You may not be aware, but TheXboxHub reviews a lot of games. In fact – blowing our own trumpet here – we review the vast majority of games that come out on the big black box. This puts us in the envious position of having a near-complete overview of 2020 and the Xbox games that lit up its path. We’ve played the stinkers, the blockbusters, the weird ones, the rude ones, and even a few that deserved more fanfare than they got.
It’s this last batch that we’re interested in. So many games rain down on us over the year that you’d be forgiven for missing a few, or forgetting some that got touted as good. But the end of the year is all about taking stock, scanning the Games of the Year lists, and wondering whether to add a couple to that mountainous backlog. With that in mind, we bring you our Hidden Gems list.
We’ve gathered together the games of 2020 that impressed us the most, with a couple of criteria: they sold naff-all, and barely got featured across the gaming media. These are the hidden Xbox gems of 2020, and we’ve canvassed all of TheXboxHub’s writers to bring you the most worthy of them.
Play this if you like… weirdness, Cartoon Network shows past and present
If there was an award for ‘hidden gem publisher of the year’ it would go to Coatsink. Coming on like an even-more-bonkers Team17, they’ve produced some of the most criminally underrated and downright fun games of the year in the form of Get Packed, Cake Bash and Phogs! Cake Bash could easily have made this list, but Phogs! takes the dog biscuit for barminess.
Reviewer Neil Watton keeps on barking about it: “from the get-go, it provides access to a wonderfully unique puzzling world; one that is pretty much unlike anything else you’ll find in gaming. It works brilliantly as a solo adventure, but comes alive when you grab a friend, pushing and pulling your two-headed dog, this way and that”.
It may not have nailed the physics, but that only emphasises its ‘quick game after the pub’ nature. If you’ve got a friend or family member to hand, and want a good old-fashioned giggle, then Phogs! is going to scratch your itch.
Play this if you like… Daytona Racing, Outrun, Riiiiiiidge Raaaaaacer!
What happened to the over-the-top, red chassis, fist-pumping arcade racer? Hot-damn we miss them, and we want to recapture that feeling. We can imagine it: stepping into a dirty old arcade somewhere around Blackpool, hopping into a machine and drifting round corners as we sail past strangers to the finish line.
Hotshot Racing absolutely nails the joys of arcade racing. It has Daytona Racing, Sega Rally and Ridge Racer coursing through its veins, and it just gets it. Full of multiplayer features, pinpoint controls, and one of the most colourful experiences of the year, it’s enough to just complete a race in the morning and be set up for the rest of the day.
Our reviewer for this one was Neil Watton: “it plays superbly, the racing is ultra-tight, rubber-banding is on point, and the visual style just draws you in. Since launch it’s moved on even more with the introduction of the Big Boss Bundle, removing any initial fears that the track roster was a little on the light side”.
To top it off, it’s still on Xbox Game Pass. Don’t let it nitro past you.
Play this if you like… Inside, Stela, daydreaming on the job
While the backdrop of Mosaic is offices and the mundanity of a commuter’s life, it still manages to nail what it feels like to experience 2020. It’s the story of a worker, waking each morning like the last, making their way to a corporate office in a cold, impersonal city. There, their work is boiled down to a loading bar, and they receive incessant notifications buzz on the phone, but they’re irrelevant and blank.
It might seem like an escapists’ nightmare – we want to ignore our problems, not wallow in them, dammit! – but Mosaic was ultimately about hope and regaining something that we’ve lost. Often surreal and regularly beautiful, it was a short tale that stuck with us while other stories faded away.
As reviewer Gareth Brierley puts it, “this is a game that sees beauty in the mundane. I thought the game was unique, beautifully made and its story stayed with me months after I played it”.
For 2-3 hours of playtime, it’s an investment that’s well worth making.
The Last Campfire
Play this if you like… Journey, The Legend of Zelda, Ico
Probably the last game we expected emerging from Hello Games, makers of No Man’s Sky, was The Last Campfire. Contained, beautifully authored and focused on a single character’s story, it’s about everything that No Man’s Sky isn’t. But it was also one of the most affecting and personal games of the year.
Reviewer Gareth Brierley puts it best: “this is a game about hope, and making the world whole again. I loved the tone of the game, the puzzles and the story. But most of all it was the brilliant vocal talents of Rachel August that guided me safely through this journey”.
We loved this wonderfully crafted game, and would love to have had more time in its world. It’s rare to find a game that’s so positive and optimistic, and even rarer to find one that avoids the zombie modes and headshots, and instead aims to heal the world and bring people back to life. Awww.
Welcome to Elk
Play this if you like… Night in the Woods, Knights & Bikes, What Remains of Edith Finch
Straight outta Denmark came Welcome to Elk, a simple, low-key tale about a budding handywoman who takes an apprenticeship on a Greenland outpost. Everyone knows everyone, contact with the mainland is few and far between, and people are mostly left to their thoughts.
It sounds like the start to a Scandinavian thriller, or a series of Fargo, and that seems to get confirmed when a dead body is found nearby. But instead, Welcome to Elk’s aims are higher than that: it wants to explore how storytelling can overcome loneliness, rifts in communities, and even death.
Sounds pretentious? It can be, particularly if you’re averse to the idea of incorporating real-world interviews (Welcome to Elk is mostly biographical, drawing on various experiences of living on remote villages like the fictional Elk). Reviewer Dave Ozzy reassured that “it’s mostly a sweet, personal story where you do very little apprenticing, and a lot of drinking and forming friendships. If there’s a game this year that will make you slightly more optimistic about humanity, it’s Welcome to Elk”.
Play this if you like… LA Noire, Blacksad, Sherlock Holmes
There probably weren’t great odds on the most badass, memorable hero of the year being a detective rooster who’s only a few days from retirement. Sonny Featherland was a hard-drinking chicken with a deathwish, and we loved playing as the drunken old cynic.
As debuts go, you won’t get much better than Chicken Police. Mostly a detective story, the gameplay was in the LA Noire-style interrogations and the moments of deduction, but the joy was in talking to everyone in the world. A cast of misshapes and oddballs, it made an odd kind of sense that they were portrayed as raccoons, bloodhounds, cayman and even komodo dragons. We’d seen it before in last year’s Blacksad, but we wanted to believe in Chicken Police’s world more.
Reviewer Dave Ozzy sums it up: “it’s greatest achievement is in the voice-acting and sound design. Close your eyes and you could imagine yourself in an old Bogart and Bacall potboiler, and there’s no greater compliment in that”.
SinkR & SinkR 2
Play this if you like… Monument Valley, Thomas Was Alone, games of pool down the pub
Lists like this were made for games like SinkR and SinkR 2. They are one-developer, one-idea games that still manage to wipe the floor with most other puzzlers out this year.
The premise is pretty simple: there are little pockets on the floor where a ball would snugly fit, and you’re in control of a number of hooks that can pull nearby balls into those pockets. Fill all the pockets, complete the level, and move onto the next. It sounds too simple to build a game on, let alone a sequel, but the genius is in the level design, and SinkR crushes it.
It’s also extremely chill. There are no enemies, time limits or caps on the number of moves. Just a chillwave soundtrack, crisp and effective graphics, and a satisfying ‘blip’ as you move a ball into the correct pocket. As reviewer William Caruana puts it, “I loved the gameplay and aesthetics. It ranges from zen to tough-but-fair, and it’s amazing that it’s the work of a single dev”.
Play this if you like… Phoenix Wright, Jisei: The First Case, Wheels of Aurelia
If there’s a common thread through a lot of these games, it’s about making unexpected friends and bonds. We’ve obviously gone a bit sentimental. But none of the above feel as much like a family as the characters in Coffee Talk.
Set in a cafe where regulars wander in and chinwag, wiling away the hours, it can initially feel like a visual novel or dating sim. But Coffee Talk is more about making an impact on others’ lives, as positively as you can.
As reviewer Richard Dobson puts it, “everything about Coffee Talk feels personal. You’re not just serving coffee to the customers, you are the agony aunt, mentor, shoulder to cry on and so much more. This bunch of people are the best new friends I have made in 2020”.
Your actions ripple out positively in Coffee Talk, and it feels like wrapping your mitts around a warm mug on a cold evening.
Play this if you like… Octopath Traveller, other old-school JRPGs, hip-hop
The inclusion of Orangeblood is an odd one, in that we gave the game a reasonably disappointing 2.5/5 and complained about its cringey writing and mundane combat. But the joy of reviewing is that different people have different opinions, and this was the standout indie of the year for TheXboxHub’s Jahanzeb Khan.
He’s effusive about the retro-JRPG: “The roughness of it all is somehow the source of its charm. The game has an unapologetic hip-hop vibe about it, and it largely draws on the subculture to deliver an edgy setting, filled with rude characters and in-your-face aesthetics. The combat system shines through thanks to the game’s surprisingly intricate loot system”.
The joy of Orangeblood is that it doesn’t take any half-measures: it’s bold and brash, and that will either rub you up the wrong way, or endear you to it. If you’ve been frustrated by the lack of innovation in 2D JRPGs, then Orangeblood is absolutely the game you should be playing.
Play this if you like… Silent Hill, PT, soiling yourself
We’ve had a hankering for an experience like the original Silent Hill games for a while now. Sure, we had the taster of PT before it got dramatically pulled, but there’s been an absence of anything like it for some time. Having played far too many horror games this year, most are clunky and comedic, while a few might classify as drab. But out of the mire came Visage, and it absolutely scared the willies off us.
Reviewer Dave Ozzy drew the short straw and reviewed this one one alone at night: “it plays a similar trick to PT, but stretched to a full house. What would it be like to explore a space where things shift and warp when you’re not looking at them? That’s the source of most the shocks, and it feels like the rug’s being pulled from underneath you. We take it for granted that the levels and worlds around us will stay the same, and in Visage they just don’t”.
Visage also took great pleasure in taunting you with darkness. It’s in darkness that the shocks are most likely to happen, so when night-time arrives, lights go out, or switches are flipped, it’s when you’re at your most vulnerable. Darkness is eerie enough, thank you SadSquare Studios, without you ramming a nightmare granny into the middle of it.
Sure, it has its interface and guidance issues, but Visage will make a mark on you and your undergarments.
Whatever your preference when it comes to game genres, hopefully there’s something there to tickle your fancy. Perhaps you have an indie favourite, or under-valued masterpiece from 2020 that you’d like to share in the comments? Let us know: we’d love to hear your recommendations. And if you are looking to pick up any of these Xbox gems, hit up the Xbox Store.