Content of the article: "2020 mini-reviews from a VERY patient gamer, with recs for newbies"
Before 2020, my last real gaming experience was when Wind Waker was brand new and Gabriel Knight 2 was a technological marvel. So after nearly 20 years off, I decided to get into PC gaming this past year and hit as many of the classics I missed up through the modern stuff. I went all in, beating more than 70 games since April and playing around 100.
As a retrospective, I’m giving my ratings of each game, some thoughts on several, and an opinion on whether it’s Newbie-Friendly (NF). I know there are a lot of these year-in-reviews, but figured this is a somewhat different perspective that might be useful for new players hoping to wade in. Ratings are divided into Great, Good, Meh (some positives, but generally wished I played something else), and Bad. Hope you enjoy some of my takes.
Life Is Strange (10/10) (NF): My favorite game of the year. Captivating visuals, music, and story. Light gameplay, but engaging. Perfect game for beginners since you can’t die, can rewind your mistakes, and the mechanics are about as simple as you can get. >! Sorry, Chloe. !<
Linelight (10/10) (NF): For what it is, this is one of the best-designed games ever made. Seriously. It’s a minimalistic puzzle game where you control a little light segment to turn switches, avoid enemy lights, and so on. Might sound lame, but it’s just gloriously put together. The light effects, music, and superb puzzle design all flow seamlessly and there’s even the outline of a story told through the gameplay and music. They should beam this game into the sky so the aliens take mercy on us.
Shadow Tactics: Blades of the Shogun (10/10): A complex, maddening, beautiful jewel-box of a game. This is a stealth RTS set in shogun-era Japan. Brilliant level design, visuals, and voice-acting. Controls can be slightly janky, but it makes save-scumming easy so it’s not a big problem. Fair warning that this is extremely difficult—you can easily be puzzling about how to remove a single guard for an hour. Storming an actual Japanese castle might be easier.
Arkham Asylum (10/10): Now this is a f—-n game! Superb mix of exploration, combat, and stealth. Combat takes some getting used to and that dodge is sluggish as hell, but damn, I enjoyed this. Might be tough for raw beginners, but worth it.
LA Noire (10/10) (NF): The realistic post-War LA you drive around is a wonder, although you unfortunately can’t interact with it much. The mix of clue-gathering and interrogations is compelling and it all comes in nice bite-sized cases. Strong writing keeps each case fresh enough to not drag. Surprising and strange meta-story. Great intro for beginners as it mixes in some very basic gunplay, dialogue choices, exploration, etc.
Assassin’s Cr33d II (10/10): Loved the settings, story, and main character. Scaling a building to reveal the map is one of the most genius mechanics in gaming history. The parkour can be frustratingly imprecise when you’re in a hurry, but generally is smooth and enjoyable. Combat is pretty bad, but that’s the intended punishment, I guess. Definitely my favorite game that ends with you kicking the cr-p out of the Pope. Really looking forward to playing more of these.
Broken Sword 1 (director’s cut) (10/10) (NF): The ideal point-and-click. Go for the director’s cut, which lets you play as both main characters.
Slay the Spire (10/10) (NF): This is the game I’ve put the most hours into. Beat the heart and just beat Ascension 20 with the Ironclad. Had no idea I’d enjoy a card-battler dungeon-crawler, but this is just perfectly designed. Every run has its own dynamic feel through the combination of cards you choose and your passive abilities. Very addictive. Beginners should find this easy to pick up, if hard to master.
Hollow Knight (10/10) (NF): No point adding to the praise here. This game can be challenging, but I actually think it’s fine for beginners as long as they have patience. The mechanics start very simple and phase in gradually. The stumbling block will be reflexes and pattern recognition for the bosses.
The Talos Principle (9.5/10) (NF): Grand, expansive puzzle game with beautiful faux-ancient-world setting. The meta-story is also great, but optional.
The Swapper (9/10) (NF): Hugely underrated puzzle game where you can replicate yourself and swap control with your doppelgangers. Controls feel odd at first, but just wait until you learn how to fly. Great atmospheric setting and loved the ending.
Batman Telltale 1 & 2 (9/10) (NF): I don’t understand the lukewarm opinions. These are just great. Ok, they may be close to playable movies, but they’re damn good ones and there are real effects on the story through your choices. The highlight is the character design: These may be the best versions in any medium of Catwoman, Penguin, Harley, and others, and the direction they go with Joker is really bold and works incredibly well. Telltale is/was just good at its job.
Framed Collection (9/10) (NF): Underrated pair of puzzle games with a genius mechanic: You need to rearrange comic panels to make the action sequence work. Simple fun with a great presentation. Kojima called the first one the best game of the year for good reason. Only complaint is that it’s over quick and doesn’t push the concept as far as it could.
Titanfall 2 (9/10) (NF): This is on the more beginner-friendly end for a modern FPS, although still a challenge. Slick controls and nice mix of levels and combat.
Valiant Hearts: The Great War (9/10) (NF): Gorgeous narrative puzzler set in WWI. Keeps a light feel, but mixes in real heart and pathos. Worth a play for the doggo alone.
South Park: The Stick of Truth (9/10) (NF)
The Silent Age (9/10) (NF)
Dust: An Elysian Tail (8.5/10) (NF): Pretty side-scroller with some of the smoothest and most satisfying combat I’ve experienced. The platforming is a little imprecise and there’s a weird difficulty spike at the end, but this is a fun playthrough.
Subsurface Circular (8.5/10) (NF): Very enjoyable story-driven game. You’re a sentient robot detective and pursue a case, purely through dialogue choices, while seated in the robot subway. Packs in a lot in this simple setup and looks great.
Inside (8.5/10) (NF)
What Remains of Edith Finch (8.5/10) (NF)
Kentucky Route Zero (8/10) (NF): May be closer to an art display or an extended tone poem than a proper game, but it’s brilliant and continually inventive. I’ll remember this one for a while. It does drag in spots, though, even for someone fascinated by the premise.
Enslaved: Odyssey to the West (8/10) (NF): Underrated gem. Looks great, combat is satisfying (be sure to get the upgrade that lets you build up a power attack, which makes a world of difference), and the voice acting (headlined by Andy Serkis) is superb. Manages some nice world-building, too. Sure, there’s nothing groundbreaking here for an adventure game, but it’s all really solid and enjoyable.
Celeste (8/10) (NF): Nice platformer, but I wasn’t as blown away as many others. It overuses the dash mechanic and the story didn’t interest me that much. Still, this masters the failed challenge to quick retry loop and gives a nice feeling of propulsion forward. For whatever reason, I didn’t find it that hard and the mechanics are pretty simple, so patient beginners should be ok.
Gunpoint (8/10) (NF): Really interesting puzzler where you sneak into buildings to steal industrial secrets. Key mechanic is that you can control all of the electrical equipment (doors, switches, motion detectors) of a specific color once you “capture” the control for it. Works really well, but is too short and easy.
Tomb Raider (8/10) (NF): Gorgeous and fun when it’s platforming and exploring, but I personally hated the combat. Really wish there was a better stealth option where you could snipe enemies with an arrow, rinse, repeat, but instead you get mobbed instantly by endless minions with Molotovs. Little tomb-raiding in this tomb-raider and I’d love an explanation for the hunting subplot that got canceled 15 minutes in, but overall this is grand stuff.
Bot Vice (8/10): SNES-style shoot-em-up with challenging, but short, levels. Very intense and you need to think quickly about how to use your power-ups, where to stand, etc. One of the hardest games I’ve beaten.
Gato Roboto (8/10) (NF): Fun Metroidvania in a Gameboy style. You control a cat in a mech suit. Smooth controls. Short and sweet.
Minit (8/10) (NF): Even lower-fi than Gato Roboto and sort of a Zelda-like adventure. Gimmick is you have only 1 minute to live, then you restart in your last save point (but keep some items and environmental changes). Provides a nice frantic rush to get somewhere new. No reason this should work, but it does.
Stories Untold (8/10) (NF): Speaking of no reason it should work, this is a weird one. There are four vignettes, each of which sounds rather boring: an old-school text adventure, turning on lab equipment, filling in codes from a manual, etc. Yet the tasks mix evocatively with the sci-fi/horror theme to create tension and intrigue. It does work, somehow.
Call of Juarez: Gunslinger (8/10) (NF): Probably the prettiest FPS I’ve played. Nice mix of smooth gunplay and a hammy fun story that intersects with various Wild West legends. Decent choice for a first shooter for a beginner, but the bosses are obnoxious.
The Wolf Among Us (8/10) (NF): Another triumph by Telltale, this time a detective noir with fairy-tale characters living in New York City. Intriguing setting, likeable main characters, and nice twists and turns. Your choices feel less impactful than in Batman, though, and I still have no idea who Blackbeard is.
Apotheon (8/10): Fun combat-platformer set among the Greek gods. The showstopper here is the art style—everything is in the style of Greek pottery, with burnt orange, brown, and black dominating. It looks incredible and yet doesn’t get confusing. The missions are nicely varied: Sometimes you’re hunting down a monster or stealing Dionysius’s wine casks or just killing a god. Combat can be satisfying but also a little goofy because you fly all over the screen when you get hit.
Darkside Detective (8/10) (NF)
Kathy Rain (8/10) (NF)
Portal (8/10) (NF)
The Room (8/10) (NF)
One Finger Death Punch 2 (8/10) (NF)
Bastion (8/10) (NF)
Odallus: The Dark Call (8/10) (NF)
DungeonUp (7.5/10) (NF): This one’s hard to explain, but it’s essentially a randomized dungeon-crawler that works like a puzzle. Beating an enemy takes a known number of hit points from you, so you need to decide if it’s worth it to get gold, items, etc., as you move up each floor. Looks like something that would run on a Commodore 64, but it’s just fun. Unfortunately, navigating the ending is incredibly opaque, so had to scrounge up a guide.
Escape Goat 2 (7.5/10) (NF): Let’s just say I didn’t have high hopes for this one given the name and lo-fi graphics, but was pleasantly surprised. You’re a goat with a mouse friend that you can set off running around the map, make fall asleep to hit switches, that sort of thing. Mechanics are novel and work really well. The puzzles themselves aren’t quite as compelling as, say, Talos Principle, but this is good stuff.
Max: The Curse of Brotherhood (7.5/10) (NF): Incredibly pretty platformer that looks like a playable Pixar movie. Key problem is the controls. You want a controller for the platforming, but a centerpiece of the game is drawing in vines, platforms, water spouts, etc., and this is a bit awkward with a controller. Other than that, this is solid stuff and I’m surprised it’s not more popular.
Syberia (7.5/10) (NF): Some say she’s still walking up those stairs… This is an old-school and undeniably clunky point-and-click, but the atmosphere and story just pop in a really memorable way.
Borderlands 2 (7.5/10) (NF)
Limbo (7.5/10) (NF)
Enter the Gungeon (7.5/10)
Gris (7.5/10) (NF)
Secret of Monkey Island (remastered) (7.5/10) (NF)
Battlefield 1 (7/10): Pretty and enjoyable. Single-player campaign is split into vignettes with different styles of combat: planes, tanks, desert, etc. Nothing groundbreaking and directions are often unclear, but pulls off the quick stories and satisfying gameplay.
Shantae: Half-Genie Hero (7/10) (NF): Very pretty, cartoony platformer with nice controls, but somewhat pedestrian levels, a lot of backtracking over the same areas, and some annoying parts. Overall, a solid, fun playthrough.
Her Story (7/10) (NF)
Hotline Miami (7/10)
Refunct (7/10) (NF)
Blackwell Legacy (7/10) (NF)
Lara Craft GO (7/10) (NF)
Gone Home (7/10) (NF)
Bioshock (6/10): Liked Rapture and all the lore. Hated the combat, except the first couple times you kill a Big Daddy. An annoying mix of enemies that pop up out of nowhere, drones, and machine guns. Would like this much better if it focused on exploration, with occasional combat against Big Daddies and mini-bosses. The hacking mini-game is an embarrassment and feels like it’s from a game released in 1992. Upgrades are interesting, but ultimately pretty pointless. The big choice on saving the girls really doesn’t matter much until the post-game. Disappointed overall.
Day of the Tentacle (remastered) (6/10): Absurdly difficult point-and-click where you need to use moon logic to mess around with a thousand items. Big problem is that the story is split into three characters (and time periods) who need to exchange items with each other, but it’s really cumbersome and time-consuming to do this. If there was an instant item-swap, this would be a lot better since the settings (Founding Era, modern day, and a future taken over by sentient tentacles) are indeed fun. Love the fact that you can switch to the original graphics at any time.
Half-Life 2 (6/10) (NF): I respect this and it looks and handles great for its time, but didn’t enjoy it. Boring environments (sewer system, interminable speedboat level, prison…) with routine gunplay and a barebones story.
Invisible Inc. (6/10) (NF): I was really looking forward to this as the turn-based stealth, cyberpunk-ish theme, and visual style all appeal to me, but I was underwhelmed. There’s some fun to be had here, but the tasks you’re doing (peeking into new rooms, stealing from safes, evading guards) aren’t especially interesting the tenth time, so it gets repetitive. The upgrades you buy/steal don’t feel impactful enough. Also don’t like that the plot is identical in every run. Not a bad game, but I was happy to put it down after beating it once.
Braid (6/10) (NF)
The Shivah (6/10) (NF)
The Stanley Parable (6/10) (NF)
Volume (6/10) (NF)
Bayonetta (5.5/10): I could enjoy this bu– <5-minute cutscene with some guy in a scarf>. What? Smooth combat and nice enemy design, but boring environments and– <8-minute cutscene about a witch riding a motorcycle> there are so many fu– <demon in sunglasses wants to sell you guns> cutscenes.
Darksiders (5.5/10): Similar combat style as Bayonetta, with fewer cutscenes and a more interesting setting. But everything feels so slow. Even basic enemies need three rounds of attacking plus a finishing move. The first boss takes a hundred years of repeating the same thing. Controls on a gamepad are also hampered by the clunky shooting.
Machinarium (5.5/10) (NF): Point-and-click set in a pretty-looking robot city and you need to rescue your robot girlfriend. Didn’t like the puzzles much, especially when you need to repeat an action several times with no indication it’s doing anything. Some weird mini-games thrown in to lengthen it, with mixed success.
Company of Heroes (5.5/10): I respect this game and it does look well-made, but this style of RTS combat is just not for me. All your units look the same and jumble together, making it painful to get everything organized. The missions were either grind-fests (take a string of a dozen bunkers) or involved some burst of enemy activity that happens off-screen while you’re fighting another fire.
Void Invaders (5.5/10) (NF)
AVGN Adventures (5.5/10) (NF)
All You Can Eat (5.5/10) (NF)
Hook (5.5/10) (NF)
Undertale (5/10) (NF): Completed a pacifist run, but nothing here grabbed me. Silly and annoying characters, with goofy premises overused to death. Ok, this supposed enemy actually has a crush on the little girl. Let’s repeat that “joke” 8,000 times. The bullet hell mini-games are fine, but that’s pretty shallow stuff. Great music, though.
Dragon Age: Origins (5/10): Not much into mega RPGs, but thought I’d try it. Very impressive-looking for the time. Seems like a nice expansive story, solid voice-acting, and all the elements RPG fans want. Unfortunately, for me, the combat is so broken this is unplayable. It’s just goofy. I guess you click a red circle and hope your companions don’t die? Definitely not playing 50 hours of that.
LEGO: Star Wars Complete Saga (5/10): Played a little, until I glitched through the map, with no way to recover without restarting the chapter. Cute and nice that you play through the Star Wars movies, but very shallow and it feels almost a little creepy that there’s no dialogue. 160 levels of that gameplay is insane.
Space Moth DX (5/10) Bullet hell shmup with a lo-fi insect theme. Weirdly, there are no upgrades. You’ve got your basic spread shot and a laser and that’s it. You have infinite continues but no saves and only the number of lives you entered the level with, so you need to beat the whole thing in one sitting while continually one-shotting the levels. Would be much better if you could save every five levels or something.
140 (5/10) (NF)
Reigns: Her Majesty (5/10) (NF)
Plunge (5/10) (NF)
Morphblade (5/10) (NF)
Don’t Disturb (5/10) (NF)
LYNE (5/10) (NF)
Alan Wake (5/10)
The Painscreek Killings (4/10): They should rename this Key Finder Simulator. It’s sold as a realistic murder mystery. You’d think this would involve analyzing clues and interrogating people, a la LA Noire. There’s none of that—you almost never interact with physical clues nor is there any dialogue. Rather, you search for keys and door codes to houses, search them for more keys, and so on. The story is told through diaries you find along the way. This all forms a rigid chain of keys/codes that you need to find to keep progressing. If you miss one, you’re screwed—you have no idea what you missed, so you just have to re-search everything. A few extra points because it looks fine and has a realistic setting. A few taken back for the ridiculous and hilarious-looking ending.
Blackwell Unbound (4/10) (NF)
Shift Quantum (4/10) (NF)
Furi (3.5/10): Have to put this here as one of the worst games I’ve played this year. Actually like the music, mood, and art style, but this is a boss-rush game entirely focused on combat and it’s simply dreadful. The issue is not that it’s hard, but that it’s janky, cheap, and mindless. The controls are weak: a super-delayed dash, a sword attack that has you flitting around in random directions, and a parry with timing that varies moment to moment. Instead of a combat style that might let you plan attacks, get flow, and respond in the moment, this is all about memorizing hyper-specific patterns. You can’t attack the enemy when you want to, you have to dodge this seventeen-phase laser attack in just this way and then you can try to parry in this millisecond window. No, not over there, you need to do it facing east 8 fathoms away from this rock. Nothing feels organic or logical. Fail and you repeat the exact same section over again. And over again. And over again. It’s monotonous dreck.
Antichamber (3.5/10) (NF): An abstract first-person puzzle/exploration game. I get the appeal, but I dislike how arbitrary the puzzles feel. You need to look at things from a certain angle or move up to something and then back away from it to move through a door. The puzzles are stripped of logic, giving way to fairly mindless fiddling and moving in circles.
Guns, Gore, & Cannoli (3.5/10) (NF)
Psychonauts (3.5/10) (NF)
Tesla vs. Lovecraft (3.5/10)
Evergarden (3.5/10) (NF)
DiRT Rally and V-Rally 4 (3/10): Wow, what is going on with modern racing games? These are completely unplayable to me. The cars spin out of control at the slightest touch. I hate having “ok, left 6… now right 4” playing in my ear without end. Both of these look great, though. If they were more arcade-y, I’d love them.
GRIP Combat Racing (3/10) (NF): Essentially the polar opposite of the last two. It controls fine, but the track is a grey featureless mess. Boring and tepid.
To the Moon (3/10) (NF): There’s the outline of a fine, if saccharine, story here, about a dying man who hires two scientists to change his memories. Unfortunately, you control the two scientists, with gameplay consisting of bumping into objects from these memories. The game focuses way too much on the scientists’ twee dialogue, with little meaningful interaction with the actual story.
Molek-Syntez (3/10): You need to construct a series of commands (turn left, add hydrogen, etc.) to turn starter molecules into a desired final molecule. I like puzzles and have a science background, but I don’t get the appeal. It reminds me of doing my taxes.
Trine (2/10) (NF): I’m utterly baffled by how popular this is. It’s ostensibly a puzzle-platformer where you switch between three fantasy characters. Except there are no puzzles in this puzzle-platformer. Hitting a switch and moving a box to jump to a ledge are not puzzles. The platforming is awful, with a floaty jump and janky movement. There’s some light combat, but I recall only two enemy types (95% skeletons and maybe a couple spiders in there) and it’s mindless. Just spam the attack button and you’ll be fine. Boring level design, no story, bad jokes. Looks fine, but this is dreck.
Brothers in Arms: Road to Hill 30 (2/10) (NF): WWII shooter that appears to have aged like milk. It looks really dingy. Your early missions are hilariously boring. At one point, you need to walk around and blow up a couple dozen wooden poles one by one. The innovation here is ordering your squad to perform tasks like flanking or adding covering fire. Maybe I’m bad, but they would just not obey my commands no matter how hard I tried. I felt like David Schwimmer in Band of Brothers.
Qbik (2/10) (NF): I couldn’t imagine a duller puzzle mechanic.
Tormentor X Punisher (2/10)
Alltynex Second (2/10)
Shrine of the God-Ape (2/10)
Bioshock (remastered) (1/10): Only because this version has a bug that not only freezes the game but erases your last save. Inexcusable for a game released in 2016.
- HUE – a game review
- Brothers: A tale of two sons… goddamn how dare you!
- I just played through Limbo and Inside. They’re amazing!
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