Branching Path: Adam Vitale's Top 10 Games of 2020
Despite having several RPG Site Staff GOTY seasons under my belt, and keeping a running documented record of my own top tens, I've never gone ahead and posted my personal list to this website. Not for any particular reason, I usually just casually toss my rankings around my circles and social feeds and leave it at that.
What follows is a personal, casual commentary of my favorite games for 2020 (that released in 2020). Minor spoilers may be present.
10) void tRrLM(); //Void Terrarium
Void Terrarium is a solid, if somewhat unspectacular, roguelike RPG in the vein of Mystery Dungeon. While the game is not fantastic overall, there are a handful of elements that I certainly came to appreciate. The electronic/piano soundtrack was quite soothing and relaxing, and the minimalist storyline suits my tastes. It's a simple but engaging game with a nice touch of roguelike randomness and satisfying progression.
But perhaps most importantly, I quite welcome that Nippon Ichi Software lets development teams continually try out these small, modest budget pet projects away from established entries in established franchises. It's nice to see developers break away from the conventions of a brand or the canon of a storyline to try out some fresh ideas. Consider it brownie points.
It's too bad that the actual RPG side of Ikenfell is generously only OK at best, because the rest of the game is one of the most heartwarming I've played. The overall character writing is especially of note; not only extremely LGBT-inclusive, but it also offers a certain focus not often seen in the genre. Whereas so many game storylines focus on a character's history, skills, or profession (basically, when a character is defined by what they are good at), Ikenfell places emphasis on characters' attitudes, personalities, and relationships with others.
The game is simply so earnest, with little edge and less snark; it's not trying to be cool, epic, or grandiose. While the game itself is ostensibly a mystery narrative, its flavor all comes down to the characters moreso than the happenings around them.
8) Paper Mario: The Origami King
I'm admittedly a bit of an RPG gearhead, digging into role-playing systems, combat, and progression. So suffice to say, Paper Mario's transition from fully-fledged RPG to more of an adventure game soured me a fair bit. I'm no fan of Sticker Star or Color Splash (I'd argue they both are very poorly designed games overall), but The Origami King turned things around, even if if it still stays far away from Paper Mario's RPG roots.
The game either removes or rectifies the more egregious issues with the previous two entries (Things!) while maintaining a strong localization and the usual series' charm. The game has a satisfying collect-a-thon sort of loop to it, and it's the best the series has ever looked - even if it relies a bit too strongly on the papercraft aesthetic. Despite a significantly positive turnaround, I feel like the combat still largely feels tacked on and unnecessary; it simply doesn't flow well with the rest of the game.
7) Star Renegades
I grew up in the DOS era of games, which often carried a sort of attitude and vibe that's somewhat difficult to describe in words. Pixel art, vibrant colors, and synthy soundtracks are a part of it, I suppose. When I first saw a glimpse of gameplay for Star Renegades, I pretty much had one of those 'whoa what WAS that?' double-takes. It sort of looked like something in the style of a DOS game, stylistically, only clearly with modern capabilities behind it. Maybe that doesn't make sense.
The visual and soundtrack presentation for Star Renegades cannot be overstated. It's one of the coolest looking pixel-based games I've experienced. It's a great example of using pixel-art not aiming for a retro nostalgia tone, but rather a modern interpretation of what can be done with this sort of art style. The combat itself is also a very compelling, timeline-focused command-based system, with too many moving parts to succinctly describe in text, but it all harmonizes exceptionally well. While I was a little disappointed in the overall roguelike loop and amount of content (which is being addressed in post-launch updates), I adored the game's visual style, grungy soundtrack, and intricate turn-based combat system.
6) Trials of Mana (2020)
The original Trials of Mana on Super Famicom (originally known as Seiken Densetsu 3) was one of those games I saw a lot of potential in, but it had some glaring issues that prevented me from truly enjoying it. Some awkward level design, broken mechanics, and a truly awful implementation of magic were significant, hard-to-ignore blemishes on a game that otherwise had a lot going for it with its novel protagonist setup and combat systems. The 2020 remake was a chance to realize that missed potential, as well as a chance to revive a Mana series that hasn't had much to smile about in recent years.
The 2020 version of Trials of Mana is basically everything I hoped for it to be .. almost. Outside of some bafflingly poor English voice work and some lack of challenge, Trials of Mana is a solid entry into the dormant franchise that clearly had taken to heart two decades of feedback. It comes together quite well: solid but simple combat, charming art style, nice music, and an easy-going storyline. The release surpassed Square Enix's sales expectations, so maybe we'll get to see a brand new entry in the coming years, perhaps with a more generous budget. I would weally like to see that.
5) Final Fantasy VII Remake
I don't really have any special attachment to Final Fantasy VII. I came to the game late, and if I remember correctly, I played it after Final Fantasies 8, 9, 10, 12, 4, and 6. So, I missed out on the 'wow' factor for being a 3D RPG, and I had played other games with far better translations (and writing in general, being fair). While I could appreciate it for its landmark achievements similar to Ocarina of Time, circumstances had me missing the boat on this RPG becoming personally formative in any sense. I held barely any nostalgia for it.
With that said, I was certainly interested to see what Square Enix would do for this long-awaited remake. While remasters and remakes are relatively common, not many seminal titles get the chance to undergo a complete reimagining - especially with this sort of scope and budget. Remake is visually outstanding, and the soundtrack is nothing short of phenomenal. However, most importantly, Final Fantasy VII Remake's combat is incredible, and it alone was able to hold me through the comparatively tedious linear cinematic set piece format that the game adheres to, as well as through its uninspired quest design. It's a fantastic mix of action-based real-time battles with a pinch of combat abstraction commonly seen in the series ATB mechanics. The game also has some real teeth to its challenge in a few places.
Oddly enough, even though some of the Midgar story sections were clearly fluffed out in order to stretch the game's runtime a bit (compared to the original title's narrative flow), I honestly welcomed it because it usually meant more time toying around with these engaging, energetic battles. I'm a little bit mixed on the idea that Remake is actually some sort of pseudo-sequel to classic Final Fantasy VII, but I'll still on this dumb ride for now.
Hades never really appealed to me before I started playing it. The artwork was clearly fantastic, and Supergiant's pedigree is largely stellar (I personally adored Transistor) but Hades didn't really seem like my type of game. And honestly, it's *not* my type of game.
Don't get me wrong, I very much enjoyed my time with Hades, and here it is standing in 4th place in my own top ten list. Hades is extremely good; so good that I can rate it so highly even if it's not typically the sort of game I gravitate to. The combat is fast, fluid, and fun. The variety from run to run through the Underworld is fantastic, with numerous boons and bonuses available leading to a staggering number of possible build combinations - and that's not even getting to all the alternate weapon types. There's just enough randomness for the game to feel joyously spontaneous, while also maintaining a very satisfying treadmill of rewards that you are always earning from no matter what happens in a run. These come in the form of enhanced gameplay bonuses, new decor for Hade's hall, and a seemingly endless amount of character interaction. The characters are engaging, voice acting is stellar, artwork is top-notch, and Zagreus' journey is an endearing one.
3) Wasteland 3
CRPGs are a genre I've only dipped my toes into, but I've been meaning to really dig deeper for a while now. I played InXile's Bard's Tale IV somewhat on a whim when it released a few years ago, and I was quite fond of what it offered. So when Wasteland 3 came around, I was determined to give it a try, and I'm very glad I did.
While the tactical combat and quest design in Wasteland 3 are each also really well done in their own regard, I want to give special commendation to the game's world. So many RPGs broadly branch character choice into being Paragon or Renegade, Light Side or Dark Side, morally good or morally evil. Wasteland 3's world simply doesn't allow for that. This is a game full of terrible people in a damaged world, and it's nearly impossible to play the hero. RPG Site's formal review for Wasteland 3 labels the game as one of 'concessions and acceptable losses', which I think is an appropriately concise way to describe it. So many decisions in the game often come down to prioritizing certain outcomes at the expense of others. So much of the game revolves around a character known as The Patriarch, who is not a good person but also convincingly one of the only stabilizing forces in Colorado.
Wasteland's tone is definitely not for everyone. This is not an epic game depicting a grand quest or anything like that. Your character is on a mission to secure supplies for desperate families back home, but you'll have to work with unscrupulous and bizarre factions to achieve that goal. There's a certain air to Wasteland 3 that's not often seen elsewhere, and it ultimately lands as one of my favorites of the year.
With InXile now part of the Microsoft Studios family, I'm definitely interested to see what they can put out next with that level of support behind their experience in this genre.
2) Fae Tactics
Good strategy RPGs are something of a white whale for me. I adore Final Fantasy Tactics (including both of the Advance games, TYVM) along with the Fire Emblem series and several others, and I've made it something of a mission to try out numerous strategy RPGs as I can get my hands on. Unfortunately, I find myself disappointed more often than not. So many games in this genre simply try to closely adhere to the conventions that Final Fantasy Tactics set forth, or otherwise do little to stand out from the crowd. I've almost lost count of how many games aim to be some sort of successor to Final Fantasy Tactics.
Fae Tactics is not that. In fact, Fae Tactics isn't quite like any other strategy RPG I've played. It is instead a unique blend of strategy mechanics alongside several other components. It turns some additional inspirations from card games and monster-catching sims resulting in something very unique. Add in a simple but earnest storyline, non-linear progression, and some neat artwork, and Fae Tactics is one of my favorite games of the year.
I admit Fae Tactics is a bit of an acquired taste that, despite my adoration for it, I find it difficult to recommend. Not only are the game systems a bit involved and sometimes unintuitive, but the game itself is also quite challenging in places, requiring a fair bit of patience. I personally find this distinctively satisfying, but Fae Tactics isn't necessarily the easygoing romp it might appear to be at a distance.
1) Sakuna: Of Rice and Ruin
I've always been the type to appreciate new ideas, especially when it comes to gameplay design, even if overall execution is sometimes less polished as a result. Sakuna blends farming systems and RPG mechanics in a way I never imagined could work together as well as it does. Neither the rice farming half nor sidescroller RPG half feels to outshine or obscure the other. With each passing season, Sakuna gets better at cultivating her rice harvest from both a mix of better know-how and RPG-like abstraction. Sakuna: Of Rice and Ruin's identity is so unique and so strong, it's absolutely impressive and difficult to describe through comparison to other games, as it is its own particular blend of ideas.
There are also a few nice narrative themes underlying the gameplay mechanics too. While the outward storyline is mostly minimal, the characters in the game often discuss topics such as cultural differences, languages, religious beliefs, and (of course) food. There are themes of understanding differences and acceptance of people of different heritages than your own, which nicely complements a game about traditional rice farming. The game also simply looks great, too, with a colorful cel-shaded style.
My only real criticism of Sakuna is that the game is probably longer than it needed to be, with a chunk of the game near the end feelings mostly unnecessary. But ultimately that's just a small blemish on a remarkable game that otherwise completely surpassed my expectations.