2020 was a year of many challenges, set backs, and triumphs. This year was especially hard for us here at That Nerdy Site, as we saw the departure of three of our founding members, massive technical setbacks, and personal struggles for each and every one of us. The year that was supposed to be our sophomore effort in the gaming coverage scene was hamstrung as it had barely begun. But we persevered, like so many of you, and now we’re here. 2021. But let’s take a look back at my year of gaming, and all the amazing releases that we were able to enjoy, and celebrate the very thing that carried out torch of light through the darkness that was this last year.
If you want more Game of the Year content, and have five hours to spare, check back throughout the week for other lists and you can find our site-wide Top 10 games of the year conversation that went live as this week’s That Nerdy Site Show.
Best Definitive Edition of 2020
Persona 5 Royal
If this was the first time I played Persona 5, this game would be my number one game of the year with a silver bullet. But, because of my own self-imposed rules, I don’t consider remasters, DLC, or expansions as valid candidates for my Game of the Year list. If I did, I would have Destiny 2 and Final Fantasy XIV dominating the list every year. Legacy level games like those and definitive releases like Royal hit very differently than new games, and it isn’t fair asking new releases competing with what is sometimes years of emotional connections.
Persona 5 Royal is an incredible game, stream lining everything it needed to and even things that didn’t need it, making it the absolute best way to play the original content, along with the addition 20-30 hours of new content exploring the unresolved pains of the characters and the introduction of the two new Confidants, and the total rework of Goro Akechi’s brings new layers to the story in a seamless manner. In spite of a less satisfying ending cutscene, Persona 5 Royal remains THE definitive way to play one of the best games of the generation.
Best 80’s Property Adaption of 2020
Predator: Hunting Grounds:
Friday the 13th was a Kickstarter project that became a success and in the face of sudden impossible obstacles, eventually sunsetting it as a casualty of an Intellectual Property War over the franchise. But a second chance at nailing an 80’s super IP like Predator shows that IllFonic was more than just a single instance of capturing lightning in a bottle. Between tight gunplay, a good horde AI experience, and careful balancing for Predator weapons, Predator: Hunting Grounds delivered in ways nobody expected it to, and became some of the best cross-console play we saw this year.
Best Digital Collectable Card Game of 2020:
Legends of Runeterra
This is the year Riot finally got me. Legends of Runeterra is far more than a Hearthstone clone, as it creates a turn mechanic that embodies the momentum based gameplay of their MOBA darling. Each Champion mechanically plays different from each other, making deck strategies built around multiple champions complex and multi-faceted. And its ease of use regardless of the platform you’re playing it on, from PC to Mobile, makes the ease of playing a game anywhere a real possibility.
Best Toxic Playground of 2020:
Like I said, this is the year Riot Games hooked me, as well as the rest of the PC shooting scene with their new ability and personality infused Counter-Strike inspired First Person Shooter. From unique Operators, to strong skill based gun play, and a quickly adopted professional scene, Valorant has had what it takes to hit the ground running and be a real phenomenon and eSports scene.
Unfortunately it also suffers from some of the most toxic gaming experiences I’ve ever had. No game, not even non-competitive mode games are free from the terror of tryhards, edgelords, griefers, and overall toxic bad mannered jerks. This is nothing new to an FPS scene, but dealing with it in games that don’t actually matter other than to have fun, has been the bane of my gaming existence of 2020 and one of the only reasons I am glad my PC was out of commission for the majority of the year. The game itself is great, though.
Top 10 GOTY
10. The Last of Us Part II
I am going to say this up front. TLOU2 is a technical masterpiece. From the actors, to the technology running the game, to the digital effects and even the ambient sound. It is a technically flawless game, and the designers and programmers at Naughty Dog should be incredibly proud of their accomplishments. Ashley Johnson and Laura Bailey dig deep into their personal acting wells providing what can only be described as career defining performances. And the design choice for a character like Abby is a bold counter to the expectations of female characters in gaming. There was no way I could possibly leave it off my Top Ten.
But there’s a reason it’s only at number ten. The big halfway moment in the narrative The Last of Us Part II is a bold choice that is to be commended, but in our Spoilercast for the game, I raked the game’s narrative choices over the proverbial coals. My issues are chock full of spoilers, so I won’t go into them here. But the issues only settled into serious flaws I saw in the game over time, and the lack of Bruce Straley in the duoship with Neil Druckmann was definitely felt in the game’s direction.
9. Genshin Impact
Genshin Impact, or commonly referred to as Breath of the Waifu, is a game I stumbled across during the press floor early access on the first day of PAX East 2020. Its anime as all hell aesthetic isn’t what set it apart so much as the level of intricate designs in the characters is what really caught my eye. At that time, I had no idea about the Gacha mechanics or story and only had the raw gameplay of the available characters to go off of.
By full release, I was pleased to see how much the game had improved on its gameplay creating a wonderful blend between hack and slash with smart tactical decisions. Genshin Impact may have unknowingly answered many of my issues with Nintendo’s Breath of the Wild, and answered a few things I didn’t notice before. But what I was most pleasantly surprised by was the story.
Not far from a standard fantasy open world, the story opens with a pair of twins, who travel from world to world like shooting stars. They are met by an unknown god of the world of Teyvat who captures the twin you don’t select to play as, and casts your chosen twin down to the surface of Teyvat like a fallen star. (In the podcast I referred to both twins using the name Lumine, but I have since been corrected that only the female twin is, and the male is in fact Aether.)
The story sprawls across an enormous open world of city-states, perilous dungeons, creatures of legend, and the machinations of gods. To top it all off, the game itself is free.
8. Animal Crossing: New Horizons
My first true experience with Animal Crossing came at a time when the world seemed to be coming apart at the seams. As the Global Pandemic of COVID-19 swept across the world and the world got a lot bigger in isolation, it all came at a time like a cruel monkey pawed wish someone made to be able to play this new release on their Switch all day. A lifeline for many this year, with customization that seems never ending, New Horizons allowed people to remain connected to each other in a time when it seemed to otherwise be impossible.
But some of my favorite moments of this game weren’t even when I was playing it. Renting a room from my sister and living with her family has made a huge impact on the lens I’ve viewed games through this year. Animal Crossing was one of those, as I watched my sister and her three kids fall in love with the game. Setting up her own island, and the kids all having their own tents, was an amazing experience as I saw them all find what they loved about the game. Whether it was catching fish and bugs, collecting flowers, or the customizing of their appearances, it was amazing to see these kids find a fun summer vacation during a COVID ridden summer.
Visiting friends islands, developing my own, and even the hottest talk show of 2020 being Animal Talking hosted by Gary Whitta, Animal Crossing New Horizons helped bring joy and fulfillment in a year that desperately needed it.
7. Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 1 + 2
My brother and I shared a room when I was younger. He was the typical older brother, five years older, aloof, but always what I thought about when I thought someone was cool. We had the typical brothers room, with a bunk bed and the family’s IKEA entertainment cabinet that wouldn’t survive if you moved it. We kept the Nintendo 64 in our room, hooked up to the television set that was older than me. Our walls were decorated with a slightly nautical themed dark blue wallpaper that had a few colored felt posters of dragons and knights, surfing posters, and some religious themed posters. My friend Taylor had accompanied me on a trip to our local Blockbuster for some of his recommendations. The moment he saw a game was in stock, he put it in my hands and told me I needed to play this right away.
Sitting on the carpet in that bedroom, that threadbare dark beige that was as old as the house, I put that completely blue cartridge in, booted up the game. I knew skating, my Mother was against us ever being able to own a board. My brother’s minor injury on one triggered the trauma of losing a beloved teenage friend in a sad accident. But my friends all had one, and I used it as often as they’d let me. But when I sat down and hit career mode, and saw the skater options I knew I didn’t want to be the guy on the cover. Rune Glifberg was a cooler name. The moment I dropped into that first level, I heard words that have echoed throughout my life.
“So here I am, doing everything I can. Holding on to what I am, pretending I’m a Superman.”
When I was playing the pre-installed demo waiting for the full game, I was transported to that moment of my youth. The smell of the musty old carpet, leaning against the blue felt covered chair as I learned how to play this game. Frank said it best in our podcast. THPS1+2 plays like you remember it, not how it was. It successfully revives the franchise in a way that captures the fun of the franchise and approaches itself with the levity of its original release. The warehouse is more rundown, sure, but having the Mall be abandoned, the skaters from the original game are modeled after their current selves, and so many more minor touches just makes this game an absolute stunner.
6. Cyberpunk 2077
CD Projekt RED
The only word I can use to describe Cyberpunk 2077 is disappointment. I’ve been excited to see what this game could be since it was announced that the Polish developer was taking on a classic tabletop game like Cyberpunk 2020 and giving it a fully fleshed out Night City to play in. With the inclusion of Johnny Silverhand being portrayed by Keanu Reeves, I was sure that the depth of care and love they’d poured into The Witcher franchise could really give us a modern cyberpunk game worthy of the genre next to the foundational Blade Runner or Gibson’s Neuromancer.
I was wrong.
Cyberpunk 2077 isn’t a bad game, per se. It is definitely a partially baked game that in some of its greatest moments is tremendous and truly captures the genre in intense and visceral ways. When we talked about its controversial moments earlier this year, I spoke about how those are pivotal parts of how the Cyberpunk genre is defined, where anything and everything WILL be used to generate profit in the capitalist nightmare where individuality is the favorite commodity. And like many works of the genre, it puts that full on display, evoking a severe discomfort the way it’s meant to. But it also shows the game’s greatest issue and flaw.
But the biggest issue with the game is found in how CD Projekt RED doesn’t mean anything. V, the player character, is a passive cog in the machinations of the game’s plot, and rarely if ever has anything to say outside of what’s in front of their face or brought to their attention. In fact, outside of empty gestures and empty words, V doesn’t really give anything more than what the questline requires. Instead, CD Projekt RED is content to give you a Night City, that vast and beautiful in its dystopian vanity, lacks any real depth or substance. In the end, as loud and bombastic as Cyberpunk 2077 is, it doesn’t have anything to say.
5. DOOM Eternal
The sequel to DOOM (2016)’s seminal reboot of the series was an invigorating shot in the arm of the FPS genre desperately needed. DOOM Eternal takes everything it delivered in 2016, and cranked it up to 11. Doubling down on the high adrenaline pumping mechanics that keeps the game unique in its approach to the genre. But where DOOM left off, closing the gates to Hell on Mars, Eternal picks right back up as the DOOM Slayer pilots his own Fortress of Solitude, DOOMitude if you will, and then the story takes a somewhat personal turn.
The Hellpriests behind the invasion seem to know the Slayer, and after slaying the first one it becomes apparent Earth’s salvation might just be the side dish on this full buffet of revenge against not just the demonic horde, but the powers that are behind the invasion itself. Amazing reveals occur as you cross dimensional hopscotch between Earth, the worlds of the Sentinels, the warrior race whose highest fighting order the Slayer is a part of, and Hell itself. Introducing its own version of Platforming, vertical becomes a massive part of the overall experience whether its exploration or combat.
And it has lore. Like, a LOT of lore. Completely optional, but digging into the codex is worthwhile as an incredible sci-fi epic is just sitting under the surface of an already incredible game. The harrowing journey of the Slayer and the fall of the Sentinel society, and the puppet masters behind it all. DOOM Eternal gives so much without you ever asking for it, and has more ready to go whenever you want it. The moment to moment gameplay is extremely enjoyable as you do what the Slayer does best.
Rip. And. Tear.
4. Final Fantasy 7 Remake
This game shouldn’t be good. It shouldn’t be the revitalization of a beleaguered franchise, where going back to this particular well wasn’t the right choice. The director of the game Testsuya Nomura was unaware he was even directing the game until it was announced. While he was in the audience. Between bouncing between a temporary partnership with CyberConnect, and using an external engine with Unreal 4, it seemed like anything but a recipe for success.
Final Fantasy 7 Remake isn’t good. It’s not even great. Its fucking incredible.
FF7 Remake is nothing I could have ever imagined in my wildest dreams. Built from the ground up using the original game as a template, it re-tells the story of ex-SOLDIER turned mercenary for hire, Cloud Strife and his work with the Eco-Revolutionary group AVALANCHE against the Shinra Corporation. But the narrative truly takes a sudden left turn early in the game, as events diverge into a meta narrative that has a greater impact than it originally seems.
The team at SquareEnix has taken the opportunity of it only being the first part of future releases to flesh out and explore the Midgar section of the original game. With this opportunity, Midgar becomes more than just a set piece, as the mighty metropolis becomes a world of its own, with its sectors, upper and lower plates, and territory outliers becoming vast areas packed with exploration and combat opportunities.
Combat feels incredible, and is a true revision of the original Active Time Battle system that the original introduced. Each character plays differently, in both style and weapons, and the use of the game’s famous materia is treated as the true wonder it’s described in the game as. From magic spells, to enhanced abilities, and even the legendary summons, the variety in combat is incredible and well worth replaying again and again.
3. Ghost of Tsushima
Sucker Punch Productions
I grew up loving Westerns. My favorites were of the lone gunman seeking some form of justice, in a world of the wild west, where the only kind of justice is the one a man makes. When I watched and fell in love with Sergio Leone’s Man with No Name trilogy, I was shocked to learn that he had based the character and story from another film from some Japanese director, Akira Kurosawa. Thus began my long love of Japanese cinema samurai films. From Kurosawa to Hideo Gosha, and Masaki Kobayashi. The exploration of a social construct like the Bushido code, that was used as a romantic lens on the actions of historical figures, to create incredible narratives has created some of the best stories in human history. At least, I’d like to think so. It doesn’t seem like I’m alone in thinking that either.
Sucker Punch Productions successfully created an open world adventure that respectfully explores the themes of samurai films, gives homage to the greats, and explores its own narrative. The game plays incredible, as both samurai and ghost techniques are needed to rescue the island home of the game’s protagonist, Jin, as he must throw back the Mongol invasion led by a member of the Khan dynasty, intent on making Japan the next conquest of one of the greatest empire the world has ever known.
Like many great samurai films, Ghost tells a story of a man clashing against a code of society that dictates what he should do, with taking actions prohibited by it in order to do what he must. The concepts of war, victory and honor are questioned in the narrative, and even give leeway to ways on how to approach the game itself. An incredible duel system can be accessed in the game, letting players recreate those incredible epic moments from cinema. Contrary, the ghost weapons and assassinations are effective, require careful intuition, and execution. But their effects are devastating when used correctly.
Although the game is extremely enjoyable, the story isn’t without its own issues. But what truly sets the game apart is its beauty. Vibrant colors, incredibly designed landscapes, beautifully crafted clothing and weapons, and more make this game a figurative feast for the eyes. And yet, in a bold move, Sucker Punch seemingly threatens that with a visual overhaul, dubbed “Kurosawa Mode” named for the famed director. Japanese language, English subtitles, and with a greyscale camera filter that captures the grit and grain of the legendary films, while able to convey the beauty and majesty of the island of Tsushima.
Playing the game first in Kurosawa Mode, and then in standard with English Voice Cast and no filter, were two completely different, yet equally valid experiences. I can truly say that both modes lead to different moments of impact, and both voice casts are impeccably able to portray these characters for their different audiences. The motion capture done with the English Speaking cast is wonderfully done, and allows some of the cinematic moments to shine a little brighter. To be able to produce both modes with such capable storytelling and game play in a single game without sacrificing either is a testament to the love and care Sucker Punch has for the game and its inspirations.
Overall, my time with Ghost of Tsushima was an absolute joyful time, as I played through a playable samurai flick.
Ghosts of Tsushima
A blade through Autumn Leaves
The legend lives on
2. 13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim
I don’t know if there will ever be a year that in the twilight hours at the end of December won’t give me one more game that will throw my list out of whack. This year, Vanillaware’s 13 Sentinels is that game. And it is without a doubt the most successful shake up I’ve ever dealt with. I won’t write long about the game, if you want more of my thoughts, I capture them pretty well in an hour and a half in this podcast. But here’s the gist.
13 teens in 1985 Tokyo, Japan pilot giant robot soldiers called “Sentinels”, to fight monstrous Kaiju aliens that are destroying the city. On the surface, that’s it. But digging into the game, it becomes apparent that the game is anything but that simple.
13 Sentinels is the best game nobody played in 2020. It was neck and neck for my Game of the Year, and it really comes down to one thing. This game shouldn’t work. It shouldn’t be able to play around with this much science-fiction genre hopping, with thirteen characters all critically important to the narrative, and each telling a different kind of sci-fi story. With three separate sections of a Story Mode, Battle Mode, and an in game encyclopedia. Where even my personally least enjoyable character’s stories are filled with delightful and engaging moments.
If there is one thing I can detract from it, is that while the battles are engaging, fun, and challenging, they are uniquely un-Vanillaware in how basic the battlefield is compared to their beautifully detailed side scrolling hack and slash games. And yet, with how engaging it is in simulating a unique brand of active tactical combat, it’s easy to get lost in its depth of mechanics and strategy. I easily put tens of hours into the game, and it was one of the very few times in my life that a game has been like a book I can’t bear to put away.
A stellar voice cast in both Japanese and English, an amazingly, if almost unbelievably, competent and well constructed story, and a fun, if a little too simple, combat system sets 13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim as one of the best games of the year. Play it in 2021.
When Hades debuted at the 2018 Game Awards, it became the only reason for me to download the Epic Game Store. After playing through the game a bit, I realized that as much fun I was having, I was willing to wait for the finished product. Fast forward to 2020, and to my pleasure and surprise Hades has become a critical hit and beloved game of many. From the incredible team over at Supergiant, who I’ve adored since their freshman debut with Bastion, I watched as NoClip documented the game’s development, and when I finally booted it up on my Switch, I was blown away by what the game had become.
Hades doesn’t just tell a story of the Greek Mythos, it writes its own narrative and explores the complexity of the Grecian Pantheon and their chosen heroes through the eyes of Hades’s son, Zagreus. Born in the Underworld, Zagreus has always felt an outsider and unfit heir to his overbearing and expectant father. A chance encounter from a narrator gives him the motivation to defy his father’s laws and break out of the kingdom of the dead. Deadly for any other being, being born of the god of the dead allows Zagrues to be resurrected from the River Styx, although he loses almost all items or powers he gains in his prior escape. The game is more about the people of the Underworld and its sovereign ruler’s family than the escape itself. Zagreus, despite being a terrible bureaucratic administrator, is still beloved by almost all of the denizens and servants of his father. It’s easy to see why in how Zagreus treats and approaches people, with his dry wit and sincere concerns.
But each escape from the Underworld is the best, “one more run” that I’ve seen in years. Between the mythical weapons and their upgrades, boons of the gods, and variety of items and abilities, no run is ever the same as the last. One of the game’s best features is in its “God Mode”, which creates a level of accessibility and helps find an equilibrium where the game remains challenging but will eventually stop being too difficult. It will take growth and grit to overcome the trials of hell and its champions. And what lies outside of the Underworld, and what is Zagreus searching for? An incredible ensemble cast, wonderfully randomized rooms and rewards, and some of the tightest and best gameplay I’ve ever had the joy to experience.
Hades is one hell of a game. And it’s my Game of the Year.