My top video games of 2020

2020 was quite a year. Not a good one mind you, but it was one for the books. Decades from now, when children are forced to have holocubes of history textbooks put into their contact lenses, they will be forced to read and/or download information about this dumpster fire of a year. Luckily for me, I, and my family have come out relatively unscathed physically. People in my family have lost love ones, my father’s dementia continues apace, but really we just had to stay at home a lot, like so many of us have over the past year. You would think that would have given me plenty of time to dive into a bunch of video games, but really, responsibility kind of hampered me, as well as that malaise that I think hit many of us as the days just sort of shifted together in the late Spring/ early Summer. Also, many of the games I played were extremely long affairs, and a couple of them I played twice. So really I only played I think…7 or so recent games. I am going to go over some of the ones I played in no particular ranking order, then say what my game of the year was.

Some of my favorite games of the year:

Fire Emblem: Three Houses

Fire Emblem: Three Houses for Nintendo Switch - Nintendo Game Details

Even though this game came out in 2019, I didn’t get to it until late in the year/early into 2020. It seemed like a daunting game, and it was with the time investment. I played the game as a Golden Deer house member, and I don’t regret it. I did also start a New Game + where I planned on the heel turn, and one day I will get back to that. It is a fantastic evolution of the series, a well-thought out experiment in a game that can be easily replayed multiple times. The game could chug a bit in the framerate area, but really it is a showcase for why the Switch is such a good system. I loved the art style, the varied elements of the battles, and I was a big fan of the music, and oddly the voices, which were grating at first, but really grew on me. I also love that feeling of becoming truly powerful in FE games, and this game was no exception to that feeling; Byleth and his troops felt like a swarm of magical, wyvern-riding battle tanks by the end, and it was fun. I was never one to crank up difficulty, I like the power-fantasy in RPG’s, I like grinding, and seeing the payoff from that. I did keep the perma-death on however; I feel like one almost has to play FE games like that. On that note and so many others, Fire Emblem: Three Houses came together beautifully.

The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel

The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel on Steam

I know this game is somewhat old at this point, and I know Falcom just released the 4th and final entry to this part of the “The Legend of Heroes” arc. Years ago, I played the first entry of the “Trails in the Sky” arc, and loved that (I promise one day I will play the rest of them). While the story of Joshua and Estelle really made me happy, and also weepy at some points, there is one thing I will always be a sucker for: Schools in video games. Maybe it is because I am a teacher, or I like the inherent structure in schools; but games with schools, military academies will always appeal to me. Final Fantasy Type-0, Final Fantasy 8, the aforementioned Fire Emblem: Three Houses, and especially Persona, these games all have that structure of a school, and many of them feature a calendar mechanic. Trails of Cold Steel has all of that, and furthermore, it has a simple to learn, yet deep turn-based combat system, an engaging story that leaves you finishing the first game and immediately wanting to go to part 2, and a cast that while awkwardly voiced in English at times; is endearing and grounded in the very real themes of acceptance, growing up, and class division. The characters evolve, grow, and learn from each other as the story goes on; and by the end, the disparate group of teenagers feel a bond to each other that feels completely earned, and creates a great launch point for the 4-game series.

Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 1+2

Tony Hawk's™ Pro Skater™ 1 and 2 Launch Trailer - YouTube

This game should not have worked. Tony Hawk HD was a failure. Tony Hawk 5 is not a good game at all. The soundtrack should feel dated. Tony Hawk is an old man by now. That said, Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 1+2 is essentially a time machine that brought me back to the late 1990’s. To me, the Tony Hawk series is all about this feel, and that feel is from everything coming together, and firing on all cylinders. The controls, the level designs, the goals, the music, it all matters. If one part is off, the whole thing is off. This game is firing on all cylinders in such a way that shouldn’t have been possible. Care was clearly put into this product, and it is a perfect refresh, blending different features from later games, updating the soundtrack, and even adding new skaters. Again, this should not have worked, and it did. It’s unadulterated fun, it is a callback to my own childhood, and no doubt the childhood of so many people who purchased this game. It is so easy to cynically sell an adult’s childhood back to them in a way that sucks, like the Michael Bay Transformer movies, but that isn’t what we got here. The studio behind this game, Vicarious Visions pulled off one of the trickiest balancing acts in video game history, and they did so with flair. It actually makes me hopeful for their next reported project, as they got folded into Blizzard; the remake of Diablo II. With this masterclass in refreshing a gem from the past, I am more than willing to see how they handle the next one.

Tokyo Mirage Sessions #FE Encore

Image result for tokyo mirage sessions

This was an interesting one. I never beat it, but I feel like I can pick it up whenever and go back to it, maybe. It is an interesting story, and I really wanted to play it, but never enough to buy a Wii U, so I was quite happy when it came out for the Switch. It has great music, a basic story, and is kawaii as hell. I dig it, I am not entirely sure why. Actually I am sure why, I dig RPG’s set in modern-day Japan, of which there are more and more coming west. Now that this game is on the Switch, it’s time for Nintendo to get one of the final gems off of Wii U-Island. Xenoblade Chronicles X needs to come to the Switch now, do it Nintendo. Actually maybe I’ll start this one over…

Assassin’s Creed Valhalla

Image result for ac valhalla

I spent about 110 hours in this game, and I think I liked it? Assassin’s Creed games have a long history with me, literally going back to the first entry. I am a legit history nerd, so this series was a natural fit with me. Also I love the metastory that has been going on with these games, the eternal Assassin vs. Templar conflict. As such, I am now really sad that the games have gotten so far away from what is happening with that. The last 3 games alone have not involved the Assassin’s or Templars at all, simply their proto-organizations, the Order of the Ancients, and sometimes the Hidden Ones. While the gameplay of AC Valhalla was good, and the mechanics sound, Ubisoft needs to sit down and think of where this series is going on a narrative level. AC Syndicate was the last time we really cared about Templars and their war with the Assassin Brotherhood, and while the Isu and their culture is cool, Ubi needs to figure a better way to marry it all together. A long-time series that had a great story is suffering, and I don’t know how much longer this mostly fun, gory checklist of a series can be propped up by a faltering narrative thread.

Persona 5 Royal

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Persona 5 Royal took one of my already all-time favorite games and made it better. More story, more music, more mini-games and a new scenario that grounded the story back into a place that felt personal, and more in line with what Persona games already start as. It completed a curve that Persona 5 fans didn’t know they wanted, but they absolutely needed. As always, this entry oozes style, features fantastic music, and shows a confidence in design that few series have. Atlus has something they want to say and show with Persona, and they don’t ever shy away from putting it forward. The only real criticism I have is the way that the new character, code-named Violet is handled. She gets woven in the story well in the interstitial parts, but I wish Atlus could have found a way to make her playable in a long-term sense. I get that doing that sort of work would have taken a long time, and involved a lot of re-structuring the story, but while she doesn’t feel completely tacked-on, she doesn’t feel like a full member of the team at the same time. I was almost sure this would have been my game of the year for 2020, but then the next and final entry came along…

My Game of the Year- Yakuza: Like a Dragon

Image result for yakuza like a dragon

Yakuza: Like a Dragon is not perfect. It keeps many of the same problems present in the Yakuza series; from whiplash in narrative tone to at times janky combat, to troublesome ways of treating female characters. But Like a Dragon also keeps the biggest positive aspect native to Yakuza as a series: heart. Nothing in the Yakuza series as a whole, and especially in Like a Dragon, ever feels like it is created from a place of cynicism. Every piece of the game feels present because someone wanted to create it, and put it there. Nothing exemplifies that idea more than Like a Dragon’s protagonist, Ichiban Kasuga. As helpful as Kiryu from the previous games, but Kasuga does it all with a smile, and gung-ho attitude that creates one of the most infectiously-happy characters I have ever seen in a video game. Nothing gets him down, nothing can get him down. He sees the best in people, he sees the possibility for victory in every situation, and he is willing to smash through whatever he has to to achieve his goals. I put dozens upon dozens into this game, and I loved just about every minute of it; even the difficulty spike in chapter 12 deterred me. I loved the combat system, even as it felt incomplete. The next entry needs to make sure we know how much area is affected by AoE attacks, changing job classes needs to matter more, and movement in combat needs to be addressed and developed more. But other than that, I saw something that I didn’t know I wanted, but now I need more of it. Between Persona and Yakuza, Sega is really hitting the mark with RPG’s. 2020 may have been a terrible year in general, but the games I got to play when passing the time stuck at home were actually very good.


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