My Five Favorite Games in 2020

Continuing the theme from the past couple years, I’m listing my top five favorite games that I enjoyed the most while playing over the past year. As is now tradition, they weren’t necessarily released in 2020; that’s just when I played them.

1. Ring Fit Adventure

Last week’s post should make it clear how much I love this game and how special it is to me. It’s made fitness fun for me. Enough said for this post. I’m so grateful for this game.

2. Jurassic World Evolution: Return to Jurassic Park

I’ve written a fair amount about Jurassic World: Evolution, even before it came out. Steam tells me I’ve put 200 hours into the game. I have unlocked 69 of 73 achievements and finished all story content. I’ve been playing intermittently since the game came out. But I did not include it on my favorite games lists for 2018 or 2019. Partly that’s because I played a lot of great games in those years, but partly it’s because the game felt incomplete and a bit rough around the edges. With a couple years of polishing and enhancements in the form of several free updates and paid DLC packs, the game is in a much better place. Furthermore, the nostalgia of running a park with the aesthetics of the original movie and a slicker, more streamlined economy without some of the more ethically dubious contracts of the base game make the Return to Jurassic Park expansion the singularly best version of Jurassic World: Evolution available. (Its story mode, while not incredible, is also the strongest in the game.) Encountering this new mode finally gave me the ammunition to add this to a year’s best list.

3. Prey

This creepy, compelling sci-fi story grows from survival horror to power fantasy all while presenting a smoldering plot guided by mysterious figures with competing motivations aboard a derelict and alien-infested space station. Moral choice, manipulable environments, a crafting system that requires you to make tough decisions with limited resources, and a varied and robust skill system make for unique gameplay experiences. And as required for a game of this type, the environmental storytelling as you explore the station and uncover its secrets is top-notch.

4. Dishonored 2

This is the peak of the Dishonored series for me. I enjoyed sneaking and fighting my way through the levels, and I loved the intimate characterization of its cast. As I said in my review, its plot was largely a repeat of the original game’s, heightened by an emphasis on legacy at least when playing as Emily. But that just gives it the opportunity to be bigger and better, the Terminator 2 to Terminator. And just like Prey, Dishonored 2 is another example of Arkane Studios’ excellent environmental storytelling.

5. Baldur’s Gate: Enhanced Edition

I didn’t write about this one for the blog before now. Baldur’s Gate came out way back in 1998, and the Enhanced Edition was released in 2012. So even this newer version is still getting up there. Baldur’s Gate was such a formative experience for roleplaying gamers of my age; more broadly, it was hugely influential and came to form much of the basis of the Bioware style and of what people expected from CRPGs moving forward; even those who had never played it, like me, heard plenty about it. I had a disc at some point with several old Black Isle Studios CRPGS on it, and I gave Baldur’s Gate a try then. I didn’t get far. The Enhanced Edition, courtesy of Beamdog and Overhaul Games, provides several modern conveniences and lower difficulty settings, but my first encounter with it a year or so ago didn’t go so well, either. I decided to give the game another try out of the blue, and while the initial hours were still frustrating, it clicked with me enough for me to persevere until I got my party to a high enough level to where the game was actually fun and challenging instead of punishingly difficult. The story is basic, nested in tired tropes even when it originally came out, and the excessive and convoluted lore in this game feels so detached from the actual world-building, but there are a lot of distinctive, quirky characters (to be expected of a Bioware game) and several fascinating side quests that range from weird to funny to strikingly poignant. I might be playing more out of momentum than anything else, but I do generally enjoy myself, and it’s seen a lot of hours logged in the past month or so. I’d been wandering the city of Baldur’s Gate more recently, wrapping myself in the city’s intrigues, but the last play session led me off to a voluntary detour to Ulgoth’s Beard, and now I’m making my way down through the torturous labyrinths of Durlag’s Tower as I attempt to complete content from Tales of the Sword Coast. I’m having enough of a good time that I’m considering more isometric CRPGs for 2021, perhaps building up to another attempt at Divinity: Original Sin II, which I’d given up on near the start of 2020. Heck, maybe my newfound patience for old-school RPG mechanics (and their associated difficulty) might finally lead me to take another crack at Arena…maybe! For getting me excited about isometric CRPGs, Baldur’s Gate: Enhanced Edition deserves to make this list. It didn’t hurt that I lacked strong alternative contenders this year…

Review – Dishonored: Death of the Outsider

I finished the campaign in Dishonored: Death of the Outsider a few weeks back, spending under 20 hours with it. For the concluding chapter in the Kaldwin saga and a title that focuses so squarely on the bizarre deity at the center of its dark magic system, Death of the Outsider (DO) felt small and almost quiet, more like an expansion to Dishonored 2 (D2) than its own game.

The heavy influence of Dishonored 2 is obvious. Mission structures, black market shops, and the central city of Karnaca are all transplants from the preceding title. And the story itself wraps up dangling elements from D2, as Meagan Foster, readopting the identity of Billie Lurk, reunites with her former assassin master Daud and takes over his quixotic quest to kill a god, to put an end to the schemes of the Outsider. The game offers some new gameplay elements, with a newly tweaked set of powers that are all made available early on and the ability to talk to rats, although it plays more or less like every other game in this series, with the option for players to lean into stealth or assault, lethality or mercy. Ultimately, DO is to D2 as the Daud-focused expansions were to the original game, further cementing the character of this game as that of expansion title rather than a pure standalone.

While you still have the option to kill or spare characters (and as usual, I chose far more sparing than killing), your choices just don’t seem to matter as much to the texture of the game or course of the story. That said, the story was largely enjoyable, even though I often lost sight of objectives as I sunk focus into completing most of the side quests available in each level in the form of bounties.

The most interesting element of DO is that it feels like the world has broken a bit since the time-and-space altering events of D2. The magical realm of the Void has leaked out into the physical world, and Billie has somehow become a focal point for this change. She slips between two realities, one in which she lost her arm and eye years ago in a fight with a guard (reflecting her appearance in D2) and one in which she avoided the incident. Other details, like her appearance with former friends from her D2 backstory, also appear to slip between realities based on magical divergences in the timeline. Over the course of the game, the split realities seem to fuse together, but I never really saw much direct attempt to explain this. On the other hand, there was maybe too much explanation of just who and what the Outsider was. But even with the big focus on a literal deity, the stakes seem low for Billie: does she fulfill her mentor’s last wishes or not? Of course, the threat of death is ever-present, but there is nothing to resolve her history of many tragedies and losses; friends and loves and rivals are in the past, and she has only this god-killing objective before her, with nothing in sight beyond that goal. There is not much hope of her feeling like a more complete person by the end of the game, and if there was a big explanation for her role as a central figure in the timeline split, it was never made clear to me. To discuss a huge spoiler, I did feel that Billie and Daud made peace with each other and gave the world and the Outsider a fresh start by choosing to make him mortal again instead of killing him. Without seeing the other ending, I can’t say for sure how Billie or Daud would be left if they went through with the murder, but I think they’d be stuck in an unfulfilled rut.

All told, Death of the Outsider was a fun game, but its interesting premises were unfortunately executed in a somewhat muted way. Dishonored 2 remains the high point of the series for me, but I guess I’d put it this way: if you play only one Dishonored game, play Dishonored 2, and if you play that, then you might as well cap it off with Death of the Outsider as well.

Review: Dishonored 2

That Arkane Studios bundle continues to pay off. Dishonored 2 is both sequel and soft reboot to Dishonored, and it offered a bigger, better, improved experience in just about every way.

The biggest improvement for me is in characterization. Instead of another silent protagonist, you plays as a fully voiced returning Corvo Attano, the Royal Protector to the Imperial Throne, or his Empress/protege/not-so-secret daughter, Emily Kaldwin. You’re partnered early with the mysterious, one-armed, one-eyed smuggler Meagan Foster, who takes the place of Dishonored‘s boat pilot Samuel, now deceased after the 15-year narrative gap between the games. Considerable time is spent in establishing your cast of allies and enemies. Even the best have their flaws; even the worst have their virtues, however small.

The plot is largely a repeat of the original game (and, as it turns out, its two narrative DLC extensions). The protagonist’s loved one is captured by the leader of a violent coup, and to save them and restore the rightful ruler, the protagonist must first perform several missions involving surveillance and the elimination of high-profile targets responsible for the current state of affairs. Later missions lean more into the occult with a focus on investigating and defeating a rejuvenated witch coven headed by Delilah Copperspoon, who is the principal agent behind the coup, claiming to be the half-sister of the deceased Empress Jessamine; Delilah seeks to bend the whole world to her will, motivated largely by a deep sense of betrayal from her youth (a story arc and an antagonist straight out of The Knife of Dunwall and The Brigmore Witches). Dealing with a decomposing empire and navigating the gap between the most destitute and desperate on one side and the sheltered but paranoid elite on the other tonally matches most of the original game. And once more, you can chart a course between High Chaos (death and destabilization) and Low Chaos (mercy and nonlethal solutions). Something new is that you actually get to pick between Corvo or Emily as the protagonist to play through the game.

Maybe I would have enjoyed Corvo more this time around, now that he’s done with his implicit vow of silence, but I picked Emily. I’m glad I did. Otherwise, the echoes of the original story would have felt merely redundant and derivative. By playing as Emily, the game felt more like a story about legacy. Emily must deal with the legacy of her father, an infamous figure who has taught her in the arts of defense, stealth, and assassination, and of her mother, whose death has created a void in her development. The young ruler we are reintroduced to at the start of the game seems like the perfect action-fantasy heroine, someone born of privilege and entitled to rule but deeply bored with the role and with the requirements of courtroom protocol, instead preferring to sneak out and explore the city. Rather than an admirable trait, the game gradually shows us that this is actually evidence of a ruler who failed to rule. While she was well-intentioned, she inadvertently allowed great suffering and inequity in her empire because she failed to pay enough attention. In my (predictably) Low-Chaos run, Emily’s choices led her to gradually understand the importance of real leadership–and that she had to earn the right to rule; she was not just entitled to it.

As is now the standard for Dishonored games, the setting was incredible. While the beginning and ending missions are spent in Dunwall, most of the game takes place in Karnaca, the capital city of Serkonos, a city known as “The Jewel of the South at the Edge of the World.” Both Corvo and the assassin of former Empress Jessamine hail from Serkonos. It’s significant to the world, exporting its culture, foods and spices, and most significantly its silver to the rest of the Empire. Where the rest of the world has become overly dependent upon whale oil, which is at this point in the game’s history declining in availability, Serkonos benefits from the use of wind energy, with wind turbines large and small powering a variety of devices throughout the capital city. Karnaca nonetheless finds itself in decline. Where the former duke was well-beloved and worked to improve equality, his son is decadent and self-indulgent. He has stripped away the burgeoning rights of workers in the silver mines, and he taxes heavily to fund his personal projects. His interest in the occult led to the resurrection of Delilah, and he is the main political supporter of the coup and placement of Delilah on the Imperial throne. Karnaca is a place full of bitter, desperate people as a result. Serkonos and Karnaca are apparently inspired by southern Europe and the Caribbean, producing a very realistic yet unique culture. The corrupt and brutal Grand Guard roam the streets, extorting shopkeepers and assaulting strangers. Fishmongers and butchers and whalers work along sloping cobbled alleys with bloodied water seeping down to the docks. A former sanitarium juts from the rocks off the coast. The upper classes live in colossal estates along the periphery. Black market shops operate in abandoned buildings. The horrid buzzing of bloodflies (an oversized combination of mosquitoes and tsetse flies and those flies that cause myiasis) fills filthy apartments overrun with the flies’ mud-dauber type nests and blood amber-infused hives. And as per usual, journals and notes and book excerpts and newspaper articles and graffiti are found everywhere, providing further insight into the state of the city and the world. The city feels alive, seedy and hot and exotic and miserable.

While artwork has always been another tool that Dishonored has used to further detail the world, I was really impressed by many of the paintings I came across. Paintings in the game seemed to encompass parallels to Neoclassical and Romantic art in our world, except for the energetic, colorful, at times slightly abstracted works by the magically gifted Delilah. Many of the more traditional paintings found detailed little myths and legends that added to the tone of the game though never appearing anywhere else. And there were, of course, drawings by children–or the childlike, including one rather bad self-portrait by the conceited Duke of Serkonos.

The game offers some gameplay and design improvements over the original. There is more movement allowed when peering around corners. There are far more nonlethal take-down options, and a Low-Chaos play style that is focused on aggressive incapacitation of opponents is quite viable. Instead of having to get any upgrades or equipment purchased at a central hub between missions, black markets provide options in each level. And Dishonored came out in 2012, while Dishonored 2 released in 2016, so it goes without saying that the sequel looks much better and feels more realistic to navigate. It’s really fun to play, much like Dishonored–perhaps even more so than the original. I played on Hard mode because it was described as tailored for those familiar with Dishonored. This was accurate. The game never felt unfair or insurmountable, and I’m glad I picked the slightly higher difficulty setting.

I mentioned much earlier that Dishonored 2 was a soft reboot. I make that argument because while it builds out from a Low Chaos-ending to the original game and its DLC extensions, it does not really require any understanding of what came before. And by echoing the plot of those earlier stories, it basically tells a more intimate version of those same stories, only this time with more voice-acting, more explicit plot developments, clearer themes, and more diversity in representation. Normally, the choice to do the “good” or “right” thing is very easy to make in video games, but here, many of the antagonists are so awful that it is understandable to want to kill them. By choosing another option, by finding another way, many of these people still meet cruel fates, but it still requires an active performance of mercy, if not forgiveness, and greater effort to produce the nonlethal solution. Learning more about the politics and personalities of Serkonos and the Empire made decisions matter more. And the opaque occult realm of the Outsider is explored in greater detail, making it ever more complex and bizarre. Even simple concepts implied in the original are made explicit in the sequel; just as one example, the supernatural heart used to provide helpful hints and to detect occult items in the original makes another appearance, but while some of the musings of the soul within the heart and the voice used were the only things to clearly suggest that it contained the soul of Jessamine in the original, it is explicit in the sequel and her residual spirit is a major plot point. (The original also made Corvo seem a tad uncaring to rely heavily on this device without ever attempting to converse with it, while playing as Emily in the sequel provided an opportunity for closure with her mother. It would be interesting to see how a voiced Corvo reacted to the heart in this game, though maybe not interesting enough for me to do a Corvo run through the game.) The original threw out a lot of ideas that were not really explored, and the sequel picked up those ideas and ran with them.

I should note that I finished playing Dishonored 2 over a week ago. Since then, I returned to Dishonored to play the DLC, to try to learn more about the past of Meagan’s alter ego, and to try to understand Delilah more. I got some answers, but the adventures of the assassin Daud within the expansion are not vital to the story of Dishonored 2. Certainly the sequel builds on the framework set down by the DLC, much like it builds on what the original game provided, but familiarity with the DLC story is not required. Most interestingly, it is clear that Dishonored 2 actually took and improved upon a lot of features from the DLC, new ideas in gameplay that weren’t present yet in the original. I’ve also started Dishonored: Death of the Outsider, which so far feels like a tighter, slightly simplified version of Dishonored 2 that is heavily dependent upon an understanding of the earlier game’s story to be fully appreciated. In fact, Death of the Outsider leans more heavily on plot points from the first game’s DLC as well, and as a result, it feels like a game made particularly for the fan of the franchise’s lore. Certainly the gameplay could be picked up by anyone, but the attention to lore might make this somewhat inscrutable to someone new to the Dishonored setting. All that to say, Dishonored 2 is easily the game I’d recommend for anyone who wanted to give a Dishonored title a try. Thus far, I’d deem it the high point of the series, while working well as a standalone title.

Retrospective: Dishonored

I actually got Prey in a bundle of games from Arkane Studios, so with that title completed, I spent the past week with Dishonored. It was very interesting to go from Prey, a game released in 2017, to Dishonored, released in 2012. I’m actually amazed by that time jump. I remember hearing a lot about Dishonored when the first game came out, and that’s now about 8 years ago! It seems like it was just last year. Anyway, the interesting thing about taking this leap of 5 years back in time between games is that it gives the impression that features are being stripped away. Of course, that’s just a result of the developers building on features they’d already established, taking advantage of their existing foundation and newer advances in technology to build a better game. Yes, I think Prey is the better game. I absolutely loved my time with it and greatly enjoyed the story, characters, and setting. But I do see how much Prey owes to Dishonored, from the basics of stealth/combat/superpowers defining divergent play styles to the presence of an evolving world divided into zones.

The highlight of Dishonored, for me, was the setting. Dunwall is an interesting city, clearly inspired by a steampunk take on nineteenth-century London. The presentation of a city, and a nation, struggling with the spread of an epidemic against the rise of a violently oppressive dictatorship certainly feels timely, as well, even as it fits naturally within a setting inspired by English history. The glimpses of a larger world, largely dominated by a scattering of islands that have submitted to the rule of an Empire based out of Dunwall, with a fabled Lost World landmass that has defied colonization across the sea, feels fresh yet familiar. We are offered a unique fantasy world, vividly portrayed through environmental narrative (clothing, technology, architecture, art, the wear and tear on the city, the contrast between the remaining wealthy enclaves and the crumbling poorer districts overrun with those infected with the plague) and the usual copious excerpts from books, essays, maps, audio logs, and so on. It is clear enough that the industrial-fantasy world of Dunwall is directly responsible for the eventual creation of the radically different, retro-futuristic world of Talos I.

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We also see the same sort of moral choices in Dishonored and Prey. The moral system of these games can be boiled down to the presence or absence of empathy. If you work to save survivors in either game, your actions are rewarded in the long run. Dishonored has a greater emphasis on sparing your opponents and finding alternative solutions to eliminating targets that avoid killing. I tend to prefer the Good story paths in games anyway (I suppose part of my escapist power fantasy is being able to make the world a better place, to make good and principled decisions even in horrible situations), but I really enjoyed how pursuing less-violent paths encouraged engaging with the game’s systems and levels more. I went out of my way to explore the map to pursue nonviolent, or at least nonlethal, approaches.

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On a related note, while I wasn’t afraid to kill in the game, I generally tried to avoid it. I actually never finished a mission without taking a life, but I definitely tried to avoid a large-scale battle. One could certainly play the game in the manner of open combat, if they were seeking a more chaotic world and darker ending. But the nonviolent approach to any situation was typically more interesting and challenging. In fact, I saved frequently, and many of my copious reloads were not because of player-character death but because I’d triggered a large fight and ended up killing a lot of guards. Finding another, better way–which sometimes just involved careful timing and generous use of the protagonist’s special powers–was almost always quite satisfying.

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The powers themselves have a firm narrative purpose for existing. Similar to Prey, they have sort of an ominous origin. Instead of being cultivated from a ravenously destructive alien species, they are given to the hero by “the Outsider,” some sort of supernatural entity who mostly seems motivated by amusement in the conflicts of mortals. A major faction in the game, the state religion, was largely organized to root out practitioners of the dark arts provided by the Outsider. The hero is simply gifted these powers that many others commit terrible rituals to obtain. While at first it’s easy to view the church’s opposition to the Outsider’s followers as nothing more than a fantastical version of the cruel witch hunts of Europe’s actual history, the apparent evilness of so many of the Outsider’s most devout disciples becomes more apparent later on. By the end of the game, I didn’t particularly care for those who followed the major religion or for those who practiced black magic, and the Outsider himself seemed bored with and disgusted by many of his own purported adherents. More than just a magic system, the powers in the game were connected with some very murky thematic waters.

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The actual plot and characters, however, were weak points. You play as the always-silent Corvo, Royal Protector to the Empress, who starts the game returning from a failed diplomatic mission to the other islands. There is no known cure for the Rat Plague infesting Dunwall, and no aid is coming. Corvo is greeted by the precocious young Emily, daughter to Empress Jessamine, and passes by several other royal advisors who prove important to the plot. Upon delivering his news to the Empress, who is clearly quite fond of him, assassins with special powers arrive to disarm Corvo and assassinate Jessamine. They abduct Emily, and Corvo is framed for regicide. Much of the game is spent dealing with one or another group of conspirators, clearing Corvo’s name, and saving Emily. Some of the twists and turns of the plot are interesting, but it’s largely conventional and reliant upon some tired tropes. Characters come and go, and the recurring ones don’t really interact enough to develop particularly memorable personalities. Still, the fun in this game is actually playing it, experimenting with the tools at your disposal and bouncing strategies off the level design and enemy AI.

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There’s certainly the opportunity for a lot of replayability. There are various collectibles in each level and challenges of remaining undetected and avoiding any kills. Then, of course, there are the different endings to the game and the smaller fluctuations to each level dictated by who lived and who died in earlier levels. It’s not the sort of thing that excites me, but there’s certainly an open invitation to return to the game again and again, down to the option to replay a level immediately after its completion as you view your final level stats. I spent a mere 15 hours making my way through the main campaign (in contrast to the 31.4 hours in Prey).

I had fun with Dishonored. I don’t know whether I’d appreciate it more or less without the context of how it was the foundation for, and was ultimately surpassed by, Prey. But it was worth the time.