With every disastrous reason surfacing one after the other to justify locking ourselves up indoors throughout all of 2020, one would think there would have been more time to play video games. But compared to the previous year in 2019, consuming games in any fashion was more difficult as the industry seemed like it was barely standing on its own two feet. From conventions and expos getting cancelled one by one, business deals behind closed doors getting slashed, and delays pushing major release titles all confined within the same release window, it took a pandemic to fully cast out and shine a light on the industry’s skeletons that have been piling up and spilling out of its stinky, musty closet.

Regardless of these circumstances, the worst parts of the game industry—which undeniably stems from the bigger budgeted, glitzier parts of it—should not overshadow the hidden treasures waiting to be found deeper in the dark. Remaining faithful to my background in games coverage and that ongoing agenda, my narrowed down “Top 5” game picks for 2020 hope to not only stay true to my tastes, but to also make room for the sort of indie, niche titles I want to continue to narrow my focus on supporting.

This is my second year taking part in Game of the Year with Video Game Choo Choo, and I honestly don’t know if we are the best group to survive against some retroactive apocalypse with, but at least we’re the most fun.

5. Star Renegades

A large, forebording robot faces off a ragtag group of armed fighters of various appearances on a bridge over a waterfall.

Not only do I typically dislike roguelites, but I also don’t understand the mass of the lore, text, and chunky artstyle that lays the foundation for something like Warhammer 40,000. However, if you combine elements of those two things and get Star Renegades—it somehow becomes something I genuinely enjoy!

Star Renegades is a roguelite strategy RPG that takes your squad up against the growing army of an invading empire after being warned of an impending, future doom if their tirades are not stopped. In addition to facing off enemies in a mission-based campaign, you must also deal with building allyship across your teams to hopefully influence the next line of heroes, and even potentially your own progeny.

A three-eyed alien with a bow has several hearts hovering over it. Two other figures sit next to it and they are all holding a drink, sitting at a bar.

Just as the tactics-styled combat feels great, Star Renegades also looks great, with its deliberately low-bit graphics, and just a dash of tilt-shift effects for that extra kick, harkening to a vibe so strongly associated with 80s pulp literature and sci-fi fantasy art. It gets your adrenaline pumping to utterly crush a giant mech-like structure and see it fall apart with every pixel lovingly rendered in detail. Although progressing through the game may come off as repetitive because of its inherent roguelite-ness, my interest in Star Renegades has not faltered and it continues to be a straightforward experience to zip in and out of if I’m ever in the mood to knock some heads.

4. Animal Crossing: New Horizons

Close up of a letter with an airplane design that reads: 'My dear Elvie, Whenever I see a plan I think of you and wave at those airborne strangers with all my might. I had no idea how many flights took off each day. My arm is exhausted. Enjoy your fresh start! -Mom'

Yes—Animal Crossing: New Horizons is by no means a low budget, independently produced game. It is also certainly the complete opposite of what one would call “niche”. But it is a game I still continue to love and thus is a game that stood out to me in 2020, which is something that I think I can speak for on behalf of many others.

Animal Crossing has pulled me in with every consecutive title it has had to offer in its mainline series thanks to its signature cuteness and the utopian-like wholesomeness that embodies what each game is. Its visuals and use of audio is iconic, and it is no wonder given that they are purposefully designed to harken back to a sense of nostalgia and more innocent times. These elements are all the more enhanced and with higher definition in New Horizons. With even more enhanced sensory weather effects and further taking minute textures and animation detail in each and every single character to the next level, New Horizons is a visual treat worth every snapshot with its in-game camera.

It provided the literal gateway island package from a pandemic: just as much as you could commit to fulfilling tiny goals provided in a single-player experience, you can also hang out with friends or meet new ones across the world without leaving your home. Even outsiders to gaming hopped on to the New Horizons hype pretty quickly, but it was also simultaneous to growing discontent from others who justifiably felt the game was occasionally frustrating and was too much of a departure from past games with its new mechanics and an unprecedented, economically devastating thirst from the community.

Animal Crossing: New Horizons, nintendo, switch

But from hosting graduation ceremonies, celebrating high school proms, roleplaying the missing dine-in experience, providing live entertainment, and to some extent, holding the 2020 Tokyo Olympics that never was, Animal Crossing: New Horizons, became more than just a mere game. For many such as myself, it was a source of escape and comfort. To others, it was a necessary means to slowly accept reality and heal. I personally have not played the game with the same frequency as I initially had since it came out, but I still pop open the game once in a while and anticipate every new update still expected to come—even as slow as they may be—to keep on hearing that sweet Animalese.

3. Chicken Police: Paint It RED!

A dialogue scene between two anthropomorphic roosters donning leather jackets and a long-maned horse wearing a formal outfit fitted with a vest and bow tie. The dialogue box below the frame reads: "Two bourbons, pal! And quit horsin' around!"

There were a lot of games released in the last two years alone that featured an exclusively anthropomorphic animal cast within a thriller-mystery setting, and there are even more to come in the early portion of 2021. A. Lot. Of. Them! I am not sure what it is about this highly specific genre to find a surgence recently, but I’m certainly not complaining if all them are anything like Chicken Police.

Chicken Police: Paint it RED! Is an utterly feral point-and-click noir-themed game with anthropomorphic animals. (I think this is the first time I can apply an actually appropriate use of the word “feral” here.) I first discovered the game at Indie Arena Booth’s online show this year and I was already impressed with the demo then and became even more impressed with the full game. It’s raunchy, it’s reckless, and it’s just downright a racket! Playing a rooster detective fallen from grace who is forced to work with a former partner on a new case, the game has you use an interrogation system with assorted mini-games sprinkled throughout its narrative as you explore the gritty city of Clawville.

With a unique, eye-catching visual style that collages animal photos with humanoid bodies combined with impeccably high quality voice acting and shockingly dense writing, nothing can be said about this game that isn’t downright ludicrous. It is constantly making fun of itself and the genre it pays homage to, throwing in sequences like an extensive action car chase scene (with guns and all), a brief mini-game where you have to help the femme fatale zip up her dress, and a frequent, excessive use of extremely stupid animal puns such as constantly saying “cluck” instead of a typical F-bomb.

A black and white monochromatic scene of a street at night. The view is centered on a night club with a marquee sign lit with "CZAR CLUB". Vintage-styled cars are scattered and park along the empty street.

The game was developed by The Wild Gentlemen, a new independent game studio based in Hungary that comprises a team that previously has had AAA industry experience—and it really shows! As I discussed within my first impressions of the game in the aforementioned Indie Arena Booth Online piece, I was initially concerned how the game was going to approach fantastic racism if it was going to be present in its story, but those concerns were alleviated experiencing how much the game does not take itself seriously enough where anything that seems like it was going to be played straight instead turns completely sideways. Chicken Police is a genuinely funny and solidly presented game that knows exactly what it is and what it wants to do. I was surprised by how much Chicken Police turned out to be a hoot—or rather a bakaw.

2. Carto

A child stands in the middle of a small home. An anguished, matronly figure, sits on a mat, knitting. Standing nearby, a gruff man with thick facial hair carries a furrowed expression.

In 2019, Death Stranding urged you to see the lines across the distances that separate our communities, while 2020 was the year that Carto had you literally draw them to connect them together.

Carto fought its way into my field of vision by climbing over countless other demos that were made available during the Autumn Edition of the Steam Game Festival this year—and it stuck with me since. Playing as a young girl, the game centers on your ability to manipulate map pieces to build paths and solve puzzles to further navigate across different lands in an effort to reunite with your grandmother after a storm tore you two apart.

What stood out to me the most in Carto was how each proceeding use of the game’s main gimmick continued to exceed my expectations in what it could possibly do next. The game not only has you connect one map piece to the other, but also forces you to reconsider how the mechanic can be used in clever, mind-blowing ways. For instance, one situation may hint you to consider the direction a tree may be pointing toward in one scene to figure out where to put the connecting map piece to get into the next scene. Another situation may urge you to consider how you place or move a map piece in being the key to unlock something as opposed to where, and its final location is not crucial to solving the problem at hand.

A view of a fragmented map.

The game has you travel across different places that feature assorted, imaginary cultures that can easily be interpreted and have elements to them seen as analogous to real life cultures in their own ways. Every person you meet treats you with kindness and politeness, and although lacking in understanding who you are and what your map shifting abilities are capable of, they indirectly help you just as you in exchange provide help to them—if not for a few comical, but still encouraging misunderstandings here in there as well.

With a charming, illustrative style reminiscent of a children’s book, Carto shares a very welcoming, optimistic view of the world and unites it through puzzles. Carto endearingly imagines a globe much smaller than our own to paint a big picture on how different people from all over can connect all thanks to a little protagonist who simply wants to go back home.

1. Spiritfarer

An example of a customizable setup of a boat in Spiritfarer.

My official, full Spiritfarer review for Video Game Choo Choo was actually the last review I wrote for the site for 2020, so it is coincidental for this title to cap off what video games meant to me for that year. It is a game that truly helped me understand what it really means to be able to play something, and laugh, and cry all at the same time.

Spiritfarer is not only a game that is visually appealing to the eye, it can also be outright warming and nurturing to the heart. In spite of its themes revolving around the expectations of dying, Spiritfarer avoids getting crass or dark in its approach to the topic, instead re-examining it through a lens that is both invigorating and healing. Death is unfortunately inevitable, but the countdown to life’s end doesn’t have to be experienced with haste and total dread.

As a game, Spiritfarer succeeds as a resource management sim in every aspect, offering you a variety of activities to do from tending a garden, cooking, and maintaining relationships with various, lovingly designed characters. In addition, you have to customize your boat around building facilities that can fit each of these characters’ needs in addition to helping you sustain and utilize the resources you forage on your seafaring travels. And lest we not forget that this game has a fishing sim! None of these tasks are very pressing, and you are free to take all the time you need, just as much as all the spirits you ferry along the way are taking their own remaining time on their own terms.

Your desired outcome for each and every one of these tasks is ultimately about making others feel good—and it feels good doing it! From the smooth, flowing waters that trickle alongside the edges of your boat to the unique, detailed bounce in every characters’ step, every element in the game’s visuals also shows how thoughtful each creative decision has been made through stunning results. (The game also perhaps has one of the best interpretations of an anthropomorphic snake design I have ever seen.) The game’s draftsmanship in its animation just oozes with rich detail. It looks beautiful just as much as it mechanically feels smooth. These subtleties add so much richness in places where the story intentionally lets you fill in the blanks and further enhances the more specific moments that carry a lot of emotional weight, such as further learning about an NPC’s prior life through a bit of dialogue and when you have to eventually let someone go.

spiritfarer, thunder lotus games, indie, death

As I discuss this, we are still currently in the midst of a very difficult time raked with inescapable, endless stories of sickness and pestilence. Many continue to grieve, and although it may not be in response to a literal death, loss is still something that can be experienced in a myriad of different ways. For releasing in a time like this, Spiritfarer imparts you with an even more profound message than it probably initially foresaw, offering its own perspective on how to process something that can be difficult and harrowing. Although we can’t easily hug others at this very moment like you can in the game, at the very least, through expressing love and care even at a distance, can we assure each other that pain and grief does not have to be endured alone, and that is something the world definitely needs to be reminded of more.

Spiritfarer hopes to teach you how to “learn how to say goodbye” by learning how to be appreciative of the better parts of an arduous journey that it takes to get to the end. And in bidding a disdainful farewell to 2020 as it came to its own end, here’s hoping the new year will steadily climb up from the lowest point to become something worthy of an embrace and to mourn over for.

A a young girl lying in bed wears a cartoonish, shocked expression as she look towards a green, glowing orb flying towards her.

About Elvie Mae

Elvie was conjured out of recycled materials sourced from New Jersey. She is the designated czar of the Gamesline socials, and is probably subtweeting about you.

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