THE LAST OF US PART II
Naughty Dog’s stunning sequel to its 2013 smash hit will likely top several ‘Best of’ lists this year. It would have been easy for the developer to serve up more of the same, with the now-grown Ellie and her guardian/father figure Joel continuing to take on the monsters (human or otherwise) in the beautifully realized post-apocalyptic United States. Instead, we got a brave and haunting sequel that took the moral grey areas of the first game’s climax and expanded on them. At the start, playing as Ellie, you feel confident you’re still the hero of this story; by the end — having taken up the role of another young woman bent on avenging her father’s death — it’s not clear who the hero is, or even if there’s any such thing as a hero. All the adrenaline rush of the endless battles against dangerous foes is suddenly flipped, and we’re left to question the very mechanics of action games themselves. Those anonymous victims of our bloodlust are made human — the grief and terror caused by vengeance made startlingly clear. It’s a sobering experience, and only very good storytellers could have gotten away with making a game this relentlessly bleak into something that you want to keep playing — something Naughty Dog manages to do by ensuring that, throughout the mayhem and murder, there are touching moments of truly engaging emotion and intimacy — and even a hint of optimism in its downbeat ending. “The Last of Us Part II” is a work of art.
FINAL FANTASY VII (REMAKE)
Square Enix’s 1997 original was deservedly hailed as a game-changer for the RPG genre. That meant there was already a huge audience waiting for this year’s “reimagining” of Cloud Strife’s journey through Midgar. They were rewarded with a game that retains all the immersive thrills of the original but adds in even more detail, managing to satisfy our thirst for nostalgic familiarity while still making it feel like something new.
GHOST OF TSUSHIMA
Like “The Last of Us Part II,” this open-world action game goes beyond the usual genre tropes to intelligently deliver an experience with some real emotional depth. It also pushes the technology of the recently supplanted console generation to its limits. The game mechanics are superbly balanced — allowing you to play as a stealthy silent assassin or a full-on mass brawler. The most successful method seemed to be a mix of both. But apart from being a brilliant fighting game both aesthetically and practically, it also gives its hero a journey of personal growth that lingers long after completion.
ASSASSIN’S CREED VALHALLA
Ubisoft’s flagship title is at the point where any game bearing the “Assassin’s Creed” name can be pretty much guaranteed a place in lists like this. But the developer isn’t sitting on its laurels. This latest installment in the franchise — set during the Viking invasion of England — is a perfect illustration of the series’ evolution, with a solider historic base than the majority of its predecessors and a slightly slower pacing to the action that really pays off.
ANIMAL CROSSING: NEW HORIZONS
Nintendo’s fifth entry in its “Animal Crossing” series landed in late March, just as much of the planet was entering lockdown. And this gratifyingly slow “life simulation” game, packed with cute critters doing generally wholesome stuff, was just the escape many longed for as the world went crazy. It’s unlikely to be remembered by any but its most-fervent fans in another 12 months, but for a short time in 2020, this was the biggest game around (so long as you had a Nintendo Switch).
This indie sim was billed by developer Thunder Lotus as “a cozy management game about dying.” And that’s really a perfect description. You play Stella, a ferrymaster to just-deceased souls and you must build a boat on which to transport the spirits in your care to the afterlife, but in between times you work with them to explore the world — crafting, cooking, fishing and more — and, most importantly, you care for and befriend them. It’s beautifully paced and animated; melancholy but, as promised, cosy.
ORI AND THE WILL OF THE WISPS
While there’s nothing particularly groundbreaking about this platform-adventure game — the sequel to 2015’s “Ori and the Blind Forest” — it is so lovingly created and gorgeously realized that it will melt the heart of even the most cynical gamer as you explore the beautiful, sprawling world as Ori the forest spirit attempting to locate your friend Ku — an owl — after being separated in a storm. As you progress, you will access new powers and enter new places, where you’ll find new enemies too. For what it is, this game is faultless.
SPIDER-MAN: MILES MORALES
If you needed a game to convince you to invest in a new-generation console, the PS5 version of this superhero action-adventure should do the job. (It’s great on the PS4 too though.) If you’ve played 2018’s excellent “Spider-Man,” you’ll pick this up easily, as the environment and key gameplay elements are practically identical — and very good. But what makes this game even better is the development of the lead character and his struggles to do what’s best for his neighborhood, Harlem. And on the PS5, the whole thing looks incredible.