The D20 Beat: My critical hits of 2020
December 30, 2020
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The Witcher 3 is one of my favorite role-playing games of the past decade. The Witcher 2 is also a fantastic RPG. So far, Cyberpunk 2077 isn’t reaching those heights for me, though I never expected it to.

So I don’t feel that sense of disappointment others do, though its spectacular dumpster fire last week makes my heart ache for those who spent money on it and worked for years to make it.

When I think of the RPGs of 2020, I think about the past and the future. How games like Demon’s Souls, Final Fantasy VII Remake, and Baldur’s Gate III tap into our nostalgia for these beloved superstars while also putting them into new packages. I think of how roguelike and deck-building elements continue to filter through so many indies, like Solasta: Crown of the Magister and Gordian Quest. And how I discovered a series that’s risen from niche status to Western acclaim.

Oh, and I played as a shark, too.

Let’s look at my favorite RPGs of 2020. I hope you enjoy these games — and more — as much as I do, and I wish you well as we look to a world that could start healing from the pain of 2020.

Gordian Quest

Above: That’s “shifty.” Yes, I misread the first time, too.

Image Credit: Gordian Quest

Developer: Mixed Realms
Publisher: Mixed Realms
Platform: PC

Darkest Dungeon is more than a game — with its success in 2016, it helped establish the turn-based roguelike RPG. Since then, we’ve seen a number of indies offer their own visions of this subgenre, some offering deckbuilding (like Slay the Spire) and others playing with Darkest Dungeon’s formula (I see you, Iratus: Lord of the Dead).

In March, Mixed Realms sent Gordian Quest into Steam Early Access, and it’s a game I’ve been playing on-and-off ever since. It’s a combo of the party-building of Darkest Dungeon and the combat cards of Slay the Spire. Story-wise, it’s standard fare — you and your friends are fighting against various evils trying to cast down the realm. And there’s nothing wrong with that.

What I dig about Gordian Quest is how Mixed Realms has interwoven its systems together. When you level up, you get a skill, which is a card. These skills can be attacks or blocks, but they’re also abilities that key in on a character’s class and flavor. Naran the Bard has inspirations and tones, which buff party members and give her points to spend on other abilities. Catherin the Cleric has holy spells and attacks that add to her Channel pool, which she can then spend on healing or other abilities. The way these layer with party members and skill cards you get from items is fantastic.

'Cause everybody is shark-fu fighting.

Above: ‘Cause everybody is shark-fu fighting.

Image Credit: Tripwire Interactive

Developer: Tripwire Interactive
Publisher: Tripwire Interactive
Platform: PC, PlayStation, Xbox, Switch

This is the most absurd RPG I played in 2020, and it came when we thought this whole “sheltering in place” idea was still fairly new. We were scared, and the pandemic (or the stupid reactions from some citizens) hadn’t ground me down yet.

And I reveled in Maneater. You play a mutating bull shark from birth to its death as you eat your way through the ecosystems and populations of a fictional Gulf Coast region. The goal is to grow, and to grow, you gotta eat. Fish. Turtles. Crocodiles. And people. Oh, the people. You flop around on land chasing people on the beach, in parks, and even in the driveways of their McMansions.

Eat too many people, and you must deal with bounty hunters and the Coast Guard. You can eat them, too. And you can make their ships blow up (being an electric shark helps).

No game made me laugh as much as Maneater in 2020, and in a year in which laughs were few and far between, it’s special for that alone.

Above: Give me a scene about eating beef bowls? Game of the year!

Image Credit: GamesBeat

Developer: Ryu Ga Gotoku Studio
Publisher: Sega
Platform: PC, PlayStation, Xbox

The other game to make me laugh is Yakuza: Like A Dragon. I’d never played a Yakuza game before, and while I did realize that these games weren’t grimdark mob sims, I had no idea they were this funny. Ichiban Kasuga is a likeable dope, and my fondness for him made it even easier to enjoy watching him seek vengeance against those who wronged him. The turn-based combat isn’t groundbreaking, but like Ichiban’s journey, it has some laughs, too, in how you dispatch foes, everyone’s abilities, and their barks and reactions as you brawl in the streets.

In one random encounter on the streets, I faced a pair of Capitalist Punishers. The name is funny, and so is the fight. They “summoned” help by pulling out their smartphones and making calls, while I smacked them with traffic cones. It’s cool that you pick up random items around you and use them to bash baddies. I recommend this to anyone who enjoys a fun RPG with lots of character and appeal.

Kingdoms of Amalur Re-Reckoning

Above: You’re not our mom …

Image Credit: THQ Nordic

Developer: KAIKO, Big Huge Games
Publisher: THQ Nordic
Platform: PC, PlayStation, Xbox

This is a fairly basic remaster — the colors look richer and deeper, and other visuals are improved as well. It comes with the DLC, and THQ Nordic says another piece is coming as well. It does some other mechanic changes as well. All in all, it doesn’t change much — and that’s a good thing, because Amalur was already a good game.

And in September, as anxiety over increasing COVID-19 infections and election nonsense continued to build, I found a great deal of satisfaction running around Amalur’s gorgeous areas, fighting baddies, turning in quests, and lusting over loot. It’s not a complicated game — you won’t find the layers of buffs and interactions that Diablo brings — but it doesn’t need to be. It’s a fun loot-heavy action-RPG, and I’m looking forward to seeing what new story content comes along in 2021, nine years after the original’s release.

Hades

Motivational speaker Athena.

Above: Motivational speaker Athena.

Image Credit: Steam

Developer: Supergiant Games
Publisher: Supergiant Games
Platforms: PC, Switch

I first played Hades in 2018 when it hit Early Access on Steam, and … it didn’t capture me. And then I forgot all about it. This year, Hades had its full release, and it felt like a different game.

I wondered, what was I missing the first time? When I first played it, it felt very much like “My First Roguelike.” It still does, and there’s nothing wrong with that.

But now, its world feels full. The characters feel realized. But what makes it special now is that, well, it’s finished. You have more abilities, more weapons, more … everything. And between 2018 and 2020, it added something that’s made it so spectacular: that “just one more fun feeling” that feels so akin to diving into a game of Civilization.

Early Access is a great model, and it helps fund indies and provides feedback on development they may not be able to afford or find during smaller testing phases. But it doesn’t work for all games — sometimes, you just need to explore the finished product for it to shine.

And Hades does shine.

This stable of monsters will help you in your quest.

Above: This stable of monsters will help you in your quest.

Image Credit: GamesBeat

Developer: Endlessfluff Games
Publisher: Humble Bundle
Platform: PC

For a long time, if anyone would ask me what my favorite game was, I’d answer with Final Fantasy Tactics. (Today I recognize that I just can’t have one “favorite.” I’m not a Sith — I don’t deal in absolutes.)

Fae Tactics is a good indie take on Square Enix’s strategy-RPG. It’s different, though, in that you’re not building a party of humanoid characters. You’re a mage assembling a menagerie of beasts who have a variety of abilities (this includes one very good doggo). You have spells, too, and you use all of these to take on the challenges you find on each map. And you swap spell cards in and out to tailor your arsenal. Combat isn’t buried in menus, as happens in strategy-RPGs.

And the quests are a bit silly, too. Yes, it does have some that are all about the gravity of menacing threats. But you spend time doing stuff like regaining parts for your bike, too.

Demon’s Souls

Gothic and pretty.

Above: Gothic and pretty.

Image Credit: Sony

Developer: Bluepoint Games
Publisher: Sony
Platform: PlayStation 5

One of my favorite games of the PS3 era is Demon’s Souls. From Software’s groundbreaking roguelike action-RPG. It established a new genre — the soulslike — and it showed that despite its difficulty, those who studied the patterns and exercised patience (like with old 8-bit games such as Mega Man) could overcome its obstacles.

The PS5 version is fantastic. It feels like Demon’s Souls, but it looks better (I can actually see in some of the darker areas in Stonefang Tunnel and the Valley of Defilement). And the seconds-long loading times make moving from one location to another a snap. This helps when you’re grinding for souls in places like the Shrine of Storms.

Right now, Demon’s Souls is one of the best launch exclusives for the PS5. It retains the magic of the first one, and it’s well worth checking out for newbies and veterans.

Cloud and Tifa.

Above: Square Enix’s dynamic duo.

Image Credit: Sony

Developer: Square Enix
Publisher: Square Enix
Platform: PlayStation

Square Enix did something with Final Fantasy VII Remake that I didn’t anticipate — it subverted my expectations. It takes the seminal 1997 PlayStation RPG and made it better in almost every way. The story is deeper, with many characters big and small having much more to do and say (my kids and I fell for Jessie). It looks better, and its take on party-based action-RPG combat is smooth.

And the music remains fantastic.

My major concern, though, is I’ll forget this all in the inevitable years it’ll take for Square Enix to put out the next part. Heck, I’d be surprised if we weren’t all playing the finale on the PlayStation 6 a decade from now. But I’m hoping Square Enix will prove me wrong.

Solasta: Crown of the Magister

The Soraks have been absent for so long that people think they're a children's myth. I bet their breath stinks, too.

Above: The Soraks have been absent for so long that people think they’re a children’s myth. I bet their breath stinks, too.

Image Credit: GamesBeat

Developer: Tactical Adventures
Publisher: Tactical Adventures
Platform: PC

Solasta is what I like to call a “next-gen RPG” in how it treats tactical encounters. Of course, this is no surprise, given the studio’s name. Like Larian Studios did with Baldur’s Gate III, you now get three axes of movement, something that’s new for turn-based RPGs. But this means more than attacking and exploring on the Z axis — it even uses factors such as light in determining who gets advantage in combat. Don’t worry, it provides plenty of ways to light things up, too. This makes each dungeon feel different as well — one is in an ancient library, where moving up and down to explore and solve puzzles is important. Another is shrouded in darkness, befitting its undead denizens.

What’s great is that Tactical Adventures uses all of this in solving puzzles as well as combat, giving Solasta a different spin on 5E Dungeons & Dragons gameplay than you’re getting in Baldur’s Gate III. It also has factions that look like they will throw their weights around when it comes to the story, giving you more interactions to factor in than just the reactions of your party members.

It’s in Early Access now, and I’m hoping we’ll get the full campaign by fall 2021.

Portals mean trouble in Baldur's Gate III.

Above: Portals mean trouble in Baldur’s Gate III.

Image Credit: GamesBeat

Developer: Larian Studios
Publisher: Larian Studios
Platform: PC

The biggest question I had with Larian Studios and its stewardship of Dungeons & Dragons was if this studio could work with another’s IP. After all, Divinity is its world, one Larian has been working on for nigh-on 20 years. Yes, many of its employees are fans of D&D and the Forgotten Realms, and yes, Larian is working closely with the lorekeepers at Wizards of the Coast. Yet I still had worries — could Larian’s creativity work with an established IP, one with rules its world lacks?

And then we saw the trailer in February, the amazing clip with mind flayers flying through the skies in their Nautiloid (and exciting all the Spelljammer fans out there who pore over every D&D release looking to see if Wizards is breathing any embers into this dead setting). The illithids were putting tadpoles into people’s eyes to begin the ceremorphosis process that creates more mind flayers. We saw Githyanki flying on red dragons, breathing flames into the Nautiloid and finally making the Astral Plane denizens look every bit as bad-ass as their first introduction in 1981 — the cover of the iconic Fiend Folio monster book.

But a trailer doesn’t make a game. So when Baldur’s Gate III hit Early Access in late October, it showed us that Larian can indeed create an engaging world in someone else’s sandbox. The story so far — we just got one act — develops from the fear of turning into a mind flayer within a few days into the terror, the doubt … and even the temptation of living with a parasite in your mind, giving you power but also hinting at a stronger force afoot. One that may be godlike or not. And it’s intriguing, making me happier than an otyugh in a garbage dump.

It also introduces a Z axis to turn-based isometric combat — like Solasta, Baldur’s Gate III is a next-gen RPG in that it changes how you approach combat, giving you bonuses for holding the high ground, while also using Divinity: Original Sin’s environmental effects and exploits.

My main concern at this point is what happens with these threads — will the mind flayers be the main threat, or will the Githyanki prove to be the villains? What about this godlike power? Is Bhaal (the Lord of Murder) trying to gain influence? And where are the characters from Baldur’s Gate II that may still be alive a century later — including Minsc and his lovable giant space hamster Boo, who are most certainly alive (they have their own comic run!). Right now, nothing in Baldur’s Gate III ties into Baldur’s Gate II (beside the name, turn-based combat, and IP). I’m going to be disappointed if we don’t see some connections when the second acts drops.

The D20 Beat is GamesBeat managing editor Jason Wilson’s column on role-playing games. It usually runs every other week, but like wandering monsters, it can appear at any time. It covers video games, the digital components of traditional tabletop RPGs, and the rise of RPG streaming. Drop me a line if you have any RPG news, insights, or memories to share … or just want to roll a digital D20 with me.


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