NHL 20 isn't a huge update over last year's version, and its graphics continue to lag behind the competition. Still, it brings with it plenty of solid refinements, and its franchise mode continues to stand out as a strength. Returning players may be disappointed by this year's features, but if you're a hockey fan who hasn't picked up the series in a while, I think you'll be pleasantly surprised.
NBA 2K20's presentation is unparalleled, but beneath its shiny exterior are continued problems with its online infrastructure and some pretty odious microtransactions. The latter are a bit less punishing than last year, but the former is worse than ever, and it affects almost every aspect of the game. These elements, which seemingly come up every year, unfortunately overshadow what should be an amazing sports sim.
Borderlands 3 is more Borderlands, and all the loot that entails. This proper sequel improves upon the formula with more guns, but more importantly, a stretch of unique planets to kill enemies on. The new planets offer more visual variety and a great evolution of enemy encounters. The tuning is clearly meant for more than one player, making a punitive experience at times for the solo Vault Hunter. Despite the formula growing a bit stale, Gearbox has expanded upon it in the right way, resulting in a great Borderlands experience.
River City GirlsSwitch
River City Girls is as bubbly as the pop song that soundtracks its intro cinematic would lead you to believe. With all-around excellent art direction, you'll be hard-pressed to find a game this year with more style and confidence than River City Girls. While the first few hours are a slog as you level up and learn the ropes, once your moveset grows bigger, any encounter is a blast full of combos, and yes, dabbing. Just be sure to bring a friend along for the ride, as it's much harder to brave alone.
Monster Hunter: World - IcebornePS4
Monster Hunter World: Iceborne skimps a bit on introducing totally new monsters, but it's still a large expansion filled with very smart refinements. The campaign alone comes close to matching the scale of the base game, and it wisely ditches some of its more tedious elements. If you played through the original and wanted more, then Iceborne is almost everything you could ask for. It's not a full sequel, but it's pretty darn close.
GEARS 5Xbox One
Gears 5 survives on its solid cover shooting gameplay and a campaign that isn't afraid to pose difficult questions about problematic topics. But the largely stagnant Horde mode and general mess of an Escape mode really pull the sequel back from being a bold step forward.
Catherine: Full BodyPS4
The new additions to Catherine: Full Body are mostly a win, with sharper graphics, more complex puzzles (and better hand-holding for players intimidated by them), and more background on Katherine in particular. Where it lacks though is in the new romance route, which is awkwardly shoehorned in and feels too separated from the rest of the story. Still, for Catherine fans, Full Body has enough nightmare-inducing goodness to make it worth another round 'til last call.
The Dark Pictures Anthology: Man of MedanPS4
With Man of Medan, Supermassive builds on the foundation established in 2015's Until Dawn. While the core of the game remains the same, driven by dialog, choices, and quick-time events, the developers has added some multiplayer action to the mix. The two-player online Shared Story is the primary highlight here, allowing two players to simultaneously determine the course of the story. Unfortunately, the story itself isn't as good as the horror yarn spun in Until Dawn.
Ancestors: the Humankind OdysseyPC
For every cool "a-ha!" moment in Ancestors: The Humankind Odyssey, there has been something that has me on the verge of rage quitting. There's a fascinating, novel concept in Ancestors, but with so many bugs and other tedious issues blocking it, the joy of this survival game feels like it's constantly kept millions of years and a bundle of evolutionary feats away.
Astral Chain is the directorial debut of Nier Automata designer Takahisa Taura, and it proves that he's a creator worth paying attention to. Part melodramatic anime, part overly complicated Tamagotchi, it's an eminently playable action role-playing game that delivers the pleasure of good teamwork in a way few singleplayer games accomplish. Building on action design ideas seeded in Nier, Astral Chain encourages you to bond with your beloved pet cybermonster both on and off the battlefield. Then, it teaches you how to fight as one.
Control continues the basic formula that Remedy Entertainment has been playing with for all these years—third-person action with a hint of unreality—but it feels like the studio has reached its final form. The Oldest House, a vast structure of brutalist architecture and collection of powerful paranormal objects, allows Remedy to play with new ideas and variations on traditional gameplay, breaking up the shooting and superhuman powers with games of red light/green light and journeys through Alice in Wonderland-style mazes.
Oninaki is a likable RPG. Its story and setting are interesting, and the Daemons you collect to help you fight are cool. Unfortunately, bashing through uninteresting swarms of high-HP enemies puts a damper on the fun. Oninaki is still better than Tokyo RPG Factory's previous games; the studio seems to be moving in the right direction. If it can get past its extended growing pains, it'll be a contender someday.
Telling Lies feels like it's about four times as big as Sam Barlow's previous game Her Story, and it shows. You feel it not just in the four characters you're sifting through footage of, but in the variety of its videos too: from FaceTime calls to hidden cameras capturing secretive meetings. In Her Story, it was famously easy to go down a rabbit hole of sorts on your own intuition; in Telling Lies, that tendency is mechanized in smart, intuitive ways. When it comes to good interactive mysteries, Telling Lies is among the best you can get.
Age of Wonders: PlanetfallPC
Triumph returns to its unique mix of Civilization and XCOM with the new Age of Wonders: Planetfall. Leaving behind the fantasy trappings of the previous games, Planetfall heads into sci-fi territory. The new colony system speeds up play and allows for interesting options for hobbling your opponent's cities, and the combat system is blown way out, with combinations of race, technology, research, and unit mods allowing for a dizzying array of army choices. In fact, Planetfall's biggest problem will likely be onboarding new players because of its density.
Wolfenstein: Youngblood improves the series in key areas—namely in level design—but it doesn't capitalize enough on it being a co-op experience. Working with your sister is limited to pulling a switch at the same time, and not much else. You can split up in combat to confuse your enemies, but situations barely call for such finesse. At the very least, new characters Soph, Jess, and Abby all infuse a welcome goofy '80s adventure movie enthusiasm that makes Youngblood an entertaining romp through the world of Wolfenstein, with Nazis aplenty to eviscerate along the journey.
Fire Emblem: Three HousesSwitch
Fire Emblem: Three Houses soars on to Switch with a fully-realized school setting, deep character customization, and multiple full-length campaigns. While it loses momentum in the second half, it still manages to come off as a striking reinvention of the well-worn Fire Emblem formula. That makes its first real console appearance in more than a decade a triumph.
Elsinore is simple and focused, aimed squarely at avid readers who want to manipulate Hamlet with their own hands. It succeeds at this, building a wonderfully meta-textual world that's fascinating to unravel and earns a good few gasps, laughs, and tearful moments, but the long waiting periods and frustration between different events overlapping can grate on after a while. Elsinore is time-looping <em>Hamlet</em>, and that premise is what will likely hook you or not.
MARVEL ULTIMATE ALLIANCE 3: The Black OrderSwitch
The Ultimate Alliance comes roaring back with this Nintendo Switch exclusive. Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3 pulls inspiration for Marvel comics, movies, TV, and more to create an homage to the brand's long history. Unfortunately, some camera issues and general readability mar the overall experience, and the alternate costumes fall short of the Ultimate Alliance standard. Despite that, this is a great couch co-op adventure with all your Marvel favorites.
Dragon Quest Builders 2PS4
Dragon Quest Builders 2 is a quintessential example of a great sequel. It takes everything that's fun about the first game and adds more of the good stuff while removing the mechanics that didn't work the first time around. It's slow to really get started, but once it starts rolling, you never want to stop digging, building, and fighting. If you're curious about the Dragon Quest Builders series on any level, Dragon Quest Builders 2 is a good jumping-on point.
FINAL FANTASY XIV: ShadowbringersPC
Final Fantasy 14 set a high bar with its previous expansions, but Shadowbringers stands above the rest. Expected additions come in the form of new regions and the new jobs, Dancer and Gunbreaker. Both bring their own flavor to the game, though the Dancer is the standout. More importantly, Shadowbringers tells a tale that not only contains some meaningful real-world connections, but also provides an experience that's firmly Final Fantasy-esque. Great writing, solid voice acting, and an excellent soundtrack wrap Shadowbringers up in a package that should satisfy Final Fantasy 14 fans and neophytes alike.
Sea of SolitudePC
Not even striking art direction and sincere storytelling can save the unfortunate nature of Sea of Solitude. Marred by dull action and, at worst, frustrating sequences, Sea of Solitude ends up feeling like twice the length of its runtime. Those monsters and that world sure are gorgeous though.
Outer Wilds is easily my game of the year thus far, and continues to move up the list of my personal favorite games of all time. It’s an experience I genuinely cannot stop thinking about, managing to encompass everything I love about the adventure gaming genre and the smart sci-fi musings of my all-time favorite authors. The few negatives brought on by the time loop at the game’s core are universally outweighed by the pioneering spirit cultivated throughout. I urge you to seek out Outer Wilds if you can, if only to try out what is surely one of the greatest adventure games ever created.
Samurai Shodown captures the spirit of the older games, veering towards a mix of older and newer series entries. In terms of single-player, but it's a a far cry from Mortal Kombat 11 or even what recent games like Dead or Alive 6 have offered. On the multiplayer side, it offers a solid core, but not much else. It's nice to see SamSho back in the spotlight, but we wish it had a little more to keep us playing beyond just fighting other players.
Super Mario Maker 2Switch
Players now have the chance to make their own hellish, evil Mario levels on Nintendo Switch. Super Mario Maker 2 starts with the foundation established in the first game, and adds new themes, new game styles, and new items. It falters due to the loss of the second screen of the Wii U and 3DS iterations, and the lack of Amiibo costumes hurt, but this is still a fantastic package for a Mario fan or budding lever designer.
Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night has been a long time coming, but now that it's here, fans of Castlevania: Symphony of the Night have everything to gain. Playing through Bloodstained feels great if you're already a fan of Koji Igarashi's work—and if you're a fan of action-adventure games in general. There are some unfortunate bugs, hitches, and glitches, but once you download the 1.02 patch, you should be through the worst of them.