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When I started putting together a list of games for this, I realized that, like so many others during the pandemic, I had played more games in 2020 than I had in previous years. But I’m not sure that the pandemic changed my habits.
Part of this increase is because my kids are now 10 and 8, and I play more games in front of them. It’s become part of our evening entertainment. They love watching me play games, and they’ve gotten good enough at playing that they help me spot things I might miss.
Yes, 46-year-old eyes can suck for playing games.
But I also think that 2020 has been a fantastic year for games. We might not have seen as many big tentpole releases because of the new console launches, but that’s not why I play in the first place. I love looking at double-A titles, at indies big and small.
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And yes, I do have a few big games here, too. These are my favorite non-RPGs of the year. For my favorite RPGs, check out my final D20 Beat column of the year.
Be safe, and may your 2021 be so, so, so much better than 2020.
Developer: Shiny Shoe
Publisher: Good Shepherd Entertainment
Slay the Spire turned me on to deckbuilding roguelites when it hit Steam Early Access back in 2017, and ever since, I’ve been looking for good games that mix unit positioning and cards.
Monster Train is a gem of a roguelite. You’re on a locomotive speeding through a frozen Hell, fighting off legions of invading celestials and other do-gooders. You fight on the train, which is four stories tall. The top level holds the most important thing on the train — your Ember. This is all that’s left of Hell’s fiery heart, and your foes are storming the train to destroy it. It can fight, but you’re in trouble if you need it to. All your units and spells are cards, and you play them from your hand each turn.
You defend each level of the train, placing up to three units per floor. The baddies storm each level, one at a time. If you can’t destroy them, they move up to the next floor, with a new wave coming in below them. Meanwhile, the boss floats between the three floors (and yes, you can take potshots at them). Combat is like an auto-battler; when this phase begins, units smash into each other or fire off their ranged attacks, one at a time.
The strategy comes into play in two areas: Placing your units and buying new warriors, items, and buffs. When facing armored foes, you might want to position your troops in such a way that your spellcasters can dish some extra damage while sitting behind a tank unit, which absorbs any blows.
Between battles, your train zooms through different layers of Hell, and it can make stops along the way. You can visit shops where you can buy new relics (which give you boosts), buff your minions (you can give them more attack or health, armor, spikes, and so on), or remove cards from your deck.
Give it a go — if you like deckbuilding games and the puzzle of positioning units on a battlefield, I think you’re going to dig Monster Train.
Developer: King Art
Publisher: Deep Silver
I’m a sucker for alternate-Earth fiction, and that’s the first hook that drew me to Iron Harvest. It takes place in the world of 1920+ of Polish artist Jakub Różalski, and it’s most prominent media is the board game Scythe. On this Earth, the nations of Europe fought World War I with mechs, and the great empires survived.
And war is about to break out again.
Iron Harvest showcases small-unit tactics, mixing ground troops and mechs … and a bear, because Iron Harvest takes place in Eastern Europe. Of course it has a war bear. The maps are complex enough to usually offer various ways in which to take on objectives (though it does railroad you from time-to-time). The mechs have that “we’re making this up as we go along” look that reminds me of World War I and early post-war tanks, a time of great experimentation with these new weapons.
And the tutorial teaches you the basics with a snowball fight, which put a smile on my face. And I haven’t had enough of those in this sad year.
Mount & Blade II: Bannerlord
Developer: TaleWorlds Entertainment
Publisher: TaleWorlds Entertainment
One of my favorite gaming experiences of the past decade was loading up a Star Wars mod for Mount & Blade and taking my jank Mando and his army of Tusken Raiders, Rodians, and other scum and scouring the Outer Rim for as much loot as possible.
I haven’t done that yet in Mount & Blade II: Bannerlord, mostly because I just wanted to enjoy the base game before heading off into a galaxy far, far away. And it’s an improvement on the first Mount & Blade in every way. It looks better, and its combat and economic systems are better. It has siege weapons, making it easier to take on fortified cities. And it has a smithing system for making new gear. But at its heart, Mount & Blade is a game that gets better when the community has more time to come up with wild mods that transform the game, such as making its combat better to reskinning the entire experience.
I’m looking forward to what they do with it in 2021.
Developer: Moon Studios
Publisher: Xbox Games Studios
Platform: PC, Xbox
One of my favorite aspects of indie gaming over the past five years has been the staggering amount of good metroidvanias we’ve seen: Axiom Verge, Hollow Knight, Steamworld Dig 2, and a host of others. Ori and the Blind Forest is a standout, but I skipped it because I just wasn’t feeling it.
What a mistake that was.
Ori and the Will of the Wisps is hauntingly beautiful. It might have the best color palette of any game we’ve seen this year. What amazes me is how well this palette and the music complement one-another; it feels like two sides of a coin.
It plays well, too. Movement feels fluid, and the array of abilities that Ori wields work well with the level design, as it should with any metroidvania. And I dig the denizens that Ori encounters in this world. The map can be a bit confusing at times, but that’s the only issue I have with it. I consider it one of 2020’s must-play games, and I hope you give it a try and let its gorgeous world wash over you.
Star Wars: Squadrons
Developer: Motive Studios
Platform: PC, PlayStation, Xbox
I’ve been pining for a new Star Wars starfighter game for decades. Squadrons isn’t what I was hoping for, but sometimes, life finds a way to surprise you.
Squadrons accomplishes the two things I look for in a Star Wars game: It presents fantastic re-creations of its iconic ships (big and small), and combat feels like you’re flying in a scene from a battle in Return of the Jedi or Rogue One. The Y-wing feels like trying to maneuver in a flying tub, while the TIE Interceptor is nimble and deadly. The story is a bit of a throwaway for this — it’s the multiplayer that stands out. I just wish folks weren’t so reliant on missiles, but I’m sure others don’t mind it (especially TIE Bomber pilots).
Developer: Phobia Game Studio
Publisher: Devolver Digital
Platform: PC, Xbox, Switch
Carrion feels like the quintessential Devolve Digital game — it’s a bit gross, has some subversive humor, and has strong gameplay. You play as a monstrous mass of jaws and tentacles as you escape a hidden laboratory. Besides getting away, you have one goal: to grow. And you grow by eating the humans you encounter along your gory way. The way you spin around and stretch out your tentacles to move is not just slick but even a little adorable, and in some ways, you feel like you’re playing the beasts from The Thing or Leviathan.
Developer: Mossmouth, Blitworks
Platform: PC, PlayStation, Switch
Spelunky 2 reminds me of “Bart the Murderer” from Season Three of The Simpsons, when Principal Skinner got buried under a huge stack of newspapers and used a basketball to help keep his sanity. Each day, he’d see how many times he could bounce a ball in a day, and then he’d try to break that record the next day. Each time I play, I try to get a little further deeper into its dungeons and break my record. I still play almost every day, even if I have trouble getting further than the second stage in the third world.
Spelunky 2 has some fun additions — liquid that flows through levels (watch out for that magma!), new items and secrets, and silly encounters. But my favorite aspect of it is how it fostered a genuine sense of cooperation between my kids. They’d play together, carrying one another when my youngest couldn’t make the jumps. When you die, you become a ghost, but you can freeze enemies to help out the person who’s still alive. They have spent dozens of hours working together, and I’m glad to see a game foster this cooperation between them.
Developer: Wonder Belly
Publisher: Wonder Belly
Platforms: PC, PlayStation, Xbox, Switch, iOS
I’m surprised more games haven’t played with the Peggle formula. So was Wonder Belly, a small indie studio in Washington state. So it came up with a mix of RPGs, roguelites, and Peggle, and Roundguard blends them together in a charming manner. It’s a fun game, one of those that you can play at any time and still enjoy it. It has the framing of a silly theater play. As you clear boards of monsters and pegs, you gain gear and skills for improving your character. And it’s fantastic on Switch and iOS — touchscreens are good for games like Peggle. It’s one of the most enjoyable games I’ve encountered this year, and I see my family coming back to year often in the next few years.
Spider-Man: Miles Morales
Developer: Insomniac Games
Publisher: Sony Interactive Entertainment
It’s been years since I followed Spider-Man comics. But I do read my kids’ Mile Morales books every now and then. And playing him onscreen convinces me of why I like Miles more than Peter Parker — he’s so earnest. It’s all so new to him. And he revels in being Spider-Man.
And Insomniac captures this so well. Web-slinging with Miles feels like being a kid; I imagine zipping through New York feels just as breathtaking to Miles the 1,000th time as it did the first. When he helps a random person on the streets, you get the sense he feels like he really made a difference for someone.
This year, we’ve all had a chance to make a difference for people in our daily lives by wearing masks, observing social distancing, and staying at home instead of going out and having a good time. I’d like to think that Miles would appreciate the sacrifices of those of us observing coronavirus precautions. After all, heroes wear masks.
Developer: Paradox Development Studio
Publisher: Paradox Interactive
Whenever I think of Crusader Kings III, one of my early playthroughs comes to mind. My reign saw my brother, my steward and what I thought was my most loyal vassal, kill me. A few years later, our uncle killed my brother, taking the throne, a new wife, and founding a new dynasty. Or when I plotted against the French emperor, attempting to dethrone him. I was close to executing my plan … then the English invaded our coast, and we both found ourselves in a fight to maintain our realms.
Crusader Kings III can throw all sorts of interesting situations at you. You play a royal line guiding a petty kingdom into a larger realm, an empire … or a small, petty kingdom, all depending on your choices. What helps make Crusader Kings stand out from Civilization and other empire builders is that you’re role-playing a lineage of rulers. You must balance how folks feel about you — your subjects, your vassals, and those rulers above you. It’s a fascinating mix of growing an empire and growing a dynasty, and your choices help create a line of characters. I had one king obsessed with occult knowledge, and his successor focused more on throwing lavish parties (he even got gout).
For my next run, I plan on picking a kingdom that proves you can indeed win a land war in Asia.
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