Perpetually imbalanced multiplayer, unfinished single player, and constant manipulation via re-monetization has forever stained the ‘ready ugliest anti-consumer landscape of the consolidated corporate “Triple A” video game. They, “them“, they’ve consistently delivered shoddy experiences hardly worth their fixed price per unit, which hasn’t changed since I was a child on the cusp of the 16-bit leap. The 1-3 month cycle of “games as a service” business models with constant tweaks to balancing lost its pull with me a decade ago yet it only seems to have intensified as a common practice. Whether I’d been playing my usual Magic: The Gathering Arena, DOTA 2, or Dead By Daylight (among others) each demands a fairly high monetary contribution of season passes or DLC to fully enjoy, else it becomes a merciless grind to tread forever in place. The constant intentional imbalance of these ever-evolving games keeps folks buying new “pay to play” advantages to keep up with new “meta” gameplay, a brief high. At some point if you are playing a game the way it wants to be played, in a manner which’ll get some more competitive cash out of you, you’ve been made a very well-fucked “bitch” by a slovenly corporation. The 80.00-100.00 USD game could never make up for cash these pay-to-play mechanics reap, there is no looking back. It’s fucked. At some point in 2020 I’d died enough inside and gave up on multiplayer games entirely and instead found myself focusing on a mix of open worlds and run-based games. I dunno man I beat Fallout 4, Resident Evil II Remake, Trials of Mana, Carrion and recent console ports of Project Warlock and Ion Fury and all of it for the sake of killing time. To answer your question pre-emptively: “Didn’t like Doom: Eternal?” — No, I didn’t. By the time August rolled around I’d figured there was no way I’d find and finish ten good games this year but, I’ve managed something reasonably representative even if I haven’t finished the two bigger open world games.
Everything that could go wrong, went wrong. Final Fantasy VII Remake was surely going to be a horror show but, I hadn’t imagined it’d turn out to be the worst kind of precocious anime nostalgia stretching a thin a plot even thinner (see also: The Hobbit trilogy). Hollow Knight: Silksong was delayed ’til fully ready, whenever that is. In the midst of playing the new (gloriously brutal Christian-killing, church burning viking) Assassin’s Creed I’d tasked myself with choosing between a Cyberpunk 2077 pre-order and a copy of Ghost of Tsushima on sale, of course my game of choice was delayed another month and released as an embarrassing bug fest a few weeks ago. So, I’ve played mediocre games all year, missed what is arguably one of the better ones, and for the second year in a row I’ve only a few dregs of passion left for the artform. The top five or six items here kept me from finding something else to do with my time but even those were largely serviceable iteration of something clearly better from the not-so distant past or, tweaks of established formulae all the same. I’ll ease up on the cynical tone a bit for the sake of not being entirely insufferable but, it wasn’t a good year for video games save a few bright spots. More importantly, my most listened to retro soundtracks this year: Hellfire (Genesis port), Star Ocean: 2nd Story (PSX), and countless hours of Brandish: The Dark Revenant.
MORTAL SHELL – [Cold Symmetry, PC]
Although Mortal Shell previewed very well with its early trailers and gameplay reveal, once it found its way into everyone’s hands it was clear it’d probably not meet those high expectations. It is yet a competent but very short 3D action RPG in the realm of Souls-likes making quick use of those basic mechanics. Bonfires, upgrade materials, deliberate combat, and the Shell (dead bodies you enter) mechanic where you’re able to choose a weapon/armor set based on the shells you’ve found. There is a bit of lore attached to each one, however cryptic they do suggest a basic Lovecraftian purgatory. Making sense of the world yields rewards that will help you survive, literally. I’d really enjoyed this aspect of the gameplay because it encourages you try each action a hundreds times, not for the sake of variety but to gain proficiency in various skills. Otherwise it is a janky enough game that the goodwill earned from good ideas soon fades a bit, much like Hellpoint and Immortal: Unchained. The reliance on Dark Souls mechanics doesn’t really allow this game to be unique or, much fun to start but it does eventually allow more mistakes to be made with the stiff controls in hand as you get stronger. It took so long to get the best shell that I’d been disappointed that Mortal Shell was more or less over when it was over. Likewise the weapon types weren’t all that inspired, parrying is key but all things are weighted pretty clearly towards a reasonably sized sword. The true final boss makes the game worth its ~15 hour time but doesn’t necessarily make the price point reasonable, the giant crow corpse god is the coolest shit and I’d only wished there were boss fights as multi-tiered and creative as that one was. Incomplete ideas, limited by budget etc. but still one of the better games I played this year.
NIOH 2 – [Team Ninja, PS4 Pro]
No bugs, no issues, and in fact Nioh 2 runs better optimized than its predecessor. This is a proper video game meeting basal standards of you know, actually being playable. A known quantity, this Dark Souls-meets-Ninja Gaiden game series focuses on 1500’s Japan a high-fantasy depiction of Yokai-packed warring states mythos without being a full-on “historical fiction” scenario. If the first game was a a level/mission based third person stylized action game with deep RPG elements and customization then the second game is basically a Monster Hunter-sized approach of those ideas with a forgettable art style and some of the least inspired mission design of the year. Despite the constant oppressive reminders of its mediocrity Nioh 2 was generally fun to play. I was so disappointed with the neon Yokai designs and the use of “dark areas” that must be cleansed (a la, Okami) that I’d have quit if I hadn’t already sunk in money for the DLC pass and steel book edition. The deeper gameplay experience is a grind if you’d like a viable build, the combat is more heavily focused on surprise hits, stamina management and multi-hit special attacks and as a result it feels more spastic than ever when a boss presents a challenge. As you’ll realize soon enough, this was one of the absolute worst years for video games in ages and this game being mediocre but viable because it didn’t have any glaring technical issues is a raw bummer.
HELLPOINT – [Cradle Games, PC]
Hellpoint is the first game from Québec City studio Cradle Games, I believe a 5-10 person team who’d crowdfunded this (their first) game to the tune of a meager budget of ~$65k CAD. These guys collectively worked on some aspects of the PS3/XBox 360 era of Assassin’s Creed games as well as some Prince of Persia and Spiderman Games so they surely know what they are doing, having released a polished but altogether stiff action RPG in the vein of Dark Souls to start. Although I saw some bugs on other’s playthroughs mine went relatively smoothly. Environments are basic but not functionally ruthless as in Immortal: Unchained, if you’re going to fall or fail, it was more or less your fault. Claustrophobia inducing spaceship interiors, some impressive architecture and a generally dry color palette make for a world much more grey than the screenshots suggest, though the boss fights are generally impressive and colorful. The enemy AI is a bit crooked, janky in crowds but still fair if you know when to run away. File it away with other janky indie Souls-likes that have a few ideas of their own, I had fun with it.
CYBERPUNK 2077 [CD Projekt Red, PS4 Pro]
I chose this game over Ghost of Tsushima as a pre-order long before it was delayed twice, I’m not sure I’m happy with that choice just yet. I would argue that not including this unfinished, generally bug-slammed and broken game on an GOTY list is a well-advised and responsible choice but, nah, it has been too much fun so far. The open world of Night City is a success, a well designed metropolis that often feels like a lived-in, depraved place. It isn’t anywhere near as compelling as the neatly designed areas of Deus Ex: Mankind Divided but the aesthetic isn’t so far off. The first thing I did after tutorials, side-quests, and getting a car, was get a feel for the game’s combat and then I’d take a long drove around and toured the city, randomly approaching quests. This revealed most all quest types, some surprising side-story moments and allowed a closer look at the city itself. This game is very focused on its decent first person shooting mechanics, but they’re not much of a feature. At only about ~25 hours into the game I’ve found it playable enough that I’ll probably stick with it. I agree that bugs aren’t acceptable with a shipped product and that the game is often a complete nightmare that’d forced countless rolling back on saves when early game glitches would make key items (like literally keycards) fall through the floor and soft lock the game. CD Projekt Red has put out each of their games broken in the past with the exception of The Witcher III and even that game received a complete overhaul to the inventory system, HUD, and such. Remember The Witcher‘s 2-3 minute loading times for every building? It’ll sound pretty weak on my part but, I know they’ll make good on fixing the game up (as they did with all three Witcher games) and it’ll be a whole new experience to replay when I eventually get a PlayStation 5. I’m doing a Corpo playthrough mainlining Intelligence and Technical Ability until it stops being fun.
ASSASSIN’S CREED: VALHALLA [Ubisoft Montreal, PS4 Pro]
I am still playing Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla and after 48 hours I’ve done every kind of side-quest at least twice, raided enough churches and fought enough to figure where the endgame is headed. And yes, I’ve been to the Norse high fantasy section of the game. Gauging by my power level and number of areas left to cull favor within I’m about ~30% finished if I don’t go completionist. It is a huge game but this time the landmarks and quests are crafted to make each location/event special, a small bit more Witcher III and less Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor but not by much. So, have I seen enough to place it on a list? Yes, because I’ve played most of the Assassin’s Creed franchise starting with the first game and they’ve hardly ever waivered with the arc of each new title. Is it as good as Origins or Odyssey? No, the combat never feels great and experimenting with weapons has been completely uninteresting. Minimal bugs, aimless but coherent storyline, just ok voice acting, fun exploration puzzles and the only open world big budget game I played this year that wasn’t (completely) broken. My semi-annual late January/early February Assassin’s Creed review will be ready soon enough.
BLOODSTAINED: CURSE OF THE MOON 2 – [Inti Creates, Switch]
I’ll tend to blindly buy anything Castlevania related (or imitative) and of course I’d been ready to download this one as soon as it came out. This second pseudo “8-bit” Bloodstained game from Inti Creates was a completely known quantity beforehand, a 2D side-scrolling Castlevania III-alike with branching paths and quick swapping between a party of characters who each have special abilities that may aid with combat, traversal, or both. As much as I’d enjoyed the first game I didn’t go back and play it more than once, this time around the game eggs you on, suggesting the full story won’t really be readied until you’ve beaten it on all possible paths while gaining new powers through new runs, further chapters that allow you to switch up play styles and get better at using each character. The path through the game is a sort of meta puzzle without a guide and I’d found it a lot of fun to really sit down and figure my way through each run, trying to not die so often.
RISK OF RAIN 2 [HoPoo Games, PC]
At some point I’d watched a Dead By Daylight-focused twitch streamer play some multi-player runs of Risk of Rain 2 with friends and it’d been compelling enough that I checked it out solo and got hooked. I watched a few reviews for the first game when it came out in 2013, a 2D rogue-like shooter with several unlockable characters each with somewhat different weaponry/play-style, but it wasn’t for me. The second Risk of Rain game is exactly like the first excepting its fully 3D art style and movement, of course this makes a considerable difference both in terms of visual interest, creates new possibilities for movement, and encourages a deeper exploration of gameplay styles. My main Survivor (character) focus went from Commando to start then to Engineer and eventually Artificer. At some point I’d burnt out on it but I’ve found it sustains some appeal if you’ve got friends who like to co-op this kind of run-based game.
THE LAST OF US PART II [Naughty Dog, PS4 Pro]
Playing The Last of Us Part II by myself, outside of the online conversation and left to my own devices, was an emotionally affecting story draped in impossibly violent, monstrous scenario. The online conversation about this game was generally petty, taking issue with a sequel that kills off a main character from the first game — It will only seem like a bold choice if don’t read books enough to identify a well-established storytelling device for sequels in popular film and fiction writing. Fair enough, though, I cannot remember the last video game I played that’d not only made the death of a major character this painful -and- kept tugging away at it, feeding an entirely normal amount of grief into each scene. Showing the consequence of every brutal choice made at the end of The Last of Us (and during this game, too) turns out to be the best way to develop them as characters. The epiphany beyond revenge-seeking violence comes to a bloody apex that is ugly. Too fucking ugly, sad and affecting for its depraved low. The “light” is seen and man, it feels just as awful as regret, grief and letting go of your need for murderous revenge -should- feel. That the story conveys this is a direct-as-possible address of the criticism of cognitive dissonance aimed at the first game. It is a video game however, an experience that would’ve been just as effective as a sit n’ spin mini-series rather than a “not zombie” filled Uncharted 5: Post-Apocalyptic Seattle skin. Hell, it’ll probably become one. Good story and even better, more natural voice acting than the first game.
13 SENTINELS: AEGIS RIM – [VanillaWare, PS4 Pro]
Man, I know you’re already judging me for the anime school-aged idiot look of that box art but this oddball game does deserve some attention. VanillaWare are a Japanese studio I’ve more or less been following since 2007 when they’d released two of the better late-era Playstation 2 titles Odin’s Sphere and GrimGrimoire. These were expansions of hack n’ slash games with lush 2D animation, spiritual successors to the studio founder’s early exploits with Atlus on the Sega Saturn. Dragon’s Crown (2013) is probably the one VanillaWare game that I’ve put the most hours into and I suppose it was a bit disappointing to find out their next game would be a mix of 2D adventure dialogue and 3D real-time strategy mech combat. Yeah, teenagers and mecha suits… It is about as anime trope-heavy as Persona has been lately but slickly translated nonetheless and man, you’re going to have to care about these teenage idiots and their stories a bit to keep going. Though the ~25-30 hour story isn’t combat heavy it does eventually ramp up the need for smart team loadouts, this is what kept me interested throughout. If you’re not into real-time strategy on a holographic isometric plane and really hate Japanese teenagers, this probably isn’t for you. I’d suggest the strategic gameplay and highly stylized art/presentation is worth it if you can tolerate the kid shit.
HADES [Supergiant Games, PC]
I’d been a regular GameSpot reader from the late 90’s until 2010 or so, right around the time one of their more skilled and serious reviewers during their technical “consumer report” days, Greg Kasavin, began presenting his first project with a new company founded by ex-Electronic Arts employees. His collaboration as a writer (and sometimes voice actor) with Supergiant Games and their roughly ~3 year cycle since of simple to pick up, deep if you want, and fun to master video games has produced nothing but quality. Their fourth game, Hades, is an isometric “rogue-like dungeon crawler” yet it maintains the signature style of the developer’s lineage of games via unique artwork, music, voice acting, and “build” or loadout based gameplay. Though it is an action RPG I believe this game was designed with some direct influence from the satisfying loop of MOBA (multiplayer online battle arena) games in mind and the potential fun to be had with randomization, intentional build types, and enemy types keeps things interesting enough. Why is Hades game of the year? The pit of hopelessness a rogue-like or rogue-lite game presents is that you’ll inevitably begin to feel the grind as your skill level peaks or, if the game is so difficult progress dies and runs begin to take forever. While Hades does not entirely ease this issue they do provide story progression that lines up with progress made on runs, more or less gating it with difficulty that isn’t at all insurmountable with a decent build and moderate reflexes. I won’t say the story and its various endings were mind-blowing but having to complete at least ten runs and it being fun throughout means Hades was by far the best experience I had with a video game this year.
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