RPG Site Best of 2020 Awards - our picks for the best of the year
2020 was a memorable year for several reasons, not all of them good. Despite the various hardships of the year, when we were lucky enough to have a chance to look back on 2020 as it pertains to RPG Site, we can see with a little more clarity now how this year still managed to be quite a remarkable one for RPGs. The previous console generation finally came to a close, some long-awaited games big and small finally released, and as always, several surprises came out of nowhere. It's time to discuss them all in our Best of 2020 awards.
We've been running this current iteration of our awards feature since 2018, and we've kept it largely the same this year. That means that in this article you'll find several Category Awards that highlight games for nailing specific aspects of their style or systems. Then you'll find ten games we whittled down from a much longer list as our best of 2020. The first five of these are runners-up, games that we recognize as some of the best of the year, but did not land into our Top Five. Then we list our non-winning Top Five, which ended up falling just short of our overall winner, but remain as RPG of the Year-caliber releases in their own right. Finally, at the very end, one of the Top Five is crowned our official RPG of the Year 2020. At each benchmark, we had to make some incredibly tough decisions and concessions to end up at our final rankings. A couple of final important notes to consider is that we include some RPG-adjacent titles in our deliberations, and only games released before December were considered for this list.
We achieved all of this by taking a long-list from across the RPG Site staff - any game the staff thought were eligible was on the list. Then we all whittled that list down to a list of about 25 contending games. From there, we narrowed it down to a final ten, then a final five, and finally a winner. It's a grueling process, but here's the good news: you can listen in to our entire hours-long deliberation on the RPG Site podcast, as we recorded the entire debate. Find that special Best of 2020 edition of the Tetracast, the RPG Site Podcast, embedded below or available via iTunes or Google Podcasts, or Spotify!
We also wanted to make sure that our readers had their say! We've hosted a 2020 Reader's Choice Poll to decide your favorite RPG of 2020, along with your most anticipated RPGs for 2021. Finally, we've also published a list of RPG Site's most anticipated RPGs of 2021 to round out our end of the year feature slate.
Category Awards: Special Commendations for Specific Excellence
Sometimes a game is just really good at a very specific thing. That's what these categories are for. Last year we called them Commendations, but the idea is the same. After taking nominations for each specific award, the RPG Site staff deliberated each and landed on a handful of games we wanted to highlight separately from the main RPG Site Best of 2020 awards for certain aspects of their design. New this year is a Category for Best Re-release -- games that were originally released before 2020 but are newly refashioned in a manner worthy of commendation. With all that stated, here are our category award winners for 2020:
- Best Writing & Storytelling - 13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim
Narratives in past Vanillaware titles often took a backseat in favor of their gorgeous signature artstyle paired with slick, responsive action battle systems. 13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim has been one of the most ambitious works they have ever done and where it truly shines is through its unconventional presentation. The nature of its story is scattered throughout its 13 protagonists with each of their own branching paths; it is a massive narrative labyrinth that somehow comes together harmoniously in a coherent, spectacular fashion. Very few games exercise the medium to tell stories that can really only be experienced as a video game and 13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim stands proudly as one of the most unforgettable experiences in the realm of video game storytelling.
It took some time to finally release, but Vanillaware has outdone themselves and there probably will never be another game like it ever again. as one of the most unforgettable experiences in the realm of video game storytelling. It took some time to finally release, but Vanillaware has outdone themselves and there probably will never be another game like it ever again. [Josh Torres]
- Best Art - Star Renegades
Star Renegades may not be a well-known RPG release of 2020, but it certainly leaves an impression with only a glance. A vibrant pixel-art style with a great color palette and stylish effects, the visual impact of this roguelike cannot be understated. Star Renegades doesn’t just use pixel-art just as a way to evoke nostalgia for games of days long past, but as a modern interpretation of what pixel art is capable of still today.
Star Renegades depicts an endless inter-galactic battle among a variety of planets with various ecosystems & aesthetics, along with several sharp enemy and boss designs. All sorts of showy animations in combat bring the artwork to life, exceptionally complementing the package whole. It leaves an unmistakable and unique visual identity worthy for RPG Site’s winner of Best Art. [Adam Vitale]
- Best Music - Final Fantasy VII Remake
On paper, you’d think giving this award to Final Fantasy VII Remake is a cop-out. After all, this is a game which has a soundtrack primarily based on a masterwork from twenty-three years ago - but the beauty of the remake’s soundtrack isn’t just in how it uses Nobuo Uematsu’s original compositions, but how it weaves in new sounds and ideas - though all sounding like they belong alongside Uematsu’s original musical vision. The use of leitmotif throughout the game is tremendous, making the game a triumph of not just musical composition, but also musical direction, the latter seemingly largely owed to the coordination efforts of Motomu Toriyama.
It’s important, too, to say the names of those talented people behind Remake’s score: so congratulations to Masashi Hamauzu, Mitsuto Suzuki, Yoshinori Nakamura, Shotoaro Shima, Tadayoshi Makino, Yasunori Nishiki, Keiki Kobayashi, Takafumi Imamura, Daiki Ishikawa, and Nozomi Toki. Their efforts paid off, creating a soundtrack that accomplishes the impossible: it is as memorable as the original. [Alex Donaldson]
- Best Design & Immersion - Hades
One of the many things that makes Hades so special is how it adapts the roguelike genre and creates something completely new out of it. Every time you try to escape the House of Hades you’ll be getting new gameplay content, new story content, new bits of world-building, new boons and so much more that it genuinely seems endless.
You won’t mind dying over and over again, because you’re always building towards something, whether it’s as important as raising Zagreus’ stats, or as arbitrary as giving Cerberus a new bed. Most games in this genre exist for you to try and conquer them or die trying, but Hades tells you that the journey is just as worthy as the destination. [George Foster]
- Best Ongoing Support - Monster Hunter World Iceborne
The one thing that sets Monster Hunter World: Iceborne apart from the rest of our list was something rather simple - the content that Capcom continued to add to the expansion post-launch was all free, only subsidized with completely optional cosmetic purchases. Iceborne managed to maintain a steady stream of content post-launch, including multiple new endgame monsters for players to hunt, revamps and additions to the Guiding Lands, and more.
All of that was capped off with what can only be described as a fantastic send-off for the game with Fatalis - a brutally difficult fight that demands all from a team in order to take him down, accompanied by a bombastic and cinematic fight that well and truly lives up to the monster’s reputation within the series’ lore. [James Galizio]
- Best Non-RPG - Ori and the Will of the Wisps
When Moon Studios introduced a followup to Ori and the Blind Forest at E3 2017, I found myself immediately moved by an incredibly emotional trailer that highlighted why I had such a strong response to the initial game in the first place. What I could not have known at the time was exactly all of the other ways that Ori and Will of the Wisps would step out of the shadow of its predecessor.
Borrowing from some cues from genre favorites such as Hollow Knight and classics like Symphony of the Night, Will of the Wisps isn’t just an emotional and artsy setpiece, but a complete package that stands alongside the genre's best. With bolstered combat sequences with a high skill ceiling that allows for buildcraft variety and peerless environmental design, I found myself floored by how much was improved in this sequel over an already great game. Cap this off with an incredibly poignant ending that I still find myself thinking about, and Will of the Wisps is easy to recommend without hesitation. [Bryan Vitale]
- Best Re-release - Persona 5 Royal
Despite its faults, the original Persona 5 was one of my favorite games of all time. It came to me at the right place at the right time, so I was excited to see how they could seemingly improve on the original formula. Atlus rose to the challenge, surpassing my wildest expectations for this. It takes everything that worked about the original game, fixes a lot of what didn’t, and implements so many QOL features that it practically feels like a new game.
Add on new story content that, in my opinion, is the strongest to come from the series since Persona 2, and Persona 5 Royal raises the bar for Atlus re-releases and more. You can tell Atlus took feedback from the first game to heart to craft what is easily my favorite game of theirs they ever produced. Hell, I gave it a 10/10 for a very specific reason. I’m hoping this team is given free rein to make their own original title in the series after proving themselves here, they truly deserve it. [Cullen Black]
Best of 2020: The Near Misses, aka the Runner-Up Five
Now we're getting to the main course. The games listed here were recognized as among the best of the year and promoted into the Top Ten among strong competition. However, they were crowded out of landing into a Top Five slot - so here's to these five, what we consider our 'runner-up five' - still amazing games. In no particular order, our Runner Ups for 2020:
Note, during the course of our deliberations, re-releases like Persona 5 Royal and Xenoblade Chronicles: Definitive Edition ended up not being considered for the "Best of 2020" list. While both games are absolutely great in their own right, we felt it best to highlight new English releases here.
Assassin's Creed Valhalla
On RPG Site we’ve watched Assasssin’s Creed’s gradual slide into full role-playing with great interest, but Valhalla is the first entry where it really lands strongly enough to warrant a place in our top ten for the year. Development of this yearly series is of course iterative, and so little in Valhalla is shockingly new - but what we get here is a mesmerizing confluence of gameplay systems, an excellent setting, and a clear greater confidence in the RPG-focused vision of the series than in the previous two attempts.
In our Game of the Year deliberations, I posited a theory that I feel makes a lot of sense: to hardcore RPG fans, which many of our readers are, this game is actually hurt by its name more than helped. Had this just been a new Ubisoft action RPG titled ‘Valhalla’, it would’ve made a much bigger splash among RPG fans. But as an Assassin’s Creed game, it carries certain expectations and a certain image - things that might not necessarily be all that attractive to someone who put 80-plus hours into, say, The Witcher 3. But the truth is that Valhalla is far closer to that game than those earliest Assassin’s Creed games - and it’s all the better for it. [Alex Donaldson]
Moon Remix RPG Adventure might just be one of the most influential games ever made. When it released in 1997 it was commonly known to be one of the first “Anti-RPG” games ever made, and was even one of the main inspirations to the worldwide phenomenon we know as “Undertale”. It wasn’t until this year however that the west finally got to see it in English with its Nintendo Switch Remaster. What’s truly special about moon however isn’t the nostalgic novelty, but the fact that it still holds up today.
In Moon you are not the hero. You play as normal boy who gets sucked into a traditional RPG he’s playing one night. Instead of killing monsters, you’re traveling the land cultivating love from their corpses after the hero has killed them while grinding levels. The hero has mindlessly made hell for the residents of the world, and its up to you to keep track of their schedules to help them improve their lives. In many ways, Moon also seems like a prototype for Majora’s Mask as well. So many games have seemingly been inspired by this gem, but Moon manages to remain entirely unique. [Cullen Black]
Turn-based tactical RPGs in the vein of Final Fantasy Tactics or Fire Emblem have always been a favorite of mine. While imitators varying from bland to stellar have played parrot for years now, what sets Fae Tactics apart is that it's not really like either of those two games or series. With some innovative combat design, charming artstyle and story, and some real teeth when it comes to challenge, Fae Tactics stands as a remarkably unique entry in a genre where many games end up playing it safe.
One of Fae Tactics most unique aspects is the non-linearity of its storytelling. Not only are main story beats left open-ended, but optional battles and even optional party members are dotted between plot threads for observant players to discover. The hybrid character and monster-summon party also provides a level of resource management that feels quite unlike anything else I’ve played. A smart interlocking system of element types, spellcasting mechanics, and a little bit of Pokemon combine to make an addictive game that’s equally compelling and quirky. Add in a simple-but-earnest narrative and a rewarding sense of difficulty and Fae Tactics is a great tactical RPG that’s distinctly different. [Bryan Vitale]
Wasteland 3’s dire post-apocalyptic world depicts a society that has fallen apart. In an attempt to prevent total anarchy and preserve as much of a civilized way of life as possible, various groups have banded together in a refurbished Colorado, though oftentime unscrupulous means are needed to hold tenuous relationships from collapsing completely. As a Ranger seeking to secure supplies for desperate families back home, you need to navigate through sketchy alliances and make acceptable concessions with some of the worst people you will ever meet. Or you can indulge yourself in the depravity and have every faction in Colorado bow to you; your choice.
Wasteland 3 is certainly InXile’s strongest title to date, reviving this dormant flavor of CRPG. The game is a rather bleak one, with not too many chances to play the hero; Wasteland 3 does an exceptional job in having decision-making feel consequential with no obvious foresight which choice is the best to make, because there are no easy answers in this world. Add in a solid tactical combat system, satisfying quest consequences, and some strangely appropriate vocal musical covers, and Wasteland 3 solidifies itself as a worthwhile RPG in 2020. [Adam Vitale]
Wasteland 3 also placed 6th in the Reader's Poll for RPG of the Year 2020.
Sakuna of Rice and Ruin
Had you told me that combining rice farming and a sidescroller RPG was going to mix to make a compelling game, I wouldn’t have believed you before I played Sakuna: Of Rice and Ruin. There’s a peanut butter & jelly thing going on here, as the small Japanese team at Edelweiss has constructed a charming game unlike any other. On one hand, you have to tend to your rice paddy with a staggering level of care: from sorting your sorts to planting them, mixing your fertilizer, constantly tracking your water level AND temperature, dealing with pests, threshing, and hulling (phew).
On the other hand, when you are not tending your field, Sakuna finds herself exploring through vibrant locales, taking on demons and collecting materials to power up her equipment, skills, and perhaps even her rice-growing tools. Combat is smooth and satisfying, and while the game doesn’t have a strong outward narrative, the cast of characters frequently discuss interesting topics about cultures, languages, traditions, and communication. With fun, fluid combat and a passionately in-depth rice cultivation system, Sakuna: Of Rice and Ruin has a concrete identity that sets it apart in 2020, earning it a spot as one of the standout RPGs in 2020. [Adam Vitale]
Top Five RPGs of 2020
In every case, each game listed here is an easy game of the year contender, and many of them had some support for earning 2020's top accolade from our staff. Whether they bring a novel idea to the forefront, re-imagined themselves into something new and different, or are simply a polished step up from a solid foundation, here are the Top Five RPGs of 2020 in no particular order, with the exception of our overall winner for RPG of the Year for 2020 listed at the end:
Nioh 2 - Top Five of 2020
Sometimes, you don’t need to reinvent the wheel to make a game sequel that sticks the landing - nowhere was that more apparent this year, than with Nioh 2. More enemies, more weapons, more skills, more levels; Nioh 2 delivers more of the same, but that can also be more than enough.
Nioh 2 excels in all of the same ways as Nioh 1 did back in 2017 - a killer battle system filled with a ton of depth and freedom for players to explore their creativity, backed by thrilling boss battles and Japanese-folklore aesthetic. Despite sharing much of the same beats as its predecessor, Nioh 2 ends up accomplishing so much more.
Where the game really shines is in the small, but smart, changes it makes to the game’s overall structure.The addition of Yokai realms adds a lot of tension to exploring the game’s various locales, and the added wrinkle of Yokai abilities gives you just that little extra ability to differentiate your playstyle; 3 different types of burst counters accomplish the same.
Nioh 2 never does anything completely different than the first game - except, perhaps, with its protagonist - yet it improves on all of what made the original great, all the same. [James Galizio]
Nioh 2 also placed 9th in the Reader's Poll for RPG of the Year 2020.
Yakuza: Like a Dragon - Top Five of 2020
Turning the street-brawling nature of Yakuza into a turn-based RPG is something that probably shouldn’t work, but by some form of magic not only does it turn out quite well, it comes out on top as one of our top five games of the year.
Special mention really does have to go towards the RPG mechanics on display here, and how they’re done so surprisingly well. There are some little teething issues, but the combat is incredibly fun and engaging, with some surprising depth to it the more you experiment with your job class. I’m not even a massive fan of turn-based combat, but it’s so fun here that I did everything I could.
The real magic of Like A Dragon comes from its story and characters. I don’t know much about the series, but I do know that Ichiban is an incredible protagonist with some amazing party members that made me carry on playing even in the moments where things got confusing. I cared about their story and their relationships as the plot winded down, and the last hour was a genuinely tear-jerking rollercoaster of emotions.
Yakuza: Like A Dragon is incredibly special, making me a fan of the series in one fell swoop and ensuring that I’ll have my eyes on whatever comes next in the series. [George Foster]
Yakuza: Like a Dragon also placed 2nd in the Reader's Poll for RPG of the Year 2020.
Hades - Top Five of 2020
We commended Hades for its design and immersion, but I would go as far as saying that there isn’t a single element of it that doesn’t deserve immense amounts of praise. I won’t go too much more into the roguelike elements because there is plenty else to talk about.
The first thing that struck me about Hades was its fantastic characters and writing. Zagreus is an immensely likeable lead with some genuinely understandable motivations. I think one of the elements that I love most about Hades is that it could have easily made Zagreus and Hades hate each other and be bitter, but there’s clearly a deeper, complicated relationship between the two of them. That’s just one example of hundreds of great character moments and relationships across Hades, and indicative of how great it really is.
Even with the greatest writing and mechanics, Hades wouldn’t be as talked about if it didn’t have fantastic gameplay, but the nail has been hit on the head here as well. Combat is incredibly satisfying, quick and limitless thanks to how many boons and tweaks can be found across every run. I’ve completed the run many times now, and I’m still finding new things from other players and for myself.
All of these individual elements work together with each other so well and combine into one of the greatest indie games I’ve ever played, and one that stands head and shoulders with some of the triple-A giants of this year.[George Foster]
Hades also placed 8th in the Reader's Poll for RPG of the Year 2020.
13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim - Top Five of 2020
The wait for 13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim has been excruciating ever since its initial reveal back in 2015, but the wait was well worth it. Vanillaware’s latest work surpassed my wildest expectations and left me wondering if 13 Sentinels might just be one of my favorite games ever. I think it is.
On its surface, it looks to tell a simple tale of a group of high schoolers piloting giant robots against a relentless alien invasion. Players can choose how they want the story to unfold after its opening hours as they freely switch between multiple character stories and real-time strategy battles. Each of the 13 different protagonists have unique story paths that often branch, and sometimes, weave into one another.
It may seem overwhelming at first, but Vanillaware has done an outstanding job balancing guidance and freedom throughout the vortex of its narrative flexibility. Every single person who plays 13 Sentinels will have a slightly different experience depending on what order they decide to tackle its layers of storytelling.
Beyond its unique structure, 13 Sentinels simply fires on all cylinders. Basiscape’s work on the music is incredible. Vanillaware’s signature “moving painting” artstyle is ambitiously amplified. There is so much to say on how great this game is, but I do not want to spoil anyone’s first time; you only get to experience this kind of game once. If you are even remotely interested in it at all, play it immediately. Go! Right! Now!
13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim also placed 4th in the Reader's Poll for RPG of the Year 2020.
Final Fantasy VII Remake - RPG of the Year 2020
Many of RPG Site’s staff never saw the point or the need for a Final Fantasy VII Remake in the first place. The original game is perfect, so why remake a masterpiece? As it turns out, Square Enix actually had something to say beyond simply revisiting and remaking their post popular world, and so Remake actually feels more noble than what it initially appeared. At announcement, it whiffed of a company mashing the panic button as it desperately searched for the soul of its biggest franchise; but instead, the Remake is as much about brave reinvention as any major Final Fantasy game.
Nostalgia plays its role, of course, but the deftness of Remake’s execution cannot be understated. In some ways the nostalgia works against it; fans have a defined image of the likes of Cloud, Barret, Tifa, and Aerith in their minds - but somehow the Remake manages to expand their characterization and relationships without spoiling these convictions. For newcomers to FF7’s world, of which there are a few among RPG Site’s contributors, these characters remain effective, proving it isn’t all about nostalgia. The tweaks to the pacing and events of the story mean stakes are established, even for those who understand this game’s narrative is far from the end of the story.
All this is without mentioning the combat, which is hands-down the best ever attempt at blending action and FF’s classic Active Time Battle that the series has ever attempted. As in much of the game, you can see strands of DNA from FFs 13 and 15, as well as Kingdom Hearts, but it appears looking back to the original FF7 carefully enabled the team to carry things further, and better, than in those games.
Remake paradoxically feels at once more ambitious but also more aware of the development team’s limits than other recent Final Fantasy titles, and the end result is a more cohesive, complete-feeling experience. In this sense it is the opposite to the game that inspired it:
None of us really know where this will lead in subsequent FF7 Remake titles. It’s fair to say that some of its creative team have had bumpy careers with mixed results - but none of that matters. Taken as a stand-alone, single game, Final Fantasy VII Remake is excellent. As the starting point of something new, it is compelling, and it’s exciting to think in future years we’ll get to experience the rest of the Final Fantasy VII journey together in a brand new way. However that turns out, this first chapter will remain a landmark Final Fantasy title. [Alex Donaldson]
There’s a lot of discussion to be had on what Final Fantasy VII Remake means to the fans of the original, but as a complete newcomer to the game I can certainly agree that it deserves the spot it’s been given here. The fantastic combat system is certainly a very strong reason as to why, but in my opinion it’s the world and characters that really elevate it.
Seeing the four main characters bond throughout their Midgar adventure was one of my favorite stories from this year, and honestly comes close to what Final Fantasy XV did with the choco-bros. I truly cared about every one of them, and there are some tear-jerking moments even for the people like me that don’t have a clue what awaits past the credits.
None of us really know what’s going to happen in Part 2, but that’s another reason why Remake is so special to me. I get to be a part of this journey without knowing every stop on the road. We all get to experience Final Fantasy VII together in a brand new way, and that’s something that really deserves mentioning. [George Foster]
Final Fantasy VII Remake also placed 1st in the Reader's Poll for RPG of the Year 2020.