We celebrate the games that kept us sane these past nine months of lockdowns.
While other entertainment industries were suffering the costs that came with an uncontrolled pandemic, videogames were booming. It’s not a surprise, considering most of America was looking for something (anything!) to do as they hunkered down for what would become months of homestay. The positive? New audiences, both gamers and non-gamers alike, were introduced to the capabilities of gaming to tell impactful stories, present vibrant digitally rendered vistas, and conjure a peaceful reprieve by curating your own private tropical island of adorable animals. (That last one came courtesy of the new Animal Crossing.)
As 2020 comes to an end and hope returns for what a new year can bring, we honor the games that held us over these past nine months.
10. Marvel’s Spider-Man: Miles Morales
Marvel’s Spider-Man: Miles Morales said “Black Lives Matter,” one of the first games to do so. The words were proudly painted on a mural that’s only revealed when you beat the main story arc of this spin-off to Marvel’s Spider-Man, and the game itself honors that rallying cry. Miles, the Afro-Latino wall-crawler from Marvel Comics, isn’t like Peter Parker. He comes with his own experiences and, as a newly minted Spidey, he takes center stage in this November release for PlayStation 5. The vibrant Harlem setting, which is threatened by a war between the vigilante militia group The Underground and the nefarious overlord of the Roxxon Corporation, plays host to an array of characters not typically shown in mainstream stories. Deaf street artist Hailey, lesbian F.E.A.S.T. volunteer Gloria, bodega owner Teto, and Miles’ uncle Aaron (a.k.a. the Prowler) become integral parts of what makes the city so diverse and distinct. Miles himself is also a different hero than Peter. So, even though there’s a lot of repeating mechanics and visuals from the first game, it still feels fresh, compelling, and wholly entertaining to tap Miles’ unique arsenal of abilities. Plus, if you meet all the requirements to obtain the Into the Spider-Verse-inspired suit, it’s almost like you’re playing through that 2018 animated film. Speaking of, where is that sequel?—N.R.
9. Assassin’s Creed Valhalla
After logging more than 70 hours and still not getting through all the side quests and main missions for Assassin’s Creed Valhalla, I have one main criticism: where are all the hot Viking daddies?! Assassins’ Creed Odyssey, the game’s predecessor, turned the franchise firmly to an RPG format where you could, regardless of the gender of your character, have the option of partaking in romantic and sometimes kinky relations with local hotties. That’s still there in the Viking-themed Valhalla, which maintains many of the same elements as Odyssey while weaving in classic features of past franchise installments (e.g. stealth, hiding-in-plain sight mechanics, etc.), but there are far less opportunities to hook up across the medieval worlds of Norway and England. Unless I’ve been looking for love in all the wrong places. Regardless, I still logged more than 70 hours of this game and there’s no less investment on my part than when I started. Like Odyssey, Valhalla, too, is a massive world where it’s easy to get sidetracked from the main storyline in a good way; the concept encourages exploration. The game also urges you to embrace your warrior instincts. With two-handed fighting capabilities and a new raiding option where you can charge churches and monasteries with your Viking horde to plunder their riches, battles become far more fun than sneaking around. But keep in mind, if you choose to go in guns blazing all the time, the story experience will change. Surprisingly, with all the similarities to Odyssey, Valhalla feels like a new, fun, and engaging entry to the series, though there remain critics of this new RPG direction away from the traditional stealth that came to define Assassin’s Creed.—N.R.
8. Demon’s Souls
The notion that the best launch exclusive for the PS5 is a remake of an 11-year-old PS3 game could be construed as a condemnation of the latest hardware generation. Luckily, Bluepoint Games (Shadow of the Colossus, 2018) has proved once again that they are the studio to turn to for detailed top-to-bottom re-imaginings of landmark PlayStation titles that hold up as archives of gaming’s past as well as showcases of its present. There are certain aspects of Demon’s Souls’ gameplay that indicate its age (inventory management, though improved, is still a mess, for one) but for each less-than-ideal anachronism, there is at least one new feature that elevates the experience to the level of a top tier 2020 game. And when all is said and done, it’s still a sword and sorcery FromSoftware action RPG at its base, so the foundation is solid. Feeling the intricate rumble of dragon fire bombarding a bridge through the DualSense controller’s haptic feedback while listening to the wing beats of the beast circling overhead through headphones with 360 audio enabled brings new life to the Souls game that launched an era of spiritual sequels, homages and knock-offs. For those who have missed out on the Soulslike craze over the last decade, there will be a fairly steep learning curve involved to get into DeS on the PS5, as the game still doesn’t hold any hands with its obtuse tutorials and challenging enemies. For brave PS5 owners looking for an excellent game to play during the first few months of the console’s run, FromSoftware devotees looking to relive old glories, or those who are interested in taking a look at the originating point of an influential sub-genre while enjoying immersive modern features, Demon’s Souls is a must play.—E.L.
7. Ghost of Tsushima
This summer remained largely void of any mega blockbuster movies. Luckily there was Ghost of Tsushima, one of the most beautiful to look at releases of the more “escapist” genre of games. You became engulfed in the lush, painterly landscapes and the sense of ornate flower petals wafting overhead in the wind, while experiencing a thrilling, dramatic samurai story set in feudal Japan, more specifically on the vast island of Tsushima when it became the epicenter of a war with invading Mongols. That scope came from the daring dev team, lead by creative directors Jason Connell and Nate Fox, who set out to make a movie-like gaming experience. Jin Sakai, fueled by an emotive performance from actor Daisuke Tsuji, is thought to be the last surviving samurai of a beach massacre on Tsushima. He sets out to amass allies in the hopes of saving his uncle and eradicating his enemies from his home, but this course puts him directly at odds with the samurai code, turning him into a compromised dark warrior, feared by most, but hailed by those who know his deeds. The title came out in July. By the time the end-credits rolled, capping a massive adventure involving a man’s path to the grey area of honor, epic sword duels, cinematic opening and closing sequences, and a black-and-white mode named after filmmaker Akira Kurosawa, it was all of a sudden September. And that was perhaps the greatest kindness it could offer, the kindness of forgetting where I was in time.—N.R.
6. DOOM Eternal
There are times when entering into a comically bloody flow state of demon obliteration is just what the doctor ordered. Like its predecessor, DOOM2016, Eternal is a fast-paced, single-player-focused shooter that presents its story with tongue firmly in cheek while taking the smoothness of its gameplay deadly seriously. That incredibly slick control scheme paired with a propulsive synthy metal soundtrack makes for an entrancing frenzy of nearly non-stop action, setting aside the odd platforming puzzle that breaks up the pace. Even more so than in DOOM 2016, resource management is key in Eternal, with different types of demon kill blows delivering various supplies to the rampaging Slayer. Short range Glory Kills on staggered demons provide health, while chainsawing the forces of Hell results in a shower of ammunition, and so forth. Each enemy also has a specific set of weaknesses that can be exploited to reduce their damage output or mobility. After a bit of practice, it’s easy for a player to wind up in a sort of fugue state while swinging rapidly across multi-tiered battle arenas making sure to dispatch each demon with the most effective weaponry and to make sure each one pops with just the right type of reward to keep the Slayer in motion. That’s just about all there is to the game. It’s a power fantasy that’s all about that feeling of being totally unstoppable, and that’s a good feeling to have available these days.—E.L.
Got time to kill? So does Zagreus, the Prince of the Underworld, who’s desperately trying to get the hell away from his deadbeat dad, Hades. There have been a few notable works across entertainment mediums pertaining to Greek mythology over the years, from author Madeline Miller’s Song of Achilles and Circe, Netflix’s Blood of Zeus anime, and another game this year, Immortals Fenyx Rising. Hades, which had an early release in December 2018 before going wide this year, stands out for being endlessly entertaining despite a seemingly repetitive premise. Each time Zagreus is killed trying to escape his situation, he finds himself right back where he started in this rogue-like dungeon crawler. Yet there are infinite assortments of enemies that materialize with each new go and a treasure trove of divine cameos from the pantheon of Greek Gods, who’ve become stars in their own right due to an overwhelming sense of quarantine horniness. Seriously, there are thinkpieces on this. With months of doing nothing with little to no human contact, here came a bunch of brutally beautiful gods and goddesses, who also, refreshingly, weren’t all portrayed as being the pale English-accent deities we typically see in Hollywood blockbusters. But that’s an entirely different matter. Come for the rip-roaring fun of using godlike powers and weapons to dismantle your enemies, stay for the sexual tension.—N.R.
There have been plenty of discussions this year about which games are the best reflections of the overall mood of 2020. Some point to the friendly escapism of Animal Crossing or the exceptionally bleak post-pandemic terrorscape of The Last of Us Part II as the games that were the “most 2020.” Spiritfarer may be an even better contender for that title, combining relaxation and a dose of much-needed kindness and personal responsibility with representations of challenging realities. Deceptively cute, this low-key management sim and light platformer dives into some deep waters, addressing end-of-life care and its impact on both the dying and those who will be left behind. Players assume the role of Stella, who is taking over for Charon as the captain who sails spirits to the gate of the afterlife. As Stella travels the beautifully drawn seas and islands of the pre-great beyond and builds up her ship’s amenities, she picks up a variety of endearing souls who need her help in various ways before they can make the journey beyond the Everdoor. Dialogue is cleverly written, and adorable animations grant the game’s anthropomorphized animal characters copious personality. By the time they’re ready for Stella to take them to their final fate, nearly all of them are tough to say goodbye to. And if things weren’t charming and emotional enough, a poignant soundtrack highlights the joys of seafaring, the quirks of each character, and the bittersweet sorrow of caring for and saying goodbye to loved ones as they prepare to move on.—E.L.
3. Final Fantasy VII Remake
For better or worse, remakes are an ever-present fixture in the gaming landscape. Some are clumsy cash grabs, while others are inspired redesigns that heighten the appeal of aging games (see Demon’s Souls later on this list). For its long awaited remake of Final Fantasy VII — one of the most beloved games of all time and a cultural touchstone for 90s kids everywhere — Square Enix took a different approach. Instead of updating textures or painstakingly recreating level designs, the developers of FFVII took the iconic characters and story beats of the 1997 original and created a brand new game around them. Despite covering only the first act of the plot, this remake packed in so much new content and gameplay that it felt like nothing less than a complete package. Former super soldier Cloud begins the game as a mercenary who gets roped into a conflict between a group of eco-terrorists based in the undercity slums of Midgar and the mega-corporation Shinra, which feeds on the planet’s lifeblood to produce power. Complicating matters is the reemergence of Sephiroth, a supervillain from Cloud’s past. If this all sounds very melodramatic, that’s because it is. Final Fantasy VII Remake is anime-style nonsense in the best way, and the campiness of the previous version translates surprisingly well to the modern presentation of this redesign. Gameplay is fast and fluid yet remains tactical, and the overall looks and sounds of the game give it the air of a classic truly reborn.—E.L.
2. Animal Crossing: New Horizons
Few games become cultural phenomena quite the way Animal Crossing: New Horizonsdid back in March. Maybe it was the thirst for a proper ACgame among fervent fans after a series of teases and delays, or perhaps it was the timing of the release coinciding with a sudden need for long-term at-home entertainment, but whatever other reasons contributed, New Horizons became a hit because it is a wholesome, accessible and, above all, comforting time. The premise of accruing and paying down home loans, collecting furniture and making small talk with animal neighbors doesn’t sound especially interesting on paper, but there’s something for gamers of just about any time commitment level on offer. One player may curate an exclusive guest list of island residents over the course of hours of searching mystery locales, or use the terraforming feature to completely rearrange the topography of their own island, while another player may just pop in for a few minutes a day to see what’s new in the shops. All types, from celebrities to scientists to brands, got involved in the island sharing festivities as the game provided a way for people to gather and stay in touch while also being creative. Seasonal events and rotating species of bugs and fish to catch kept things interesting for an unprecedented number of villagers even as the real world was getting a little bleak. It’s all just a nice, non-apocalyptic time on the beach, which is something everybody can get behind in the best of times or the worst.—Evan Lewis
1. The Last of Us Part II
The sequel to 2013’s hit survival saga The Last of Us is so good it hurts — emotionally, psychologically, spiritually. And that has nothing to do with how the game, set years after an infectious fungal outbreak, was released in the midst of a global pandemic. Ellie (Ashley Johnson), the young girl from the original, is now a grown woman. Her life of relative peace in one of the last remaining human settlements, complete with a blossoming romance towards Dina (Shannon Woodward), is upended by a traumatic moment that puts her on a vengeful path across an American hellscape. With all the SPOILERS now out in the world, we can talk about the presence of newly minted Game Awards-winning actress Laura Bailey as Abby. No action comes without consequences in this game, and everything, from the gripping story to the exquisite game design, ensures that’s true. Halfway through the main story, the player shifts focus to play as Abby, chronicling the events that were happening while Ellie began her journey. It’s a jarring moment for the player to be put in the shoes of the person who killed Joel (Troy Baker), but doing so speaks to the core of this story. Part IIquestions the very nature of humanity, leading to a finale hand-to-hand combat sequence between Ellie and Abby that cuts so deep you feel it in your marrow. For a 2020 marred by the same philosophical quandaries, it’s worth questioning.—Nick Romano
For more on our Entertainers of the Year and Best & Worst of 2020, order the January issue of Entertainment Weekly or find it on newsstands beginning Friday. Don’t forget to subscribe for more exclusive interviews and photos, only in EW.
Source: By Nick Romano and Evan Lewis – ew.com