It’s the end of the year. And what a y- Nope, I can’t do this. Short retrospectives about the year are boring because they’ll really read pretty similarly, no matter the joke. So I’m going to merely lampshade the fact that this is the time of the year when the news is slow, and every writer is throwing together their game of the year lists to throw at anyone who will listen.
And I’m not about to be an exception; I love talking about video games. So here are my top five games of 2020.
5. 13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim
Technically I haven’t finished this yet, and I had to take a break from playing it to write this list. Took me long enough. It looked like a game up my alley from watching a few Japanese trailers prerelease; at that point, all I knew was it was a highly narrative-driven adventure game with multiple viewpoints.
That right there already sells me on it. Stories with sequences that become more narratively complex and add additional elements when you analyze them through another character’s viewpoint? Already one of my favorite things. You can see it in some of my other favorite visual novels like Remember11, 428: Shibuya Scramble, Higurashi: When They Cry, as well as others to come on this very list. And that’s not going into other mediums that can use this just as well.
But when you have thirteen protagonists? That can seem like a bit much. Except so far, it really hasn’t been. Jumping around from viewpoint to viewpoint, analyzing the wild sequence of events before you, and trying to tie it all together has been an absolute joy to behold. Always have a friend to throw your theories at.
And that’s not getting into just how good the music and visuals have been or the fact that I’d be further along in the story if I weren’t doing the battles on intense difficulty. Because there’s some excellent RTS gameplay mixed in here, too, that really hits the sweet spot for satisfying.
It’s gonna be tough for this game to fall flat, and watch this space for when I’ve finished.
4. Final Fantasy VII Remake
Somehow, the first part of Final Fantasy VII’s remake actually came out this year, and it blew minds. My own included.
Released initially for the PlayStation back in 1997, the original was the definitive RPG for its time and many people’s first exposure in the west to the JRPG genre.
It wasn’t mine, though; I had already been exposed to Final Fantasy Tactics: War of the Lions and Final Fantasy XII. So, it was a bit harder for me to get into. The visuals were clashy, and the combat was slow at points. But with a cast and story like that, there are some excellent rewards. The Nibelheim Incident remains one of my favorite video game plot points to this day. But I’m getting off track here. The important part here is that the remake happened, and it was AWESOME.
There’s so much to love about the Final Fantasy VII Remake that it’s hard to know where to start. Maybe with the incredible visuals? Or meeting the recreations of some amazing and beloved characters who have only been spruced up for a story that can appeal to new and old players? Or the combat carefully melds the original turn-based system with action RPG mechanics with a massive amount of depth. And you can’t forget about the absolutely impeccable soundtrack crafted with the unimaginable talent of seventeen composers. In my highly subjective opinion, the only problem is the time I need to spend waiting for the next one.
3. Seabed (Switch)
Look, I don’t care that Seabed as a title was originally released in 2018 because the switch version came out in 2020, and that’s when I played it. This is the least contentious part of this pick; let’s be real. The more important factor is why a totally linear visual novel, one with so much prose and visual exposition that if you took away the visual component, you would just be left with a fantastic novel, end up in 3rd place on my top five games of 2020 list? Because this is my list, you can’t tell me what to do.
Seabed is an extremely unorthodox tale, and to tell you about it’s a slow yet gripping psychological mystery is incredibly difficult. It’s an introspective tale about self-reflection with three point-of-view characters that seem to tell conflicting stories. There’s no central conflict with other characters, no antagonist, just characters alone and their thoughts. The reader is required to separate the fiction’s reality, from the fiction’s fiction, in a series of events that confuse, confound, and bewildering. Still, the immaculate writing kept my eyes transfixed as I constantly tried to put the pieces all together.
Backed by some cute art and a blissful array of songs and sound effects, what lies within Seabed is a visual novel that you may want to take some notes on, but be careful of staining them with your tears.
2. Buried Stars
Out of every title I played this year, nothing blindsided me more than Buried Stars. Pretty much every one of my favorite games has been something I was already excited for in the prerelease, or I had people to tell me just how cool this game was. With Buried Stars, not only did I know absolutely nothing about the game going in, but the game was already out by the time I even found out about its existence. I may have been blind to the game, but certainly not to these visuals. The presentation of this game has a feast to the eyes and ears.
Buried Stars is an ontological mystery that stars the top 5 contestants in a talent show, as well as a couple of staff who have become trapped after the indoor concert hall collapses during filming. Despite the obligatory death that is destined to follow in this sort of game, Buried Stars introduces an unheard angle in this kind of story.
The phone lines may be sketchy, but you’ve still got internet access, and you can parse it for all the information you can gather. You’ll spend a lot of time asking questions and corroborating your information to solve some extraordinarily satisfying mysteries that flesh out the cast with surprising intricacy for 10 in-game hours without feeling at all forced.
It’s easily one of the best games I’ve played this year, and I’m so glad I picked it up.
1. Robotics;Notes Elite
People’s dreams can be what give them a purpose. Fulfillment. Something to strive towards. When you have no way of striving, achieving, no defined purpose, things are just that bit harder. The first couple of science adventure games, despite being absolutely fantastic, weren’t exactly big on relatable overarching themes.
Robotics;Notes, however, has a firm focus on dreams and how people deal with losing them or trying to figure them out in the first place. This foundation set the stage for what could be my favorite science adventure ever released. Or it could be recency bias; who can say. We’ll find out later.
Robotics;Notes Elite is a bright sunny story about high schoolers starring a couple of childhood friends and their dreams. Dreams can be very hard, and setback after setback, these kids go at it and at it, in feverish desperate attempts to achieve them or find something to make themselves feel. It’s a cozy visual novel that is both dramatic and impactful. Its characters are extremely relatable, compelling, and I love them to bits. It doesn’t hurt the viewpoint shifts between the leads every now and then, or that the visual style is elegant, or that the music is top tier. And, of course, the story goes into some crazy places; it’s a science adventure game, after all.
But Robotics;Notes never loses sight of the themes that make a story about an apocalyptic conspiracy and building giant robots so approachable and meaningful, which means I now start crying over the cast again because I love Akiho and Kaito so much. It just hits all the right spots.
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