Welcome to the first half of the inaugural Aether Awards — a collection of some of the best games and anime of the year! Back when we were kinja.com, I ran an annual top 10 games list every year, with the exception of 2018. With new platforms comes new opportunities, hence I opted for a slightly different arrangement by announcing some of the nominees ahead of time through my personal Twitter handle.
This will technically be my fourth game of the year list, but before we dive in, I regret to inform you that Fire Emblem Heroes was not included for the first time since 2017. Incidentally, this also marks the first time a first party Nintendo game did not make the top 10. Yes, I know, shocking — sorry Animal Crossing fans!
2020 had no shortage of controversy in the gaming industry as stories of crunch, abusive practices, and questionable business decisions regularly broke news in a volatile year. It’s a difficult position for the gaming industry from both an outsider’s perspective and a consumer myself. Even now, I find myself at odds on how to present this list from a critical perspective while keeping the above in mind. As I thought about the “new” direction I wanted to take with this top 10 list, I settled on revolving it around a theme:
No, I don’t just mean the game industry — we do enough of that here already! In a year that divided us physically, politically, and internally for those who follow industry news closely, we get so tied up with game products that we fail to acknowledge the actual teams behind our favorite games. Worse still is choosing to ignore a publisher’s misdeeds because they made your favorite game of the year.
Look, I get it. Maybe you really liked The Last of Us Part II, Assassin’s Creed Valhalla, or whatever big-name title made the rounds for reasons outside the game’s own merits. That is a perfectly legitimate opinion and I’m not here to tell you otherwise. But choosing to distance the product and the problem that affects real people for the sake of showering praise and avoid getting political shows a lack of accountability.
Because remember folks, the death of critical thinking begins when one accepts a false narrative for the sake of convenience.
Anyways, that’s a topic for another day. Of all the games I played this year, these were the titles that pushed and refined the boundaries of their genres, proved why they stand among the best of their peers, or imagined new worlds with some of the best storytelling of the medium. But above all else, they were simply, one hell of a game.
10. Streets of Rage 4
At a time when arcade businesses have all but vanished, it can be daunting task to resurrect a beat em up brawler that would satisfy diehard fans and introduce newcomers to the world of coin-op games. Yet that was the exact dilemma the teams at by Dotemu, Lizardcube, and Guard Crush Games faced when it was revealed that they were working on the next entry in the Streets of Rage series. After nearly 25 years without a new game, Streets of Rage 4 updated an old school classic while delivering one of the most accessible arcade games of the year.
Set 10 years after Streets of Rage 3, SoR4 brings back Axel, Blaze, and Adam, along with newcomers Cherry and Floyd. Despite playing functionally the same (you spam attack buttons, specials, and other one-off skills), most people will opt for a character that fits their playstyle. From balanced fighters, speedsters, and heavy hitters, SoR4 is more than happy to oblige whatever your preferred flavor of brawler is, along with encouraging multiple playthroughs. Though the game is fairly short, it’s in those repeated playthroughs that SoR4 shines as you gain mastery of the levels and continuously unlock new content, including the original 16-bit characters! But SoR4 is shared experience, and your mileage of the game increases exponentially once you bust out co-op mode for the first time. What it lacks in “depth,” it delivers twofold as a good, challenging 2D brawler that’s been missing in today’s era of cutting-edge graphics and overly long video game scripts.
I haven’t even touched the cherry on this sundae, and that would be the incredibly polished art direction and soundtrack. Because at the end of the day, Streets of Rage 4 is the video game equivalent of an ice cream sundae. Short, sweet, and made to share!
Far from the only cyberpunk game to hit 2020, One More Level’s extreme parkour 3D platformer Ghostrunner came as a bit of a late October surprise. Taking cues from games like Titanfall 2, Dishonored, and a little of Overwatch’s Genji, you play as the Ghostrunner as you slice and dice your way through precision-based challenges that will both your platforming acrobatics and combat chops to the test. The arcade-based style of one hit, one kill combined with a mostly generous checkpoint system provides some of the most intense, adrenaline filled action platforming that has yet to be replicated since this year’s Doom Eternal.
While the story can be hit or miss if you’re familiar with most cyberpunk-based stories, the back and forth between the Ghostrunner and the Architect provides a serviceable narrative at a reasonable pace as I severed enemy limbs and other technological enforcers before they ever even knew what hit them. In the end, I did find myself invested in the world through some of the audiologs and some of the later stages as you ascend Dharma Tower’s most prohibited areas.
Though the difficulty may turn off some players and some of the later levels have a nasty difficulty spike — notably the final level — if you’ve ever dreamed of what it would be like to step into the shoes of a cyborg ninja, Ghostrunner stands among one of the best in the cyberpunk genre.
8. Final Fantasy VII: Remake
When I first wrote my impressions on Final Fantasy VII: Remake’s demo, I called it a game that was unsure of who its primary audience was. Was it intended specifically for fans of the original or completely new to the series? Would it be a 1:1 retelling of the plot or deviate enough to be its own thing? With the final product now in my hands, the answer is complicated. Despite having little to no nostalgia with the original, I came away liking FF7R more than I anticipated, which pulled more than a few surprises of its own by the time the credits rolled. 23 years after the original’s release, FF7 remains a landmark RPG with its cast of iconic characters and combination of lighthearted tone and serious themes. FF7R takes that and reinvents itself along the way.
For the most part, FF7R retains the spirit of the original by retelling the first few hours of the original while forging its own identity, completely ditching the traditional turn based of old into a more dynamic and fluid mixed action RPG. I’ve had some mixed experiences with modern FF games in terms of gameplay, but with FF7R, the team at Square Enix went above and beyond at revamping their action and RPG elements from past titles. From swinging Cloud’s sword, utilizing Barret’s minigun, knocking the air out of foes with Tifa’s martial arts, and pummeling enemies with Aerith’s staff, combat is much more refined and unique across these four characters than previous entries. With random battles no longer a factor, a lot of care and attention was put into filling the world of FF7R’s Midgar, and that’s nothing to say about the game’s impressive, though lengthy, boss battles.
Where the game falls short for this list is the amount of “filler” content in between the main story and during the main levels. Repetitive side quests, empty hallways and corridors, and artificial lengthening filled with levers, platforms, and other tedious puzzles — looking at you robo arm game! — FF7R’s biggest weakness is the amount of time wasted getting to the next major story point. To the game’s credit, I pushed onward to see the story to its inevitable conclusion, satisfied with the journey’s end. While not all of the story will resonate with every player — for the less “anime” inclined of us — beneath all the shiny visuals and technojargon of [redacted] is FF7R’s beating heart of four companions taking a road trip together in pursuit of something beyond their comprehension.
Returning to my original question, who is Final Fantasy VII: Remake intended for? Part remake, part reimagining, the answer is not quite what you’re expecting, making for this year’s most surprising JRPG.
7. Spider-Man: Miles Morales
Coming hot off the heels of 2018’s Marvel’s Spider-Man — that’s a mouthful — Spider-Man: Miles Morales picks up Peter Parker’s torch as the new web-slinger in town. When this game was initially announced, a lot of time was spent nitpicking the smaller details of how much “game” would we be getting given the $50 launch price. Billed as something of intermediate sequel between the 2018 game and what I’m assuming is the next planned Spider-Man title, Miles Morales is — for all intents and purposes — more of what you liked from the previous title, except smaller. While that may sound like a detriment, what Miles Morales loses in quantity it makes up for in quality, with one key difference: focus.
Gone are the repetitive side missions and puzzle challenges in favor of highlighting what the original did extremely well through gameplay and story. As expected, web slinging is still top notch of any previous Spider-Man game, if not better, negating the need for fast travel if you so choose. Miles Morales takes the lessons learned from its predecessor and gives it a supercharge — pun very much intended — as Miles utilizes a combination of bio-electricity and camouflage in addition to the usual web toolset to mix-up the stealth and combat sections. And while I didn’t find the game to be terribly difficult — even on the highest difficulty — I had a lot of fun mixing up stealth and combat as the situation called for.
With the smaller scale, Insomniac had a difficult task to create the world of Miles Morales. Set mostly in New York’s Harlem, the roughly 10-hour campaign wastes no time introducing the new setting, cast, and the inevitable rogue’s gallery of familiar Spider-Man foes to beat up. But where Miles Morales excels is its reimagining of the Tinkerer with the game’s climax. Though I would have preferred a little more time to flesh out some of the side characters and history, Insomniac proves it can still weave a fun an engaging superhero video game, and I can hardly wait to see where they can push this on the PS5.
Oh, and most of the in-game suits are really good.
6. Yakuza: Like A Dragon
I hesitate to describe this as “Yakuza, but turn based,” yet that’s exactly what Ryu Ga Gotoku Studio’s Yakuza: Like A Dragon is — in a good way of course! When I first heard of the change, I was one of the skeptics that doubted if this was the kind of reinvention the series needed. With seven numbered entries and a few spin-offs, the Yakuza franchise built itself up on its action-based combat and over the top Japanese antics, mix of serious dudes getting involved in weird dealings — emphasis on weird — and an abundant amount of side content that all but eclipses the main story which you can choose to ignore. I’m happy to report that Yakuza 7 not only retains the spirit of the series, it serves as a fantastic reimagining of where the franchise can go.
Acting as something of a soft reboot for the series, Yakuza 7 stars Ichiban Kasuga, an ex-Yakuza who takes the fall for his patriarch and is left behind following his release after 18 years in prison. What follows is a rags to riches story as he meets a series of fellow outcasts who have their own personal baggage in the criminal underbelly of Yokohama. At its heart, Yakuza 7 carries the series’ legacy of odd humor and ridiculously devised side stories hidden beneath its main narrative of organized crime and sinister conspiracy cover-up. While treading similar ground, it succeeds by fully embracing the franchise’s history and developing a much more outlandish tale in the process. In contrast to series veteran Kazuma Kiryu’s cool, tough guy machismo, Ichiban is a loveable goofball, seeing himself as a “hero” due to his love of Dragon Quest games. It sets the stage early on as the game builds on his imagination by fully committing to the premise, and by extension, the gameplay.
Depending on your feelings towards turn based combat, you’ll either love or hate what Yakuza 7 offers. Functionally, it gets the job done, with a few button based challenges to mimic the old action style. I can see this being a barrier if you dislike traditional JRPGs as Yakuza 7 heavily borrows from Dragon Quest and various other titles and tropes from the genre. It’s easy to see the team had a lot of fun poking fun at some of their favorite RPGs, if not flat out referencing specific titles, and the level of detail in the game’s writing, direction, and performances in both the Japanese and English cast only elevates the source material and highlights the effort the localization team had in the game’s final version.
While I don’t think this will be the game that will change your opinion on turn based combat or JRPGs, Yakuza: Like A Dragon’s straightforward playstyle and serious, but goofy story is both an excellent starting point for newcomers and a continuation that series veterans will appreciate.
And if that hasn’t swayed you in some fashion, in this game, you can summon a chicken. Your move games industry!
5. 13 Sentinels Aegis Rim
As I started writing these last four years, I’ve begun to learn to get outside my comfort zone and take a chance on untested titles and genres. Sometimes, it pays off and you find something new and personal that changes the way you look at a certain medium. Other times, you end up murdering everyone and stabbing a dog in one of the most sadistic experiences of the year. Gaming is a unique medium that encompasses several stories, but what I love most is finding something completely unexpected.
Arguably this year’s most criminally underrated gem, 13 Sentinels Aegis Rim is a game that mostly flew under the radar among most mainstream outlets. Not the most versed in Visual Novels, I had also dismissed the game as something that probably wouldn’t appeal to me until our very own Doctorkev wrote about it in his review. Now that I’ve had a chance to experience it for myself, I can safely say I was proven wrong in my initial first impression. That’s because Aegis — as I’ll be referring to it — is actually two games smashed together in one of the most unique blends of genres I’ve played this year.
Part visual novel, part real time strategy (RTS), Aegis revolves around 13 different characters as the title implies. You play the character routes in parts as you slowly begin to piece together the larger narrative that literally transcends time and space. Balancing a story across 13 different characters is no easy feat, yet Vanillaware manages to tell an engaging, charming, and emotional tale through them all while keeping everyone — including the player — questioning what is reality. While I hesitate to delve further into the plot as some elements are best experienced firsthand, Aegis’s 30+ hour campaign runs the gauntlet from giant kaiju battles, mechs, high school, and relationships, all while tackling deeper themes such as the influence of Western civilization/pop culture and some highly questionable human experimentation.
The RTS side, while something of an appetizer to Aegis’s story portion, provides something of a breather in between the adventure portions once you have free range to tackle them — or the game blocks you from certain aspects until you’ve cleared a number of maps. It’s fairly straightforward once you get accustomed to the layout and satisfying enough to sit down and complete a few maps in a row before jumping back into the story. 13 Sentinels Aegis Rim is a difficult game to categorize because its unlike anything that’s come before, making for one of 2020’s best hidden gems.
4. Ghost of Tsushima
Open world games have become ubiquitous with modern AAA business practices and uninspired trends leaning towards aggressive monetization and bland, filler like content that felt more like tackling a chore list than playing a video game. With companies like Ubisoft paving the way for more industry scrutiny, other game companies took notice and quickly beat them at their own game as titles like The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild rose to prominence.
Having boasted several new properties of their own, Sony has been on something of a renaissance with hit open world games including the likes of Horizon: Zero Dawn, Marvel’s Spider-Man, and this year’s Ghost of Tsushima. Ghost’s success is ironic because very little of it is actually all that revolutionary. Rather than reinvent the wheel, Ghost takes the traditional open world template — and made it better. Better visuals, better combat, several unlockable outfits and gear, a smart navigation UI and ridiculously fast travel loading screens, all wrapped up with a surprisingly well told and engaging narrative. As Jin Sakai descends from honorable samurai to the visage of the titular Ghost, the game continuously challenges him as he further bloodies his hands to protect his people, ending on a climatic finale that will test even the most battle-hardened warrior.
Not every side activity is a winner, but the amount of thought and care taken in giving each one a miniature story about the land of Tsushima and making the actual journey of getting there is just as fun as the sleek combat. Featuring a mix of the staple melee, action, and stealth, with a large emphasis on environments and sword play, Ghost’s array of options and fast but furious combat stands above its contemporaries, with further options to stand off against foes or engage in one-on-one duels.
After years of being told by the higher ups that we wouldn’t want a “samurai Assassin’s Creed,” the team at Sucker Punch went ahead and made their own, and the result is simply outstanding.
3. Persona 5 Royal
One of the PlayStation 4’s biggest and — arguably — best console exclusives returned this year with a royal sized expansion, cementing itself once more as the premiere modern JRPG with a few new moves to boot. Developed by P-Studio and Atlus, the 2017 title and winner of my own GOTY award became one of the most influential JRPGs last generation that proved there was still a market for turn based games, even as some of the most influential series of the genre abandoned their roots in an attempt to adapt to the changing market.
Now, I’ve heard a lot of different reactions when it comes to this franchise, and the biggest one that inevitably comes up is that the game is too damn long. Once again, Persona 5 Royal had the added challenge to justify its existence while providing something of a new experience to those who already played the original. It’s true that many video games are simply too long — even some of the games on this very list could have used a trim! But too often, the argument focuses on the length of the game and not the actual content. To that end, here’s my counterpoint: people don’t want longer/shorter games, they want smarter ones.
While Persona 5 Royal is a lengthier game than its predecessor, much of its original’s weaknesses have either been reworked or improved, resulting in a streamlined experience. To highlight this, one of the game’s most tedious sections, Mementos, now has added depth and additional player boosts that both encourage exploration while giving some breathing room while providing the option to skip low level battles — a feature that should be mandatory in all turn based games! To put it another way, it’s significantly easier to max everything out in one playthrough, even earning the Platinum trophy as I did in my file.
Various other aspects such as the Confidants, Persona Fusion, and Social Activities have also gained additional features, providing a more customizable and rich experience that rewards players with progress. And much like the original, every activity ultimately plays into the meta game, featuring a brand-new storyline and endgame that flips the direction of Persona 5’s original narrative. Without spoiling too much, Royal’s new antagonist provides a challenging new obstacle for the Phantom Thieves that puts them in a vulnerable position on how to confront the impending threat.
In many ways, P5R is tailor made for folks familiar with the base game, yet it stands out from the original by not only improving on it, but embracing what makes it so special. By building on its classic turn-based roots and artful stylings, Persona 5 Royal proves why it remains a modern classic and a shining example that JRPGs are far from dead.
2. Doom Eternal
“Against all the evil that Hell can conjure. All the wickedness that mankind can produce. We will send unto them…only you. Rip and tear, until it is done…”
Set after the events of id Software’s 2016 reboot of Doom, Doom Eternal wastes little time putting the shotgun in the player’s hands and putting the Doom Slayer back to work as he shoots, rips, and chainsaws his way through a demon invasion on earth. As a pioneer in first person shooters (FPS), the original Doom was a landmark title that introduced players to a nightmarish maze of halls, demons, and cybernetic monstrosities, launching a franchise and a seemingly unending benchmark to test outdated technology. With the 2016 game returning to more traditional run and gun first person shooters, the reboot gave the finger to cover-based FPSs that had become commonplace, emphasizing a more arcade and faster paced style of gameplay once thought to be an unmarketable venture.
Doom Eternal is very much aligned with the age-old advice of “if it isn’t broken, don’t fix it.” While that may sound like a negative, its fiery sequel knows exactly what it wants to be. Rather than alienate its core audience with the usual trappings of the genre, Eternal doubles down on everything that made the 2016 reboot great. Standing still and taking cover are foreign concepts in Doom, and Eternal builds on this by making everything faster and harder. My biggest surprise was how much more difficult Eternal is to 2016’s running and gunning as the sequel prioritizes your ability to manage your tools and “combo” your way to victory. Soon, your survival is dependent on this gameplay loop of shooting, melee (health), chain sawing (armor) and run/jump/dashing through arenas like an arbiter of death.
While I did have a few nitpicks with some of the bosses and info dumping lore in collectibles (a cardinal sin in my book with the emphasis on narrative this time around), along with the addition of the Marauder which completely kills the pacing late game, Doom Eternal once again proves why it’s still the king of the genre.
One of the most featured titles this year, Supergiant Games’s smash hit of 2020 quickly rose to dominance in the indie realm. In a genre that I wouldn’t have dared to touch with a 10-foot stick, Hades took the outdated design of modern roguelike games and told a personal story, weaving a touching narrative with addictive action and a challenging approach to death in video games. Indeed, Hades is a game about death, because you’ll be doing quite a bit of it by the time you finally complete your first run — emphasis on first. Yet Hades is less about the actual dying and more about reworking the notion of what happens when you do inevitably fall in battle.
Playing as Zagreus, the son of Hades, he begins his quest for freedom from his father’s domain as he battles the guardians and other hellish creatures with the aid from the Gods of Olympus. What’s incredible about Hades’s leveling is that no two runs are similar with a wide variety of playstyles and abilities supported. Throwing in special powers bestowed by the Gods (Boons), these upgrades can completely modify how weapons work or provide passive boosts that fundamentally change your character’s build or exert some influence on Hades itself as your progress further in.
In the world of Hades, death is inevitable, but not truly game over. In those moments of quiet upon resurrection, the story of Hades unfolds as you speak to the other Gods and denizens, unraveling a larger mystery about Zagreus’s origins and a house on the brink of ruin. No run is ever truly wasted as you grow both Zagreus’s strength and his story with each subsequent playthrough and death. And by the time you do eventually conquer Hades, you’ll find that the journey is far from over.
Weaving narrative into gameplay without sacrificing either is no small feat, so to see a small indie studio succeed with such finesse is an accomplishment worth celebrating. With Hades, Supergiant Games has forged its name as a master craftsman with one of the year’s best video games of 2020.
Congratulations to Supergiant Games and the other winners!
Feeling a little snubbed? No problem! Next week, I’ll be doing the same with the 10 Best Anime of the Year! I hear the council in charge of that one has some very interesting choices lined up…
(Please don’t kill me TLOU2 fans…)