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Thursday, January 28, 2021

2020 Video Game Recommendation Roundup

I did a lot more writing on video games in 2020 than I have in the past, which was a nice goal that I had wanted to hit for a while. But it still didn’t cover all of the interesting things that I played this year. So, to that end, here’s my annual “Everything Else that I Wanted to Talk About” video games post. But first, if you missed it, here’s everything from this past year that already got its own post:

One Step from Eden (Thomas Moon Kang)-A roguelike, deckbuilding action game about colorful characters traversing an ambiguous apocalypse landscape that takes the long-discarded battle style of Megaman Battle Network and refines it to perfection. If I were doing rankings for this group, this would probably be the runner-up.

A Fold Apart (Lightning Rod Games)-A cute little puzzle platformer that sees you guiding a long-distance couple through their relationship challenges made physical.

Super Mega Baseball 3 (Metalhead Software)-The new edition of my favorite baseball game right now, now with a franchise mode!

Underhero (Paper Castle Games)-You play as a video game minion who has accidentally defeated the hero too early, and is now torn between listening to the hero’s talking sword, who’s pushing you to take up his mission, and your boss, the big bad, who seems to be planning more than he’s letting on. A fun platformer RPG, especially recommended for fans of the classic Paper Mario entries.

Murder by Numbers (Mediatonic)-A fun little detective visual novel starring a ‘90s TV detective moonlighting as a real detective and her amnesiac robot friend, where you find clues by solving picross puzzles.

Yooka-Laylee (Playtonic Games), plus A Hat in Time DLC levels (Gears for Breakfast)-The new Hat in Time levels make an already great game even better. Yooka-Laylee didn’t quite reach those heights, but it’s still a solid entry in the canon of 3D Platformers.

Lenna’s Inception (Bytten Studio)-Probably my game of the year. A 2D Zelda-style roguelike that shuffles the map and dungeons every time you play it, telling the story of a schoolteacher trying to save her students from an otherworldly force that is slowly tearing apart her world. If I were doing rankings for this group, this one would take Game of the Year.

With those out of the way, let move on to everything else:


- Phoenotopia: Awakening (Cape Cosmic)

There is absolutely something bigger coming on Phoenotopia: Awakening once I’ve properly finished the game, but I still have a little more to get through. This is a big game, which makes it even more impressive that it’s largely the effort of a single developer, Quang “Quells” Tran. Taking place in a post-post-apocalypse, where life has returned to a new normal and society has been re-established following a massive war that drove humanity below the surface for years and years, you play as Gail, a young girl who is suddenly thrust into adventure when every adult in her village disappears. Your only clues to go on are some mysterious technology found in the woods nearby and the sight of an unidentified flying object fleeing the scene. Unraveling what happens takes you across the continent, visiting city after city exploring both what might be behind the disappearances and what happened to the world centuries ago.

Even just recounting all of that feels like a lot, and that’s why I sunk so much time into it. The story is a sprawling epic, and told in a way that makes you want to keep exploring and learning more, alternating between new fantastic cities and long-abandoned ruins. Gameplay alternates between overworld segments letting you navigate the world and side-scrolling platformer segments in cities or in combat. The game can be challenging and frustrating at times, but it’s so interesting that I had to keep pushing forward to learn more (lots of accessibility and difficulty options also helped in that regard, too). I could keep going, but I have a lot more ground to cover, so I’ll save that for the full story. Phoenotopia was released on Switch back in August, with the Steam version arriving this January.

- Shantae and the Seven Sirens (WayForward)

Developer WayForward makes frequent appearances in my year-end wrap-ups, as they’re generally solid or better in every effort. This year’s new entry into the Shantae series is no exception, and might in fact be my favorite effort of theirs yet. The game returns Shantae to a full Metroidvania, and is just generally a delight to play. I had no problem going back and exploring until I had collected everything.

- Alwa's Legacy (Elden Pixels)

Another Metroidvania from a series that I’ve covered before, Elden Pixels’ sophomore effort is a solid improvement on their debut, Alwa’s Awakening. Following up on the original (although it’s not necessary to have played the predecessor), Legacy adds in tons of new things in a way that adds to options in a way that confirms that they have a solid grasp on what they’re doing. I was a little nervous at the start, since the game gives you two of the three spells from the first game right away, in the first dungeon, but they have enough new tricks and improvements up their sleeves that I never should have worried. If anything, they dole them out in a way that gives the players more choices in how to progress. And the step up from the original game’s 8-bit graphics to Legacy’s 16-bit pixel art is just gorgeous.

- Spark the Electric Jester (Feperd Games)

The only pure, non-Metroidvania platformer here (Phoenotopia isn’t quite a full Metroidvania, but it’s not not one, either), Spark the Electric Jester is more in line with the Sonic the Hedgehog-speed-and-momentum based platforming. However, unlike most Sonic games, Spark also includes power-ups, all of which are just incredibly fun to use (Mario is the natural comparison to make, but in my opinion, they struck me as closer to the ones in Kirby games). All the levels feel fun to blast through at high speeds with lances or wands or what-have-you. I only finished the main story mode of the game towards the end of the year, so I’m curious to try the post-game stuff, which seems like an opportunity to try the main story in different ways, but I’m also curious to try the sequel, which is a 3D platformer in the vein of the Sonic Adventure series (a style that is definitely underserved as a source of inspiration in that market, at the moment).

- Monster Sanctuary (Moi Rai Games)

This was a late addition to the list, as I started it late in the year and haven’t made it very far in. Nevertheless, I’m having a lot of fun with it so far, and I wouldn’t be shocked if I end up writing more on it later in the year as well. It helps that I am part of the ideal audience for it, as it’s a combination of two genres that I’m a big fan of individually, Metroidvanias and Monster Collector RPGs (a la Pokémon). There’s a lot going on here, but I especially appreciate that the map is pretty wide-open to explore with only a handful of hard chokepoints; I’m really curious to see if a speedrunning community develops here, as I feel like that openness could lead to interesting strategies. I’m also a big fan of the monster designs, which is not something I can say about every Monster Collecting game that I’ve tried. There’s a distinct and cohesive style to them, and I feel like I need to reflect on that a bit more before a potential full article.

Role Playing Games (outside of Monster Sanctuary):

-Cloudpunk (ION LANDS)

Cloudpunk just feels like the perfect encapsulation of the Cyberpunk genre in game form (it certainly hits all the marks better than a certain other 2020 release). You play as Rania, a girl in the far future who’s recently been forced to move to the mega city of Nivalis to survive. With few options for work, she takes a job as a hovercar driver, delivering packages for a sketchy service known as Cloudpunk. Ion Lands hits everything you would want: the rain-soaked,neon dystopia of a large city, the gritty neo-noir of someone trying to survive in an oppressive future, the pulling away at the various threads of a story to determine just how the world got to this point. I need to play more, because I don’t feel like I’m far enough in yet to deliver a comprehensive article, but it’s definitely good enough that I would recommend it to anyone who is interested. Few things compare to playing this on a dark and rainy evening and mirroring the real-world ambiance.

-Ikenfell (Happy Ray Games)

Another really late entry that I am excited to explore more, Ikenfell is a turn-based RPG with a distinctive sense of style. You play as Mariette, a girl without magic powers on the search for her sister, a student enrolled at the titular magical school who has suddenly gone missing. On the way, she finds residents of this magic world in chaos due to some sort of disturbance in the force, so to speak, which culminates in her suddenly performing a type of magic that no one at the school has ever seen before. I’m only a chapter or two in, so I can tell I have a while to go, but I have a good feeling I’m going to enjoy this one’s twists and turns.

-Pokémon Shield: Isle of Armor and Crown Tundra DLC (Game Freak)

My main goal of this is to focus on indie games, but I want to make one brief digression into major releases. I’ve considered writing something about the newest Pokémon games for a while, and I’ve just never quite gotten around to it, so just in case I don’t quite nail it down, here’s a quick blurb: Pokémon Shield has been one of my favorite entries in the series, as someone who’s played since Red Version. The quick turnaround time on each generation means that each installment feels a lot more iterative than some other series, but I still think Generation VIII did more right and had more interesting components to it than anything since Gen V at least. The Pokémon designs were some of the best, so many things were streamlined in a way that made playing it more pleasant, the writing was better than I expect from the series, the Wild Area is one of the best things the series has done, and a lot of the other the gameplay ideas (Dynamax, Galarian forms, Raid Battles) are a step up from what the past games have seen (some of them directly build on some issues I’ve had with past changes, like Mega Evolutions, or prior regional variants).

But the DLCs were great improvements in their own right. If Pokémon’s game design as a series is more iterative than other individual games, Isle of Armor and Crown Tundra felt like Game Freak still noodling around with those ideas and moving them forward. The two new Wild Areas felt even better to roam around in than the main game’s version, and they had just enough to do that it got me re-invested in the game without feeling overwhelming (I also liked that they tied in Legendaries to the latter DLC while keeping them separated out to some degree; some of the past games feel overwhelmed with large numbers of overpowered Pokémon driving the story, so keeping them largely optional sidequests in the DLC instead feels like it balances the desire to keep them in with their tendency to overwhelm everything else). Going forward, I really hope they keep up experimenting with new DLC, rather than their traditional “third versions”, and I think this bodes well for Generation IX, which I imagine is already underway.

Action/Adventure Games:

-Going Under (Aggro Crab)

This is a great example of how much style, execution, and storytelling can make a good game fantastic. Going Under is a fairly normal roguelite dungeon crawler (at least, in my modest experience within the genre); you play as someone repeatedly descending into dungeons, beating back monsters, claiming loot, and so on. The twist is that your character is the new intern at a tech startup (“the world’s first sparkling water/meal replacement!”), and the dungeons are the sunken remnants of past failed startups, filled with employees turned into monsters and office furniture waiting to be brandished at them. In between runs, you return to the office to get to better know your new, slightly neurotic coworkers. It’s a lot of fun to play, all of the writing is hilarious and spot-on (I would be stunned if the devs didn’t have a lot of experience in this industry), and the vibrant, cartoonish art style is bold and appealing.

-Ms. Director (SketchyNonsense)

I found this largely-single-dev effort while browsing for small things on sale that looked interesting and off the beaten path, and got a fun 3 or 4 hours out of it. A cute, top-down adventure game with a heavy black-and-white film noir visual aesthetic, you play as a 1930s movie starlet who takes a meeting with a sketchy director about a starring role. Sure enough, things quickly go south, and you wind up trapped in the director's haunted mansion, trying to escape with your new ghostly companion while helping the other ghosts of the director's past victims move on in the afterlife. I played this in the gap between Christmas and New Years, and it would have been a good Halloween play (it's definitely part horror in narrative genre, but not too bad for a horror wuss like myself, and most of the art that isn’t scary is actually very cute), but playing it when I did reminded me of TV marathons of The Twilight Zone that happen around this time of year, so I appreciated that.

-Princess Remedy in a World of Hurt (Ludosity, Remar Games)

This is one of two short, free games here. Princess Remedy sees you playing as a magical space princess who shows up to cure the many sick people in the world. Find people in pain, shrink down to shoot band-aids at their various viruses, and repeat! This game does a lot with a little, from the bold-contrast, neon-colored pixel art that conveys a ton through simple shapes on black backgrounds, to the slapstick dialogue of the various patients scattered about the world (ailments you must cure range from serious things like the flu or depression, to the more ridiculous like stubbed toes, forgetting your own name, being too handsome…). It’s a lot of fun, can be finished in an hour or two, and like I mentioned, is currently free, so I can’t recommend it enough (now I just need to try the sequel).

Puzzles Games:

-Petal Crash (Friend & Fairy)

Another thing that I know I’ve mentioned in the past is my love of matching puzzle games, and Petal Crash is my newest indie obsession from the genre. As someone who was introduced to the genre by Tetris Attack/Panel de Pon, the fact that Petal Crash comes from a similar lineage drew my attention initially, but it’s also decidedly its own thing. The central mechanic, slamming matching blocks into each other to set off complex chains of explosions, is unique as far as I know, and wrapping your brain around all the ways it’s different is a fun exercise. And it also helps that the game has a variety of single player modes, for when you don’t have a partner to play against.

-Helltaker (vanripper)

The second short and free game on this list, Helltaker is about a man who decides he would like to date many demon girls, and so descends into Hell itself to meet them. Each level has you guiding him to a new date, past obstacles and enemies in a limited number of steps. Pretty straightforward with a good sense of humor, looks and sounds really good, can be beaten in an hour or two, and once again, completely free.

-Piczle Cross Adventure (Score Studios LLC)

After Murder By Numbers, I went looking for other games that did “Picross + Something Else” and found Piczle Cross Adventure, where you walk around an overworld un-scrambling objects by solving puzzles, with some of the puzzles giving you items that let you access other parts of the world map (with more puzzles inside, with some of those puzzles being new items, and so on). I don’t think it worked quite as perfectly as it did in MBN, but it had its charms, and if you want something else in that vein, this is a good game to try next.

Building Games:

-Overcrowd: A Commute ‘Em Up (SquarePlay Games)

Did you, like me, grow up playing RollerCoaster Tycoon? Do you ever want to find new experiences like that? Do you have a deep love of trains, subways, and train stations? If the answer to any of these is yes, you might enjoy Overcrowd! It’s a management simulation game, but instead of building zoos or theme parks or cities, you’re instead focusing on building the best subway station you can. There’s a lot going on, but it’s easy to get a handle on, and expanding your station, adding restaurants and shopping and other utilities while digging deeper to add another line is surprisingly fun. I know that this sounds like a weird pitch for some of you, but trust me; and if you’re one of the ones, like me, that heard this idea and said “oh yeah, that actually sounds interesting”, I think there’s a high chance you’ll enjoy this.

-Townscaper (Oskar Stålberg)

I actually don’t know if this qualifies as a game, since it lacks any sort of goals or win conditions; maybe it’s just a toybox to mess around in? But either way, it’s a lot of fun. Townscaper plops you down in the middle of the ocean and lets you start building cozy little seaside towns. That’s it. Where you go from there is entirely up to you. Want to just casually build an island town you’d like to move to? That works. It’s great for de-stressing. But if you want to get more complicated, you absolutely can; I’ve seen some incredible towns. From real-world recreations, to fantasy cities and landscapes, to exercises in worldbuilding. In fact, I think I first heard about it from a writer recommending it as a tool for building settings to use later, rather than any video game outlet.

Visual Novels:
- We Know the Devil (Pillow Fight, Worst Girls Games)
- Secret Little Haven (Hummingwarp Interactive)
- Highway Blossoms (Studio Élan, Studio Coattails)

I started trying to get more into Visual Novels following Murder By Numbers, and I don’t feel like I have a good enough grasp on the genre yet to write super thoughtful critiques, but I can recommend the ones I liked, at least. We Know the Devil and Secret Little Haven came to my attention in part through Errant Signal’s videos, and SLH and Highway Blossoms were both part of the Bundle for Racial Justice from over the summer that I’ve mentioned a few times previously. I had a good time with all of them, in their own ways. We Know the Devil falls into the “would be a good Halloween game” category that I mentioned earlier, following three good kids sent to a correctional camp as they await… something. There are enough ominous, not-quite-our-world qualities to the story that keeps it unsettling, and I really dug that vibe. Secret Little Haven is it’s own thing, a coming of age story that feels like a pitch-perfect recreation of the late ‘90s and early 2000s internet communities, and it triggered a lot of nostalgia for me. And Highway Blossoms is a pretty straightforward romance/coming-of-age story about two young women roadtripping through the American Southwest in search of a long-lost treasure. So three very different vibes in play here.

If any of these sounded promising, I can’t recommend them enough; I wish I had the time to write longer pieces on all of them, but I only have so much time. And even then, one or two of these to show up in their own articles in the near future.. But if any of these blurbs sound interesting, I definitely encourage you to check them out. Until next time, I hope your year is off to a good start.

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