2020 was a wonderful year of gaming for me and I wrote a very very long post on all the games I played here. What was my cream of the crop from those games? Read on to find out (yes, I shamelessly stole these awards from Steam)!
Sit Back and Relax – Rune Factory 4 (Neverland)
2020 was certainly a year that could have done with far more relaxation, even if the sitting back part was sorted. I’m sure Animal Crossing would be most people’s pick this year but I only received it for Christmas so it was a no-go for me. Besides, my RPG-loving heart belongs to Rune Factory with whom I’ve had a love affair for several years now, going back to its 3DS days. Rune Factory 4 is my comfort pick and it’s always a joy to dip my toes in for a soothing round of farming, crafting or dungeon exploring. There’s no pressure and you can play it as leisurely as you want, although I expect others will also find pleasure in trying to optimise their set-up. Another major factor that keeps me coming back are the immersive social aspects and Rune Factory 4 with its massive script excels in this way. NPCs are utterly charming (so much so that it’s hard to pick who to woo). It was simply fun to make my rounds to see what they had to say on that day or join in when there was an event on. Quite easily wins the ‘Just one more day’ category.
Runner-up: Atelier Ryza: Ever Darkness & the Secret Hideout (Gust Co.)
Labour of Love – Our Life: Beginnings and Always (GB Patch Games)
Our Life: Beginnings and Always is a very impressive game and it’s almost crazy that a significant part of it is absolutely free. GB Patch Games has cemented themselves as an ambitious and reliable OELVN developer with several other successful works, such as XOXO Droplets, Lake of Voices and A Foretold Affair. Our Life not only shows they’ve done it again but also that they have the experience and skills to match their vision. I’m so glad Our Life has received the reception it deserves and look forward to GB Patch’s future projects.
Runner-up: Banner of the Maid (Azure Flame Studio)
Most Innovative – Our Life: Beginnings and Always (GB Patch Games)
Award #2 for Our Life! I didn’t mention this much in my Beating the Backlog post for lack of space, but one of the reasons that makes Our Life essential both for otome enthusiasts but also more generally is how it imaginatively plays around with visual novel standards. It’s so left-field that GB Patch includes a detailed tutorial of what to expect at the start. The story follows the relationship of two friends (the protagonist and Cove) across fifteen years divided into three time periods. More unusual is that within these periods, the player experiences different moments that can be read in any order or even skipped entirely. It’s a bit like a choose-your-own-novel with simulation aspects wrapped up in a visual novel structure. Beyond character design and personality, you also determine the MC’s closeness with Cove. This is measured in interest/comfort levels, which in turn affects the dynamic between them and how Cove develops in personality and appearance over time. Visual novels often lack tangible consequences due to the sheer amount of writing required to accommodate different variables, so the amount of freedom in Our Life to customise your experience is extremely generous. Overall, it’s evident that GB Patch prioritises the player’s autonomy by crafting a system that allows players to make choices that feel most authentic to them as opposed to the typical ‘pick X choice to ensure Good End’. I never considered how you might innovate visual novels, but seeing GB Patch tackle storytelling in such an unusual way has piqued my interest for other atypical reading experiences.
Runner-up: The Caligula Effect: Overdose (Aquria)
Outstanding Story-rich Game – Utawarerumono: Mask of Truth (Aquaplus)
It’s got to be Utawarerumono: Mask of Truth. Even discounting the excellent tumultuous narrative that had me gripped (and gripping my duvet), Utawarerumono has some of the best fantasy/sci-fi lore writing I’ve seen in recent JRPGs. The devil’s in the details and so it’s the little things that make Utawarerumono’s world and characters feel fully realised, such as the in-game language and distinctive dress of characters (as an interesting aside: many linguistic and aesthetic choices were influenced by Japanese Ainu culture). Thankfully, Utawarerumono includes a very sizable glossary gathering all these lovely background tidbits, from the delicious snacks served up in a tea time scene to the political leanings of various nomadic tribes in a region your party visits. One of the best parts of travelling is exploring a different culture steeped in their own history and idiosyncrises with fresh eyes – and that’s exactly how I felt coming into Utawarerumono.
Runner-up: Night in the Woods (Infinite Fall)
Best Game You Suck At – League of Legends (Riot Games)
This one doesn’t need much explanation. League of Legends is a game that could be played endlessly. You can and most likely will spend hundreds of hours going deep into its systems to ‘git gud’, before finding yourself back in the shallows once the new meta comes into play (as it always does). Arguably, that’s part of the fun. It’s an evolving game that encourages you to challenge yourself to get better and luckily it’s very good at doing that.
Runner-up: Indivisible (Lab Zero Games)
Outstanding Visual Style – The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening (Grezzo)
There’s a charm to old-school Zelda graphics but the remake of Link’s Awakening genuinely blew me away. When I first saw the story trailer for Link’s Awakening with a lyrical version of Ballad of the Windfish playing over those familiar scenes made fresh…it was love at first sight. There’s an unrepentant childishness to the remake’s glossy toylike style, which really speaks to the nostalgic inner child. Although rounded bobblehead designs are not unusual, especially amongst the chill and wholesome crowds, Link’s Awakening remains rather unique. Like Wind Waker, which had been another distinct design departure in its time (though one that was initially criticised for looking too ‘childish’), Link’s Awakening seems rightfully headed towards iconic status.
Runner-up: InBento (Afterburn)
Best Soundtrack – Fire Emblem: Three Houses (Intelligent Systems)
Disclaimer: I have a bias for Fire Emblem soundtracks. I’m a big fan of grand, orchestral affairs and have therefore collected most of the recent Fire Emblem OSTs. These are big bulky sets – usually 4+ CDs worth – that compile all of the different music within a game. Each Fire Emblem is extremely thorough and varied with its sound design to better immerse the player and Three Houses follows in great footsteps. There’s a track to suit every dramatic battle, emotional scene, and merry amble around Garrag Mach. Besides music, the voice acting is also full of personality and, if you’re also a fan of anime, you’ll certainly recognise some of the actors amongst the immense casting list. As expected, Three Houses stands out for its combat music and I’m a big fan of Fodlan Winds, Between Heaven and Earth, and Roar of Dominion.
Runner-up: The Caligula Effect: Overdose (Aquria)
Game of the Year – Utawarerumono: Mask of Truth (Aquaplus)
I had so many amazing gaming experiences in 2020 but one definitely stands out amongst the many stellar titles. Utawarerumono: Mask of Truth is my Game of the Year. Looking back and forward, it’s a game that makes me think: ‘Yeah, this is going into the favourites pile’ because of the sheer emotional impact it had on me. I feverishly gushed about the story to my partner in a way that probably made no sense without context. Playing the duology was such an epic rollercoaster, I initially wasn’t sure whether Mask of Truth could one-up Mask of Deception after being so thoroughly caught off guard by the first game’s ending. Then coming into Truth, already emotionally invested, made the stakes surrounding the game’s civil war plot so much more weighty. Utawarerumono is undoubtedly a niche VN/SRPG hybrid and many will feel put off by the strange mix of slice of life levity and tragic reversals. Nevertheless, Utawarerumono sang beautifully to me and I anticipate that I will be regularly thinking about it for a long while yet.
Runner-up: Fire Emblem: Three Houses (Intelligent Systems)
There you go – those were my top picks out of my 2020 games list. Have you played any of them? What are your personal picks? Let me know in the comments! And with that note, I’m off to preorder the Fire Emblem: Three Houses OST now.