Microsoft’s trying something new. They’ve blasted open the wall between PCs and consoles and are committed not just to releasing their games on both platforms, but even releasing some of the games they’ve published on other consoles. Like, you can play the Ori games on the Switch. Cuphead’s on the Switch and the PlayStation 4, even. Microsoft has also embraced backwards compatibility with a fervor, with the new Xbox Series X and S consoles playing most games from the Xbox One and the Xbox 360. Between that and their focus on their Netflix-like Game Pass streaming service, which now includes access to the similar EA Play, Microsoft’s 2020 was less about releasing new games for the Xbox family of consoles, and more about increasing access to the deep Xbox back catalogue—for both games you’ve purchased in the past, and ones you just want to check out through Game Pass. It’s a smart, customer-friendly strategy, but as a side result the Xbox’s 2020 lineup lacked the kind of big budget, would-be blockbuster exclusives that tend to drive the console business. (Microsoft’s big play at that market, Halo Infinite, was pushed back from a November 2020 release to an undetermined date in 2021.) Still, if you’re a loyal Xbox owner, 2020 was rich in smart and exciting games for you to play. Here are Paste’s picks for the 20 best games released for the Xbox One or Xbox Series X|S in 2020.
Uncredited blurbs written by Garrett Martin.
20. Moving Out
Moving Out’s presentation is immaculate, with many cute critters, plants, and meals to play as. The jokes are genuinely funny, and the visuals and music flirt with an ‘80s aesthetic that feels timeless and stylish—it’s more than just noise to decorate a soulless party game. If you’re looking for a game to play with your family that’s light on mechanics, you can’t go wrong with Moving Out—it’s a good time and just as easy to pick up and play sober or otherwise.—Austin Jones
19. Coffee Talk
Long-brewing coversational game Coffee Talk saw its official release in 2020, and as Dante Douglas wrote for Paste in 2018, it’s a cozy, comfortable, low-key game that recreates the appeal of just hanging out and talking. Toge Productions couldn’t have predicted this when they started development, but by the time Coffee Talk came out simple pleasures like lounging in a coffee shop were off the table due to the pandemic, making the game’s mundane charm and human warmth especially welcome.
18. Gears Tactics
There comes a time when almost every beloved game franchise gets its own tactical spinoff. The Gears of War equivalent to Halo Wars finally came out this year, first on PC and then on the Xbox Series X and S, although with a foundation that owes more to XCOM or Final Fantasy Tactics than the G.I. Joe fantasies of Halo’s space-bound military sim. A game like this has three main points of interest: how does it convert Gears into this new format? Does it feel enough like a fully featured, well-designed strategy game to appeal to genre fans who don’t care about Gears of War? And what’s the point of a Gears game if you can’t do the roadie run? Well, here are Gears Tactics’ answers: 1. Very well indeed; 2. Yep!; 3. Don’t speak too soon.
I’ve never had to wrestle with a controller as strenuously as I do in Maneater. Sharks might be efficient killing machines, but trying to play as one can be hell on your hands and your DualShock. Every time I try to munch on an alligator or mako I have to beat my controller into submission, pounding on the shoulder trigger to take a bite, and then immediately smashing the right joystick to flip around and keep my prey in sight. When we’re evenly matched, these little duels can go on for minutes; when I’m trying to eat up a beast that’s bigger or stronger than me, I have to resort to guerrilla tactics, ambushing them from out of the seaweed, and regularly making short tactical retreats to swallow down some grouper or catfish to regain strength. Maneater reinforces the life-and-death struggle of these undersea squabbles by making me really feel them. These shark fights are the best thing about this weird, ambitious, and inconsistent game, which can veer from disappointing to exciting within seconds.
16. Doom Eternal
I am not generally a Doom man—younger me felt the original sent games as a concept spinning off into the conjoined shitty paths of thinking violence equals maturity and that heavy metal made with computers is actually listenable—but Doom Eternal is one of the least Doom-like Dooms I’ve ever Doomed. It’s also 100% certified Doom, just like a pure unfiltered toot of the totality of Doom. No, these thoughts don’t contradict each other.
Despite carrying around a few extra layers of business, Doom Eternal feels good. It is physically, mentally and emotionally a much-needed jolt out of all the ruts I’ve been stuck in—a shot of manufactured, harmless stress to take my mind off all the real stresses of today. Visiting a fictional hell world will always be preferable to dealing with the hell world we’re actually living in. Doom’s ripping and tearing is more vital today than ever—and not just that which I visit upon my enemies, but, importantly, the torturous ways in which they rip and tear through me. Doom Eternal is a two-way street—the doom I perpetrate and the doom I have to welcome with open arms. It’s a kind of penance, and I am ready to accept my punishment.
15. Assassin’s Creed Valhalla
Assassin’s Creed games are massive, messy spectacles that elevate boilerplate Ubisoft drudgery with the epic sweep of history. They’re absolutely ridiculous, highly repetitive, and entirely my shit, in a way few big budget franchises are. I haven’t enjoyed them all, and yes, I don’t always finish these mammoth adventures, but every few years a Creed hits me just right. Valhalla makes two in a row, after 2018’s similarly fine Odyssey. It turns the Viking invasion of 9th century England into yet another chapter in the eternal struggle between two secret societies devoted to recovering powerful artifacts left behind by a godlike race of ancient aliens—and I will never tire of typing sentences like that. Valhalla has what I look for in an Assassin’s Creed: memorable characters, vivid recreations of a long gone past, and a completely ridiculous, increasingly tangled, sci-fi conspiracy story rooted in a cartoon version of history. And this time it has way more mead and decapitations.
Despite accurately calling itself a “roguelite,” what most makes ScourgeBringer work isn’t its trendy genre. It’s not the structure, but the mechanics. Playing this game requires a rigorous physicality that never becomes overly complicated. It’s not dissimilar to playing a fighting game, in how you’ll have to be comfortable using every button at your disposal. You essentially wrestle with the controller, although not in a way that’s tedious; the bulk of the action is entering a new room and slicing or shooting through two waves of enemies as quickly as possible, with a time-based combo meter that increases the amount of money you earn with each kill. Money is important in a game that’s otherwise light on power-ups, so you want to keep that combo as high as possible. And so every fight becomes a sprint, with you trying to string attacks together while avoiding damage; once you’ve defeated a room, you’re still on the clock, and with enough planning can swoop into the next room and start the carnage again within the few seconds before your combo streak resets. You’ll careen through the game’s randomized labyrinths, stabbing face buttons to double jump or strike your enemies, parrying their attacks to leave them stunned and weakened, and clutching down on shoulder triggers to rush through the air or fire off a variety of firearms, and doing it all as quickly and accurately as you can. Yes, it’s like a kind of dance, one that you do with your fingers, and it never quite grows old.
Ikenfell is the type of game I wish I’d have played when I was 12. It doesn’t try to be cool or “quirky.” Instead, its charm comes from its awkward sincerity—its unpretentious presentation that could include eyerolls or cringe in those unacclimated to the genuine. Ikenfell is a night spent hunched over the family computer reading fanfiction you’re ready to minimize if you hear footsteps. It’s playing Neopets and flash dress-up games while binge watching Drake and Josh. It’s an experience that takes you back to those fleeting instances of unabashed joy you had in the comfort of your house between your school days and those weird Friday night roller skating things that were popular for like, a year—you know what I’m talking about, right? Right.—Jessica Howard
12. A Fold Apart
After finishing the adrenaline-pumping, 50-hour epic that was Final Fantasy VII Remake, I was looking for something much shorter and lighter for my next game, and found just that in A Fold Apart. It’s a sweet puzzle game about navigating a long-distance relationship, and although I found the narrative to be a little too on the nose and the puzzles to mostly all follow the same formula, it ended up being the game I needed. Only around three hours in length, I was able to complete A Fold Apart within just a couple days, and I let myself slip into a dream-like trance as I folded the paper and guided these lovebirds through their streams of consciousness. If I didn’t have the game included with Apple Arcade, I probably wouldn’t ever have given it a chance. But I’m glad I did, since its adorable art style and characters coupled with a calming and meditative gameplay loop helped calm some of the anxiety I’ve been feeling about the world. — Joseph Stanichar
11. Tell Me Why
Tell Me Why’s Michael summed it up best when he reassured Alyson that “families are fuck-up factories.” We all carry our various secrets and problems, weaknesses and wounds. But as I go through a period of my life where understanding and mitigating them is one of my core focuses, Tell Me Why hits harder than I ever expected or perhaps wanted it to. I don’t see myself in many parts of the game—parts I still love and recognize—but the shock of seeing so much of myself in both Alyson and Mary-Ann, in the game’s comforts and warnings, sticks with me. However, there is solace in knowing that how I feel is understood by others, and that a team of people, using bits and pieces of their own lives and pains, created a world I could see mine in—in knowing that there are other “little goblins” looking for answers, too.—Jessica Howard
Continuing in the trend of “games that easily could be a children’s film,” SpiritFarer exhibits a winning combination of heart and magical whimsy. Set aboard a ferry for the deceased, the game is equal parts puzzle-adventure and management sim. Rooms can be built, a garden grown, and adventures embarked upon as the ferrymaster Stella and her merry band travel the world and learn how to self sustain through mining, farming, cooking, fishing and crafting. Along the way, Stella also cares for the spirits of the dead, fulfilling their final wishes before saying goodbye. With a direct but life-affirming approach to the topic of death, the game’s optimistic vulnerability is as wholesome as its charismatic and upbeat characters.—Holly Green
9. Streets of Rage 4
This loving tribute to Sega’s early ‘90s beat-’em-up doesn’t just channel an overlooked classic. It’s one of two recent games, alongside March’s smarter Treachery in Beatdown City, that revive a genre that was once a cornerstone of the whole medium. The primal thrill and eternal allure of pulverizing waves of bozos with your fists, feet and special moves might have ebbed since their quarter-swallowing heyday in the early ‘90s, but Streets of Rage 4 shows that, when done with love and attention, this kind of violence can be as invigorating as ever.
8. Skater XL
Skater Xl is not so much a return to form for skateboarding games as it is a distillation of what made them great in the first place. Yes, it borrows its core control scheme (with a few minor changes) from the Skate series, but it adds an extra layer of challenge to it. The physics are more grounded, and it’s cool that the game minutely recreates some of the most famous skate spots in America—from the Radio Korea plaza to the Staples Center and the West L.A. Courthouse. The fact that Skater XL is grounded in reality is not what makes it truly special. What makes it so compelling is that you can customize your skater with real skate shoes, pants, boards, and more. Okay, that is not what makes it so great, but it is cool nonetheless. What makes it one of the best games of July is how it just distills the pure joys of skateboarding into a deceptively simple experience. No real objectives or stories or challenges are in the game—just various levels, your skater, and their board. It is all one needs because skateboarding is boundless. Use your imagination, try to skate new spots, craft compelling lines, and then get lost in the simple-yet-fun in-game video editor.—Cole Henry
There will always be a market for Metroid homages, no matter how uninspired so many of them can feel. Carrion is one of the few recent examples of the genre to actually stake its own unique territory. It’s not just that you’re in charge of what would conventionally be the main enemy in a game like this, and tasked to slaughter your way through the science experiment that imprisoned you, Ape Out-style. Carrion rethought the genre’s entire approach to motion. Instead of the predictable pattern of unlocking double jumps and grappling hooks, your amorphous blob of a creature glides throughout its brutalist prison with startling grace. It’s not elegant to look at, unless you like dripping viscera and globules of raw meat, but to play it is to recall the delicate arcs of Geometry Wars. You’re basically tracing your way through this game, and the contrast between grace and grisliness never grows old.
6. Wasteland 3
Wasteland 3 puts you in the shoes of an external force with the unique capability to see through internal affairs, and gives players a glimpse at what a stranglehold on power can result in. Every choice you make, from dialogue options to money management, gives the feeling that you really are in a wasteland, just trying to get by. It’s a harrowing vision of a world that could come to pass, and a poignant commentary on the one we’re just trying to make it through today.—Nicolas Perez
5. Ori and the Will of the Wisps
From the very first moments of 2015’s Ori and the Blind Forest, the developers at the Vienna-based Moon Studios have been manipulating our emotions. They do it about as well as anybody else in videogames ever had, and there’s something commendable about that. They convince us to immediately invest in their characters emotionally, which is hard to do, especially when no real words are being spoken. And one they have us on their hook, they’re excited to devastate us with unexpected deaths and heroic sacrifices. It can be a bit cloying—a little predictable, a little shameless—but it still has the desired impact, which means Moon Studios knows what it’s doing. And since Will of the Wisps, like Blind Forest before it, is a precisely calibrated machine of a platformer, with the the kind of Metroid-style backtracking elements that makes it almost impossible to put the controller down, there’s more than enough follow-through on that emotional wallop.
4. Going Under
The breadth of its options makes each run an exciting, different time, and makes Going Under a highly replayable roguelike that you shouldn’t miss. When you’re away from the keyboard for a second your character throws her weapon away, sits down, and starts scrolling on her phone. If I was bored in a dungeon, I would do the same thing! Little moments like that are found throughout the game, and showcase that Going Under is plugged in and timely. A lot of the early game is goofs and fighting, but as you progress deeper through the dungeons it becomes an inspiring story about fighting back, unionization, and solidarity. These days it’s way too easy to get down in the dumps, doom scroll, and instantly complain about anything online; this game distracted me from that. It made me laugh, transporting my mind into a world where evil sentient emojis run a corrupt dating app, skeletons are motivational speakers, and goblins drink coffee from a pot. It gave me hope, and made me more optimistic at the prospect of real change, which can only happen when people respect each other, work together and rip it out of clutches of a CEO after slaying them with a giant sword.—Funké Joseph
Remember DJ Hero? Cool, now forget all about it. Harmonix’s new DJ game captures the feeling of a real DJ set better than Activision’s short-lived series ever did, and you won’t need a big chunk of plastic that you’ll never use again to play it. Fuser does for DJing what Rock Band did for rocking, with a deep selection of real songs from the past six decades to chop up and recombine however you see fit. It’s a fun game, sure, but it’s also an amazing tool for musical creativity, turning every player into their own personal mash-up machine. You should play it, is what I’m saying.
2. Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 1 + 2
Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 1 + 2 remasters the first two games in the iconic series, updating all the levels from the original games and featuring both the original skaters and new ones. If you’ve been hoping a skating game could recapture the look and feel of those old classics, well, here you go. When I picked up the controller it was like no time had passed. I haven’t played the warehouse level from the very first game in literally decades, and yet it all came back to me immediately once I put thumb to stick.
Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 1 + 2 isn’t mere nostalgia. It’s a revival. It exhumes a true classic but roots it deeply in the modern world and not in some idealized version of its past. It doesn’t try to hide or ignore the changes of the last 20 years. And that’s one reason it’s one of the best games of 2020.
1. Kentucky Route Zero Act V
Kentucky Route Zero’s final act finally came out early this year, and capped this brilliant game off perfectly, with the same combination of mystery and mundanity that has always been its hallmark. Kentucky Route Zero is one of the slipperiest, most subtle games ever when it wants to be, and thuddingly, powerfully upfront when it needed to be, turning the classic point-and-click adventure framework into an existential Southern Gothic allegory about work, art, life, and everything else. Despite the seven years between Acts I and V, Cardboard Computer somehow never lost the thread along the way, with all its digressions and discursive plot points contributing to its magical realist explorations of life. If you haven’t played it before, it’s the perfect time to jump in, now that it’s finally finished.