Well, it’s that time of year, and that means we get to write about our favourite games from 2020. So, let’s not dilly-dally or waste time, especially as this is only the first of two separate entries on the matter. So, here is the first half of our game of the year list. And yes, the editor is doing two entries, the cur.
Horizon’s Gate – Chase
Horizon’s Gate doesn’t look like a game that came out in 2015, much less 2020. Its pixel graphics, turn-based combat and measured pacing intentionally hearken back to the Uncharted Waters series from the early ‘90s. Approach the game from several angles: amass an unrivalled naval force, trade your way to the top of a mercantile empire, or enshrine your legacy by exploring the far corners of the continent.
The various systems in Horizon’s Gate mesh together in interesting ways to tell emergent stories that still haven’t left my mind. Every new port of call or dangerous grotto promises unforgettable adventure.
Journey to the Savage Planet – Eden
This first-person explore-em-up arrived back in January and is still haunting me in the best possible way. Memories of beautiful, colour saturated landscapes combine with the echoes of my intuition being perfectly provoked into finding the solution to an obtuse puzzle. JTTSP is a masterclass in game design, taking each tool you’re given to the logical limit and occasionally surprising you with a little more than you’d thought possible. Co-op is well executed too, giving everyone from experienced, eagle-eyed explorers of other game worlds right through to neophytes to the world of video games a steadily building challenge.
El Hijo – Santi
After his house is burned and her mother leaves him in a monastery, El Hijo embarks on an adventure that will take him through several places, in order to uncover a sinister plot involving many factions and a lot of enslaved kids to rescue. With well-polished stealth mechanics and very entertaining use of the lighting and sound across many levels, this beautifully animated game will test your creativity with a slingshot, fireworks, and even a big hat, escaping from both policemen, monks, and bandits, while this kid tries to reunite with the most important person in the world to him.
Iris and the Giant – Ty
I’m normally not a fan of attempts to gamify mental health journeys or emotional struggles. Games that try usually feel too clean, too linear, and like you have too much control. Anyone who’s had to wrangle their own mind into not pushing them over the edge knows that’s just not how these things shake out. But Iris and the Giant, a beautiful roguelike deck builder from Louis Rigaud, has bucked this trend through its use of roguelike and deck builder mechanics, along with its lens of childhood wonder.
Through lovely, lineless art, we’re introduced to Iris, a young girl with a fascination with Greek mythology who’s clearly struggling with some internal sorrow she can’t quite explain. She has a hard time relating to her peers, and it leaves her feeling even more lonely. To cope, she turns inward, drawing out her interpretations of the myths she loves so much. The game itself is set in this internal world.
You guide Iris through battles with mythical monsters and baddies as you climb floors of the Temple of Styx. At the top is a giant who cries and cries, and he is your goal. Like any roguelike, the expectation is that you will fail, over and over again. Sometimes, it will be because of your own mistake. Sometimes it will be because you encountered an enemy you simply weren’t ready for. IT takes time to learn how to deal with these obstacles, and each run varies since your deck is ever-changing—kind of like life.
Iris and the Giant asks you to take on this climb earnestly, to try your best and to fight hard. But it also understands that a climb like this can’t be done in a day or a week. For every good run, you have where you get closer to the top than you ever have before, there will likely be another where you’ll fall right back down. And that’s okay, because this game recognizes that no attempt is in vain. Every time you try, you gain material resources you can use for your next run, but more importantly, you learn a bit more how to handle different deck configurations.
I can’t speak for everyone, but I know with my own journey to take control of my mental health, one of the main things that’s helped me, aside from actively seeking treatment, has been to learn ways to more or less “hack” my anxiety and depression. The secret to my functioning is learning to do things my own way, and that’s what games like this ask you to do. There’s no one right way to play, and the learning curve will vary for everyone, but you can make it to the top if you keep trying.
The nicest thing about Iris and the Giant is that it recognizes the top is ultimately another part of the journey, rather than a destination. Getting to the top and comforting the giant does signal the end of a run, but like any good roguelike, that doesn’t mean the game is over. Iris is able to finally speak about what’s bothering her and reach out for help, but there’s always more work to be done, always another mountain to climb, always one more run.
Despite how completely batshit this year has been, it’s probably the most stable my mental health has ever been. But I’m not cured, and I don’t think I ever will be. The climb will never stop, and I know I’m going to slip again sooner or later. When that time comes, maybe I’ll think of Iris, and put my foot on the stairs again.
Paradise Killer – Alexis
The basic premise of a GOTY is riddled with problems but if you’re going to pick one for 2020, make it Paradise Killer.
Watching life as we knew it morph into a radically different shape this year has been one of hell of an existential crucible — at turns bizarre, depressing, tragic, and terrifying. Too few of us had the privilege of playing Paradise Killer — undoubtedly my pick for game of the year, if not the past few years. Themes of recursion, power, and the horrific idea of a psychotic god pantheon on its head all make for beautiful music to my ears (along to the absolute banger of a soundtrack by Epoch). And the island itself, where you play as investigation freak Lady Love Dies, is a treasure in itself. Paradise Killer was an experience I hold close to my heart — one that I’ll revisit again and again in years to come.
One Step From Eden – Jason
If you’ve read the site this year then this shouldn’t come as much of a surprise to you. One Step From Eden combines the combat from Mega Man Battle Network and the brutal difficulty and intense replayability of a roguelike. It pulls it off in a way that I consider to be as close to perfect as is reasonable, and I absolutely adore this game. I’ve put over fifty hours into it so far, and I expect to dip in and out of it constantly over the next year or so, especially as it keeps getting new updates. It’s got great visuals, music, and the gameplay is flawless, it feels like a game tailor-made for me, so I’d be remiss if I didn’t talk about it again.