Every Pokemon Rival Ranked

As you journey across the regions of the Pokemon world, it would be pretty lonely if you didn’t have anyone to share your journey with. As such, every game since the very first has had you share your journey with a rival who is exploring, growing and battling just the same as you. They’ve come in many different flavours over the years, but be they friendly, antagonistic or…just kinda…there, they stand to challenge you throughout your journey and hopefully bond with someone as you grow as trainers together.

Each game has its own versions, and they have widely varying personalities, so which ones left the biggest impact on me? Let’s rank ’em.

15 – Calem/Serena – X/Y

Serena may be a great character in the anime, but her game counterpart is the world’s blandest human.

As you’ll see in just a few entries, the rivals that are the gender-swap of the player character tend to be the worst. The problem is that because their identity is entirely dependant on which gender the player is, they had to create a personality that would fit both characters. Of course, the easy solution would’ve just been to create two different personalities, but that’s beside the point.

Calem & Serena are by far the worst when it comes to these situations because they’re SO boring. Everything they say is stupidly generic and just pointless prattle about becoming stronger and growing as a person. Running into them is an absolute chore because they never have anything interesting to say. Even exposition tends to be given to the other characters around them. No attempt went into giving them any kind of character arch. They just copy/pasted the base template they’ve always used for the rival and didn’t change anything.

Most importantly, they’re an awful rival. X & Y as a whole often get derided for being too easy, even by Pokemon’s standards, and Calem & Serena are one of the clearest examples of this. Their team is ALWAYS lagging behind yours in terms of levels, and they just don’t have very interesting Pokemon. I’m so disappointed that THIS was the rival that got an Absol as their strongest Pokemon because…Absol deserves so much better.

14 – Shauna/Tierno/Trevor – X/Y

These three are technically all distinct characters, but they’re so tightly linked to one another that I’m lumping them all into one entry. The general idea of travelling together in a big group was one I liked. It created a real sense of fun on the journey with so many people journeying with you. Unfortunately, the characters that are on that journey aren’t anyone interesting.

Since there are so many characters, and they all have limited screen-time, the writers went to the tried and tested trope of boiling their personalities down to a single trait. Shauna is “girly”, Trevor is clever and Tierno…likes to dance? Characters who only have one trait aren’t interesting at the best of times, but it’s made so much worse when the traits are stupid and generic like those ones. Encountering them is never anything interesting either, they’ll all say a line or two, maybe you’ll battle one of them, and that’ll be that.

Once again, they’re terrible as rivals. For one thing, you very rarely battle them, and when you do, they’re absolutely no challenge. Running into them feels like an interruption to your journey rather than a part of it, and that’s a bad sign. As I said, the idea of having a big group to journey with is a great one, and I hope they try it again, but this was an absolute failure of an attempt.

13 – Brendan/May – Ruby/Sapphire/Emerald

These two suffer from the same problem that Calem & Serena do, only they’re a bit better because they have at least a little bit of character.

While the friendly rival thing has been done to death by this point in the franchise, Brendan & May were the first time it happened in a major way in the series. As such, a lot of what they had to say felt fresh, and the friendly atmosphere was a nice change of pace from the antagonistic rivals of the first two generations. Sadly, that’s where the positives end.

When you actually look into their personality, there isn’t very much there. Most of what they say is just there to move the plot along, but they at least say it in a slightly more interesting way than in X & Y. In terms of their teams, there’s a lot more interest to be had, and they certainly feel like a more well-rounded trainer on that front. I never found any battle with them to be much of a challenge, and once again, I got that feeling they were always lagging behind me, not growing alongside me.

12 – Hau – Sun/Moon/Ultra Sun/Ultra Moon

To me, Hau is the epitome of the boring friendly rival trope that now plagues the franchise. He’s bright, energetic, all too willing to explain everything to you and always loses. Admittedly I’m not as against the friendly rival stuff as many in the fanbase are, but I’d like them to have a more complex personality than this. The Alola games had a powerful story, and many of the other characters were brilliant, so it’s a real shame that Hau was a character that just seemed to get left in the dust.

He’s a better rival than the ones I’ve covered so far, but not by much. His team is a lot more interesting and is quite well balanced; the levelling is the only real problem. The problem of a lack of difficulty is by no means exclusive to the rivals in the modern games, but it’s undeniable that I just kept destroying the guy every time we met because I out levelled him. What’s worse is he just let every loss roll right off his back in an “aw shucks, I’m just happy to take part!” kind of way that drives me insane.

Yes, there’s definitely value in teaching kids that winning isn’t everything, but real people CARE when they keep losing like that, and Hau just doesn’t.

11 – Hop – Sword/Shield

For the most part, Hop is just a copy/paste of Hau. He’s nice and friendly, piss-weak compared to you and will throw exposition in your face until you want to strangle him.

I could end this entry right there and be done with it, but what puts Hop a small step above Hau is that he actually gets a bit of character arc in Sword & Shield. It’s not an amazing one, but it’s certainly more than the rivals I’ve covered so far have got. Unlike Hau, Hop actually gives a shit when he keeps losing. The pressure of his unbeatable brother and you beating his ass at every opportunity weighs on him after a while. Granted, they don’t go very far with it, but it’s something, and I’ve really gotta take all I can get during these lower entries.

10 – Marnie – Sword/Shield

I wanted to put her higher based solely on how much I love her character design, but the truth is, Marnie just isn’t that interesting of a character.

My decision to put her over Hop is a bit arbitrary; I guess it’s because she’s less in-your-face and annoying, but that’s not saying much. Personality-wise, she’s got a bit more of an edge to her, but in reality, the game just treats her like any other friendly rival. The stuff with Team Yell is kinda interesting with how Marnie isn’t into it, but like with Hop’s story, they don’t dive into it very far. She just runs them off when they’re being annoying sometimes. Similarly, there’s her conflict with her brother overusing Dynamax Pokemon, which is interesting, but again, doesn’t go anywhere.

Her team’s a bit more interesting than Hop’s, but the lack of difficulty strikes her down again as someone who never presented me a challenge. She’s got the added disadvantage of only focusing around a single type due to how she becomes a Gym Leader by the end of the game. Unlike the others so far on this list, I didn’t hate it when I ran into her because it usually moved things forward quite quickly, but she still wasn’t all that amazing.

9 – Hugh – Black 2/White 2

Hugh is another who fits into the ‘friendly rival’ archetype, but I think he comes in a step above what I’ve covered so far by virtue of him actually having motivations as a character. He’s still extremely buddy-buddy and tutorialising to your player character, but he actually gets a decent role in Black 2 & White 2’s story. The Unova games emphasised their narratives, so even template characters like Hugh got a nice boost from being involved.

His determination to get stronger is all in service of his goal of recovering his sister’s Purlion from Team Plasma and, while it might not be the strongest of motivations, it means he’s got a clear goal from the outset, and you can see how everything he does is in service of that. It also plays well with his kind and helpful nature, both to the player and to other characters, as he doesn’t want other people to have to go through what he has.

His Pokemon aren’t the strongest ever, but his team is well-rounded, and the generation 5 games are still just difficult enough that battles with Hugh can be challenging if you’re not ready for them. He still doesn’t break out into being one of the best, but Hugh is definitely a tier above what we’ve seen so far.

8 – Barry – Diamond/Pearl/Platinum

Much like Hugh, Barry is a rival who still fits the ‘friendly’ archetype but has some stuff piled on top.

His hyperactive personality is simultaneously annoying and charming in a way that I can’t quite put my finger on. I love how he immediately wants to go out and catch a legendary Pokemon before he’s even got a Pokeball; it actually makes him feel like the youngish child the rivals are supposed to be in this game. Of course, that’s where the annoying aspect can come in because it does get tiresome here and there. Additionally, he doesn’t really progress as a person at all, he becomes a bit more mature at the end, but nothing really noteworthy to make him super interesting.

Barry hits pretty well on the difficulty aspect, though. His levels normally match pretty well with the area he’s in, and his team is fairly well balanced (not the best, but still pretty good). A battle with Barry was almost always a welcome challenge rather than an annoying obstacle which is how it should feel.

7 – Bede – Sword/Shield

I’ve slated the Sword & Shield writing quite a bit in this list so far, but I’d say Bede is one of the highlights.

For one thing, antagonistic rivals tend to feel like better characters just because the writers can go a bit loser with it. They don’t have to be constantly patting the player on the back or espousing the power of friendship. This applies to the Pokemon anime too, just look at rivals like Gary & Paul. Bede’s self-important persona is one you can instantly recognise as dislikable, and the game has no trouble playing up to it. They’re extremely headstrong, and it bites them in the arse a couple of times in the story.

The place where they fall down is when you battle them. Like Marnie, they suffer from focusing on a single type, so things always feel a bit easier, not to mention the difficulty problems I’m mentioned already in later generations. They also don’t have a fantastic end to their story. It’s nice that they got something to do, but the Gym Leader thing came out of nowhere, and they don’t even seem like they want to do it.

Bede is definitely one of the better characters in Sword & Shield, but they just don’t quite follow through to the end.

6 – Gladion – Sun/Moon/Ultra Sun/Ultra Moon

Gladion is by far the most interesting character I’ve talked about so far. The dude’s actually got a back-story, which puts him head and shoulders above the rest so far.

The story surrounding The Aether Foundation and the family at its centre is an interesting one that’s split into many pieces across Alola’s story. All things considered, Gladion is one of the more minor parts of that story, but he still helps tie things together and give a much fuller picture of that life. His downbeat and untrusting personality stands as an essential contrast to Lillie’s open and kind personality. Both of them went through very similar trauma in their childhoods, but where Lillie used it as motivation to be good and kind, Gladion used it to close himself off from everyone but a select trustworthy few.

Aside from that, Gladion is ok as a rival. As I’ve said, the later generations have a problem with difficulty, and Gladion does fall victim to that somewhat, but I’d say he’s better than Hau. His team is a lot more interesting with some rather powerful Pokemon, which makes up for the fact that his levels often aren’t on par with yours. I also love the touch that three of his Pokemon have friendship based evolutions; it’s one of those subtle things that tells you loads about his character.

Plus, his battle theme is kick-ass, so that’s always a positive.

5 – Wally – Ruby/Sapphire/Emerald

Wally isn’t the primary rival in the Hoenn games, and in fact, you only fight him twice during the story, but he still managed to leave a notable impression on me. Initially, a kid you have to escort to catch a Pokemon, Wally grows surprisingly fast into a rather formidable trainer. His vague illness and quiet demeanour make him someone that I feel the urge to be kind towards. He starts off quite unsteady yet determined and eventually turns into a quietly confident trainer that I can respect.

Since you don’t battle him too much, he’s not an amazing rival, but he provides quite a challenge when you battle him at the end of Victory Road. His ORAS battle theme is bloody brilliant, but that aside he has a brilliantly constructed teams with some powerful Pokemon. Even though he goes down in defeat in that final battle with you, he still feels like someone who has achieved his goal. He overcame his hurdles and became the powerful Pokemon trainer he always wanted to be. It’s not a complicated character arc, but it’s all you really need.

4 – Blue – Red/Blue/Yellow

The original, but not quite the best.

While I may not rate Blue at the top, I can’t deny that he is the measuring stick for all the other rivals that came after him in the series. His in-your-face douchebaggery made him an extremely memorable character, and it’s no surprise that he’s still fondly remembered to this day. I’ve got many criticisms to level at Generation 1, but the writing isn’t one of them. I think they nailed this character and how he’s always a few steps ahead of you on your journey. You get the feeling that, even when you beat him, it could’ve gone the other way and, maybe if he had a slight attitude shift, he could actually surpass you.

In terms of strength as a rival, I think Blue does the best out of anyone on that front. His Pokemon are almost always a higher level than yours unless you’ve been doing a lot of grinding, and he does briefly manage to become the champion of the Pokemon league too. Before the games got their own dedicated champions, having to face off against the guy who’s been poking and prodding you the whole game in your final battle was a brilliant conclusion.

Blue is undoubtedly one of the most memorable trainers, and it’s no surprise that the fanbase points to him when asked how they want the modern rivals to be. However, I think there are a few that have more interesting character arcs.

3 – Silver – Gold/Silver

To my mind, Silver is like Blue, but with the intensity turned up. Where Blue is energetic and childish in how he antagonises you, Silver is more calm and collected. It’s not an in-your-face kind of hatred; it’s seathing below the surface and only comes out in dismissive and hateful remarks. His laser-focus on being the ‘strongest’ trainer is the kind of goal that we can relate to, but his methods are despicable, and it can get frustrating to see him constantly dismiss anyone who tries to tell him that opening your heart to Pokemon is how to become stronger. His thought process of those kinds of people being ‘weak’ is weirdly reminiscent of things we see in our society today, such as toxic masculinity, and it brings out similar feelings.

Much like Blue, he’s a pretty strong trainer, although I wouldn’t quite put him on Blue’s level in terms of challenge. His team is a bit less well-rounded, but the levels are still on-par if not above yours and require preparation. His growth as a character is what puts him over the top of Blue for me. While Blue does mature a bit, he doesn’t go through the learning process that Silver does.

His hatred for Team Rocket (which in HGSS we found out was because his father, Giovanni, abandoned him) is driving him to become stronger, but that hatred is what’s locking him off from reaching his true potential. It takes him a while, but he eventually begins to understand this and dedicate himself to diving deeper into the topic. His change in language from being the ‘strongest’ trainer to the ‘greatest’ trainer is a small change, but it’s the perfect encapsulation of the growth that he goes through.

While I think giving characters in Pokemon games a massive story arc is asking a bit much in the modern era, I still think it’s entirely possible to do things like this, even with the sporadic encounters we get with the rivals.

2 – Bianca – Black/White

While the generation 5 games are far from my favourites, I can’t deny that their narratives are what Pokemon games should be aspiring to achieve. Sure, when compared to the gaming industry as a whole, it’s not anything incredible, but it’s by far the best the main-series Pokemon games have ever put together.

As such, both of the main rivals in Black & White had really interesting character arcs that played to satisfying conclusions. Black & White are rather heavy-handed in their themes of ‘Truth & Ideals’, which both work in tandem and in conflict with each other. Bianca & Cheren are two of the clearest representations of this. It’s interesting to see how they go through very similar experiences but come to very different conclusions about their respective lives.

Bianca is more of a representation of truth. She starts off on uneven footing, partly because she can be a bit clumsy and forgetful, but also because she’s taking her journey against her father’s wishes. It’s never been shown as a big deal in the Pokemon world when children wander off around the world at 10 years old, but this finally touched on how it would actually work if they came into conflict. It’s key to showing that Bianca may be full of self-doubt and uncertainty about her abilities, but she still holds a powerful resolve to push towards her goals.

The second half of her story is interesting because she has to come to terms with the fact that she just isn’t good enough to hang with the best of the best (the player). It’s a weird balance because she’s still a formidable opponent, but her battles are by design a bit easier than Cheren’s, and it’s that narrative through mechanics design that I love to see, even if it is rare in this franchise. We actually get to see her reach the conclusion to go out and research instead of battling, and thanks to the sequels, we see the successful person she eventually turned into. I think the excellence of Bianca’s story is why I didn’t connect with Hop’s. Hop’s story just felt like a cheap imitation that the writers didn’t commit to enough.

She serves as one half of a pair of excellent rivals, and the highlights of her character truly sign when you contrast the two together. So, with that in mind…

1 – Cheren – Black/White

Where Bianca represents truth, Cheren represents ideals. Before you even set out on your journey, it seems like he’s got it all planned out. He has extensive knowledge of Pokemon (compared to Bianca & the player character at the start) and seems laser-focused on his goals. Where his conflict comes in is pondering exactly why he’s striving for what he’s striving for.

The generic “become stronger” goal of most of the rivals gets challenged significantly here, and while the game doesn’t push all the way with the examination, it does somewhat analyse what it even means to be strong. Cheren blindly pursues his goals without considering why, and it leads to a great deal of inner conflict with him. What’s great is how he changes his analysis of his situation. He starts out looking to others and seeing how they behave, but eventually turns his questioning to himself and pondering what would make him happy in his life.

Once again, the sequel does wonders for him, as we get to see what path he chose amidst the relative uncertainty we left him in the originals. A Gym Leader & Teacher is an interesting choice, but one that I think works. He gets incredibly frustrated at constantly losing the player in Black & White, and yet, as a Gym Lader – the first Gym Leader, no less – his role is to be beaten. He no longer seeks to increase his own strength but instead aid other trainers in finding theirs.

When combined with Bianca, we see the themes come through strongest of all. The idea that your ideals in life may not be what you think they are, but that’s ok as long as you learn to adapt and find happiness in where you end up. It’s not some earth-breaking revelation, but for kids who play these games and take on board this message, I have no doubt it did wonders for their world view. That’s what games with audiences that skew younger should be doing, and that’s what makes Cheren & Bianca Pokemon’s best rivals.

So there you have it! Thank you very much for taking the time to read this post. Please, let me know who your favourite rivals are, either in the comments below or on Twitter @SStyleSmark. Finally, make sure to come back here this time next week, where I’ll be running down the worst Royal Rumble winners in history!

9 Best Fall Guys Levels

One of my favourite games of 2020, Fall Guys is continuing to entertain well into the new year. People on Twitter can call it a ‘dead game’ all they want, but I don’t think that could be further from the truth. The game is still being supported and seems like it will continue for at least another year with new levels to stumble around on.

We’re three seasons into Fall Guys’ lifespan so far, and there are a total of 37 different levels you could get in any given game. These levels are split into different categories depending on their gameplay style, and they’re mixed up enough that no two games feel the same. However, with that many levels, they can’t all be brilliant, and there are certainly some levels that I’m happier to see pop up than others, and I want to talk about some of those today.

9 – Knight Fever

In comparison to seasons 1 & 3, season 2 doesn’t seem to be all that grand in scope. There were only four new levels added in that season, and it seemed to go by in a flash, probably because a large part of the post-release dev time was focused on bug-fixes and patches than new stuff. The thing is, as much as there were only four new levels, they were four excellent levels, and three of them are going to feature on this list. The first of which is Knight Fever.

To me, race levels are their best, the more complex they are. The more straightforward race levels like Door Dash or Gate Crash are still fun, but I get the most fun out of the races with many different obstacles for me to navigate. Knight Fever ticks my boxes in that regard. Starting off with some very easy to avoid spinning axes, you move onto the pillars of rotating spikes, which can be navigated quite easily with skill, but still catches me off-guard every now and then. After sliding down a slime slope (avoiding more spinning axes that are so easy to dodge, I almost think they’re there just for aesthetics), you have to face the biggest challenge of the level, the swinging spikey logs (screw your meme names). How well you get through these mostly just depends on your timing, but you never feel entirely safe while running through that section. Finally, you have to not be an idiot to get over the drawbridge, and you’re home free.

While I would like a bit more variation in the obstacles, Knight Fever has a good sense of rising challenge as you progress. It’s not perfect, as we’ll see through the other race levels on this list, but it’s probably the best use of the medieval theme out of all the new levels. It’s a level that has just enough random elements that even once you’ve learnt it, you can never reliably get through it on autopilot.

8 – The Whirlygig

In truth, this level isn’t all that complex, but it is a lot of fun to watch beans getting pinged all over the place. There are some Fall Guys levels that forgo some skill requirements in favour of being way more fun, and this is definitely one of those, something I’m very grateful for.

In The Whirlygig, you start out by running across a field of spinning bars, with no risk of falling off of the level, which means that screwing up only leads to comically flinging yourself all over the place instead of failure. Then you have to navigate a couple of small jumps that everyone seems to bitch about, but I’ve never struggled with. The only time it’s a problem is if there’s a bunch of nervous people on it hogging the platform. You pass through the first big fan blade, which can be really punishing if you get caught in it, before running around…some walls and some fan blades that aren’t even pretending to be obstacles.

After passing through the second, fairly slow-moving fanblade, you’re into the final section of the level, where you have a choice. If you’re a gutless coward, you can take the side routes where you have to jump over hovering platforms, each with a spinning bar on them, which can throw you off if you time your jumps wrong. Or, you can try your luck at the massive, fast-spinning fan blade in the middle to cut out half of that section, which is the far more fun way to complete the level.

What I like so much about this level is that you’re level truly ‘out’ of it when you screw up. The final section is just tricky enough that it takes people a little while to complete it, giving anyone who messed up early on a decent chance to recover. On top of that, the choice of the two routes at the end means you get a good variety in what everyone’s doing. No-one’s trying to funnel through the same small section and getting in each other’s way, and it adds to the background chaos of the level.

The middle section is laughably easy, and the only real negative for the level, but the beginning and end are so much fun that I’m willing to overlook it.

7 – Fall Ball

Team games are a controversial subject in the Fall Guys fanbase. Some think they’re the best of what the game has to offer; others think they’re stupid, unfair and unfun. For me, it depends on which game it is, there are some of the team games which are just plainly unfun, mainly the ones where you have to push a ball, but as long as the main content of the game is enjoyable, I don’t mind the unfairness that can come with being placed into teams.

Case in point is Fall Ball. Sometimes, it feels extremely one-sided, and it’s disappointing when you’re put in a team that doesn’t seem to be very good at the game, but also, who cares? Jumping around headbutting a massive football and watching it bounce all over the place is a joyous feeling. It’s one of the gamemodes that I think is far better with more people, as the chaos is what makes it so fun. That’s why I also have a great love for the variants with obstacles included.

While there definitely is room to work as a team (and I’m sure you’d do far better if you did), no-one does, and everyone just does their own thing. Once again, it’s sacrificing skill for fun, and I think that’s great. You can never truly predict where the ball will go when you hit it, it bounces normally, but you’ve no idea who could get in the way, or maybe even jump at the same time as you and send it high up into the air. This is especially true on the rare occasion the game decides to drop you some of the oddly shaped balls or even a banana.

I think that Fall Ball is the best of what the team games have to offer, forcing a lot of chaotic interaction between the teams and lasting just the right amount of time, so you don’t get sick of it.

6 – Jump Showdown

What I love about most of the final rounds is how simple they are. Instead of making a bunch of crazy obstacles, they present you with a simple concept and leave your skill to determine who wins. I know I’ve said so far that I like it when they put fun over skill, but for the final round, it’s different. It’s to determine who’s the best, and that should definitely be a contest of skill.

That’s not to say there’s no fun to be had in this level, though, because jumping over the spinning bar while dodging the top spinning bar is loads of fun. It’s not the same kind of fun as the more chaotic levels though, this is a tense kind of fun. Your attention is being drawn by many things at once: where the top bar is, where the bottom bar is, which platforms are falling away, and where that arsehole who keeps trying to grab everybody is.

The section of the platforms falling away are great for two reasons. One is that it gives you an extra thing to think about as your dodging the bars, you don’t want to be standing on one when it falls, but you also don’t want to be stranded on one with no escape if it falls next. Two is that it limited your movement options and pushes people close together, making it more likely for mistakes to happen. When there’s a full circle, it’s easy to avoid hitting a point where both the top and bottom bar are coming at you together, but when you’ve only got one or two segments to work with, you’ve got to be a lot more careful and plan ahead for where you’re going to make your jump.

At the same time, it doesn’t overwhelm you with too much going on at once. As long as you’re careful, you can last quite a while and have some very intense battles with the few people remaining, especially as the speed of the bar increases seemingly exponentially.

5 – Hoopsie Legends

Am I just putting this one so high because I always do well at it? That may have something to do with it.

This is a great example of how much more fun a level can be when it’s a free-for-all instead of a team game. The original team hoop game is still fun, but it’s nowhere near as hectic or urgent as this one is. With a timer, until the round expires and teammates all over the place, it’s easy to see a ring a little further away and rely on someone else to get it, and I tend to find that just camping a small spot is the best way to go. However, those tactics get thrown out of the window when it’s a free-for-all.

When everyone’s in it for themselves, things become a lot more frantic, and every hoop suddenly becomes an opportunity you need to make a mad dash for. The requirement of just 6 hoops to qualify hits the perfect balance of being large enough so that you won’t be screwed over by bad luck but small enough that you can’t waste time. On top of that, the design of the level in the free-for-all version is far more exciting and creates a lot of awkward positions for hoops, meaning even if there are people much closer to a hoop than you, you can still beat them to it with better platforming.

It’s technically a more skill-based level than most others, but the free-for-all nature injects the needed chaos, as it will always be funny as three of you all jump for a hoop at once but end up bouncing off of each other.

4 – Wall Guys

Wall Guys is a level that takes the chaos of everyone trying to do the same thing at once from team games but tweaks it so that everyone is working for themselves, and that’s all you need to lead to madness.

This is the kind of level that clearly separates the risk-takers and the safe-players but gives them both a fairly equal opportunity to succeed while still allowing those who look to wreak havoc have their fun. The way you have to push blocks around to get over the walls creates this unique blend of co-operation along with a competition where everyone’s rushing to get to the end.

If you get ahead early on, then you’ll probably be alright to sort things out for yourself, but as soon as the bulk of the crowd reaches you, your situation becomes infinitely more complex. Never mind that everyone seems to have a different idea of where the perfect place for each block is or the people who are just there to screw you over; making the jumps with so many people around crashing into you can be enough of a challenge. I say that like it’s a negative, but I think it’s what makes this level so much fun.

Whether you want to run along the top and try to make the risky jumps or push the blocks around and risk-taking too long climbing up, Wall Guys can cater to just about everyone with some very simple design.

3 – Slime Climb

Slime Climb is more or less the archetype of what a good Fall Guys level should include, and it’s no wonder that it’s one of the most popular levels amongst the fanbase.

During the game’s marketing, Fall Guys saw a lot of comparison to old game shows like Takeshi’s Castle or Wipeout, and with good reason. The soft-play aesthetic, combined with big ridiculous obstacles designed to toss you about, is everything those shows were about and give many people lots of fond memories. Slime Climb is the level that best exemplifies those elements, putting through the wringer in terms of the variety of obstacles. In a way, it’s almost the best introduction level to the game (even if you never get it first) in that it has such an extensive variety of obstacles that it’ll prepare you for everything else the game will throw at you.

Rather than forcing you to interact with the other players, these levels tend to use them more as obstacles than anything else. Many of the obstacles would probably be much easier to clear if there weren’t 10 other people trying to do it at the same time, and that’s not even mentioning the arseholes who sit at choke-points to screw people over. Simultaneously, the level wouldn’t feel the same without those people; weirdly, they’ve become a feature of the level.

Slime Climb feels like the purest distillation of what Fall Guys is like as a game. It mixes the race & survival aspects to constantly keep the pressure on while running the gauntlet of obstacles. The more you play it, the better techniques and shortcuts you discover to create one of the most optimised levels in the game in the best way possible.

2 – Freezy Peak

I’m not entirely sure what it is about this one that makes me love it so much, but it’s easily the most finely crafted race-level the game has right now.

The basic concept is a lot more fun than a regular race level. I much prefer the idea of racing around to be king of the hill than stumbling along the straight horizontal line. The level starts off with slightly different obstacles depending on where you spawn, you’ll either have to navigate past some boxing glove pistons or some flippers before players get funnelled through conveyor belts moving the wrong way as snowballs are fired at them. You then fly up to the next platform using some fans but have to be careful where you land, as there are plenty of flippers ready to ruin your day if you land on them.

Then, after hovering your way over another couple of fans, the big climb begins. In the longest portion of the level, you can either go up the inside or outside lane, with the ability to switch at any time. The inside lane has those boxing glove pistons in front of some flippers ready to throw you off the side of the mountain, while the outside lane has giant snowballs rolls down it constantly. Get past that, and you have to climb a small peak of conveyor belts circling around before one massive fan launches you up to the icy road to the finish line.

It’s quite the gauntlet of obstacles, with many chances for failure, but that’s what I like about this level. On top of that, unlike Slime Climb, where falling means elimination, here you can keep respawning, which means you never feel like you’re truly out of the race. It makes brilliant use of almost all of the new obstacles added in season 3, in a level that is as challenging as it is varied.

1 – Hex-A-Gone

Appropriately finishing off with finale round, Hex-A-Gone is a pure and simple fun test of skill.

There’s really not much to explain with the topic, there are several layers of hexes; when you step on a hex, it disappears, if you fall to the bottom, you’re out, last bean standing wins. Much like Jump Showdown, it leans more to the skilful side of things – as finale rounds should – but doesn’t forget to include some fun along the way. Here, the fun comes from the other beans and how they’re constantly getting in your way. Your interactions with other people in this level are probably some of the funniest, as a collision can send you both tumbling a few floors, and there’s not really any way of screwing people over by grabbing them; at least no without the grabber being screwed over too.

What puts this level over the top for me is how tense it can get. You quickly learn you can use the hexes’ animation falling away to delay your move to the next hex, keeping you in the game while longer, and you have to start to think very carefully about where you’re going and how you’re getting there. The round will start off in chaos as a maximum of 20 people start obliterating the top layers, but once it pairs down to a few people, it’s so dense that it’s just as much fun to watch as it is to play.

When you’re in those last moments, where most of the layers have been torn apart, you’ve got so much to think about. Where you’re currently moving; where you’re going to go when the current section runs out of hexes; where you need to land on the layers below you to have the best chance of survival, and where your opponents are. Do you try to crowd out your opponents’ space in the hopes you’ll be able to knock them off? Or do you steer clear of them in the hopes they’ll make a mistake? These are all thoughts that go through your brain in no time at all as you run around this level, and it’s brilliant.

Not to mention, it’s arguably the level where you do the most falling, so I think it’s appropriate that its Fall Guys best level.

And there you have it! Thank you very much for taking the time to read this post. Please, let me know what you think, either in the comments below or on Twitter @SStyleSmark. Finally, make sure to come back this time next week, where I’ll be covering WWE Fastlane!

My Favourite Board Games

I’ve talked plenty about video games on this blog over the past few years, but I’m yet to dive into their analogue counterparts. The truth is, that’s mostly because I hadn’t played very many board games. I’d always been interested in them, and there have been a few that I’ve played a lot of, but it isn’t until the past 6 months or so where I truly understood the massive scope of what the genre could offer me.

Unfortunately, I chose to dive into this hobby during a time when the world has made playing games in a room with other people is exceedingly difficult. Nevertheless, I’ve picked up several new board games over recent months and have greatly enjoyed what they’ve offered me. I’ve even got enough now to make a list of my favourite board games…so let’s do that.

HONOURABLE MENTIONS:
XCOM: The Board Game, for it’s chaotic strategy
Talisman, for being weirdly calming and total bullshit in all the right ways
Blood on the Clocktower, which looks utterly brilliant, but I haven’t been able to play it yet

11 – Sheriff of Nottingham

One thing you’re going to realise throughout this list is that I enjoy lying in games. Whenever a game allows me to deceive my fellow players for my own ends, I jump at the chance to varying degrees of success. While a video game like Among Us is brilliant for something like that, nothing beats the rush that comes from looking someone directly in the eye, telling them a bald-faced lie and them believing you without question. Implications for what that could say about me aside, Sheriff of Nottingham is one of several games on this list that provide such opportunities.

The premise is quite simple, each player takes turns being the Sheriff, and everyone else are traders trying to get their goods into Nottingham to sell them at the market. Each player fills their hand with up to six cards of different types of good; some are simple stuff like bread & cheese, while others are contraband items like crossbows or silk. Each trader puts their cards into these little bags and hands them over to the Sheriff. The Sheriff then asks the trader what’s in the bag, and the trader must declare how many goods they have and what they are.

Here’s where the fun lying stuff starts. You can only declare one type of good at a time, and you can’t declare contraband, so you’ve got to seem as innocent as possible while you declare. The Sheriff can decide if they believe you or not, and if they don’t, they open the bag. If the Sheriff was right to not believe you, you have to pay a penalty; however, if the Sheriff was wrong, they pay YOU a penalty. Already, this creates a great push & pull between the risk and reward factors of opening the bags, but it goes one level deeper.

The thing is, before the Sheriff opens your bag, you can offer bribes or trade deals to let your goods through, including items that you claim are in your bag. In this section here there’s so much manipulation & bluffing that can go on. You could offer the Sheriff an item that isn’t actually in your bag, tricking him into letting your stuff through for free. You could promise the Sheriff to do you a favour when it’s your turn to be Sheriff. You could even go full quadruple bluff and offer the Sheriff a bribe even if you’re entirely telling the truth, just to try and lure the Sheriff into opening the bag and paying you a bunch of cash.

It’s layer upon layer of bluffing and deception as you try to build up a trading empire, trying to make everyone on the board work to your favour, whether they realise it or not.

10 – Anomia

A much simpler game now, but one that feels so much more chaotic when you play it.

Named after the sensation of forgetting straightforward information under pressure, Anomia makes you draw cards, each of these cards has a symbol on them and a basic category like ‘vegetable’ or ‘football player’. Everyone takes it in turns to draw a card from the deck and place it face-up on their pile. If your face-up card matches the symbol of some else’s face-up card, you both have to name an item/place/person from the category on the other person’s card. The fastest to do so gets all the opponent’s card. It goes until the deck runs out of cards, and whoever has the most wins.

It may sound like it can’t be all that fun, but it really is a frantic sensation when you suddenly realise a symbol matches and, under pressure, you suddenly find you can’t think of a single type of currency to name, so you instinctively just yell the word ‘money’ to raucous laughter from the table. It gets even more chaotic, though, because when you lose a card, the next card on your pile becomes visible, and if that happens to match someone else’s face-up card, then you have to immediately go again. This can snowball in some hilarious ways with long chains of cards flying all over the pace as people frantically try to think of the most simple information but hilariously fail under the pressure.

It’s a game that sometimes makes you feel stupid, but A) it’s hilarious, and B) it happens to everyone on the table at some point, so it never feels like anyone’s being mean to anyone else. It also has the benefit of being a game simple enough for people to understand while drunk, where the slower reaction times and warped mindsets can enhance the chaos in the best ways.

9 – Spyfall

Back to the lying!

Spyfall takes the interesting formula of the long-form social deduction games like Sherrif of Nottingham & Werewolf and condenses it into a 7-10 minute game that gets surprisingly tense as the clock ticks down.

The premise is simple, you have 4-10 players, and one of those players is a Spy. All non-spy players are given the same location card, but the spy doesn’t get that information. Players then take turns to ask each other questions about the location to try and work out who’s the spy. So, for example, if you’re at the beach, you might ask, “How hot is it here?” to see if they know that you’re at a typically hot location. However, you can’t go all out because, at any point, the spy can take a guess at where the location is, and if they’re right, they win the game. This creates this brilliant dilemma, where players have to ask questions and give answers that are vague enough to not give away the location but also not so vague that people are suspicious.

The ticking timer format puts pressure on the non-spy players to ask questions that risk tipping their hand to a spy who’s on the ball to get as much information as quickly as possible, and it can lead to some last-minute clutch accusations. It takes the wide and loud debating of other social deduction games but limits it by turning the game into a more quickfire affair. It also forces you to come up with creative questions to root people out. For example, if the location is a Space Station, you could ask someone, “How was your trip to work this morning?” in a question that would be an obvious trap to anyone who knew the location but totally baffles a spy.

On top of that, it can be really funny to hear people describe locations while still trying to be vague. The awkward wording that people come out with as you can see their faces contorting as they rack their brains for the right word is beautiful in a way. What’s more, is each card will give people a job for that location which they can roleplay, such as the janitor or the pilot, which is great if you’ve got people in your gaming group who thrive at those kinds of things while giving unsure players a bit of a more solid footing to answer and ask their questions.

It’s a fast, funny game that you can happily play round after round of because of it’s simple nature, which also helps it be a good introduction for people to social deduction games.

8 – Wavelength

Wavelength is like if a game of ‘guess what I’m thinking’ told you way more about how your friends think than you were expecting.

Best played in teams, Wavelength involves a dial and a series of cards with different topics. One player from one team will spin the dial and see where the wedge of points are on the dial. This then gets hidden, and they draw a card with a scale on it. Some of these are fairly simple concepts like ‘hot to cold’, but some are more subjective, like ‘good film to bad film’. The player who saw where the points were on the dial then has to give a simple clue to help the other members of their team guess where the points are.

For example, if the points were all the way at the ‘hot’ end of the dial, the clue might be ‘the sun’, or all the way at the cold side would be ‘the arctic’. However, what if it’s only 75% of the way over to the ‘hot’ side? What clue do you give then? What could you say that will make your teammates put the dial only half-way to the ‘hot’ side? You could say something like ‘tea’ which is traditionally a hot drink, but it’s nowhere near as hot as the sun, so would they put the dial far enough? And what about iced tea? That’s pretty cold.

It creates this fascinating scenario of two sets of people trying to guess how the other one thinks, and people inevitably end up over-analysing and thinking too hard about it, which is always pretty funny to watch. This gets even better with the more subjective cards, as you argue over whether or not your friend enjoyed The Dark Knight Rises or hated it, or maybe thought it was somewhere in the middle? It can lead to some amusing arguments and interesting discussions over where to place things, and you end up learning things about the people you play with as well, making it a fantastic ice-breaker game.

7 – Obscurio

Obscurio is a game for those who like theatrics and atmosphere from their board games.

The premise of Obscurio is that a bunch of wizards are trying to escape a tower, and on each floor, each door is marked with a piece of art, with only one being correct. In order to work out the correct door, they seek the help of a friendly ghost, who is only allowed to communicate with the wizards via other pieces of art. The ghost will look at the correct art piece and use two other art pieces to give the wizards clues. The challenge comes from how these clues can be left open to interpretation.

For example, let’s say the correct door is a painting of a beach. The ghost could use one of the little pointers to point to the sand in an hourglass on a different art piece. However, will the wizards interpret it that way? Or will they instead think it has something to do with time, so maybe it’s the art of the grandfather clock? To add an extra layer of complexity to the mix, one of the wizards is actually a traitor, who got to pick the art for one of the incorrect doors to try and fit the clues the ghost has given.

Mechanically, it’s an enjoyable game, but what puts it over the top of similar games is the atmosphere and aesthetic is creates. The art discs that represent the doors are beautiful pieces, and all of the components fit this feeling of mysterious magic & supernatural phenomena. It creates a brilliant opportunity for the people who love the theatrical side of board gaming, as you lower lights and close your eyes while the player who is the ghost silently glides around and sets up their mysterious clues.

6 – Taskmaster: The Board Game

I’ve talked about it before on this blog, but I love Taskmaster. I think it’s a genius format and one of the funniest shows on TV right now. The board game takes what that show is about and adapts it for a homely, low-budget environment, and it really seems to understand the format it’s in. I think that’s worth giving special praise for, too, so many board games based on popular shows don’t really get the format they’re in and just rely on the name-brand to do all of the work, but The Taskmaster Board Game feels like it understands the best way to play Taskmaster in your home.

Firstly, it doesn’t add any frills. It doesn’t create some board that you have to hop around and only do tasks when you land on the right space or something like that; it knows that the tasks are what you’re here for, so it just lets you go with it. Several of the tasks can be transferred over from the show with no problem, while others are adapted to be on a smaller scale, but they’re all still fun to play. On top of that, there’s genuinely loads. While it may get a bit repetitive if you played it too much, there are so many tasks in there (and hundreds more all over the internet) that it’ll be a long time before you run out.

Letting everyone take turns fulfilling the role of Taskmaster was a good idea as it means everyone gets a variety of participating & running the tasks in a single game. I love how the rules specify that the Taskmaster is completely allowed to make dumb or arbitrary decision if they want to. That lack of restrictions not only apes the show, but it gives so many opportunities for laughs between players.

That’s really all this game has to it, having a laugh with friends as you all take turns humiliating yourselves. Which, let’s be honest, is what Taskmaster is all about.

5 – Superfight

So I don’t like Cards Against Humanity. I’m all for the dark humour (even if some of it hasn’t aged so well), I just don’t think there’s all that much fun to be had in assigning pre-written punchlines to pre-written jokes, and once the shock factor of the dark humour wears off, there’s really nothing under there.

Why does this matter? Because Superfight takes what Card Against Humanity does and fixes those problems I mentioned.

Two decks of cards are laid on the table, one with characters from all aspects of pop-culture and another of superpowers that range from your standard stuff like flight/telekinesis to some silly stuff like ‘is killed by water’ or ‘is on a pogo stick’. From here, there are a handful of different ways of playing the game, but the one I’ve most commonly seen (and think is the most fun) is as follows:

One player at the table will be the supervillain. They play a character card & a superpower card from their hand and then draw & play a random superpower from the deck. Each player then takes turns playing one character & one superpower card that they think would beat the supervillain. At this point, the game becomes a debate of ‘who would win in a fight between…?’ but with many ridiculous scenarios like 50 Batmen VS Pikachu inside a giant robotic elephant or whatever.

What makes this so much funnier that something like Cards Against Humanity is that the cards simply act as a launching pad for the players to make their own humour. The debate surrounding exactly how 50 Batmen could disable a giant robotic elephant and then beat up Pikachu always leads to hilarious scenarios, especially when other players argue back. You can make it even funnier by allowing players to play extra superpower cards on other people, potentially crippling an otherwise worthy opponent by making it so that they’re uncontrollably weeping.

Rather than the cards serving as the jokes, it allows the players to be creative and play to their audience. You could never play Cards Against Humanity with your grandparents, but with Superfight, you can just keep it clean. There are other DLC decks that let you tailor the game to your audience, with kid-friendly stuff or R-Rated stuff. It makes it a far more versatile game and is way more hilarious when you’re making original jokes with people you know.

4 – Skull

I love traditional playing-card games. Games like Poker and Cribbage have an outstanding balance of playing the odds and reading your opponents to create an endless amount of exciting scenarios that really get the brain whirring. Skull takes the essence of those games, simplifies, beautifies, and repurposes the formula for something that feels so fresh yet so familiar.

In Skull, 3 to 6 players each get 4 cards. 3 of these cards have flowers, and 1 of them has a skull. Each player picks one of these cards to place face-down in front of them, then each player takes their turn. On their turn, a player can either put another card face-down or start the ‘bidding’ process. Here, a player says how many cards they think they can turn over WITHOUT turning over a skull. All of the other players can either raise this bet or pass until only one person has a bet left in play. That player then turns over people’s cards in an attempt to reach their target.

This already gives the game a nice layer of bluffing about who’s cards might be safe, but there’s a small twist that adds so much strategy to the game. This twist is that when you start turning cards, you have to turn over all of your own cards first. This means that if you’ve put a skull down to try and bluff someone or screw someone else over, you’re done for. This means that you have to avoid putting a skull down to win rounds, but doing so also leaves the door open for others to score by turning over your cards.

It’s a simple enough formula that just about anyone can understand, but your thought processes can get so deep as you decide whether or not to put a skull down, or who’s cards you think are safe, or whether it’s time to start betting. It’s the board game that I think best captures the essence of what those play-card games I love are all about.

3 – Muffin Time

Who doesn’t love a bit of chaos? Well, most board-game enthusiasts, it seems, but sod it, I love a game full of random bullshit.

I’ve always had a love for the asdfmovie series on YouTube, and all of Tomska’s work, in fact, so I was on board with the premise of a card game based on the franchise from the very beginning especially one by Big Potato Games. While I haven’t featured many of their games on this list, when it comes to party games, you’d be hard-pressed to find any company with an output of such consistently high quality.

In Muffin Time, you start off with 3 cards, and your goal is to get 10 cards. On your turn, you either draw a card from the deck, lay a trap card, or play an action card. That’s it. It’s an insanely simple game, but what’s on those cards is where the fun comes in. Firstly, there are action cards, which have all sorts of conditions on them. Some start a minigame, like a thumb war or finger guns. Others say things like “steal 3 cards from the tallest player”. Basically, it’ll either benefit/hinder people, based on aspects of them, or it’ll have a fun little minigame.

The real fun stuff comes in the trap cards, though. These are cards that you lay face down on the table and ‘activate’ when someone in the game does a specific action. For example, you could get a trap card that lets you steal 3 cards from someone when they ask what the time is, or when they say a specific phrase, or talk about something from the past. What this means is that everyone on the table is constantly trying to bait each other into doing or saying certain things, and because of that, everyone has their guard up, and everyone is suspicious of everyone at all times. It’s unbelievably fun and incredibly funny when you perform a seemingly ordinary action only for someone to go “AH-HA!” and turn over a card that fucks you over because you said the word “what”.

The nature of it means it works in many different contexts too. You can play it with a group of friends your own age, or you can play it with the family, and it’ll still be a fun experience because it’s so easy to understand and the humour is very simple. It’s one of the rare examples of a game that’s “fun for all the family” that isn’t boring for anyone who’s age has more than one digit.

2 – Cosmic Encounter

There’s so much going on with Cosmic Encounter, and it’s ALL brilliant.

It’s the most rules-heavy game on this list, so I won’t go through all of it, but in short: Each player has some planets they call home and a fleet of spaceships defending them. Players take it in turns attacking each other’s planets to take over as many foreign planets as possible. The system all of this works under is like Risk, but better in just about every way because there’s no random elements, a bunch of potential of poker-style bluffing and a hefty dose of strategy.

This on its own is already a fantastic strategy game, but, as always, there’s a twist. While the game has these very robust rules laid out that have been honed over the game’s VERY long lifespan, each player has their own alien race to play as. These alien races all have their own unique abilities, but it’s not like in other games with player bonuses. The bonuses in this game aren’t just little helping hands that push you down one type of strategy, they’re ridiculously overpowered abilities that totally break one or more of the game’s rules. Now, this does seem a bit unfair (and sometimes it is) until you consider the fact that every player in the game has their own game-breaking power.

These powers can combo up in insane ways to create some mind-bending but hilarious scenarios. For example, one player might have the power to reverse the decision of a battle before the battle takes place, so if they think they’re going to get destroyed, they can turn into a win. However, the player they’re fighting against will WIN THE ENTIRE GAME if all of their ships are destroyed, which means they’re going to be trying to lose the fight. Except, the second player knows what the first player’s power is, so maybe they’re trying to win the battle in the hopes that the first player will reverse the decision? WHAT DOES ANYONE DO?!

That’s just one of a near-infinite amount of ways these powers could combine in games, and all of them have been carefully crafted and honed over many years. It has tonnes of replayability, too, with 51 different aliens in the base game and 196 aliens if you get all of the expansions. No game will have you scratching your head so hard while laughing even harder in a truly masterful blend of chaos and strategy.

1 – Secret Hitler

I said it at the start, and I’ll say it again now, I enjoy lying in games. Social Deduction is inarguably my favourite genre of board game, and while upcoming games like Blood on the Clocktower look very interesting, to date, nothing has beaten Secret Hitler as far as I’m concerned.

At the start of the game, everyone gets given their secret roles. Players are split into two teams, ‘Liberals’ who are the good guys and the ‘Fascists’ who are the bad guys. One player will also be ‘Hitler’, who is on the team of the Fascists (duh). The Fascists know who their allies are, the Liberals do not. Each player takes a turn being the ‘President’, and they must pick one other player to their ‘Chancellor’. They then draw 3 policies, which will either be Liberal or Fascist in nature. The President discards 1 policy and hands the remaining 2 to the Chancellor, who then discards 1 more and plays the remaining policy.

Here, the debate begins depending on which team the policy that was played came down for. Liberals need to enact 5 Liberal policies to win the game, the Fascists need 6, but the deck is weighted in favour of the Fascists, with 11 of the 17 policies in the deck being Fascist. On top of that, the more Fascist policies that get enacted, the more powers get unlocked for players to use. This means that even the Liberal players have an incentive to play Fascists policies, as they can be instrumental in uncovering the Fascists or even getting the ability to kill players, which, if done to Hitler, will win the game for the Liberals.

There are so many interlocking strategies here, but since none of the Liberals know who their allies are, they can communicate a plan to anyone until they trust them; and even when you do trust them, they could just be playing you. As you can imagine, this is a game filled to the brim with lies, betrayals, risks, rewards and failures, and all of it is an absolute blast. This is the game that I have the most fond memories of, as I’ve played it at several different stages in my life, and there’s never been a bad game.

Nothing brings friends together like loudly arguing with each other over who’s Hitler.

And that’s it! Thank you very much for taking the time to read this list, please, let me know what your favourite board games are in the comments below, or let me know on Twitter @SStyleSmark. Finally, make sure to come back here this time next Saturday, where I’ll be covering AEW Revolution!

Best Post-Game Features in Pokemon Games

When it comes to determining my favourite Pokemon games, one of the biggest considerations is how much there is to do in the post-game. For those unaware, the post-game is any features/stories that become available to you only after you have seen the game’s credits roll for the first time. In Pokemon games, this translates to anything that happens after you’ve defeated the champion and entered the hall of fame.

These are the features that keep you playing hours after having finished the game and provide a handful of extra challenges to prove your team’s mastery. To be clear here, I’m not talking about the general stuff that you can do in every Pokemon game, such as shiny hunting or competitive battling, I’m talking about the unique stuff that only features in one or two games. I also won’t cover the Isle of Armor or the Crown Tundra, as those are DLCs you have to pay extra for.

8 – Ultra Wormholes – Ultra Sun/Ultra Moon

It’s become standard fare in the modern era of Pokemon for at least one game in every generation to include all of the legendary Pokemon from previous generations for us to catch and encounter. This has led to a few fun systems. The Dynamax Adventures in Sword/Shield are a lot of fun, but I struggle to call them post-game, since they’re a huge feature in the Crown Tundra DLC, and the ‘soaring’ mechanic in Omega Ruby & Alpha Sapphire filled that purpose well too, but I think this was the best it has been done.

Once you switch the control method away from motion controls, the mini-game through which you find all of these Pokemon is a lot of fun. It only takes a couple of minutes every time, and it provides a little bit of challenge to get to the Pokemon you want, rather than just fulfilling certain requirements. On top of that, you had to look for the different coloured portals to find the right Pokemon, and even if you didn’t encounter a legendary, you could find plenty of other Pokemon with boosted shiny odds, so it was a win-win, really.

The little environments made good use of the multi-verse concept those games focused around, with each of the Ultra Beasts’ domains being especially beautiful and fun to explore. As a shiny hunter, I spent a lot of time using this feature in USUM, and I’m glad it was a lot of fun to do so.

7 – The Battle Zone – Diamond/Pearl/Platinum

To be clear, I am not including the Battle Frontier in this bit, I’ll talk more about that later, I’m referring to the island as a whole that you get to explore after becoming champion in the Sinnoh games.

For starters, as soon as you get there, you have a double battle with the final Gym leader and an Elite Four member, which is pretty cool and after that, you’ve got a whole island to explore. It features three whole towns, each with their own unique features, a massive villa that you can own and furnish, a whole host of Pokemon not in the Sinnoh-dex, a cafe where you can rematch Gym leaders, and a god-damned Volcano where you can fight Heatran.

What I love so much about this island is how completely different it feels to the rest of Sinnoh. Even the ground is a different colour here, playing off of the volcanic/tropical island vibes to great effect. The routes are winding and dangerous, just like you’d hope them to be at such a late stage in the game, with one final dungeon for you to explore in the form of Stark Mountain. The music is pretty kick-ass too.

It’s just so cool to have a bunch of new areas to explore after you think you’re done with the game, even if nothing major happens around those places in the grand scheme of thing.

Speaking of…

6 – The Rest of Unova – Black 2/White 2

In the original Black & White games, the post-game allowed to explore a new portion of the map. It was ok, but ultimately didn’t really hold anything special outside of a few non-Unovan Pokemon and the Kyurem battle. However, the direct sequels had a lot more to offer on that front.

In Black 2 & White 2, you start the game in a completely new area of the map, with some brand new cities to explore, but that means you completely skip all of the starting towns from the original, including two of the gyms. They still sit there on the map though, taunting you as to the possibilities of what you could find there, so when you’re finally let loose to explore it in the post-game, there’s a lot of fun to be had.

Much like the Battle Zone, it provides you with a bunch of new areas to explore, only these areas are filled with a bunch of nostalgia from the original Black & White games. You get to explore fully fleshed-out towns from the originals and encounter a load of new content there. It’s a wonderful blast from the past if you played the originals and a great series of places to explore for the first time if you didn’t.

5 – The Pokemon World Tournament – Black 2/White 2

Let’s see what we have here…a bunch of trainers from old games? Check. Every old Gym leader? Check. Every old Elite Four member? Check. Every old Champion? Check! What more could you possibly ask for?

It’s a huge blast of nostalgia, but that’s exactly what I want from a post-game battle facility like this. It pulls in everyone from all the old games and celebrates the contributions they made to their games. We get remixed themes, improved and remixed teams, and the game celebrates them like the heroes they are to those of us who have played the old games. It’s wonderful to see the Pokemon games happily throw caution to the wind and just let you have a bit of everything for the ultimate tournament experience.

On top of that, it’s genuinely challenging. The battles I had in the champions’ tournament are genuinely some of the most challenging singleplayer battles I’ve ever faced in the series. This is an area that has absolutely no desire to hold back and throws the best of what it has to offer at you in an attempt to earn the ultimate victory. In an era of Pokemon where the lack of difficulty is one of the main complaints about the franchise, it’s really great to go back and remember some of the times where the franchise gave you absolutely no mercy.

We’re three full generations removed from this world tournament, and honestly, I want to see it happen again. Sword & Shield didn’t shy away from using tournaments in its climactic battles, so having another situation where trainers come from around the world to compete in an ultimate tournament would be amazing. Stuff it to the brim with as many trainers as possible to make it feel like a proper Pokemon league, and it may just skyrocket to the top of lists like these.

4 – The Battle Frontier – Platinum

That’s right, I’m putting my cards on the table. Platinum’s Battle Frontier is better than Emerald’s, it just is, ok?

The post-game battle facilities haven’t been all that great in the modern generations. The Battle Tree is fun when it comes to seeing old trainers, but that’s about all it does differently. Meanwhile, X/Y and Sword/Shield did the bare minimum with the Battle Chatuex and Battle Tower respectively. They present a nice challenge if that’s what you want from your post-game in Pokemon, but personally, it’s not what I get drawn towards.

That’s what makes the Battle Frontier so special to me because it makes those post-game challenging battles more fun by adding a whole heap of gimmicks on top. You’ve got the Battle Tower, which is your standard streaks of battles, which is fine enough, but the other facilities are where the real fun lies. The Battle Castle puts a minor twist on the usual formula by not healing your Pokemon between battles, instead giving you currency and forcing you to make some tough choices as to how you how/what you want to recover between battles.

The other facilities get progressively more wild and fun though, you have the best battle facility from Emerald making its reappearance in the form of the Battle Factory. True to Dynamax Adventures in Sword/Shield, using rental Pokemon can be a lot of fun and cause you to use Pokemon you would have never otherwise considered to some great results. Then there’s the Battle Hall, where you have 1 on 1 battles against Pokemon that are a type of your choice. This is fantastic, as it’ll force you to consider unconventional strategies to take down Pokemon of types your Pokemon is very weak against as you wipe the floor with everyone in sight.

Finally, there’s the Battle Arcade, where every battle rolls random effects. Some will help you, some will utterly destroy you. It’s random, stupid and sometimes ridiculously unfair, but that’s honestly why it’s my favourite facility. It’s unpredictable and wild as to what will happen, and I have so much fun trying to work my way out of corners the randomizer forced me into.

This version of the Battle Frontier injects fun gimmicks in the post-game battles that really keep things interesting, and there’s enough variety in how they operate, that there’s likely to be something for everyone within its walls.

3 – Team Rainbow Rocket – Ultra Sun/Ultra Moon

Yes, this was just an excuse for Game Freak to bottle nostalgia and sell it back to us and I don’t care, because it’s cool as hell.

From the moment I saw that ridiculously cool piece of promo art, I knew I was in for a treat when it came to the US/UM postgame, and I was not disappointed. Team Rocket show up out of nowhere, and not only do they have a renewed sense of threat to them, but they’ve also got an updated battle theme that holds the essence of the original and makes it cooler than ever before. That rock version of the Rocket battle theme is just too good to not point out.

Then, you head to Aether Paradise, and all of that juicy nostalgia hits you in the face. First of all, you go through a bunch of puzzle rooms that mimic the old style of evil-team bases. There are teleport puzzles, arrow trap puzzles and just about everything you could want. Then, there are the actual team leaders themselves, except these are the versions of them that didn’t lose to a 10-year-old kid and actually succeeded in destroying/altering/ruling/creating a whole new world.

You face these leaders with a strong sense of their ideals as they give you a small glimpse into the world they created, and you get to fight some buffed-up teams of theirs for some epic battles. In here, it’s the little touches that make these battles so much fun, like the fact that they’ve all caught their Pokemon Master Balls or the INCREDIBLE remixed battle-themes. Cyrus & Lysandre’s especially are some of my favourite pieces of music in the whole franchise.

Then you face off with Giovanni, who seems like a genuine threat for the first…well, ever, to be entirely honest with you, as he attempts to rule the multiverse, whatever that means. He too gets a kick-ass battle theme and a strong team of Pokemon that will really put you to the test if you didn’t adequately prepare.

To put it simply, it was just so much fun to experience all this nostalgia in one lovely digestible sequence of events. Facing the old leaders, seeing them all team up and getting to fight them all off in an epic series of encounters. Is it a bit over-the-top and childish? Absolutely. Do I care? Not in the slightest.

2 – Delta Episode – Omega Ruby/Alpha Sapphie

A handful of Pokemon games have held over narrative elements into the post-game. There was the 7 sages in Black & White, or the Heatran stuff from the Sinnoh games, for example, but until the Delta Episode, it had never been done to this extent.

When Zinnia showed up following the credits of ORAS, there was a lot of intrigue to be had. Not only was this something we’d never seen in a Pokemon game before, but it completely diverged from the story of the original Ruby/Sapphire/Emerald games, of which these were a remake. It wasn’t some massively epic story or anything, but I like how it gave you a quick mystery, hit you with a pretty significant threat and then immediately sent you off to the tower. Here, you learn a bit more about the lore of Groudon, Kyogre & Rayquaza, and there’s that slow realisation of where this is going.

Additionally, this was the first time Pokemon actually addressed the possibility of a multiverse, something Generation 7 would play around with a lot in its narrative. What really blew me away were the two major reveals that happened during this sequence. I have no idea if these were revealed before the launch of the game, but when I played through them for the first time, I had no idea that 1) Rayquaza was not only catchable in the game but had a mega-evolution that is honestly one of the cooler ones out there and 2) You got to catch DEOXYS of all Pokemon, which was an incredibly cool and memorable moment when I experienced it for the first time. As the Crown Tundra has proved, Pokemon games seem to be becoming more willing to make Mythical Pokemon available as an occasional treat, and it gives me high hopes if the Sinnoh remakes are ever produced.

While I don’t think we’ll see this kind of thing super often anymore, as the franchise has moved on to more fully-formed DLCs instead, but either way, this was a very memorable experience that held a nice couple of surprised following the ORAS credits.

1 – Kanto – Gold/Silver/HeartGold/SoulSilver

It’s an obvious choice, I know, but what else could it possibly be? Sure, some of the other entries on this list might hold more interesting aspects or flashier ideas, but this a WHOLE REGION for you to explore, including an extra 8 gym battles. This is the stuff we can only dream of in the modern era of Pokemon.

I experienced the Johto games for the first time in the form of the remakes, HeartGold & SoulSilver, which are absolutely incredible games in their own right. Once I’d finally fought through to defeat the Elite 4, to be told that there was now a whole new region for me to conquer was terrific. More to that, since this was only the second Pokemon game I’d ever played (first was Platinum), I’d never seen Kanto before, which meant all of it was brand new to me. It was like an extra Pokemon game on top of my Pokemon game.

Even if you had already played through a Kanto game, there was still huge value to be found in exploring the region a few years following the events of the original games. There’s great fun to be had in seeing how the gyms had changed and who was leading them. After battling Koga in the Johto Elite 4, you find out that his daughter has taken over his Gym, you find out that your former rival took Giovanni’s place as the final Gym leader. It’s got the right balance you want from a ‘sequel’ of the region, with a bunch of nostalgic elements, with a feeling of progression.

Then, once you’ve done all of that, you get to go to Mount Silver and have what is still, to this day, one of my favourite battles in the entire franchise against Red with some ridiculously high-levelled Pokemon for the standard singleplayer experience. Given that Gold & Silver were originally designed to be the last games in the franchise, they definitely nailed the feeling of wrapping everything up from the first two generations, and the exploration into Kanto was a huge part of that.

So there you have it! Thank you very much for taking the time to read this post, please let me know what you thought of Pokemon post-game features, either in the comments below or on Twitter @SStyleSmark. Make sure to come back here this time next week, where I’ll be covering my favourite Fall Guys levels.
AND don’t forget to come and check out my streams at https://www.twitch.tv/strongstylesmark 2pm GMT Tuesdays & Thursdays, and 6pm GMT on Saturdays!

Game of the Year 2020

We’re here! The year is finally coming to a close! As we all sit and pray that 2021 won’t somehow be worse than 2020, it’s time to wrap things up with a look back at the games released over the last 12 months and see what we enjoyed the most.

First, some caveats. I HAVEN’T PLAYED CYBERPUNK 2077. I do want to play it, and I am going to in the new year, but it became apparent to me that even if I did play it on launch day, I wouldn’t have been able to play enough of it in time to fairly judge how much I liked it. So, I’m not writing it off, but expect to see it appear on my 2021 ends of year lists rather than here. Secondly, I don’t own a PS5 or an Xbox Series X, so if a game was exclusive to either of those consoles, then I haven’t played it.

I will also be continuing to add the games I think are worthy into my 100 Favourite Games list, so check that out too, if you want context on that one.

Outside of that, though, I’ve played quite a wide range of games this year. I don’t know if I played quite as many as in 2019, but that’s more because there have been fewer games coming out. As such, this list will cover quite a variety of stuff, and I won’t waste any more time rambling. Let’s look at the best of what this year had to offer!

SPOILER WARNING!

While I’ll try to avoid anything too plot-critical, I will be talking about spoilers for all of these games. I’d recommend you tread carefully with games you like the sound of, especially as some of these are heavily narrative-focused games.

14 – Cloudpunk

Release Date: 23rd April
Developer: Ion Lands
Publisher: Maple Whispering Limited
Platforms: PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, Windows

I didn’t know how to feel about Cloudpunk for quite a long time, but after thinking it over, I definitely think it deserves to be discussed on this list.

Cloudpunk is a game with an incredible atmosphere. The sound design team did an absolutely incredible job of creating the feel of the kind of city Cloudpunk is set in. The whirring of the cars, the low rumble of chatter in the street and the miserable atmosphere the whole thing carries with it. Even the music the in-game radio gives you has such a ‘manufactured’ feel to it which is perfect for the tone the game is trying to convey.

On top of that, it’s a master of the ‘show, don’t tell’ philosophy. Your job as a courier (and occasional taxi driver) around the city means that you really get to see every aspect of the place. From the dark, dank depths on the underbelly to the more well-off areas, and the people that live in them. You start in an unfamiliar land with unfamiliar people, but as the game progresses you really grow to feel a sense of attachment to the city and many of its citizens, and you see all sides of it.

The game doesn’t shy away from giving you the moral choices either. It dumps a pretty heavy one on you reasonably early, and they keep on coming from there. It’s not the perfect dynamic system of something like Papers, Please, but it’s more than enough for what the game is trying to do.

So this may pose the question, why did I not know how to feel about it? The simple answer is that the ending wasn’t what I was hoping it would be. That’s not to say it was bad, but I definitely think a lot more could’ve been done with it and I almost wish they’d made it a little longer to properly dig into some of the ideas it touched on. However, I’ve also spoken to people who loved the ending and thought it was perfect, so you’ll have to make up your own mind on that one.

Even if I did feel it ended on a low note, the world and narrative throughout have still stuck with me all these months after I first played it, and that definitely makes it deserving of a spot on this list.

13 – Spiritfarer

Release Date: 18th August
Developer: Thunder Lotus Games
Publisher: Thunder Lotus Games
Platforms: PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, Windows, Mac, Linux, Google Stadia

There’s a lot to unpack when it comes to Spiritfarer. In terms of gameplay, it takes elements from a lot of different genres. On the face of it, that sounds like a bad thing, but in actuality, the game takes just the right amount from each genre and balances them incredibly well.

The first thing that struck me when I started playing was how beautiful it’s visual/animation style was. Everything looks so wonderfully vibrant and colourful, and every character moves and acts in such adorable ways. It puts me in mind of some of the old Hanna-Barbera cartoons with how much life the animations bring to the characters and the world. Similarly, the sound design is a huge plus. The sounds of the ocean and the slow creaking of your boat are very relaxing sounds to listen to, and when music comes into play, it wraps itself around you and pulls you right into the moment.

The survival/crafting elements that drive the largest portion of the game are great. The process of collecting/manufacturing resources is never a chore and done at just the right pace so that you don’t breeze through it all and get bored. What’s great is that all of the main character quests will take you to the places you need to find the new resources, so you’re always progressing at the perfect pace for where the game wants you to be.

Similarly, the world is a joy to explore. The game limits the areas you can explore in just the right way so that you don’t get too overwhelmed or stray off of the beaten path until you’re ready to. Even at the start of the game, when you’re the most restricted, there’s still a huge amount of areas and oceans to explore, and you never lose that sense of discovery. Additionally, travelling from place to place is never a chore. There’s always something to be doing to keep you occupied as your boat sails from one place to another. Some farm will need watering/picking, or food will need cooking, or ores will need smelting, and even if you’ve done all of that, you can always fish for more food.

What drives this game at its very core though, is the spirits which travel with you along the way. Your job as the spiritfarer is to see spirits through their last business in the world, before taking them to the gateway to the afterlife, and no matter how many times you have to do it, it’s still an emotional moment. You get to see the lives of spirits laid out before you and understand what they’re truly like, only to have to eventually say goodbye and move on to the other spirits you need your help. To describe the kind of feelings it evokes is difficult, but if you’ve ever experienced grief, then you’ll definitely relate to the feelings on display here.

Place on 100 Favourite Games List: 95

12 – Star Renegades

Release Date: 8th September
Developer: Massive Damage
Publisher: Raw Fury
Platforms: PlayStation 4, Xbox Series X/S, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, Windows, Mac, Linux

Arguably the most obscure game on my list this year, Star Renegades mixes the roguelike & turn-based strategy genre in a way that I haven’t seen since Into the Breach.

What I love about turn-based strategy (TBS) is the feeling of sitting down and working out a really good plan, whether that plan works or fails miserably is beside the point. In a TBS, I see each battle as a puzzle to be solved, and it’s the thinking through the possibilities that brings me the most joy. Star Renegades is brilliant at tapping into that part of me.

The battle system comes together in the kind of way I absolutely adore. The fact is, you could technically go through any battle without taking a single hit if you’re good enough, but the game makes sure to keep applying the pressure to make sure you never get too good. It takes ideas from D&D in that each ‘turn’ is 60 seconds of battle-time, and in that time, every character on both sides of battle gets to act once. The kicker here is that if you go before another character, not only do you do more damage to that character. However, you can also ‘stagger’ that character, meaning they end up attacking later than they originally would’ve.

Already, that’s perfect for the puzzle-solving mindset I take in these games because every character starts with 5-7 attacks/abilities and they all do different things. You can push for heavy damage, but you’re going to attack last and take more damage, or you can focus on only doing little chips of damage that will stagger your opponent and save you from taking as much damage in return. Then you add on the fact that every character can only be staggered a certain amount of times, and if you stagger them far enough, they won’t attack at all, and you’ve got all the makings of a battle system I can really sink my teeth into.

Of course, there’s a bunch of different character classes to play around with too, and as you progress through each run, your characters will level up, get new gear and gain new abilities, slowly growing the tools at your disposal. It’s not a perfect game, and it’s not even that unique in the grand scheme of things, but it ticks all of my boxes in just the right way, and I played a lot of Star Renegades since its release.

Place on 100 Favourite Games List: 86

11 – ScourgeBringer

Release Date: 21st October
Developer: Flying Oak Games, E-Studio
Publisher: Dear Villagers, Yooreka Studio, Plug In Digital
Platforms: Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, Windows, Mac, Linux

At its core, ScourgeBringer doesn’t really bring anything new or unique to the roguelike genre, but it’s filled with all the little optimisations that the genre has accrued over the years, and that’s what makes it such a compelling experience.

First up, we have the movement which is so incredibly crisp that I would honestly love to play a platformer using these kinds of systems. The precision and speed with which you can navigate the map put me in mind of Towerfall Ascension with how much I enjoy playing it. What’s even better is that the game puts a heavy focus on movement, as positioning is key to surviving every fight. The dash attacks, the wall runs and the floaty jumps can be combined to create all sorts of movements that you’ll be able to process at a speed that makes just navigating a screen satisfying.

Secondly, the combat ticks all of my boxes. It all focuses on that split-second decision making of a whole bunch of aspects you need to balance. What to attack and how to attack it: Do you dash towards it? Do you shoot it? Do you wait for a chance to stun? Do you charge in like a madman? All of these are viable strategies, and you have to employ them at a speed that makes you feel highly skilled even when you’re not doing all that well. On top of that, every hit feels crisp and heavy, the sound and visual design are perfectly on point to make slashing away at enemies very fun.

Finally, I enjoy the sense of progression. The truth is, as with most roguelike games, I’m probably never going to make it to the credits. The genre is known for somewhat of a steep difficulty curve that you need to put a lot of time and effort into overcoming, which I don’t often do. This puts me off some roguelikes, but with ScourgeBringer, I don’t really care. Not only is the gameplay fun enough in and of itself that I don’t mind if I don’t make much progress, but the constant unlocking of new abilities and story elements kept me going for quite a while.

If you’re looking for a unique take on the roguelike genre, then ScourgeBringer probably won’t do it for you. However, if you just really like the genre and want great games in it, this will be sure to please you.

Place on 100 Favourite Games List: 79

10 – The Henry Stickmin Collection

Release Date: 7th August
Developer: Puffballs United
Publisher: Innersloth
Platforms: Windows, Mac

Calling this a game is almost doing it a disservice, it’s more like a sketch show about the history of video games.

For context, several ‘episodes’ of this game were initially released between 2008 & 2015 on Newgrounds as funny little games with some clever writing. However, I’m counting this as a new release as a whole bunch of content was added to the old episodes, and one whole new one was added that is utterly massive.

The reason I like this game is honestly very simple, it’s really, really funny. The simple mechanic of having you make a bunch of different choices to get over various obstacles is all that’s needed to lead into a huge amount of hilarious cutscenes that show you just how fun failure can be. I mean that by the way, because it’s one of those games where picking the wrong options is usually funnier than getting it right because of the hilarious ways in which you end up fucking it all up.

Mixed in with all that is a true love letter to video games & gaming culture. This thing is PACKED with so many references there’s no way you’ll even get them all. What’s great is that they’re not lazy references either, they’re always implemented in a hilariously creative way that sometimes you don’t even realise it’s a reference until you get blasted with the punchline. Despite having a limited amount of content, the game is incredibly replayable thanks to the several different paths & endings for each episode. Usually, I don’t bother with finding every path in a game like that, but with Henry Stickmin, I HAD to see everything, because it all made me laugh hysterically.

I’d love to dive deeper than that, but the truth is this is just a hilarious game made by some hilarious people, and I love it.

Place on 100 Favourite Games List: 69

9 – The Solitaire Conspiracy

Release Date: 6th October
Developer: Bithell Games
Publisher: Bithell Games
Platforms: Windows, Mac

If you read my 100 Favourite Games series, then you’ll be all too aware of how much I adore Mike Bithell’s games. They’re never anything super flashy, but the writing, atmosphere and tone of the world he & his teams create put him among the elite when it comes to indie developers. The Solitaire Conspiracy is no exception.

For starters, the premise is that you’re a spymaster who does their spying by solving Solitaire puzzles, which already has me hooked. Then, once you get into the game, you’re greeted by a man who definitely isn’t secretly the bad guy explaining the whole deal to you. The FMV acting in this game isn’t world-class, but it injected a real sense of personality into the story, the cutscenes are brief, and the actors they got in carry the scenes well enough so that I was always pleased to get a new one.

Outside of that, the story is told through the short text descriptions before and after each mission which give a good sense of world-building to the story. I also like how it justifies the style of gameplay, as the variant on Solitaire you play is described as you directing your team and organising all of their movements, which is very creative. Admittedly, I wouldn’t rank it among the best of Bithell’s narratives, but he writes at such a high quality anyway, that I still loved every second of it.

The puzzle-based gameplay is really fun and a lot cleverer than it first seems. Each new ‘team’ you can play around with brings new abilities with them that let you manipulate the cards you have around you, and there’s a surprising amount of variety in them. What’s great is that they were all clearly designed with the idea of collaboration in mind, as once you get to grips with the systems, you start to see the interesting ways in which you can chain these abilities to breeze through a puzzle.

What I love even more is how every ability can end up being as much a hindrance as it is a help depending on how you use it. It all depends on the context. Sure, ‘Bloodline’s’ ability to ‘kidnap’ the lowest card of that suit and bury it at the bottom of the pile might seem like it would hurt. However, when you use it to dig out a card at the bottom of a big stack and put it at the bottom of a small stack, you begin to realise how much of a help it can be. It means that every team’s ability requires you to fully understand how it works to master it and create some excellent puzzle-solving moments.

It might not be anything revolutionary or mindblowing, but The Solitaire Conspiracy is intelligent in all of the right ways. It has Bithell’s trademark endearing world design and puzzle gameplay that I’m always in the mood for.

Place on 100 Favourite Games List: 61

8 – Animal Crossing: New Horizons

Release Date: 20th March
Developer: Nintendo
Publisher: Nintendo
Platforms: Nintendo Switch

This is hardly an original sentiment, but I think it’s true to say that Animal Crossing was the game that came about when we needed it most.

Personally, my relationship with the game was a bit of a weird one. When I first bought it, I played it A LOT. When we were first entering lockdown, it was pretty much my morning routine to play Animal Crossing for a couple hours at the start of each day. In an era where survival/crafting/building games are an extremely oversaturated market, this one manages to strip it back and allows people to just have fun with it.

For one thing, there are no survival elements, which makes me happy, because, at this point, I just see stuff like that as a lot of faff. On top of that, it brings forward the series’ trademark style into something that’s just very sweet and enjoyable. The wonderful truth about Animal Crossing is that it’s a game that can be as simple or as complex as you want it to be.

While I didn’t grow particularly attached to any of my villagers, I really loved the feeling of a growing community that forms as you progress through the game. Personally, I would’ve liked the ‘camping on a deserted island’ vibe to stick around for a while longer, but that didn’t stop there being a significant amount of joy to come from new buildings popping up all over the place and expanding your island into a lovely little community.

Even though I haven’t touched the game in about 6 months, I still have fond memories of slowly building up my islands and creating something that felt really personal to me. It gave me more excuses to hang out with my friends (virtually) in a time where we were all apart, and that’s what I was hoping for from a game like this.

Place on 100 Favourite Games List: 59

7 – There Is No Game: Wrong Dimension

Release Date: 6th August
Developer: Draw Me A Pixel
Publisher: Draw Me A Pixel
Platforms: Windows, Mac, iOS, Android

There Is No Game is a brilliant blend of a comedic story, an homage to retro games and extremely creative puzzle mechanics.

From the moment you open the application, the game is all-in on its premise. The first time I booted it up, I ended up accidentally quitting it because of some deliberately misleading menus which was an amusing moment right out of the gate, and it doesn’t let up from there. I won’t go too much into the story, because it really is the kind of thing you need to see for yourself, but the premise of the game desperately not wanting you to play it manages to be the source of near-endless comedy that keeps coming back in fun new ways.

The puzzles are main driving force of the gameplay, and they will mess with your head in all of the best ways. Each chapter plays with different puzzle mechanics, all of which are innovative and encourage you to go against the grain as much as humanly possible. It’s the kind of game that will have you interacting with everything just because you want to see what the hell it could possibly do, with inevitably hilarious results.

On top of that, it’s clear how much love the developers have for many of the games they parody in the story. Point-and-click adventures, 2D adventure games, overly money-grabbing mobile games and even credits are all shown love and turned into the most ingenious puzzle levels I’ve ever seen.

In all honesty, I feel bad for making this entry so short, because I adore the game, but it really is the kind of game that you need to play for yourself to really understand. I’d recommend going in as blind as possible to let the game blindside you over and over again. All I will say is that I promise you will have an absolute blast.

Place on 100 Favourite Games List: 51

6 – XCOM: Chimera Squad

Release Date: 23rd April
Developer: Firaxis Games
Publisher: 2K Games
Platforms: Windows

To put it mildly, I love the XCOM series. XCOM 2 is one of my favourite games ever, so when a PC exclusive new title in the franchise was surprised announced this spring, I was very excited to play it.

It takes the usual XCOM formula and remixes it into something faster and slightly simpler, but just as engaging. Mixing up the way turn-order works was an interesting choice that totally shifts how you plan your moves. Instead of having breathing room to allow your team to act as one, you have to think about every unit as an individual. It makes you ponder over your choices a little harder because you’re always going to be putting one of your units at risk by making some moves that would be fine under normal circumstances.

Breaking up each level into smaller areas was an interesting way of doing things as well. It removes some of the stealthier elements of XCOM, with you no longer having to strategically explore each area, but it makes up for it by making each room essentially a puzzle in terms of how to clear it. There are so many variables at play: Where to breach; What order to enter your units; Who to target when you get in, that it allows for a wide range of strategy for each small segment of gameplay, and also allows you to mix-up strategy mid-mission, rather than having to commit for an extended period of time.

On top of that, being able to finally play as different alien species was a very welcome addition. While the writing could’ve been a bit better in terms of giving them stereotypical personalities, their gameplay elements were done very well. Every alien on the team had a valued role and distinct purpose in terms fo playstyles, which is precisely what you want when facing such a diverse set of enemies. It added to the feeling I mentioned of having to treat every unit as an individual, rather than a group.

At the end of the day, I’d still say I prefer the regular XCOM formula, however, as an experiment into mixing things up, this was a roaring success as far as I’m concerned. I will definitely come back and play this one through again at some point next year.

Place on 100 Favourite Games List: 49

5 – Haven

Release Date: 3rd December
Developer: The Game Bakers
Publisher: The Game Bakers
Platforms: PlayStation 5, PlayStation 4, Xbox Series X/S, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, Windows

This was the last new game I played this year (I finished it less than a week ago), and in a year with so much bollocks, I think it was very nice to go out on a game so unapologetically positive & optimistic as this one.

The two lovers at the core of this game are some of the most genuine characters I’ve seen in gaming all year, and the positive relationship they hold together is so heartwarming. What I love so much about the portrayal of their relationship is how it doesn’t rely on them being lovey-dovey all the time to show how good of a relationship it is, it’s more down-to-earth than that. It’s not two young idiots who are madly in love with each other, it’s two people who are just right for each other, and it comes across every time they interact, which is pretty much the entire game.

The story focuses purely on this couple, and we see the entire world through their eyes, and some of the writing is very clever in how you learn about the world. As the couple discovers new things on the planet they’ve found themselves on, you learn as they do, so far so standard, but I really like how it handles the backstory. The game doesn’t pull you back at any point to be like “here’s the backstory” or have the characters turn around and say things like “hey, remember this event from our past?” instead, the backstory is baked into the dialogue subtly. It was quite bold to start throwing out some of its terms without explaining them first, but it becomes pretty apparent what everything is purely by how the characters refer to it in their speech. That is the kind of writing I love because it can weave the function into the world-building and never stops the pace to explain something to us.

The gameplay is a lot of fun too, even if it isn’t anything mindblowing. The gliding mechanics are very satisfying; a feeling that only grows when combined with the idea fo cleaning up the environment as you glide over it. The focus is definitely on exploration, and that feeling definitely comes across. While there isn’t as much variance in the visuals as I would’ve liked, you’re always encountering new creatures, plants and mysteries to keep you wanting to push on. The combat is relatively simple, and not particularly difficult, but I don’t think it needed to be, the game even tells you that it wasn’t designed to be complicated. It’s not the game’s focus, just a part of it to keep things interesting, a function it definitely fulfils well.

At the end of the day, Haven was just a fairly chill game that left me feeling nice and warm inside. It was full of positivity and optimism, and it put a smile on my face, what more could you ask for?

Place on 100 Favourite Games List: 44

4 – Spelunky 2

Release Date: 15th September
Developer: Blitworks, Mossmouth
Publisher: Mossmouth
Platforms: PlayStation 4, Nintendo Switch, Windows

When a sequel was announced for Spelunky several years ago, I was both excited and confused. I played far too many hours of the original, and it seemed like such a perfect formula that I really didn’t see what could be added to it to make it better. Having now played Spelunky 2, it seems the answer to that was that there wasn’t really much they could add, and as such, it simply focuses on being a brand new adventure for Spelunky players. You could argue that Spelunky 2 feels more like an expansion pack for the original than an outright sequel, but for only £15 I’m honestly fine with that being the case.

Instead of worrying about adding a bunch of new mechanics to the already fantastic Spelunky gameplay, the development team behind this one instead looked to take what the original gave you, and simply give you more of it. Every aspect of this game is just “more” than in the original, which is definitely a plus for this game. New environments were implemented to make the world far more complex and varied to explore, with many opportunities to find brand new and endlessly convoluted secrets.

Outside of that, everything just feels a lot smoother. Visually, many rougher edges have been smoothed out, and the new enemies all fit perfectly into their settings. As such, I’ve played a lot more of the sequel than the original this soon after launch. It’s a game that I still play on an almost daily basis three and a half months away from its launch. Usually, it’ll only be for half an hour or so at once, but that’s enough time to have a few runs that keep me entertained while I’m playing them. Once again, it’s a game where I know I’ll probably never actually ‘complete’ it, but I don’t care, I just enjoy booting it up and seeing how far I can get with a few runs.

The simple fact is that if you enjoyed the original Spelunky, then you’re going to like Spelunky 2. As far as I’m concerned, the only changes made were positives ones, and you generally get a lot more for your money with this one.

Place on 100 Favourite Games List: 42 (replacing Spelunky)

3 – Assassin’s Creed Valhalla

Release Date: 10th November
Developer: Ubisoft Montreal
Publisher: Ubisoft
Platforms: PlayStation 5, PlayStation 4, Xbox Series X/S, Xbox One, Windows, Google Stadia

The Assassin’s Creed franchise is one that I’ve had my ups and down with over the years, and my opinion on the previous game in the franchise, Odyssey, was the epitome of that. I didn’t have a great first impression of it, but a few months later I came back around to it and played it a lot and eventually came away liking the game. So, when I booted up Valhalla to find that it does basically everything Odyssey did but SO MUCH BETTER, you can imagine how pleased I was.

The combat system was focused down and massively improved. Instead of worrying about giving us seven different weapons, they narrowed it down to just a couple of main types and made them feel fantastic to play around with. The light and impactless combat of Odyssey has been fine-tuned to be slow, heavy and the most satisfying combat system in the entire franchise. On top of that, your gear and abilities’ in-game progression was made to work so much better with the open-world design. While the massive sprawl of the ability tree wasn’t perfect, the way they scattered the stat upgrades between the actual abilities meant that your power creep felt far more natural than it ever had before.

Looking at the open-world design, it was far more interesting than the previous few examples. Where both Egypt & Greece look the same pretty much all over, the combination of England & Norway meant that the environments felt way more varied and more enjoyable to explore. Even though you don’t spend much of game time in Norway (comparatively), I didn’t get sick of the English environments either purely because they’re so bloody pretty.

I like how Ubisoft has completely thrown out the idea that their games have to stick to realism in their worlds and stories. I mean, the Assassin’s Creed stories have never been world-class, and this is no exception, but the fact that they’ve allowed some of the more gamified elements to seep into the story is nothing but a boon for both the narrative and combat aspects of the game. I meant that the terrain didn’t have to be entirely realistic to England, the abilities didn’t have to be super grounded and it generally felt like the development team were less constrained their designs here.

I’ve fallen back in love with the Assassin’s Creed franchise since they shifted to an RPG style of game, and this is by far the best version of that we’ve seen to date.

Place on 100 Favourite Games List: 37

2 – Fall Guys: Ultimate Knockout

Release Date: 4th August
Developer: Mediatonic
Publisher: Devolver Digital
Platforms: PlayStation 4, Windows

Trying to describe what a near-endless source of joy this game has been so far is a tough task, but I’ll give it a go.

Battle Royale is a genre I’ve always wanted to like a lot more than I did for a while. I love the idea of taking tonnes of people and slowly whittling them down to the very best, unfortunately, I just never fell in love with the previous titans of the genre, it’s hard to say why, but that’s the way it is. However, once I saw Fall Guys’ premise, I knew I was in for something fantastic.

For one thing, it’s so inherently different, and yet feels somewhat familiar. There are no games in the battle royal genre that look anything like Fall Guys (not including all of the copycats that came after this released) with the overly light and bouncy aesthetic that gives such a pleasant atmosphere. On top of that, invokes a lot of feelings of nostalgia on two fronts. On one front, it puts me in mind of Takeshi’s Castle, which is a show I watched a lot of when I was younger, and on another front, it puts me in mind of the soft-play areas, which were tonnes of fun to run around as a kid.

All of the games in Fall Guys are so inventive. Not all of them are amazing, but even the worst Fall Guys games still have a pretty high base-line of fun to them. There was a considerable risk of it getting stale with a limited set of levels if you played it too much, but they honestly never do. I’ve played Fall Guys for over 50 hours currently, and I’m not bored of any of it, even the games which have been in it since launch. I think a large part of that is down to how great of a variety of games you get in each match, they made sure to design it so that you get a little taste of everything if you make it far in a match so, by the time a game comes around again, you’ve played a lot of other things in between it.

What’s great is how much the dev team are committed to supporting the game into the future. As much as the people spamming ‘dead game’ on Twitter would like you to believe otherwise, the game is still booming as far as the community & support are concerned. The wait-time for games is still just as quick as it was at launch (maybe even a bit quicker thanks to server improvements) and the new seasons add a whole host of new games that are sure to keep people interested over the next year and beyond. Yes, that will change one day, but for now, Fall Guys is here to stay, and I’m going to stay with it.

Place on 100 Favourite Games List: 30

1 – Watch Dogs: Legion

Release Date: 29th October
Developer: Ubisoft Toronto
Publisher: Ubisoft
Platforms: PlayStation 5, PlayStation 4, Xbox Series X/S, Xbox One, Windows, Google Stadia

Watch Dogs has not been one of my favoured franchises over the past generation. I hated the first game, and while I enjoyed the second game, I didn’t think it was anything special. So what’s so special about Legion that I’m willing to call it my game of the year? Truthfully, it’s got quite a lot going for it.

Where the original Watch Dogs was heralded as the encapsulation of what the then ‘next-gen’ consoles could achieve and failed miserably, Legion actually does feel like an actual ‘next-gen’ experience. The graphics aren’t a significant leap or anything like that, but the systems the game contains are above and beyond what has been achieved in open-world games before.

The ‘play as anyone’ gimmick was one that I wasn’t expecting much from because it honestly seemed too good to be true. It felt like another case of a games company over-promising what they could achieve to get some flashy headlines. I was wrong, though, because the system really worked as good as they promised. Watch Dogs already had the systems in place to generate people are random around the world, it was a feature in both of the previous games. However, this game stepped that up and gave all of them histories, relationships and abilities that the game actually remembers.

Yes, the fact that you’re playing as literally anyone and everyone means the story has to treat your character as a bit of a blank slate, but that doesn’t really matter because it’s the kind of game where your characters form their own stories as you play. I think the game is enhanced significantly when you play with permadeath on because it gives every mission stakes. As you form bonds with your characters and send them into missions, the story’s emotional stakes aren’t as important as how desperate you are to keep your character alive because you know that failure means losing them forever.

On top of that, every building in the game is like it’s own mini Hitman level with how you have to infiltrate them. The tools at your disposal are so varied depending on who you’re playing as that you can always mix up your styles to get the most out of each experience. Sure, using the spider-bot to infiltrate every building is probably by far the easiest way to do things, but it’s so much more fun to use my uniform disguised recruit to walk in there unseen and take people out stealthily. The nature of how the game used its abilities means that I’m happy to go for a more risky strategy if it’s more fun to execute.

On top of that, it’s really nice to be able to wander around (and cause havoc at) places around London that I know quite well and actually recognise. They captured the city’s feel very well, and while the story is nothing mind-blowing, it does develop into quite the exciting action-thriller by the end. The result is a game that pulls me all the way into a franchise I didn’t particularly care for at the beginning of the year, and now I’m looking forward to where they take it next.

Place on 100 Favourite Games List: 27

And there you have it! Thank you very much for taking the time to read this and all of my articles this year. Please, let me know what games you loved from 2020, either in the comments below or on Twitter @10ryawoo! Finally, make sure to join me this time next Saturday, where I’ll be ranking every champion in NXT history!