost loads of Tech Scrap, getting more was easy enough, and I always had enough scrap to upgrade at least one item to maintain that feeling of progress. And the feel of combat itself was it’s own reward, as the sound design and finishing animations really made combat feel visceral and reactive in a way similar to the God of War series.

I admit I couldn’t tell you anything about the main story. I admit all of the tidbits of lore and audio logs I collected didn’t make me fall in love with the world. And some of the enemy placements came off as cheap when visiting a location for the first time. But the core loops of combat, looting, and light RPG upgrades kept me hooked for way longer than I ever imagined. It honestly has me reevaluating my thoughts on the entre soulslike genre. Now that I’ve enjoyed a game like this, perhaps I can come around on something like Bloodborne next?

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