The first of two pointless stops on the road to Wrestlemania is behind us, and whether or not you liked this show depends on what you focus on. The majority of the matches were pretty good in terms of in-ring action, they all had something going for them. However, there were several booking decisions that I thought were either questionable or straight-up bad.
My main takeaway was the gigantic gap in quality between the storylines on Raw & Smackdown right now. Smackdown is kicking Raw’s arse creatively right now and has been for some time. If you want proof of that, you just need to look at the landscape for Wrestlemania. Smackdown has their top men’s title match sorted out in Reigns vs Edge, and while it’s yet to be confirmed, they’re pretty clearly building to Bianca vs Sasha. Then, on the Raw side, things are an absolute mess. Asuka was originally announced on the pre-show to be facing a mystery opponent after Lacey Evans was forced to pull out of the match only for it to never be mentioned on the main show, so we’ve got no idea what’s going on there. Then you have the several moving parts around the WWE Championship that could go any number of ways.
You’ve got one show with a clear creative direction and one that doesn’t know up from down, which is ridiculous considering they’re run by the same company.
Enough stalling, let’s look at the goings-on from last night.
6 – Roman Reigns(c) def. Daniel Bryan (Universal Championship)
This was extremely disappointing.
I was excited going into this show, as I thought that there was room for some fantastic storytelling. I was hoping we would get a performance from Bryan worthy of himself from 2014, where he’d go in a massive underdog and put up a fight greater than the odds thought was possible before ultimately falling at the last hurdle. Instead, we got a match that was just…nothing, really. I’m not saying they should’ve gone 20 minutes, I’m not going to be that demanding, but would it be unreasonable to ask for 8? Not the one and a half we got.
It didn’t even tell that interesting of a story. I never at any point bought Daniel Bryan could win, so the drama of him catching Reigns in the Yes! Lock just didn’t land for me. That’s not just because I’m jaded either; take Bryan vs Lesnar from 2018 as an example. We all knew there was no way Bryan would win that match, but when he kneed Lesnar in the face and went for that cover, I BELIEVED it was possible. This match just didn’t earn that level of investment. It blew its load too early, and by the time Bryan passed out in the guillotine, I’d lost interest.
Now, if this was the start of a slow build to Reigns vs Bryan at Wrestlemania, I’d be on board with that, but given that WWE has announced Reigns vs Edge for Mania, that’s not happening. It’s not impossible Bryan gets added to the match, but I highly doubt that will happen. Instead, it’s probably going to blow off at Fastlane, wasting a money match WWE could’ve saved in their back pocket for a bigger show.
5 – John Morrison def. Mustafa Ali, Ricochet & Elias (Winner gets added to the United States Championship Match) (Kickoff Show)
This match is like a distillation of all the potential talent WWE has wasted. That’s the real problem with this match, the action was all good, I just didn’t care. I feel horrible saying that because all of these wrestlers are insanely talented, but WWE has pissed it all away with terrible booking over the past few years. You then hear reports that apparently Vince “sees nothing” in wrestlers like Aleister Black & Shayna Baszler, and it absolutely boggles the mind how this man even got to the position he’s in today.
Now I’ve got that off of my chest, this was a fun 4-way match, and given that the winner was always going to be the fall guy in the US title match, I think John Morrison was a good pick for that role.
4 – Nia Jax & Shayna Baszler(c) def. Sasha Banks & Bianca Belair (Women’s Tag Team Championships)
This match was a little formulaic in several ways, but I still think it was an enjoyable watch.
I expected the rift between Bianca & Sasha to form more clearly during this match, so I was surprised to see that it didn’t really happen. I can see where the jumping-off point for it is, but the two women were on the same page and quite a joy to watch for the majority of the match. That’s not surprising given how great we know they both are, but in another time, I would love to see these two have an extended run as a tag team. Their connection feels so genuine (probably because it is), and their in-ring styles mesh wonderfully – all the more reason to be excited about the Wrestlemania match.
As I said in my predictions, the champions retaining was definitely the right call. Involving the tag titles in Bianca & Sasha’s upcoming feud would just be a needless complication, and I’d rather see Nia & Baszler do something interesting on their own at Wrestlemania. The finish was a bit odd, but it was a creative way to protect the faces. I don’t know where this thing with Reginald is going, but I’m liking it, for the time being, I only hope it doesn’t outstay it’s welcome.
3 – Riddle def. Bobby Lashley(c) & John Morrison (United States Championship)
It happened so slowly I barely even noticed, but I’ve really come around to liking Bobby Lashley now. Ever since he stopped talking and/or kissing Lana all the time, he’s slowly been getting better and better. Now he’s this absolute destroyer of a man who wrecks everyone who comes his way, and it’s brilliant.
That said, he wasn’t the start of the show here. His dominance in the early portion of the match gave way to Riddle & Morrison really going at it around the middle. Neither of these men have got much of a chance to display their full potential since coming to Raw (or coming back, in Morrison’s case), and I think this is the best version of both these men we’ve seen in a while. Morrison played his role perfectly, although it does raise the question of how this match was supposed to go before Keith Lee pulled out.
As things got into the final sections, there was plenty to enjoy. The action had a pace I enjoy, and all three men had their ‘almost’ moments coming up the finish. MVP’s crutch being Lashley’s downfall was a nice touch and a believable way to topple someone so seemingly monstrous as Lashley. I didn’t think they would pull the title change, but I’m glad Riddle is getting something worthwhile now. I don’t know where they’re going to go with it. As long as he doesn’t immediately lose it on Raw tonight, I’ll be happy.
2 – Daniel Bryan def. Jey Uso, Cesaro, Kevin Owens, Sami Zayn & King Corbin (Winner gets a Universal Championship Match)(Elimination Chamber)
While I don’t think either chamber match last night were among the best, they were definitely still worthy versions of the stipulation. Honestly, I think you could reverse the order I’ve ranked these and still think it was reasonable. I just think the other chamber match had a better middle section.
The action in this match was pretty much all great. Bryan & Cesaro were absolutely the correct choices to start things off, and their battle kept that early portion of the match interesting. Sami Zayn was easily the star of the show early on, his stuff before the match was as great as always, and his contributions once he actually entered the match were the scheming heelish beats we’ve come to know and love from the man.
Once Corbin & Zayn were out of the way is when I think things got really good. Having three faces going up against a single heel could’ve been a bit awkward, but it was paced really well and felt more like Jey Uso putting together a gameplan than overcoming any odds. The spot with Owens’ arm in the chamber door was something we hadn’t seen before and quite brutal when you think about it. This definitely feels like the end of Owens being involved with Reigns & Uso, which is a bit of a shame because he’s been terrific, but I’m also looking forward to seeing what he does next.
The final three was excellent. As much as I wanted Cesaro to win, he had a fantastic showing here. His work against Bryan was technical mastery, and he worked well (albeit briefly) against Jey. As I’ve said, I don’t think Bryan was the right pick to win, but the fashion in which he did it certainly gives me nothing to complain about. This underdog style of wrestling is what I (and I think many others) love him for, and this was just like the old days.
1 – Drew McIntyre(c) def. AJ Styles, Sheamus, Jeff Hardy, Kofi Kingston & Randy Orton (WWE Championship) (Elimination Chamber)
The Miz def. Drew McIntyre(c) (WWE Championship) (Money in the Bank Cash-In)
This was my preferred chamber match out of the two purely because I thought it was more consistently entertaining.
The mix of different styles in this match worked well, and we moved through some different phases are people came in. Things were a bit slower to start off with between Hardy & Orton, but as soon as Drew got in there, things picked up significantly. Kofi did better than I thought he was going to as well, eliminating Orton, which was quite a surprise. I’m sure many of us were expecting The Fiend or Alexa Bliss to get involved with Orton somehow, so to see him just get eliminated so quickly like that was quite the surprise, especially as it would be another 15 minutes before anyone else got eliminated.
Once everyone was out of their pods, there was plenty of fun to be had. Drew facing off against Sheamus was great, and I hope they’re not done with each other yet, even if they wait until after Wrestlemania. Styles got a better showing than I was expecting too, and that spot with Omos ripping the back off of the pod was another unique thing and fit Styles well. Speaking of Styles, that finish was something else, easily one of the best Claymore kicks I’ve seen, ending things with a bang.
The main headline, though, happened after the match, where Bobby Lashley came down, wrecked Drew, which Miz used as an opportunity to cash-in Money in the Bank and win the world title. I’m slightly torn on this.
In a bubble, I’m happy to see Miz get another world title run; he definitely deserves it. However, this isn’t 2017 Miz, the best heel in the company. This is 2020/21 Miz, who has been booked like a chump for over a year. He & Morrison have been portrayed as the most ineffective wrestlers on the planet. They haven’t been able to beat anyone, even when it’s 2 on 1. It just seems like such a leap to make.
However, I’m pretty confident Miz is just a transitional champion. They showed hints of collusion between Miz & The Hurt Business, and the deal was almost certainly giving Lashley the first shot at the title. I’ll honestly be surprised if Miz is still champion come Wrestlemania, and there’s absolutely no way he’s walking out of that show with the title. I think Lashley is going to win that title soon – something I’m definitely in favour of – it’s just a matter of whether he gets it a Fastlane and drops it to Drew at Mania, or Drew gets it back at Fastlane, only to drop it to Lashley at Mania.
It’s all still up in the air and a bit of a mess, but I’m interested to see where it goes.
Well, that PPV cycle sure went quick. The Royal Rumble feels like it was just a week ago, and I could’ve sworn this PPV was scheduled for next weekend, but that shows what I know, I guess. The bright side is that this time of year always has me excited for wrestling shows, even if the TV isn’t the best.
This show is a bit of an interesting one because it’s pretty much entirely wheel spinning. Usually, Elimination Chamber will at least set the stage for a Wrestlemania match or two, but this one really has no bearing on the Mania card. I know both of the titles are up for grabs, but if you think either of them are going to change hands on Sunday, then you’re clearly new to wrestling. On top of that, no number 1 contenders are being decided; the only possibility is that Edge will come and confront the champion he wants to face at Wrestlemania, but even that already feels like a done deal.
That said, I really like the Elimination Chamber. It’s not WWE’s best gimmick match by a long shot, but I think (2020 notwithstanding) the past few years have produced a lot of really great chamber matches, and this year promises to add to that.
NOTE: About the Asuka vs Lacey Evans match. WWE still seems to be advertising it as happening, but if it’s true that Lacey is pregnant (which just about everywhere seems to be reporting she is) that match won’t be going ahead. I’m not sure what WWE are going to do about it, but given that I don’t think it’s taking place, I’m not going to predict it. I don’t know who WWE would put up as a replacement, it wouldn’t surprise me if they just didn’t bother, but either way, I think Asuka will still be champion by the end of the night.
Nia Jax & Shayna Baszler(c) vs Sasha Banks & Bianca Belair (Women’s Tag Team Championships)
Remember when the women’s tag division had actual tag teams to challenge the champs and not just some pairings thrown together on a whim? No, me neither, which is sort of the problem with the whole endeavour right now.
While it’s not been anything incredible, the build has been fairly enjoyable week-to-week, mostly thanks to the overall high quality of Smackdown so far this year. It’s not without problems, though, mainly how the build has focused around Bianca’s uneasy alliance with Banks and that Bianca is definitely going to challenge Sasha at Mania. Jax & Baszler have once again been kicked to the curb a bit in favour of the feuds involving the ‘bigger stars’.
That said, I’m hopeful this will be a good one. This should get a decent amount of time thanks to the lack of matches booked for this show, and three of the four women are among WWE’s best. I’d imagine WWE would be eager to showcase Bianca especially following her Rumble win.
I think it’s a pretty solid lock that Nia Jax & Shayna Baszler are going to retain. They may lose the titles only to get them back when Sasha & Bianca fall out, but they literally just did that with Charlotte, so I don’t see the point in doing it again. I think it’d be much better for Sasha & Bianca to fall out here, and we get going with their Wrestlemania build properly. I’m interested to see how that build goes because Bianca is 100% the face that everyone will be behind, but I don’t think it’d be a good idea to turn Banks heel again this soon. Hopefully, WWE will be smart enough to let Banks skirt the line between heel & face a bit, as she’s more than capable of doing it. Either way, having the women’s tag titles involved would just needlessly complicate things, so keep them on the champs for now.
Bobby Lashley(c) vs Keith Lee vs Riddle (United States Championship)
This build has been messy as all hell.
Riddle’s been chasing Lashley for quite a while now, even running the gauntlet of The Hurt Business and fighting them off at every opportunity. So it seems really weird for Keith Lee to suddenly step in on his scene like this. I mean, sure, why shouldn’t he? And I love Keith Lee, so I’m not going to complain too much; it just seems like a real dick move to pull on Riddle. The Hurt Business has continued to be the best part of Raw the past couple of months, giving us some much needed entertaining promo segments on a Raw that is currently an absolute chore to get through every week.
I’m looking forward to the match, though. I wasn’t huge on Lashley for a while, but I’ve come around to him now he’s got a faction backing him up and just needs to rely on destroying fools. Riddle & Lee are both excellent, so I can only imagine the chemistry they’ll have in the ring. Additionally, the triple threat factor means that this match should be a lot of fun with a fast pace and high-impact action.
I can see the result going all three ways if I’m honest with you. Putting the belt on Keith Lee would be something I’m in favour of as he’s not been featured very well in recent months, but it might feel a bit out of nowhere for him to suddenly show up and win the title. Riddle winning the title is a possibility too, he’s been chasing The Hurt Business for ages now, and it’d seem a bit cruel for him to not get it here. Ultimately though, I’m going with Bobby Lashley. In a situation like this, picking the champ to retain is always a safe bet, and I think by keeping the belt on Lashley, the door is open for Lee to take the title in a singles match at Mania.
Drew McIntyre(c) vs Randy Orton vs AJ Styles vs Sheamus vs Jeff Hardy vs Kofi Kingston (WWE Championship) (Elimination Chamber)
Generally, I’d go through each of the participants for a match like this and give my thoughts on their chances in the match, but there’s really only one outcome here.
In a clear example of the fact that WWE has no idea who Drew’s going to face at Mania, they’ve thrown this match together on a whim, and while it’s pointless, it will probably be very good. There’s the right mix of hard-hitters and high-flyers in this match, and I think we’ll get a lot of varied action as the thing progresses.
The only real problem here is that I don’t have all that much to say about it. The build’s been very short and okay, I guess; gauntlet matches are pretty fun. All that’s really left to talk about is the winner, and as I’ve already made obvious, I’m picking Drew McIntyre to retain. The dude just beat Goldberg clean, so there’s no way they’d have him suddenly drop the title to Jeff Hardy on a b-show PPV. Not to mention the fact that they’ve already put together the Wrestlemania promo package, which shows both Drew & Reigns holding their titles.
The only person I thought had any potential to take the title was Orton, but it’s clear that he’s going to be dealing with The Fiend at Mania, so that rules him out. Styles already lost his shot in December, and while they’re all former world champions, Sheamus, Hardy & Kingston have not been booked on a main-event level at all over the past year and don’t fit the title at the moment.
Kevin Owens vs Jey Uso vs Daniel Bryan vs King Corbin vs Sami Zayn vs Cesaro (Elimination Chamber)
Roman Reigns(c) vs The Winner of the Elimination Chamber Match (Universal Championship)
This is the chamber match that I’m far more excited to see because – with one exception – I adore all of the talent involved, and it’s sure to be a blinder of a match. What’s better is the result of this one isn’t super obvious, so I can go through it person by person.
King Corbin – While Corbin is one of those people that could be catapulted into the main event out of nowhere at any time, it’s not going to happen here. He’s been booked like a chump in the latter half of the past year, and with Reigns on top, there’s no room for another main-event heel.
Sami Zayn –Zayn’s work of late has been fantastic, even if I don’t think it’s going to lead anywhere. The conspiracy theory stuff allows Zayn to get the best out of himself and do wonderfully entertaining things like handcuffing himself to barricade for half of Smackdown. That said, I don’t think it’s going to lead to a real main-event push, and, as I said before, while Reigns is the champion, no other heel is getting a look in.
Jey Uso – Jey’s story with Roman was one of WWE’s better stories of 2020, but it feels like it’s reached a status quo for now, at least until Jimmy returns from injury. While it would be entertaining to watch, I don’t think there’s anything to be gained from Uso fighting Reigns again. They could do a finger-poke of doom thing, but that would make everyone very angry, so no.
Daniel Bryan – Now we’re getting into the people I think might win. Bryan & Reigns started building a feud around November, but it got dropped out of nowhere, and they never returned to it. It seemed like it was going to be the Mania match, but now Edge has won the Rumble, and it seems pretty likely he’s going to fight Roman at Mania instead. Bryan would be a good strong win for Reigns, and it’d be perfect for the underdog story of having to go through a Chamber match before fighting Reigns.
I just don’t quite see it. If it’s going to lead to a Mania match (which it might), then I’d be in favour of it, but I don’t think that’s the direction WWE want to go, and given how big of a match Reigns vs Bryan is, I don’t think they’d give it away on a b-show like this.
Cesaro – One of the most surprising aspects of 2021 so far is that fact that Cesaro has actually been getting somewhat of a sustained singles pushed. He’s beaten Daniel Bryan clean twice now, and word was he was originally going to get the ironman spot in that gauntlet match in January. As such, I think he’s in with a shout of getting this one-and-done shot the title on this show. Having Cesaro gut it out in the Chamber, put on an exciting but ultimately unsuccessful showing against might be a brilliant way to build him up even further.
Kevin Owens – The final leading contender here, and this would definitely make the most narrative sense. Owens has addressed the fact that he was totally screwed out of the win at the Rumble, and you’d think that would mean there’s still a loose thread to pull on here. On top of that, Owens has all the momentum in the world, and it would be a shame to see it dropped all of a sudden.
I’m struggling to make my pick here. As I said, Owens seems like the obvious choice, but I’m not so sure. While there is that loose thread to pull on, I just don’t see what can be gained from Reigns beating Owens again. It may be a great performance for Owens, but I don’t think it’ll benefit him any more than the Last Man Standing match did, and Reigns doesn’t look all that great beating a guy he’s already beat twice before, even if it was dirty.
I’ve decided I’m going to go with what I want to happen instead, and I’m picking Cesaro to win the Chamber match. It might not lead to anything huge for the guy, but I think it could be an extremely entertaining story and let Cesaro show that he can hang in the main event, like so many of us have known for years. He’s not going to win, though, and come the end of the night, Roman Reigns will still be Universal Champion.
So there you have it! Thank you very much for taking the time to read this post. Please, let me know what you think is going to happen on Sunday, either in the comments below or on Twitter @SStyleSmark. Finally, make sure to come back here this time on Monday for my review of the show!
As I said on Saturday, the Royal Rumble this year was an event I was very excited about, and I’m thrilled to say that it didn’t disappoint. Once again, the stage looks set for Wrestlemania with some matchups that I’m looking forward to seeing on the horizon, hopefully with crowds to make it all the better.
Anyway, I just want to get talking about these matches, so here are my rankings.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m thrilled that Drew retained, but not in the excited way that I should be, I’m just glad I didn’t have to experience to utter disappointment and anger that would’ve been Goldberg winning the title. I was invested in the match, but not for the right reasons.
As you’d expect, this match was the same as just about every match Goldberg has had since he returned. Both men hit some signature moves, there were a couple of surprising kickouts, then one last signature move put the nail in the coffin. As soon as Drew kicked out of the Jackhammer, I knew he was winning, and I just don’t think it’s all that fun to watch two men hit a bunch of finishers for two minutes before a pin.
As I said, happy for Drew, don’t care about the match.
5 – Nia Jax & Shayna Baszler def. Asuka & Charlotte Flair(c) (Women’s Tag Team Championships)
Talk about making Charlotte look strong in defeat…
What was the point in giving these two the titles? No-one’s come out of it looking good. Baszler & Jax won the titles back in the lamest fashion, needing THREE separate interferences to finally put Charlotte away. It perpetuates this idea that the fans have had for years that WWE treats Charlotte far better than the rest of their women’s roster. Meanwhile, Asuka was cast entirely aside to tell this story, despite being Raw’s top champion in the women’s division.
The match was fine, but given that Baszler, Jax & Flair were all going to be heavily featured in the Rumble, it was clear they were saving the bulk of their energy. This whole situation just makes me feel bad for Asuka. She was one of the best things going in the entire company during spring & summer of 2020, and since autumn, she’s been treated like she’s nothing. It boggles my mind, and I can only pray that she gets something better heading into Wrestlemania, and doesn’t have to drop the title to Charlotte beforehand…
I really don’t have anything to say about this one, it was a decent match with an obvious outcome. There was absolutely nothing wrong with it, but given that they had a very similar, and much better match last month, I didn’t really care.
3 – Roman Reigns(c) def. Kevin Owens (Universal Championship) (Last Man Standing)
I was cautiously optimistic about this one in my predictions. The feud had been built damn-near perfectly over the past month, and it had all the promise in the world. However, it was also a Last Man Standing match, which are often very slow, sometimes dull affairs. Thankfully, this match mostly avoided that.
The opening section wasn’t super engaging, but there was at least the novelty of seeing the two men fighting between the screens of the Thunderdome, it was a unique visual. The match also didn’t hold off on going for the big spots straight away, and I thought this might’ve been a short one when Reigns threw Owens off the stands into the tables. Thankfully, the match continued to build for there, and I really got into it. Reigns hitting Owens with a golf cart was a shocking moment, and it was framed perfectly so that you didn’t see it coming until the last second.
The whole section backstage was a great section of Owens getting his own back after Reigns schooled him throughout the match’s early section. The forklift spot was another great one and was the second time the match tricked me into thinking it was the finish. As things moved back into the arena, the excitement continued to build, and yet another false-finish with the spear through the barricade kept me gripped into the finish.
The best false-finish was the handcuffs, and I genuinely thought Owens was about to win the title, but the ref bump put paid to that. Then…there was the botch with the handcuffs. A new ref came down as Heyman tried to unlock Reigns’ handcuffs, but Heyman just couldn’t do it, so the new ref got to a count of about 7, but had to stop because Roman was still cuffed and couldn’t get up. It did ruin the finish’s pace, but it was also quite funny, so it didn’t detract from my enjoyment as much as it probably should’ve.
While I was hoping Owens would win, Reigns’ retaining is almost certainly the right move, I quite like how strong they’re presenting his Guillotine chokehold, and given what he’d already gone through, it makes total sense that Owens’ body would give up the ghost by that point. A really good match and a strong retention for the champ.
2 – Edge won the Men’s Royal Rumble
For the past few years, I’ve noticed that the Rumbles don’t have filler entrants anymore, and I think that has increased the overall quality of the matches significantly. You look at Rumbles like 2013 & 2014, and so many of the entrants are people like 3MB, Los Matadores and complete jobbers who have no chance in hell of winning or doing anything of interest. That’s just not the case anymore, WWE’s talent roster is deep that everyone who comes in is a great wrestler who can leave an impact on the match and I think that’s why every Rumble since about 2016/2017 has been a lot of fun to watch (even if we hated the winner).
The match set forth its primary story straight away and it really worked. The heels filling the ring and beating down Edge put the odds against him straight away (as if coming out #1 wasn’t enough), and it made that comeback story feel all the sweeter. The first half of the Rumble wasn’t super eventful after the Edge/Orton stuff died down, but there were enjoyable spots and a healthy dose of surprises as the ring built up with competitors. Carlito is always a welcome sight, and Damian Priest made one hell of an impact, which I hope translates to being featured on the main roster from now on.
The second half was where things really heated up, and there was action all over. Riddle got to last a surprisingly long time in the match and him & Bryan coming to blows every now and then was great fun to watch. Lashley squaring off with Big E was something I got far more into that I was expecting to, and I would quite like to see a full-length match between the two of them now. Christian showing up was absolutely perfect, and nothing will make my heart swell more than Edge & Christian hugging as active wrestlers once again.
I went into this not too keen on Edge winning the thing, as I thought Daniel Bryan winning would’ve been a far better story, but by the time Edge was pointing at the sign, I was all-in on seeing him fight for a title at Mania. I’m not sure which champ he’s going to fight either. Roman would make more sense from a heel/face perspective, but also, there’s not really anyone else on Raw for Drew to fight at Mania. There’s even the remote possibility that Orton somehow gets the title and we get Edge vs Orton 3 at Mania instead.
Either way, this was a thoroughly enjoyable Rumble with a satisfying conclusion, and I am hyped for Wrestlemania this year.
1 – Bianca Belair won the Women’s Royal Rumble
This was one of the best Royal Rumble matches of all time. Not quite the best, there is a small handful I think are better, but not many.
The pacing on this was unbelievably good, almost in spite of itself. For the first 14 entrants (almost half the match) there was only 1 elimination, but it made the first half feel so lively. Bayley, Naomi & Bianca carried the bulk of the action as outstanding wrestlers POURED into the ring like you wouldn’t believe; Toni Storm, Shotzi Blackheart & Shayna Baszler, just to name a few. The first half of this Rumble was so much stronger than the men’s because there was so much more going on in terms of both story & action. While wrestlers like Bianca & Bayley were wrestling like there was no tomorrow, Billie Kay was running around ringside trying to win over anyone and everyone who joined the match. Billie is gifted when it comes to comedy is wrestling as this was a wonderful through-line, that actually continued when she got in the ring with Peyton Royce & The Riott Squad.
Then Rhea & Charlotte got in the ring, and shit got serious. Rhea looked like such a beast from the moment she entered, there was just something about her presentation and the way she kicked the shit out of everyone that screamed star-power. As much as I had picked Belair in my predictions and I was thrilled to see her win, in my heart, I was rooting for Ripley, and she went on a tear. Charlotte did the same, and I know I bitched about Charlotte’s presentation earlier, but I thought it was really good in this match and paid off well.
The 24/7 title stuff was a bit weird, but it suited Alica Fox and didn’t last too long or over bare on the match. The last run of entrants added a lot to the match. Carmella got a good mini-story with Reginald, Alexa Bliss managed to look good despite being eliminated really quickly as everyone mobbed her as soon as she got in. Lana FINALLY got one over on Nia & Shayna in a satisfying moment, and Nia didn’t injure anyone, which is always a plus. Also, Natalya was there, I guess.
What really put this match over the top though, was the final 3, which was utterly flawless. I was genuinely out of my seat as Charlotte, Rhea & Bianca faced off – the same three women who were in each other’s face over the NXT Women’s Championship last year. I wanted both Rhea & Bianca to win, and them ganging up on Charlotte was the most pleasing thing of all. They teased us just enough with the potential of Charlotte shit-canning them both to make it very satisfying when they finally got rid of her.
Then we had Rhea & Bianca face off in the final two. Two women who both stood a really good chance of winning the match, who told a brilliant story together back in NXT, facing off in a match-within-a-match for about 3-4 minutes. They did a fantastic job of teasing some false-finishes and played with the fact that we genuinely had no idea which one of them was going to win in the best possible way.
When Bianca finally won, it was a tremendous emotional climax and felt so very deserved. Not only because of the great work she’s done week-to-week recently, but because of how damned hard she fought for it in this match. Unlike Edge, who took a backseat here and there in his Rumble, Bianca was always amongst the action, with her & Naomi especially putting on a great show constantly battling.
It’s a masterclass in making a new star, and I can’t wait for her to put on the performance of a lifetime at Wrestlemania against (hopefully) Sasha Banks.
So there you have it! Thank you very much for taking the time to read this. Please, let me know what you thought of the show, either in the comment below or on Twitter @SStyleSmark. Finally, make sure to come back here this time on Saturday where I’ll be covering my favourite Fall Guys levels!
There are very few wrestling events that I get childishly excited about these days, but the Royal Rumble is definitely one of them. It’s been said the world over by now, but it really is true that even a bad Rumble is still a lot of fun while you’re watching it. Having two Rumbles on the same show can be a bit exhausting these days, but also screw it, it’s a lot of fun, and I always have a blast, so I don’t care.
Enough rambling, more rumbling, let’s make predictions.
Asuka & Charlotte Flair(c) vs Nia Jax & Shayna Baszler (Women’s Tag Team Championships)
You wouldn’t know it based on how they’ve been booked on TV this past month, but Asuka & Charlotte are actually the women’s tag champs. For some reason, WWE has decided to keep them miles apart from each other this month. Each woman has completely separate stories from each other, and only tangentially got involved with their challengers for this match.
When they won the titles, I think we all knew it was just so they could break up and feud for Wrestlemania, but apparently, until they’re ready to pull the trigger on that, WWE is just going to pretend they’re not even aware of one another. I’d like to be optimistic about this match and say that it has all the right competitors to be a good one, but this match will definitely get cut short. Since the pandemic era, WWE has tried to keep their PPVs to about 3 – 3 & 1/2 hours, we’ve got two Rumbles, which are both an hour-long, then four other title matches to deal with. That means that every title match (except for maybe one) will go short, so I’m not expecting much from this one.
In terms of a winner, I would prefer it if Jax & Baszler took the titles back, but I don’t see it happening until WWE are ready to start building the Charlotte/Asuka feud, which I doubt they are just yet. So I’m going to put Asuka & Charlotte Flair to retain, even if it is a stupid idea.
Sasha Banks(c) vs Carmella (Smackdown Women’s Championship)
This was a very odd build. For the first couple of weeks after TLC, it seemed like Banks was done with Carmella, but apparently, WWE realised last-minute that Sasha needed something to do this month, so just kept the feud going while everyone else in the division builds to the Rumble. The stuff with Reginald was pretty good if you ask me, but it didn’t do much to actually hype me up for this match, it was more of just an entertaining, but self-contained oddity.
As with their TLC match, I think this one will be good, but not very long. Banks already dispatched of Carmella with little difficulty last month, and I can’t see Carmella looking much better in this one. All I’m hoping for here is an enjoyable match that lasts about 12 minutes. In an ideal world, I’d like it to go longer, but as I’ve said, the two Rumbles mean that the other matches have got to go short.
As I’ve probably made apparent already, I think Sasha Banks is going to retain. There’s no value in Banks dropping that belt before Wrestlemania, especially not to someone that she’s already beat once before.
Drew McIntyre(c) vs Goldberg (WWE Championship)
Here we are again…
When this match was first announced, along with being disappointed, I also had the cockiness and was thinking there’s NO WAY they’d have Drew drop the title to Goldberg after building him up all year. Then I remembered that was precisely the same thing I thought last year when Goldberg beat The Fiend for the title.
It’s one of those rare cases where, whether or not I think this match is a good idea depends ENTIRELY on the result. If Drew wins, then it will be a great way to lend him some real credibility and bolster his stock even further going into Wrestlemania. However, if Goldberg wins, then it will be a terrible idea that proves that WWE doesn’t listen to its audience and only cares about selling nostalgia rather than creating new stars from the wrestlers we actually like.
I’m picking Drew McIntyre because I have to because I wouldn’t be able to look myself in the mirror if I picked Goldberg. The worst part is, if Goldberg does in, I know that I’m not even going to have the energy to be pissed off about it, I’m just going to be disappointed.
Roman Reigns(c) vs Kevin Owens (Universal Championship) (Last Man Standing)
By far the best built non-Rumble match on this show, I am really quite excited to see this one.
Smackdown as a whole has been bloody great this past month, and this feud at the top of everything has been a massive part of why. The original build with Nakamura going long in the gauntlet match, only for Pearce to be forcefully slotted in the match was a great way to kick things off. In all honesty, I was kind of excited to see Roman vs Pearce, but the way they turned the story around was really well-done. Pearce pulled a fast one on Roman, which brought Owens back into the picture with a hell of a lot of fire.
From there, things have built perfectly. Reigns’ heat only seems to build week on week as he wanders around the place, getting to be cocky, snobbish and hilariously sarcastic to everyone he meets. What’s more, is when the face gets one over on him, it feels like a huge moment, like Reigns is getting put in his place, if only just momentarily. Owens’ promos about his tattoos and what this means to him have been so impassioned and genuine that you just have to cheer for him. I’ve said before about how Owens can talk so genuinely, and Reigns has turned out to be the perfect opponent for him.
This build has been so good that I briefly considered the possibility that Owens could win the title. In the grand scheme of things, it doesn’t make much sense for Roman to drop the title now, but the story with Owens has been so good, that it’s made me somewhat forget all of that logic. I’ve not gone all of the way off the deep end though, and I’m still picking Roman Reigns to win, I’m saying, if Owens won, I’d be pleased with it.
Women’s Royal Rumble Match
Now we get to what we’re all here for, the Royal Rumble matches, and genuinely, I’m really struggling to predict a winner for both of these. It seems counter-intuitive given that there are 30 participants in the match, but we usually go into a Rumble match with one or two legit contenders for the win, however this year…there’s so many! As usual with these, I’m going to run down the handful of participants that I think are in with a shout, and explain a bit about why, before making my final pick.
Rhea Ripley- This is the one I’d probably be the most surprised about if it actually happened, but it’s pretty clear that Ripley is done in NXT. Her debut on the main roster seems to be imminent, and what better way to make a splash than winning the Rumble? She could feud with either Sasha or Asuka, and it would be a match I’d be very excited to see, but ultimately, this is the one I’d put the lowest odds on happening.
Bayley – While the match at Hell in a Cell was terrific, I think we were all a bit surprised when the Sasha/Bayley feud ended after just one match. Immediately there was speculation that they might save the rematch for Wrestlemania. While I think it’s a definite possibility, as the months have gone on, I think it’s become less and less likely. I don’t know what else Bayley could do at Wrestlemania, to be fair, but I think WWE will want something fresh for Banks at that show.
Charlotte Flair – This is probably the most straightforward pick out of what we’ve got, but I don’t think it’s the most likely. With Asuka & Charlotte as tag champs, if Charlotte won the Rumble, that would instantly cause the break-up and the feud. The only problem is it would be quite underwhelming. This isn’t a knock on Charlotte, but she won the Rumble last year, I don’t really want to see her win it again, especially when there are far more exciting options on the table.
Alexa Bliss – This has been incredibly weird, and not all that good, but at the same time, I kind of like the direction it’s going in. It’s hard to tell what the end-game is with the Fiend/Bliss relationship. For the most part, she’s just been a pawn in the feud between The Fiend and Orton, but over past few weeks, she’s been challenging Asuka for the title, breaking out on her own. I think it would be a colossal waste if she didn’t at least get to sniff a major title feud here.
Bianca Belair – For a while, Belair was the top contender for this match in my mind, and she might still be, I’m honestly not sure. After a bit of a slow start on Raw, she moved over to Smackdown, and it instantly became clear that she was a star in the making. While the finish to the Survivor Series tag match was crap, Belair was clearly the MVP of the whole match, and since she’s been feuding with Bayley, she’s been looking good week in, and week out, they even made that WWE Chronicle on her past, which is something they don’t do for just anyone.
This is a really tough choice. In my head, it’s between Bliss & Belair, and since they’re both on different brands, either one of them could theoretically win, then the other just gets their title match via the Elimination Chamber. I’ve genuinely gone back and forth several times while writing this section, but in the end, I’ve got to go with…Bianca Belair. I’m already second-guessing that decision, but I’ve got to make the pick at some point.
Men’s Royal Rumble
Truth be told, I’m actually thrilled that these Rumbles are so hard to predict because it means I’m going to be all the more invested in the match. Not having any idea what’s going to happen just gets me hyped up all the more, and that goes for the men’s Rumble as much as it does the women’s. Let’s run down the contenders.
Shinsuke Nakamura – Technically possible, because they’ve been pushing him quite hard this past month, but I doubt it’ll actually happen. It feels more to me like this is Smackdown’s way of building up more red-herrings in terms of people who could win the Rumble. They’ve been doing this with Cesaro & Dolph Ziggler too. I’m glad they’re doing it, it’s something that should be done every year, but I don’t think any of them are actually going to win.
Seth Rollins – This does depend on whether he’s ready to return after becoming a father (which is the reason I didn’t consider Becky for the women’s Rumble), but if he does come back, I’d say he has a shot at winning. While we have seen Roman vs Seth before, it was a long time ago, and the situation was quite different. Sure, they’re both heels, but you can change that a bit, since Seth will be coming off of a return, it wouldn’t be that weird to do a character shift.
Edge – I had a feeling Edge was going to be in the Rumble, but I thought they would’ve saved it as a surprise entrant. Either way, I think this is more likely a platform to sow the seeds for his Wrestlemania feud. No idea whether they want to do the third match with Orton, or maybe a marquee feud with someone like Styles, but either way, I don’t think he’ll be the winner of the thing. If he were to win, then I think Roman vs Edge would be the way to go, I just don’t see it happening.
John Cena – While reports from the dirt sheets say that there are no Wrestlemania plans locked in just yet, they are also saying that Cena is almost sure to have a match. So why not have him enter the Rumble and win it? Roman vs Cena would be a money match, even if we’ve already seen it, but I think Drew vs Cena could be one hell of a match too. The story can build around Cena trying to break Ric Flair’s imaginary world title record or something like that.
Big E – Since about Summerslam, Big E has been one of the top contenders to win the Rumble, but in recent months he’s gone down quite significantly in my odds. Now he’s got the Intercontinental Championship under his belt, I’d prefer it if he had a decent length reign with that, fighting a variety of opponents, rather than hot-shotting straight up to the world title. Not to say I’d be upset if he did win the Rumble, far from it, I just think that it’d be better for him to build for a while longer and maybe wait until Summerslam to challenge for the title.
Goldberg – So this was a possibility that I hadn’t considered until I saw it floating around online, and quite frankly, it terrifies me. If you’ve not seen it, people have been speculating that maybe Goldberg could lose to Drew earlier in the night, only to enter and win the Rumble. This would be a disaster, but I can 100% see WWE going through with it, especially with the report a few days ago that WWE is considering a ‘really scary’ finish to the Rumble that might piss off fans.
Daniel Bryan – As much as I can’t make all that solid of case for it, it just feels right. Admittedly, it’d pretty ironic that after being majorly snubbed from two Rumble wins in 2014 & 2015, that the Rumble he finally wins could be one in front of no crowd, but that’s life I suppose. Bryan’s expressed his desire to stop being a full-time wrestler over the next year – a position I think he’s more than deserving of – so I think giving Bryan one last big Mania match would be the best way to go, and a Rumble win is the perfect way to get there. Roman vs Bryan is a match that WWE has planned, but never actually executed over the past couple of years (cave for Fastlane 2015, but those were VERY different times), and they already sowed the seeds of it through November and December, it would seem weird not to commit to it now.
As I said, the case is still a bit shaky, and I’m by no means certain, but Daniel Bryan winning the Rumble just feels right to me, so I’m sticking to my guns and making it my official prediction.
So there you have it! Thank you very much for taking the time to read this. Please, let me know what you think will happen at the Royal Rumble, either in the comments below or on Twitter @SStyleSmark. Finally, make sure to come back here this time on Monday, where I’ll be writing up my review!
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!
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!