Best RPG of 2020: Final Fantasy VII Remake
It feels like we’ve been talking about an FFVII remake since 2000. Decades later, and one of Square Enix’s finest games in recent memory falls into our laps: a wild, wholly rambunctious romp through the best cyberpunk city of 2020, Midgar. Every inch of the game drips with excess and polish, exudes crisp energy that only a AAA Japanese developer can imbue their game with. Its rich nostalgia is merely an entry point into its real-world reflective, often traumatic narrative sequences (at one point, I was recalled to 9/11; at another point, the US 2016 election). Every time I think about it, the memories become closer to perfect. It’s brutal, sexy, cute, dire, caustic, inspiring, and a contemporary audio-visual masterpiece (that is entertaining as hell). I miss it being part of my life.
Best Adventure Game: Kentucky Route Zero Act V
We waited several years for Act V to come out, dreaming about graying obsolete media, forest folk music, and haunted, lost highways. Kentucky Route Zero existed as a critical indie darling, another recommendation for Twin Peaks fans, one of my favorite games of the decade.
Our environment has changed significantly since the first Act dropped in 2013 (or rather, things have been revealed to us in a significant way). A video game about road-tripping through the American Deep South reads differently now than it did then, the whole of it becoming problematized, perhaps, or suddenly lacking in critique. What we find in Act V is both colorful and bright but somehow much more melancholic, hopeful but still an end of things, the last few pages of a dizzying Faulkner novel. What we find is pure video game poetry, a slow unraveling, a denouement rather than a heightened culmination, more information but no real answers.
I played every chapter of KRZ on a stifling summer night (the best way to play), but Act V works best at dawn. It’s a new day, a daunting one, buzzing with potential but promising nothing.
Best Port/Remaster: Moon: Remix RPG Adventure
Moon: Remix RPG Adventure was a lost Japanese title of the 90s until Onion Games and Tim Roger’s loving translation brought it to the west in August 2020. It’s one of only a handful of subversive takes on the JRPG genre (think EarthBound or Undertale) without actually being one itself. I’d compare it maybe to a Zelda game without enemies, with a seemingly obtuse gameplay loop that only makes sense after reading the manual (after which it clicks, and you can start earning what you came for, poetry). At times, its message — an anti-combat, anti-Dragon Quest metaphor — gets a bit scrambled but mostly works, its subversive vision carried out until the end. When I turn my Switch on, it sits patiently on the main menu, conjuring visions of janky puppets, grassy fields, and the feeling of finally touching a real ghost, waiting to be played again.
Best Retro RPG: Breath of Fire: Dragon Quarter
Breath of Fire: Dragon Quarter has been on my to-play list for ages, an experimental JRPG with a reputation for being too difficult, too oppressive. The game especially resonates in 2020, the year of pandemics and quarantines. It’s about being trapped, both physically and mentally, in the dark, underneath the earth, with one bad option and one worse option. At times, it feels impossible, and yet, a path can always be found.
Its radical, completely unforgiving design sensibility might remind contemporary players of Dark Souls, but here the math and chance are much heavier, (theorist of play) Roger Callois’ competition, chance, and vertigo at full capacity. A New Game+ with additional story is a nice temptation, but the reason I played through the entire game again immediately after finishing it was not more content, but to experience the same content again differently.
Special Mention: Ocean OI
Released this year, Sraëka-Lillian’s Ocean OI is a short, experimental JRPG made in RPG Maker 2000. Through its exploration of intense turn-based combat, a minimalist narrative emerges between the margins of attack skills and healing spells, risks and more risks. It’s on the extreme opposite of Final Fantasy VII Remake on the JRPGs of 2020 scale, and all the empty spaces of the elements it forgoes add interest, a quiet, lasting energy. It’s quite difficult, a puzzle in resource management, with an ending so abrupt as to recall the staccato of avant-garde film editing.