2020 has been an…interesting year, at least in terms of gaming. I certainly never expected that I’d ever be able to play or want to play some of the games on this list. But 2020 has been a year for defying expectations, usually for worse but just occasionally for better. With my GOTY picks, I’d say it’s definitely for better. So without further ado, let’s get to it. Here are my Top RPGs of 2020, presented somewhat in ascending order according to how happy they made me.
Xenoblade Chronicles: Definitive Edition
This is the best version of one of the best RPGs of all time. Everything that made the original Wii version special—the huge and imaginative environments, the gripping story full of twists and turns, the memorable soundtrack—it’s all here, in a package that looks and runs better than the original. And you can experience it on the go as well as on your TV. It is certainly true that the game is still a little rough around the edges. The resolution can still be quite poor at times, the sidequests can still be overwhelming (even with the welcome quality of life additions), and for reasons I can’t fathom, you’re still limited to three save slots plus one autosave. But it’s portable Xenoblade, presented in a form that is superior to the original, and it came just when I was starting to lose hope that we would ever see it again.
Final Fantasy VII Remake
Ever since this project was teased at E3 2015, it has been buried by the overwhelming expectations of a fanbase that holds the original Final Fantasy VII as almost sacrosanct. While it was inevitable that the final product wouldn’t live up to all of those expectations, it certainly met, and in most cases, exceeded mine. The game is a gorgeous and lovingly handled retelling of the Midgar section of the original FFVII, with just enough new content added to make future installments of the story something I look forward to seeing unfold rather than a foregone conclusion. The action combat needs a little work, but it’s fun and flashy with a solid foundation for future improvements. And the soundtrack is a fantastic, fresh take on the original music that still manages to hit all the right beats and trigger nostalgia with every new measure. I was as excited as everyone else when FFVII Remake was announced five years ago, but it wasn’t something I had particularly wanted prior to that announcement. Now, however? Now I want more.
Final Fantasy XIV Patch 5.3: Reflections in Crystal
I know it’s not unusual to see me gushing about Final Fantasy XIV, but I don’t typically focus on a single patch like this for our year-end awards. The fact of the matter is all of FFXIV is excellent and worthy of praise, but Patch 5.3 did something that stood out to me, even among all of the usual areas that this MMO excels in. And it really comes down to a series of perfect moments. One of those moments is the end of main scenario quests, which is about as tooth-rottingingly sweet as you could possibly imagine. But the moment that sealed 5.3’s place in this list for me happens a little bit before the end and involves some major spoilers if you haven’t played any of Shadowbringers. To put it as vaguely as possible, a major character makes an unexpected appearance to save the Warrior of Light/Darkness from certain doom. Combined with some interesting information from an earlier quest, this surprise appearance recontextualizes the character in question and the Warrior’s relationship to them. This may sound like an underwhelming reason to give a GOTY award, but this one brief moment and its implications kind of floored me. Along with the aforementioned perfect ending, it solidified Shadowbringers as simply the best Final Fantasy experience available today, and it gave this particular character permanent residence in the hallowed halls of “Best Video Game Antagonists.”
Remember how I said there were some games on my list that I never expected I would want to play? Well, I was talking about Genshin Impact. It’s available on PC and PS4, but at its heart, it’s a mobile free-to-play gacha game, and I usually avoid those like the plague. So you can imagine my surprise when I checked it out—on mobile of all places—and found myself enjoying the crap out of it. I’ve been playing it pretty steadily for several months now, which is another thing I would never have expected. Most mobile games I download get booted up once or not at all before I forget about them. But Genshin Impact captured and maintained my interest mostly because it doesn’t feel like a mobile or free-to-play game at all. Oh, sure, there are resources and extra characters you have to grind, wait, or pay for, but that’s not really the heart and soul of this game. The huge open world with tons of nooks and crannies to explore, fast-paced but strategic battle system where creatively combining elements is not only encouraged but rewarded, serviceable story with a fair amount of humor that grows on you as you progress, and simply gorgeous music with distinct motifs for different regions—this is the heart and soul of Genshin Impact. And in this respect, the game is as good as any full-priced AAA open-world RPG I’ve ever played. In fact, despite all of the Breath of the Wild comparisons that it has been saddled with, Genshin Impact has been far more enjoyable for me than Link’s first Switch outing.
Yakuza: Like a Dragon
I wasn’t originally planning to play Like a Dragon this year. I wanted to wait until I’d gotten a couple of other Yakuza games under my belt. But 2020 really sucked, and I wanted a game that would make me happy. And despite how dark Yakuza games can get, Like a Dragon did just that. Ichiban Kasuga is the hero we need right now: loyal to a fault, endlessly optimistic, and a lovable doofus who just wants to help people. His friends are a messed up bunch of misfits who genuinely love him and can’t help but stand by him through all of the shit he finds his way into. Even his enemies and random acquaintances on the street ended up touching my heart in unexpected ways. And on top of all that are so many references to Dragon Quest and RPGs in general that I couldn’t help but smile at the love for the genre and respect for its history that clearly went into this game. The other games on my list do certain things better than Like a Dragon, but this is the game that left me feeling that strange sort of happy regret when I beat it—the kind of contradiction you feel when you’ve just finished a good story and loved it, but are kind of sad that it’s over and want to jump right back in from the beginning. It’s been a while since I’ve felt that way about a game, and that it should be my first mainline Yakuza experience in a year like 2020 is kind of perfect.