A bright spot in a turbulent year
Okay, real talk — 2020 sucked. We all know it, let’s not beat around the bush. It just did. One of the very few bright spots, however, was the abundance of incredible media that we saw released throughout the year, especially when it comes to video games. If there’s ever been a time where I’ve been incredibly grateful to live in an era where video games are so accessible and offer such great variety, it’s 2020. I’m a firm believer in the notion that games can have a powerful impact on our mental states with their combination of interactivity, immersion and storytelling; it’s a perfect storm of escapism that we all sorely needed as the lockdown wore on.
My game of the year: The Last of Us Part II
Haters be damned, this game is absolutely incredible. As a massive fan of The Last of Us, my expectations for the long-awaited sequel were pretty high. I anticipated another classic Naughty Dog entry, with gloriously cinematic cutscenes, a strong narrative and rich character development… And that’s exactly what we got.
What I didn’t expect, however, was a game that pushed the boundaries of storytelling in gaming so hard it hurts. From a boldly subversive story that perfectly fits the universe established in the original game, to the nuanced moral complexity of not just the antagonist-but-is-she-really-an-antagonist Abby, but our “heroes” Ellie and Joel. The Last of Us Part II pulls no punches when it comes to examining the cyclical nature of revenge, the heavy weight of guilt, and the duality of good and evil.
The performances are absolutely top notch. Ashley Johnson has always been an incredible presence as Ellie, but her transition to an older, darker, and more jaded Ellie was seamless. Troy Baker portraits Joel with the same amount of nuance we’ve always known and loved him for: gruff but soft, warm but distant. Laura Bailey taking out Best Performance at The Game Awards made my heart very happy, because she absolutely deserved it. Abby seems completely irredeemable at face value, but her depth of character and the subsequent conflicting feelings I felt towards her are a testament to not only the way Naughty Dog wrote the game and the character, but the way Bailey brought her to life.
The gameplay is a massive step up from the original game, as well. It’s the same basic mechanics, so you already know the drill if you’ve played The Last of Us, but it’s all undergone a sharp 2020 makeover. In particular, Naughty Dog did a fantastic job with the stealth mechanics (which are mostly optional anyway): by adding the ability to crawl and hide in long grass and the ability to craft arrows and pistol silencers, the studio was able to add greater variety to a gameplay system that was already a whole lot of fun. That being said, if you feel like tossing stealth aside in favour of some action, the new explosive arrows are incredibly satisfying and I cannot stress enough just how much I love them.
Themes and an incredible story aside, The Last of Us Part II is also a huge win for women and queer gamers with the lead character identifying as a lesbian woman and a trans character being extremely significant to the story as a whole. The Last of Us Part II has taken astonishing leaps in the field of inclusivity in AAA gaming, making it feel as natural as anything else within gaming and The Last of Us. As someone who belongs to the LGBTQIA+ community, it’s truly meaningful to see that a game of this magnitude — and the sequel to one that I’ve loved for the past seven years — would so openly portray its lead character as a gay woman and treat her with such complete respect, and then back it up with Lev and Dina who are also beautifully depicted. Mad respect, Naughty Dog.
Honourable Mention: Fall Guys: Ultimate Knockout
Fall Guys is far, far better than it deserves to be. The colours, the sound effects, the music, the costumes, the stage designs — the entire game feels like it was scientifically designed to trigger our brains’ pleasure centres.. It’s incredibly vibrant, colourful, and straight up joyful.
The premise is simple: Fall Guys is an online multiplayer game show that eliminates contestants after each round. It was the perfect game to use to connect and play with friends during Melbourne’s two lockdowns, and it remains a pure delight to play now that I’m allowed to leave the house again; I wrote a piece a little while ago comparing online multiplayer games like Fall Guys to old-school couch co-op games, and I stand by that. Fall Guys works perfectly when played with a group of friends online, with a similar vibe to playing Mario Kart on the Nintendo 64 back in the day.
That said, it’s still a great time even if you’re playing solo. Fall Guys has enough variety in its rounds and minigames to make every round different, and the consistent additions to the game help keep it fresh. I’m yet to sink my teeth into the Winter update, but believe me, it won’t be long until I’m back to calling bullshit on misjudging my final jump on Fall Mountain.
Honourable Mention: Hades
Oh lawdy. Now, I’m not normally much of a roguelike or dungeon-crawler gamer, so I wasn’t too sure how I would feel about Hades (although I do love some Greek mythology), but it really doesn’t waste any time drawing you in with its immersive simplicity. The gameplay is very familiar – the challenge that Hades offers isn’t in learning to master its gameplay system, but in growing stronger and surviving.
The familiar-feeling gameplay loop adds some nostalgic value to the game, but Hades can be absolutely brutal, and that’s what makes it all the more addictive and fresh. The art style is gorgeously detailed and colourful, melding perfectly with the charming characters, sharp dialogue and phenomenal soundtrack. With that being said, I have to admit that I haven’t gotten too far into Hades just yet. I’ve only picked it up in the past couple of weeks, and I really appreciate that it’s a game that doesn’t demand you to sink hours and hours at a time into it. The ability to play through a few levels and then call it a day and move on to something else is sometimes exactly what I want from a video game, and Hades delivers exactly that in an extremely satisfying way.
2020’s biggest hits and misses:
Hit: Animal Crossing: New Horizons
Full disclosure: I’ve never played this game. I’ve never even played an Animal Crossing game, and I feel like the moment has passed to the point where if I tried to play New Horizons now, it’d be weird. Regardless, I don’t think I will ever forget the entire months of March and April 2020, where literally almost every person I’ve ever met became absolutely obsessed with Animal Crossing: New Horizons. I had friends who aren’t avid gamers who went out of their way to buy a Nintendo Switch just to play New Horizons. For a solid month and a half, my group chats, Twitter feed and essentially anywhere I went online were filled to the brim with comments about “vibing on my island,” using turnips as currency and some guy called Tom Nook. It was truly a special moment in history for me, and one that I’m still extraordinarily confused about and will always harbour a mild regret about not indulging in myself.
The release of Animal Crossing: New Horizons and the joyous vibes that followed it are on par with the discovery of electricity as far as important events in human history go. No, I will not elaborate.
Miss: Next Gen Consoles
Yeah, look. The thing about the PS5 and Xbox Series X is, well, they’re expensive and, uh, you straight up can’t buy one right now. Don’t get me wrong, I think that they’re great looking machines and everything I’ve seen and heard has me incredibly excited about getting my hands on one, but their actual rollout seems like a bit of an oversight.
Hit: Resident Evil 3
Although I haven’t played it yet, I’m incredibly grateful for the Resident Evil 3 remake because the hype surrounding it inspired me to get into the series as a whole. Naturally, I purchased the original Resident Evil remaster on the Playstation Store, and I’ve been playing through it. I’m a sucker for old-school horror, and I have no idea how I’ve let Resident Evil pass by me for so long. It’s the perfect amount of spooky and a little bit cheesy, and extremely ‘90s. Thank you, Resident Evil 3 Remake.
What I’m looking forward to in 2021:
Mass Effect: Legendary Edition
Mass Effect is my favourite game series of all time. Nothing else compares, nor will it ever.
It’s been a couple of years now since I last played through the original Mass Effect games. I had a recurring compulsion to install the original trilogy on my PC and play through them during lockdown, but felt that I’m probably cursed enough that the second I finished Mass Effect 3, an inevitable remaster would finally be announced. Thankfully, I resisted the temptation and I’m now extremely keen to play through the Legendary Edition when it launches.
Seeing how CD Projekt RED fixes Cyberpunk 2077
Again, I haven’t played it (are you sensing a trend? I’m often slow on picking up new games), but I have just started The Witcher 3 for the first time. Given that The Witcher 3 was released in 2015 and I’m playing it for the first time in 2020, I’m super excited to see how Cyberpunk 2077 has improved by the time I finally get around to it in 2025.
Returnal is an upcoming sci-fi shooter with elements of psychological horror… Just typing that sentence made my heart race a little bit. Returnal is set to release on PS5 in March 2021, and it looks and sounds incredible. The best part of Mass Effect: Andromeda was the combat, and Returnal looks somewhat similar, except that it’s dousing that fast-paced space shooter combat in a healthy soaking of horror.
If, like me, the mere idea of a space-action-psychological-horror game makes you lightheaded with excitement, check out the recent gameplay trailer from The Game Awards and jump on board the Returnal hype train.
Horizon: Forbidden West
Horizon: Zero Dawn is one of my favourite games of the last console generation, and one that I consistently come back to almost four years after it was released. I remember watching the reveal trailer at Sony’s E3 conference several years ago and being absolutely sold on it the second I saw Aloy taking down a giant robot dinosaur with a bow and arrow.
In practice, the game is even more fun that it sounds on paper. The satisfaction of bringing down a Thunderjaw or two by strategically setting traps and tearing off its metal plating by firing an array of specialised arrows and bombs is unmatched in gaming. Not only is it satisfying, but it’s also challenging — I still haven’t completed the Frozen Wilds DLC because I simply can’t beat it.
Horizon: Forbidden West is set to hit PS4 and PS5 at some point in 2021 and, my God, I simply cannot wait.
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