My Favourite Games of 2020!

So uh… 2020 was a year, huh? I know time is a social construct and 2020 ending doesn’t mean 2021 will be even remotely better, but still… god damn it was a shitty 366 days. To commemorate the overall bad vibes we’ve all been through these past months, I’d like to just say this: well done on making it through. Seriosuly, I hope you and your loved ones are doing well, and I’m double hopeful that the road ahead is a smoother one, at least for a little while. Please stay strong, because eventually, things will get better.

Although, to pass the time before curing the world by overthrowing the capitalist system that binds us, it couldn’t hurt to enjoy some good old video games. This year especially, being stuck inside for months, I found myself clearing out some of my backlog. This year, I managed to finish 48 different games, some of those now ranking amongst my favourite titles I’ve ever played. Persona 4 Golden, NieR: Automata, Danganronpa V3: Killing Harmony, among many, many others made up a majority of my best memories from this year.

However, these aren’t the games to talk about today. Rather, in my own usual unoriginal fashion, I’m gonna take a minute to shine a spotlight on some of my favourite 2020 releases. This year, despite being generally considered not even slightly cash money, played host to some absolutely incredible games. Perhaps out of sheer desperation we all just collectively agreed to lower the bar for quality to feel any semblance of joy, but regardless, we were spoiled for choice this year. Considering that, welcome to The Wild Roe Deer’s top 10 games of 2020 (in a vague order)! I hope you enjoy your stay, and I won’t waste any more of your time. Let’s go!

Ori and the Will of the Wisps

Back in the far-flung days of early 2015, I decided to step out of my comfort zone of FIFA and shooter games to take a stab at Ori and the Blind Forest, convinced purely by the stunning E3 reveal trailer that just about shattered my heart. It proved to be a fairly formative experience for me in terms of my relationship to video games, as it would later lead me down the diamond-encrusted path of indie sidescrollers and metroidvanias. It’s definitely a game that I cherish dearly, but whenever I consider my favourite games of all time, Blind Forest rarely makes the shortlist. The truth is, as much as I loved my experience with it, Ori’s maiden adventure couldn’t help but feel a little cold in retrospect. Behind the incredible soundtrack, gorgeous visuals and exciting platforming, the story at its heart lacks much of an emotional pull besides that heartbreaking opening segment. It seems to possess all the facets of a great video game, but it doesn’t *quite* manage to tie it all together with a strong narrative.

However, five years later, Ori and the Will of the Wisps arrived to rectify some wrongs. Despite establishing an incredibly strong foundation, the game’s presentation has been improved massively. Visuals are more complex and detailed than ever, with newly applied particle and environmental effects that culminate in a world that truly feels, for lack of a less generic reviewer word, alive. Composer Gareth Comer also somehow outdid himself on his previous masterpiece of a score, upping the production value even further to provide the sound of a world that’s much larger, stranger and more unnerving than ever before. The music of Ori and the Will of the Wisps is quite comfortably my favourite video game OST of the year, and that’s not without steep competition.

Although, these are all aspects that the first game handily excelled in, so their improvements are to be expected somewhat. What I saw hoping for the most was an improvement of narrative, and while the story of Will of the Wisps is far from my favourite this year, it still manages to pummel your gut on multiple occasions. With the inclusion of NPCs and more characters in general to interact with, Ori’s mysterious world comes alive like never before. What was once a vague ominous threat in the first game that simply existed so a video game could happen is made much more foreboding when you meet the individuals the world-ending calamity actually impacts. The hub area of the game which you visit for your general upgrading and restocking needs is a melting pot of different creatures from various corners of the land you’ll inevitably have to visit yourself, and having all these oddball characters to learn more about makes reclaiming their lost lands feel even more pressing a mission.

Side quests are a new feature too, allowing for these cute little tales of forest occupants trying their best to overcome their issues with a little help along the way. One has you retrieve an item a little critter dropped down a dark hole, which it can’t achieve alone since it’s afraid of the dark. Another recurring questline sees Ori dart between characters fulfilling their item requests, such as a bowl of soup or a hat, and over time I grew to like these weird little guys and their strange desires. All of a sudden, the forest feels less like an arbitrary facilitator for video game antics, and more like a place lost to evil forces that you must reclaim to save everyone. In that sense, I suppose Moon Studios has managed to craft an Ori game that meets all the right standards for the kind of engaging experience it wishes to provide, and it’s for that reason I can comfortably recommend it.

Doom Eternal

I will give Doom Eternal one thing: there is no other game quite like it (aside from Doom 2016, I guess). With a lot of the other games on this list, it’s quite easy to find a suitable replacement that, while maybe not being as good, will provide a similar visceral satisfaction while playing it. Doom Eternal, however, is one of a kind. There is no other like it. I don’t just mean that in reference to its gameplay, though that is implied here. I can only assume the incredibly talented folks at iD Software are using premium quality Hell energy to power their brains in order to make a game that feels so instantly good to play. It’s all so tight and responsive and the level design is almost always pitch perfect, allowing for the player to experiment with their terrain and figure out various sneaky shortcuts in between blasting soon-to-be-dead-twice demons. On top of that, Mick Gordon again just refuses to miss, skyrocketing the insane amounts of ante into entire new galaxies. It’s the kind of soundtrack that just melds with your soul as you enter this melodic dance of weapon switching, armour farming, and skull crushing.

Of course, we all know that stuff about Doom already. It nails what made its predecessor so incredible and even builds on it in ways I believe to be positive for the overall experience. It truly makes you feel like a genocidal maniac hunting horrifying abominations. However, what made me love entirely in love with Doom Eternal was, bizarrely, it’s story. Not that it’s the most creative or emotionally powerful narrative ever told; in fact, it doesn’t even really scale that hill. No, what Doom Eternal does best is contextualising the Doom Slayer in its complicated, lore-heavy world. That might seem like a strange statement. After all, the entire point of Doom’s meathead hero is his dead silence and absolute uncompromising hatred for demonkind. He is, by design, aggressively one-dimensional. Initially, this was supposed to make Doomguy a blank slate the player could insert themselves into. However, with their new games, iD decided to interrogate how that kind of character would appear in a world as complex and multifaceted as our own. Predictably, he is seen by ordinary people around him as this absolutely terrifying agent of chaos. To the really important figures in this society, such as Samuel Hayden, Olivia Pearce, or the Khan Makyr, he is utterly incomprehensible, and that’s what made Doom Eternal such a uniquely euphoric experience for me.

Doom Eternal presents a world on the absolute brink of ruin. Earth is under attack by hell beasts, most of humanity has already been swallowed by the demonic invasion, and virtually all is lost. The Doom Slayer response to these events is, as expected, quite straightforward: kill all the demons, by any means necessary. What follows is a multi-hour campaign involving the Doom Slayer infiltrating progressively more significant figures within the demon ranks. Eventually, as implied by the existence of a hell in Doom, you end up travelling to Heaven, which is actually just a planet in some far-off galaxy. It turns out the demonic invasion is a coordinated effort by the Khan Makyr, this universe’s closest thing to a divine being, to present humanity as a sacrifice in order to satiate the hunger of the game’s final boss, the Icon of Sin, who is presumably the most baddest demon guy of all time and could annihilate the universe or whatever. When presented with this information, the Doom Slayer does not spend some time contemplating the ethical ramifications of humanity’s fate, and instead elects to kill God and unleash the apocalypse unto the Earth, at which point he also shoots the figurehead of Armageddon to death, thus concluding the game and, presumably, ending the cycle of sacrifice.

Now, you might be wondering what’s so clever about that. After all, by the looks of things, there was no conversation had or ideas interrogated. By the sounds of things, all that happened was we shot man until man die then game win. However, it’s in that unwavering, borderline psychopathic simplicity that Doom Eternal shows its bizarre, gore-splattered beauty. Doom is often described as the ultimate power trip, placing the player in the shoes of a walking refrigator and letting Jesus take the wheel. This is true, but I never understood the appeal of that until I played Doom Eternal and realised iD baked this philosophy into their story as well. Right now, especially this past year, it has been easy to feel utterly helpless and trapped in an unwinnable situation. Our governments have continuously failed us, COVID death rates are horrifyingly high, and the wealth divide continues to expand, with no sign of ever stopping. I don’t like to be pessimistic, but our current circumstances aren’t looking very positive. Therefore, I cannot begin to describe the level of catharsis I felt as, confronted with humanity’s supposed inescapable cyclical fate of sacrifice and rebirth, all in the name of preventing this vague threat created by those who demand our sacrifice, the Doom Slayer wordlessly declared that this entire situation can completely and unambiguously get fucked. In these troubled times, it feels like we need a Doom Slayer of some kind to stand up and make a change about the seemingly irreversible way things are. Of course, this wouldn’t come in the form of a demon slaying maniac, but it could easily be achieved through a collective effort. This system we exist in isn’t all there is, and we shouldn’t allow a small handful of assholes dictate how the world ought to be. They shouldn’t speak for us, and we have the power to do something about it. And with our trusty revolutionary warrior Doom Slayer by our side, there’s no way to fail.

Nioh 2

The funny thing is after going on that ridiculously long tangent about the genius of Doom Eternal, I really don’t have a lot to say about Nioh 2 comparatively. That’s odd considering I’ve placed it ahead of DE in the ranking, but that’s only die to one very important factor that made me absolutely adore it: the combat.

Typically I’m the kind of person who favours a strong story or themes over any particularly good gameplay. That might seem kinda goofy considering gameplay is the one unique characteristic in this medium, but without that additional hook, be it in the form of narrative, visuals, environments and whatever else, I often struggle to remain engaged. Watch Dogs Legion is a game I had a fun time with because of its enjoyable level design and clever systems-based gameplay, but I’d find it hard to call it good when framed within a complete dud of a story and a version of London that, while packed with intricate details and character, is pretty forgettable considering the hours I spent driving through it.

Nioh 2 is similarly not *that* impressive in most of its fields. Its story takes an immediate back seat, relegated exclusively for cutscenes in between missions and long, overly long text boxes. The presentation, while consistently strong across the board, isn’t anything I haven’t seen before. However, as far as gameplay goes, there is no other game that beats it this year. At its core, Nioh 2 is all about mastery. Despite being a souls-like, it’s a hell of a lot less forgiving than the usual Souls fare. You’re given a weapon and a completely foreign combat system and thrown into an absolute bitch of a boss fight in just the first level. The company prioritises ki (stamina) management, not just through careful selection of actions so as not to exhaust yourself, a la Dark Souls, but also by recharging your ki. After using a weapon, there’s a brief window where tapping a button will cause your ki to return much faster. Failing to do so, however, results in a much slower refresh time, putting you in immediate danger if you aren’t careful. Furthermore, button spamming is impossible due to the game refusing to recharge your ki if you don’t stop trying to dodge or attack. Nioh 2 expects you to play by its rules and, admittedly, that can be immensely frustrating. Dying to a shitty gremlin creature with like 5 HP is humiliating enough, but couple that with repeated deaths to that same bastard gremlin, and you’ve slowly mixed together a rage quit cocktail. I’ll be the first to say that I came really close to dropping this after my dozenth or so death to the first boss.

However, I decided to persevere, as in the back of my mind, through the blind annoyance, I could tell I was getting better, a little at a time. I was beginning to understand what Nioh 2 was asking from me, but I just had to shake off the cobwebs I’d picked up from playing quite frankly far too many Souls games. I stopped Bloodborne dodging, quit Sekiro parry mashing, and slowed my tempo way down. All of a sudden, after countless corpses were left strewn across the battlefield, it just clicked. Out of nowhere, I could read the boss’s attacks, I knew when to hit and when to wait, and almost as soon as I had entered, I had defeated the threat. A lot of people have these kinds of experiences with Souls games, but aside from the occasional “oh shit! I get it now” moments, I can’t say I’ve ever entered Gamer Mode like that before. Perhaps it was because I’d played a lot of similar games beforehand due to Dark Souls’s massive success, but From Software’s control schemes and systems always felt super intuitive to me. To be able to enjoy that fight the way I did is like feeling the hand of God upon my shoulder. It was a feeling of utter euphoria reserved for an unbelievably specific selection of games. Once I’d gotten the fundamentals down, I was finally able to experiment and unlock further depth from this amazing game. I won’t pretend to be great at Nioh 2 or whatever because I’m actually kinda crap, but that experience of having my almonds activated was so valuable that it makes my list by default. Best Souls-like combat I’ve ever played, and that’s a really high bar so consider it a strong recommendation.

Demon’s Souls

Welcome to what’s probably the most predictable placement on this list, I’ll be your host, Personwhospentmostofthelasttwoyearsplayingsoulsgames Jones.

I really love From Software’s games. Not exactly a controversial statement by any means, but one that needs to be said. I think it’s an important piece of me lore to understand because that past experience playing Souls games unavoidably impacted my expectations going into Demon’s Souls. Developed by Bluepoint of the Shadow of the Colossus remake fame, this was pretty much the main reason I wanted to nab a PS5 on release day which, through undoubtedly unholy means, I did. I was well aware of Demon’s place in the legacy of From. It was the pioneer of the Soulslike, the definitive first of its kind (or at least the first to receive any real attention). That makes it a pretty amazing feat in many ways, but this also means the game is Souls at its least refined. The jankiness of the original is part of the charm for some, but inevitably there will be others who struggle to get into it properly as a result.

That’s why a Demon’s Souls remake was so exciting, and why it also works brilliantly for what it is. My friend Mikey mentioned once that, setting aside the next-gen graphical fidelity, it’s crazy how satisfying the game feels to play despite the AI and attack timings remaining almost entirely unchanged from the original, and I think that’s what makes this game such a treat. In priding itself as remake of a classic dedicated to leaving as many aspects of the original as unaltered as possible, it successfully proves how timeless the design of the original Demon’s Souls truly is. I even played the original a little beforehand and I was amazed to find how similar the experience was playing both versions of the game, and considering that was Bluepoint’s intent with this game, it’s pretty commendable.

Although, I suppose that’s also the game’s major downside, in a sense. In prioritising faithfulness to the original above all else, Demon’s Souls traps itself creatively in a huge way. The two games being so similar can’t help but leave the remake feeling a little soulless by comparison. It’s kind of the reason the game has failed to truly resonate with me the way other From games have in the past, and that’s really unfortunate considering the love and care Bluepoint clearly injected into this project. That being said, the game is still an incredible experience overall. Pretty much everything about it that matters is built to perfection, be it the foreboding atmosphere, the pacing, the combat, the sound design, and basically everything else you can think of that a remake ought to nail. It’s a truly amazing achievement and I could never detract from the Bluepoint team for their incredible efforts. I’d love to see these talented artists work on an original project for once, because their ability to craft a world and bring it to haunting life is virtually unparalleled in the world of gaming today. Failing that, I’d love to see remakes of games that really need it, as opposed to already strong games like Demon’s Souls. Regardless, this particular remake successfully thrilled and killed in equal measure, delivering a conclusion that left me feeling dead inside. In other words, it’s the ideal Souls experience.

13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim

Recommending 13 Sentinels is an interesting challenge because by doing so you must understand that for most of this game’s lengthy runtime, you will have next to no idea what the fuck is even going on. That’s not even remotely a critique of the game, however, because not understanding what’s happening, and slowly piecing together the puzzle of this bonkers story is entirely its appeal. As a result, it’s actually quite difficult to talk about without spoiling the hell out of it, so I’m gonna do my best to avoid that by keeping this section fairly brief.

13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim is a game that I was not expecting to blow me away the way it did. I only bought it on the basis of its Best Narrative nomination at The Game Awards, which is a shameful truth but one I’m willing to admit to convince you this game is worth your time. For most of the runtime, you’ll be controlling thirteen different characters, following each of their unique storylines, presented with gorgeous hand-drawn artwork and expressive character designs. Each of the protagonists manage to feel distinct from one another, while also managing to undergo their own little arcs and conflicts. The beauty of this game is figuring how where their paths cross with one another and how their complicated web of interconnected relationships contributes to the overall story. It sounds like a lot and in some ways it is, but the game is careful to provide narrative blocks so that you aren’t overwhelmed with too much information at once.

These blocks often occur when you are expected to take part in the game’s second half: the real-time strategy mechanics. When you’re not busy trying desperately to figure why there are naked anime teenagers in mechs, you’ll be instead commanding naked anime teenagers in mechs, specifically in a fight against some vague enemy force referred to as “kaiju”. The presentation in these combat situations lacks any of the warmth and detail of the narrative sequences, replaced with a rather clinical top-down approach with blocky cuboids representing buildings and big red circles for bad guys. Fear not though, because this is by design, tying beautifully into the story in a way that only makes sense once all those aforementioned pieces click together and you realise where each character stands in the timeline. That’s a specific example of what makes 13 Sentinels so special to me. It manages to tie its presentation, mechanics and narrative together in ways that only reveal themselves in hindsight. It’s incredibly satisfying to see through to the end in that sense, and sets it well above many other strategy games, at least in my opinion. Unlike the consistently cold and uniform atmosphere of, for example, XCOM, 13 Sentinels is careful to design everything in a way that contributes to the overall experience, in a way that only video games can really achieve.

Ultimately, 13 Sentinels is a game about individuality. Without divulging any specific plot details, the characters are often presented with situations that challenge their worldview, and force them to interrogate their own self and what they think they know about themselves and those around them. It’s a game that emphasises the importance of not living a lie, and deciding instead to take the first step and change yourself for the better, in a way that will make you uniquely happy. It is not the role of the young to uphold the ideas of the old, and considering the way the world is right now, I think that’s a sentiments anyone can get behind. If nothing else, I’d just like somebody to play this so I can actually talk about it properly because it’s so much fun to think about. So please, do it for your old pal!

Persona 5 Royal

If this game hadn’t managed to make the list, I would have rioted. Not because it’s super good, even though it is, but on the simple basis that I sank 200 of my hard earned hours into this creature. Don’t get me wrong, in this situation I am Boo-Boo the Fool for subjecting myself to such torment, but luckily the game is actually a lot of fun so I’m not even mad.

There isn’t much I can say about Persona 5 Royal that I haven’t already said before. Friends who tolerate me already know I will bring up anything Persona fully unprompted, and some of you may have already read my post from back in June 2020 (oh how young we were). In it, I detailed how the game’s time management mechanic impacted me pretty heavily in that it helped me come to terms with my own anxieties about losing time in my life. I’ve changed a lot since then but that post stands out as one of my favourites since it was a point in my life where I was in a really bad spot. Having to juggle a full time night job with uni work and my own deteriorating mental health proved to be quite possibly one of the worst experiences of my life. Being constantly made to feel insane by an incompetent supermarket management amid a pandemic crisis where we workers were made to feel responsible when meeting the strict work quota essentially required breaking COVID-19 social distancing laws to get work done quickly, for which we were reprimanded and threatened with expulsion regularly despite the hiring of far too many emergency staff members. I spent many of my off hours lying down on a bed or sofa or sometimes the floor, trapped in a immovable prison of exhaustion as I’d slowly, agonisingly, watch as hours drifted by. I barely saw my family or spoke to friends since I slept most of the day, and at work we were often expected to work in silence for efficiency’s sake. I was constantly tired and completely sapped of any social interaction, and as days turned to weeks and months, I began to feel my own self slipping further and further away, as the monotony of a working life started to erode my entire being.

The only real constant through this hellish cycle was, as a result of some trickster god no doubt, a fucking anime game. Persona 5 Royal specifically, if that wasn’t already clear. Whenever I wasn’t busy wasting away, I would whack on the PS4 and sink a couple hours into progressing the quest of the Phantom Thieves. The combat was fun and all, but it was the ability to control your life that really hooked me for the longest time. I’d be thinking as I tried to sleep about how best to utilise my limited time in Tokyo, such as which confidants I hadn’t explored in a while, or how best to increase my stats, or when I ought to explore Mementos so I could finish up some of the side quests. Playing Persona 5 Royal provided a purpose to my daily existence where working for a soulless megaconglomorate with unrealistic worker expectations unsurprisingly didn’t. That’s without even mentioning the game’s primary concern of typically powerless teenagers taking down abusive assholes in powerful positions which, and this should go without any explanation, I found quite cathartic. The game isn’t afraid to point out that eliminating individual scumbags doesn’t fill the hole it ought to, instead drawing attention to the fact that these people were simply victims of a greater threat, that being a culture that glorifies greed and selfishness, while discouraging solidarity. And at the core of it all, those characters that fight the system do so not because they’re chosen ones or whatever, but because they’re ordinary people who choose to act of their own accord.

I’m not gonna pretend Persona 5 Royal is high art or some kind of genius piece of literature or whatever, because truthfully the narrative here isn’t that complicated. It’s a story we’ve all heard before, but it’s in the way this story is told that Persona 5 discovers its magic. The routine, almost monotonous way it emulates life and the various responsibilities it includes is really interesting to me, and I felt encouraged to also play Persona 4 Golden, which was even better, and Persona 3 FES, which is pretty good but obviously a prototype for what would come later (also has awful gender dynamics that fucked me off more than once but that’s a topic for another day). There really is no other game series quite like Persona, and what makes it all click is the absolute sincerity by which the game tells its story, detailing how it’s individual people who make the world work, and without that sense of self, we would be left with nothing. I make it sound bleak but it’s really not, so please check it out and Makoto is best girl.

Lair of the Clockwork God

Unfortunately, I don’t have an emotional context with which I can contextualise my love for Lair of the Clockwork God. This is instead a pretty straightforward example of a game that happens to be so dang good, it earns its place on the list through merit alone.

If I had to describe Lair of the Clockwork God in one word, it would be “subversive”. Not in the sense that the game occasionally bucks some genre conventions. Rather, that effort to subvert is baked into the game’s entire design. That’s apparent right from the get-go, where you’re given the immediate task of controlling both a speedy platforming character, as well as a slow-moving adventure game protagonist. They occupy the same space and need each other to progress, so levels are built around requiring skill in both genres to succeed. It sounds like it might get frustrating but the game somehow manages to keep it fresh all the way through.

The same can be said for that aforementioned subversion. It’d seem like common sense to avoid subverting expectations too much because after a while, the unexpected becomes the new expected. However, I can promise you that never happens. Developers Ben and Dan – who are also the playable characters in the game – always manage to discover new ways to surprise that you wouldn’t even consider unless prompted. The issue with talking about this is I can’t go into specifics since that would defeat the purpose, so you’ll just have to trust me on this one. The game encourages you to constantly think outside the box and test the limits of what might be possible within the limited gameplay parameters. It’s not an immersive sim or anything like that, since there is always one predetermined path to take, but that path can’t be reached without the player putting in the legwork to figure it out, using their own smarts.

Thinking outside the box is kind of what Lair of the Clockwork God is all about, at its core. It’s a game where the two main characters are stand-ins for the developers, and the only thing they play so differently is because they couldn’t decide which genre to go for during development. Out of stubbornness, they both go their own ways, but run into the unfortunate roadblock by realising they actually need each other to progress. This is an incredibly funny game, no doubt, but past all the goofs and gaffes is a strong, beating heart that wants you to think about why you operate as you do, and whether doing so makes you happy or simply safe in a dull routine. It’s a sentiment I can certainly relate to, and one that hits a little harder by playing as the developers of the game. It’s a story that feels surprisingly personal given the nonstop comedy routine. If you’re looking for a laugh, as well as a couple things to think about in a non-judgemental space, give Lair of the Clockwork God a wee look-see.

Hades

I probably would have had this post up a lot earlier were it not for this absolute bastard of an amazing video game. I was honestly fully prepared to solidify my top ten having never played this game, but then my irritatingly wonderful friend James cursed me with this birthday gift so here I am. Tragically, Hades ended up being kind of incredible in a way I can’t say I’ve fully experienced anywhere else. I’ve played a lot of roguelikes in my time, some of which I loved, but the thing that would tend to turn me off them is a lot of them feel kinda cold to play. With rare exceptions, the typical lack of a strong narrative in these games begins to grate after a while. I understand that isn’t the priority here but I can’t help having preferences, I guess. That’s where Hades comes in.

I have played upwards of 60 hours of this game, which is unusual for someone like me who gets pretty bored after I’m finished with the main quest. The sole reason for that is the story, or more specifically, the way that story is told. After every unsuccessful attempt to escape the underworld, you aren’t greeted with the same clinical base setup screen you’d see in other roguelikes. Rather, no matter what happens to you, you’ll always be met with brand new dialogue from the many colourful occupants of the House of Hades. These interactions are always brief, but regardless of how you died, they almost always have something new to say about it. Having the characters around you react to sometimes very specific moments from your last attempt makes each run feel meaningful, as if you’re starting to make a real difference to this world, even if you got splattered on the first boss for the fifth time in a row. As someone who has commitment issues and lacks the self-confidence to drive forward on strong will alone, being rewarded with story segments after every death was so thrilling. I got to the final boss for the first time and while I did die to them, I distinctly remember worrying about finishing the game too quick and missing out on all the content I hadn’t seen yet. Even now, I feel compelled to return to it just to see what other secrets I can uncover, because even now I’m discovering all new storylines and character beats. It’s truly incredible.

The writing itself is very on brand for Supergiant Games, in that it’s extremely good and the characters are fantastic. Supergiant have this particular way with words that manages to provoke so much mystery in their characters, and Hades is no exception. Without so much as a single drop of backstory, you get a sense of protagonist Zagreus’s relationship with everyone he comes into contact with, be it the mentoral warmth of Achilles, the spiteful and guarded Megaera, the endlessly grumpy Hades, the aggressively nervous Dusa, the mysterious yet endearing Nyx…the list really does go on and on and on and I could easily keep going because every character manages to be completely distinct from one another while also never simply falling back on their initially tropey personas. There’s more to everyone than meets the eye, but the only way to discover that is by taking a crucial first step and forging new friendships yourself.

Because ultimately, Hades is all about connection, and what better framing to explore that theme than the most insane, volatile family in all of mythology, the gods of Olympus. The Greek gods are notorious for their ridiculously complicated inter-personal relationships, and I think those stories have proven so compelling for a lot of people, including myself, for a reason. Well, first of all, the drama is *exquisite* darling, but also, I think those tall tales tap into the very human reality of how weird and convoluted our relationships can be too. Hades explores these ideas by personifying the gods as self-righteous egomaniacs who can’t help but constantly condescend to Zagreus all the time, even if they mean well most of the time. They are simply a product of their environment, brought up to believe they are beings of a higher status to the lowly underworld dwellers, when in reality they’re just as flawed and fucked up as the rest of us. It’s pretty clever to have the gods as these stand-ins for the worst aspects of humanity by making you kinda dislike them most of the time for being elitist pricks. It helps you look inward at the parts of yourself you might see in those gods, and wonder if you can do something to change for the better. It’s not just you though; every character you can talk to in the underworld goes through some kind of personal growth, be it settling grudges, becoming more honest with themselves, or simply learning how to be loved again. It’s all deeply, painfully human and it never once feels unconvincing.

But if you’re not much in the mood for some of the old introspection routine, you can also play Hades for its roguelike gameplay which is still amazing fun. With so many weapons and variants of those weapons to choses from, as well as a unique selection of randomly-generated power-ups and upgrades, every run feels fresh and it’s such a blast to gradually uncover the various books and crannies of any given build. It really is something of an all-around perfect game, and that’s why it’s the highest-rated game of the year among critics. It ain’t my personal fave, but it comes so damn close it might as well be.

Final Fantasy VII Remake

For the longest time, I wasn’t even remotely interested in the Final Fantasy series. The reason for that was mostly because I was a boring asshole until last year, but I think I was also partly intimidated by the sheer size of this IP. Even though I’d been reassured that pretty much every game is entirely separate from previous instalments in the franchise, it still felt weird to jump right in at FFXV. However, once FF7 Remake was finally given a release date, I was certainly intrigued, specifically because of the original’s stellar reputation, often touted as one of the best games ever made. Now, I haven’t played it of course so I can’t speak to that, but the promise of experiencing the magic of the ’97 classic all dolled up for modern consoles was quite inviting. And so, I chose this as my entry point, and while in hindsight that may not have been the smartest plan, there is no doubt in my mind that this was the right call.

Final Fantasy VII Remake is an absolute treat from start to finish. It’s genuinely astonishing to me how strong it plays its hand in every regard. The narrative is consistently enthralling, the characters are so lovable and unique, the gameplay is this beautiful melding of turn-based and real-time combat that plays like nothing I’ve experienced before, and visually there are very few games as aesthetically distinct as this one. It doesn’t half ass for a single second, taking every challenge head on with such astounding confidence, and it never lets up that commitment to sheer passion and enthusiasm. It’s filled to the brim with the kind of pure-hearted love and care you would never expect to see out of a remake, and that’s what sets FF7R apart from its contemporaries. It’s a game that is absolutely unashamed of itself. Through all the high and lows, it remains steadfast in its resolve, and that’s kind of incredible considering this game was likely spawned from shallow, corporate beginnings. It’s nice to play a game that isn’t just unafraid to be itself, but also unconcerned with how the audience might react. There’s a level of faith the game has in its player that if they simply make the best game they can, it will be enjoyed, and that’s exactly what happened with me.

It’s strange that I look back at my time with FF7R with such a warm feeling inside, because on the surface, the story is pretty bleak. There isn’t really a traditional battle of heroes and villains going on here. The main character Cloud spends most of the game as a selfish dick with a seeming addiction to being as edgy and performatively cool as possible. Tifa, his childhood friend, is initially kind and inviting, but that’s to hide the fact that she fears her friends’ action might get them killed, and isn’t really convinced their defiance will amount to much. Barrett is strong-willed and principled to a fault, often coming across as antagonistic and a little condescending, despite his best efforts. Then there’s Jessie, the relentless flirt masking her lack of self-confidence, Biggs, cool-headed in the moment but overly paranoid in between the action, and Wedge, whose love for his friends is matched only by his insatiable appetite. These are just some of the characters from the early game, without even mentioning Aerith later on, as well as every other compelling side character who possess their own fair share of flaws and motivations. What matters, however, is that when confronted with some truly horrifying events in the story, these people do not regress into their worst habits, but rather, emergencies always bring out their best sides. All those flaws I listed earlier are gradually overcome as the story goes on because FF7R understands that ultimately, when the going gets tough, ordinary people, joined together, are capable of changing fate itself (in a more literal way than you might expect). In a medium with so many dour, depressing depictions of humanity at its worst, it’s incredibly refreshing to play something that recognises the inherent goodness in people. It’s a story that not only shows what good human beings are capable of, but also how even through surviving the worst the world has to throw at us, people will continue to be weird and embrace what makes them unique. I said earlier that FF7R isn’t afraid to be itself, but more than that, the game encourages you to be your best self, because it is that version of you that will not only make you the happiest, but it will prove the best for everyone around you. The sooner we accept ourselves, the sooner we can begin to help others do the same.

I adore Final Fantasy VII Remake for a whole laundry list of reasons beyond what I’ve already said, and for the longest time it was my unopposed game of the year. However, there was another title that not only caught me entirely off guard, but also proved to be something of a life-changer. That game is…

IF FOUND…

I believe this is the third time I’ve spoken about this game on my blog so you’ll have to forgive me if I repeat some stuff I’ve said before. However, given the context in which I say these things has changed quite dramatically now, I hope you can forgive me for that.

Let’s just get the fun part out of the way right now: hi! My name is Rhianne and I am transgender. A nonbinary trans woman, to be more precise. The entire process of coming to terms with this side of myself is one years in the making, though not something I was aware of fully until about a few months ago, and even then there were still months of painful denial and bullshit from my big dumb brain. I think this is something I’ve wanted to accept in myself for years, yet I could never find the strength to do it until now.

A lot of the conversation around trans people is that of suffering. Oftentimes, attention is drawn to stories of those who felt “born in the wrong body” or crippling dysphoria or something similar. Of course, those experiences are completely valid and undeniably a fact for a lot of trans people, but it’s not one I can personally relate to much. I don’t feel broken or incorrect; I simply don’t feel like a man. I don’t quite feel trapped in the way a lot of others do, though it is unfortunately the narrative surrounding trans people much of the time. Very little attention is drawn to the experience of trans euphoria, or the joy of discovering your true self. This isn’t an original revelation – prominent trans figures like Abigail Thorn and Laura Kate Dale have touched on this too – but it’s a version of events I desperately needed to hear in the past few years.

If Found… isn’t quite about trans euphoria, but it does focus on the frustrations of being unrecognised by your loved ones simply because you choose to live as your best self. The protagonist of the story, Kasio, isn’t some walking stereotype that stands up for her rights and demands fair treatment. Rather, she spends a lot of time in the company of family who regard her as strange and unknowable. However, as the game goes on and you learn more about this character, you discover she clearly has a real passion for the obscure little Irish island on which she lives. She loves walking around and admiring the sights around her, and expresses a keen understanding of many Gaelic traditions and local culture. Despite having returned home from living life in the big city (Dublin) where the way of life could not be further from that of her childhood, it’s abundantly apparent that she holds this tiny rock in the sea close to her heart. After all, she chose to return there when she didn’t necessarily have to. That is to say, she feels compelled to return home despite knowing exactly the kind of passive aggressive hatred she’ll receive for who she is. All she wants is to live a normal life like everybody else, able to follow her passions and be whoever she chooses to be. The only ones preventing her from achieving this inner peace are those around her who see her way of life as false.

I find this sentiment of being treated different despite barely changing at all to be particularly gut-wrenching, and it’s one that I didn’t quite understand until I started coming out to people around me. People would use my new name as I’d asked, but every time they did a small part of me remembered why that was. I’d wake up and look in the mirror and feel like a fraud, like I’d lied to my friends and family for no reason and it would’ve been better had I done it later once I was sufficiently “trans” enough. My mum said directly to my face that she was sure it would never stop being strange for her, and that she would miss me when I left. That last part hurt the most. It’s almost as if she understands my transition process as killing the old me and replacing them with some kind of imposter, and I can’t tell you how heartbreaking it is to know my own mother feels that way. This is the part of If Found… that truly stuck with me the most. Kasio’s love for her heritage and culture reads to me as living proof that trans people aren’t unique individuals. We’re just people trying to figure our shit out, just like everybody else, and that’s not something that fundamentally changes who a person is. Just because I’ve embraced my trans identity doesn’t mean I’m any different than I was before. I still watch way too much anime, play way too many games, and rewatch old highlight reels from Formula 1 races far too often. Despite everything, I’m still me, the very same dumbass who once drunkenly unclogged a toilet full of kitchen roll with their entire-ass hand and felt perfectly normal doing so.

I realise I spent a lot of this segment talking about myself and not the game, but I think that’s kind of the point of games like If Found… that forego typical video game structures and mechanics. This is a game that I needed at this exact time in my life to grab me by the scruff of the neck and assault me with rapid fire personal revelations and acceptances. I very much doubt it’ll resonate nearly as strongly with those who haven’t gone through this particular experience, but if you are someone who has felt misunderstood and misinterpreted by those around you thought would understand, this game exists for you. At the end of the day, the most important thing to take away from this is that you don’t owe the world a single damn thing. Don’t simply meet the standards of others because it’s easy; look inward and try to understand who you are, and create your own path. Be your honest self, because if you can do that, others can manage it too.

You are your own kind of beautiful, and please never forget that. I’ll try my best not to either. Thank you for reading, and have a wonderful night ❤

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