It has been a bad year. A bad year with, mercifully, some very good video games.
Last year I remember struggling to scrape together even 10 games for my list, so sparse had my good times been, but in 2020 I’ve had no such trouble. And no, it’s not because I’ve been stuck inside all year. I’m stuck inside every year.
Dominating my list are some games I could have easily predicted would make the cut back in January. A Crusader Kings sequel was a lock, and a new Yakuza game would have to burst into flames in my hands to not also make the grade.
But there have also been some surprises! I hated The Last Of Us Part II, but also loved it. Townscaper is a game I’ve always wanted and just never realised. And Squadrons showed that as dead inside as I’ve become to all things Star Wars lately, you can still conjure a little of the old magic if you cram it inside an X-Wing.
Below, then, are my top 10 games of 2020, accompanied by a link to any reviews, impressions or other coverage I wrote for the game during the year.
Oh boy. After all these years of city-builders, finally one that lets me do only the thing I love best about them: building things. Townscaper is part city-builder part art program, casting you adrift in a nameless sea and simply asking you to build little towns and villages and cities however you like, in whatever design, whatever shape, whatever colour, with no need to worry about your finances or traffic. I’ll never be able to play a proper city-builder again after this, it’ll just stress me out.
I did not enjoy playing this game, not one bit. It was too tense, too dark, too unrelenting, and I felt like the entire ending sequence was a bridge too far, both narratively and in terms of just making me sit through all the horrible shit you have to do in this game. And yet, days after playing it, then weeks, then months, I couldn’t stop thinking about it. It fucked me up, in the way other uncomfortable pieces of media like Threads have done, and while there’s still a lot to dislike about this game (and the way it was made!), the grinder it put me through left enough of a mark that I couldn’t not put it here.
Panzer Corps is one of my most-played games on PC, and its sequel effortlessly picks up the baton and will probably run with it for years to come. It strikes (for me at least) the perfect balance between the kind of fast, accessible turn-based tactics we see in games like Fire Emblem but with just enough influence from more serious wargames, without bringing any of their bloat with it.
Here’s the thing with Animal Crossing. I’m over these games. I played the original to death on the GameCube, and have got diminishing returns from every game since. There are only so many mortgages I can repay and fishes to catch before it all just makes me want to scream.
But! This year, as you’ll probably read 100 other places, was different, and Animal Crossing was just the perfect experience for that time. When it was released we were all in the depths of lockdown madness, and the way it let me share an adventure with my two kids—and their friends, in turn—was just magical. The sight of my seven year-old playing Animal Crossing every afternoon with his school friends, and all they were doing was running around and talking and using the game as a means of just hanging out, will stay with for a very long time.
I don’t even like roguelikes, which is precisely what makes Hades so good. It’s built from the ground up exactly for people like me, providing a rich story where usually there’s little/none, and its God Mode let folks like me treat each death as progression rather than defeat.
I grew up with X-Wing and Tie Fighter, and so the news that EA was going to make an all-new starfighter game was originally exciting! Then we found out it was going to be a small and cheap game, and it was less exciting. The final product, nicely, landed somewhere in between. It was never going to match the scale and majesty of Lucasarts’ classics, but for what it was, and for all its shortcomings, it nailed the Star Wars experience better than maybe any game since Dark Forces.
I’m at the point in this series where I can’t even look at them as individual games anymore. And so playing Valhalla feels simply like ordering a slightly different burger from my favourite burger place. It’s predictable, and I know what I’m getting, but some of it is new, and the new stuff is great because this is my favourite burger place, and they very rarely fuck this stuff up.
Wow did this come out of nowhere. I like real-time tactics games, but I loved Desperados 3, as it all but perfected everything about the genre, turning every single encounter, no matter how small, into an immensely satisfying and often fiendish puzzle. A puzzle that ends with a dude getting his throat cut.
Like a Dragon was a whole new Yakuza, and yet it was still very Yakuza in all the best ways. Better still was an extremely likable new cast, a gorgeous big city to play with and a turn-based combat system that began as a joke but will now be very hard to walk away from.
Goodbye job. Goodbye life. Goodbye family. I have a new family now, only it’s a family where I’ve married one of my kids off to the Byzantine Emperor, sent another to be killed in combat in the Holy Land and my wife has no idea a courtier fancies me and is writing me the world’s worst poetry.
Crusader Kings II built a medieval life through its blend of strategy, politics and personality, and all Crusader Kings III went and did was improve on that in every single way. An incredible game that will hopefully last me well beyond 2020.