Frontlist | The video games you may have missed in 2020
Frontlist | The video games you may have missed in 2020
on Dec 28, 2020
You heard all about The Last of Us Part 2, Animal Crossing and Cyberpunk 2077. Here are the overlooked gems that kept us sane in the pandemic
13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim
You’d think a game with 13 protagonists would be a bloated mess, but this is anything but. With a complex, superbly rewarding storyline to piece together and mind-blowing, time-bending revelations around every corner, this mix of visual novel and tower-defence game is a must-play.
A Hand With Many Fingers
Forget Call of Duty: Black Ops – this is the CIA conspiracy thriller you’re looking for. Immersed deep in a federal archive, you string together evidence and deductions on a corkboard. The twist is that this isn’t just a detective puzzler – the more you unearth, the scarier your surroundings become.
A Short Hike
PC, Mac, Nintendo Switch; Adamgryu
This wonderful little Zelda-inspired hiking adventure came out on PC last year, but you might have missed it on Switch this year. It leads to such an evocative few hours, with gorgeous natural colours filtered through its retro art style. A Short Hike is not so much about climbing the mountain as enjoying it.
Alba: A Wildlife Adventure
PS4, PC, Xbox, Mac, iPhone/iPad; ustwo gamesVisiting your grandparents on a Spanish island for the summer, you discover that there are plans to build a luxury hotel on the nature reserve – and resolve to stop it. Alba evokes memories of childhood holidays as you skip around snapping pictures of the local birds, picking up trash and having conservationist adventures.
Web browsers; The Game Band
Fantasy baseball teams play in your browser, but with about a hundred twists. The combination of the randomness of the simulation, the developers’ mad additions (such as peanut-loving squid gods and weather that swaps players’ teams), and the fan community’s incredible creativity makes for something unpredictable and joyful. You have to be a part of it to believe it.
Nintendo Switch, PS4, Xbox, PC; Ion Lands
It’s your first day as a delivery driver in the cyberpunk metropolis of Nivalis, and while there’s a techno-thriller tale woven into the pickups and dropoffs you make in your flying car (which is also your dog – long story), the real joy of Cloudpunk is in cruising around the neon voxel skyscrapers of a glittering, rotting city on the verge of crumbling into the sea.
Nintendo Switch, Xbox, PS4, PC, Mac; Toge Productions
In a future Seattle, you are a barista listening to people’s problems when they come in for a late-night coffee in your nocturnal cafe. But there are also elves, orcs, succubi and other fantasy-inspired characters, all with very modern woes. In our confined times, there’s something soothing about simply making drinks and listening to gossip.
PS4, Nintendo Switch, Xbox, PC; Aggro Crab/Team17
Hell is open-plan, forward-thinking, and comes with a competitive benefits package. A highly coveted unpaid marketing internship is all yours: you’ll just need to fight your way through the monster-stuffed ruins of failed tech startups first. Come for the moreish, bouncy combat, stay for the hulking troll wielding an industrial cafetière and scolding goblins about unacceptably long bathroom breaks. Going Under’s workplace satire is grinning, sharp, and genuinely funny.
In Other Waters
PC, Mac, Nintendo Switch; Jump Over the Age/Fellow Traveller
Here’s a game that inverts the show, don’t tell maxim by telling you about things you can’t see. As an AI wired into the diving suit of xenobiologist Dr Ellery Vas, your understanding of the alien ocean around you is entirely based on her wonderfully meticulous descriptions.
Nintendo Switch, PS4, PC, Mac; Route 59
A deeply stylish visual novel set in a cafe that gives the dead 24 hours to come to terms with moving on. Following a cast of fantastic characters who are all just doing their best, Necrobarista deals with big questions through writing that is equal parts funny and touching.
PC; Nolla Games
It boasts one of the most reactive virtual worlds around and every substance in Noita’s procedurally generated realm behaves realistically. Entire levels can be consumed by fire and acid, while conflagrations can be doused with anything from water to potions that turn enemies into sheep. Combine this with a complex and lethally powerful spellcasting system, and you’ve got one of the most delightfully chaotic games of this year.
PC, PS4, Nintendo Switch, Xbox One; Lightbulb Crew
They don’t come grimmer than this monochrome mix of XCOM and Bloodborne. A lonely warrior sends clones of herself to battle gothic projections of abuse. Forever outnumbered, you must time your movements carefully to thwart attacks. A troubling gem tarnished a little by an interface that puts style before usability.
PC; Tim Sheinman/Owl_Skip Enterprises
In this country-music detective game, you play a music biographer piecing together the moving story of Josh and Luke, two fictional country rivals, by sifting through notes and listening to convincing interviews. There’s even a surprise cameo from Toploader guitarist Julian Deane.
Signs of the Sojourner
Nintendo Switch, PC, Mac; Echodog Games
Explore the world in a trader’s caravan and converse with locals through card games. Pick up trinkets to sell back home, and adapt to the people you meet. Fantastic writing evokes all the sensory delight of travelling to new places – and what it forces you to leave behind.
PC, Mac, Android; Niila Games
Like a Lars von Trier remake of 2018’s heartwarming Florence, this sombre, surrealist story veers between moving and unsettling. Devoid of colour and light, Stilstand certainly isn’t for everyone. Yet despite its brevity, this prophetically isolationist tale lingers in the mind.
PC; Tuxedo Labs
Equal parts heist simulator and slapstick comedy, Teardown uses its highly destructible levels as a foundation for creating absurd burglary puzzles. Instead of cracking safes by hand, for example, you rip them wholesale from the building they’re in using bulldozers and cranes. The premise is daft but each level is meticulously designed, making Teardown a superb 3D puzzler.
There Is No Game: Wrong Dimension
PC; Draw Me a Pixel
Some games break the fourth wall. This asks you to demolish it. A narrator insists there’s no game to play, forcing you to hijack the title screen to prove him wrong. As the combative tone escalates and you’re buffeted between genre parodies, what emerges is that rarest of things: a genuinely funny video game.
PC, Nintendo Switch; Origame Digital/Playism
While Umurangi Generation might not win any game of the year awards, it is the most 2020 game around. On the surface, it’s a straightforward photography game. But with a story that covers global disaster, the rise of fascism, and the ethics of photography during a police brutality protest, it’s searingly necessary and timely.
Unto the End
PS4, Xbox One, Switch, PC; 2 Ton Studios
With its sudden deaths and sombre tone, Unto The End could be mistaken for Limbo with swordplay. But it hides great depths. In fact, it hides everything: even the most basic survival techniques must be teased from its wordless world. Mastering its obscured rules and hardscrabble duels is an uncompromising pleasure.
PC, PS4, Xbox One; SadSquare Studios
It’s now been six years since Hideo Kojima’s horror demo, PT, and still horror fans search for a game to scare them the way that hallway did. Finally, the void has been filled. SadSquare Studio’s haunted-house simulator, Visage, redefined digital terror in 2020. It made Outlast feel like Bubble Bobble.
Welcome to Elk
PC, Xbox, Mac; Triple Topping
Strange, unique, warm and funny, Welcome to Elk features a plot crocheted from real-life stories sourced by the dev team – with the stories’ subjects sometimes breaking the fourth wall. The music is great, the aesthetic is fire and the mini-games are the rival of anything to be found in Mario’s annual parties.
Wide Ocean Big Jacket
Nintendo Switch, Mac, PC; Turnfollow Games/Tender Claws
In this self-contained drama set across a weekend camping trip, you mostly control the camera rather than the characters, dictating when the cuts arrive in scenes that would be at home in a Richard Linklater coming-of-age movie. Alongside excellent writing, simple hand-drawn visuals enhance the intimate atmosphere of this low-key but unforgettable game.