With no clear frontrunners for Game of the Year, 2021 has offered a lot for those that don’t like sticking to one type of game. It’s been a blast seeing the wide array of games ranking highly on lists, so much so that it was impossible to catch up on all of them. This is the year I finally stopped caring about being up to date on all of the newest games. I went back to old games just as often as new ones. I busted out the older generations of consoles to replay some favorites, and I even downloaded a Sega CD emulator just to play Hideo Kojima’s Snatcher from 1988. As such, a few games from last year slipped onto the list.
Instead of ranking the games numerically, I want to group them more generally. None of these games are necessarily better or worse, I just enjoyed them at different levels.
Not Finished Yet
- Outer Wilds: Echoes of the Eye DLC
- I was very cautiously optimistic about this DLC, given that the base game is my third favorite game of all time now. The first hour of the game alone was as mind-melting as the original, and I’ve thoroughly enjoyed my time with it. So much so that I’ve been making my way incredibly slowly through it to savor as much time as I can. Trust that it would be in my top games of the year if I had finished it.
- Chicory: A Colorful Tale
- This is one of those indie games you play, and you can immediately feel the heart put into it. The game is cute, charming, and full of themes that feel important to anyone who enjoys creativity. I unfortunately just wasn’t able to get far in the game before year’s end, but I’m sure to keep playing in the coming weeks.
- Ghost of Tsushima: Iki Island DLC
- Coming out at just the right time for me to be preoccupied with The Forgotten City and Deathloop, the DLC for this game is pretty much all I could ask for. The original was a meditative approach to open-world design, and Iki Island offers just the right amount of new content and story to act as a nice supplement if you’re craving just a bit more.
The Multiplayer Games My Friends Played For A Bit
Knockout City – Lob/Curve Throws
Oftentimes when a multiplayer game comes out, I’ll try it with my friends, but my attachment to the game will usually last as long as my friends’ (a week or two). A game like Knockout City taking over an entire month of our multiplayer gaming, and an extra month on my own, is rare. While the progression systems and variety of modes are fairly standard for a live game, the core gameplay is incredibly unique. Having talked to Karthik Bala of Velan Studios about the importance of game feel in a class once, I suspected it would be fun to simply move around the playspace. Fights move quickly, and they’re only enhanced when I’m coordinating attacks with friends in a voice call with friends; the ability to make plays as a team is accessible and always gratifying.
However, I believe that there is no aspect more rewarding than hitting an opponent from around a corner or behind a wall using the lob and curve throws. Each encounter in Knockout City is a mind game, attempting to trip your opponent up through fakes, jumps, and the three possible ways the ball could be thrown. Because locking on to the enemy is so easy, your timing is much more important than your aim. It feels simple and reliable to throw the ball in different directions and pull off some crazy hits. With a similar ease-to-satisfaction ratio as recalling Kratos’s axe in God of War (2018), the team was able to make every option in a standoff viable and impactful.
Mario Party Superstars – Just Like the Old Days
What can be said about Mario Party that hasn’t been said in the last 23 years? It was great, it stopped being great for a bit, and now we’re back. Nintendo struck gold with this franchise, managing to perfect the formula of a digital board game so early on that they’ve coasted by ever since. Super Mario Party was an acceptable return from the desperate attempts to innovate in the 2010s, but Mario Party Superstars finally seems to understand what people love about these games. It isn’t the characters or wacky new ideas, it’s the balance of luck and strategy that forces players to interact. With the addition of online play for board games, picking this edition up is a no brainer and gives me hope that the next game won’t stray too far off the path.
As I said above, the best part about this new game is, funny enough, the fact that it doesn’t innovate. There are no cars, no day/night cycle, and no character dice. The rules are stripped back to the bare essentials, with simple board mechanics and only a handful of spaces to land on. Classics like Chance Time make their triumphant return, returning the power of chaos to anyone daring enough to try it. The tweaks to balance here and there don’t hurt either. Nintendo have always been the king of accessible game design, and just like Mario Kart, I am able to hand a controller to any friend and know they’ll have fun. It is a little confusing to remember which items and mechanics go with which boards since they span the first three games in the series, but it’s no where near enough to dampen the fun.
It Takes Two – Co-Op Variety
This one is a bit difficult to write about, as I haven’t actually finished the game and it doesn’t seem like I will be anytime soon. In addition, I’m certainly not as high on the game as a lot of others are. I have had a blast with what time I’ve spent on it, working together with my partner and jumping from one mechanic to the next at the blink of an eye. However, while the gameplay certainly reinforces it, I find the narrative to be pretty shallow and unimportant to the overall experience. Even if it didn’t blow me away, though, it’s easy to see why so many connected with it.
Playing a game with a friend is almost a sure-fire way to make that game stick with you longer. It throws so many cooperative activities at you that it’s easy to remember one or two standout moments. The game has found interesting ways to force players to collaborate, with mechanics that progress to their full potential and are replaced before they wear themselves thin. Often, each player will be given a special tool that can be used on its own or together with your partner’s. These levels bounce between platforming, action, and puzzles so fluidly that you’re almost assured to be served something you like before anything starts to bother you. And because every co-op relationship has to have a little tension, the multitude of low-stakes competitive minigames offer a nice respite from the teamwork.
Really Enjoyed My Time With It
Umurangi Generation – Environmental Storytelling
The first of my favorites from before 2021, I picked Umurangi Generation up in June after its Switch release on a whim, not anticipating the massive praise and grand prize win at the Independent Games Festival Awards. The screenshots on its store page were enough to grab me, with an artstyle reminiscent of the PS1 but with much more vibrant color. The game’s loose goal structure and focus on journalistic exploration of areas made the game much less committal (and yet somehow stickier) than its photography contemporaries like New Pokemon Snap. Umurangi Generation carries a relaxed sense of entropy to it that’s difficult to put into words, but becomes immediately relatable upon playing.
As we face a multitude of social and ecological problems in our world, game developers find themselves trying to make cool art about the house burning down around them. Umurangi Generation‘s short set of levels allow the player to do just that, but in a future just far enough off the path of ours to make it interesting to explore. Instead of just highlighting the big events of an alien invasion, the player must come to understand what’s happening through the eyes of the average citizen. More often, the hero is telling the story, so it’s refreshing and somewhat cathartic to hear from the person who can’t do anything about the problem. The list of items to photograph subtly goads you into every detail of the world’s story. It’s a method of storytelling almost impossible to replicate outside of the medium, and its very rare to see a game run with it as well as this one.
The Forgotten City – Galerius
The Forgotten City is the game most who know me would be expecting me to write about. It’s a little bit of each of my past 3 Game of the Years (Return of the Obra Dinn, Outer Wilds, and Paradise Killer), and it succeeds in everything it sets out to do. Starting as a popular Skyrim mod, the game manages to tell a deeply intriguing story about morality and history through the recently-in-vogue time loop mechanic. Every conversation and task is interesting and worth following, and each has a natural way of informing you about other conversations and tasks. It’s short and a bit rough around the edges, but I was very impressed with how neatly the game wrapped everything up. I especially liked how different each of the endings was, and how each felt earned through the actions I took to get there.
As I said before, the time loop is very in right now, and with it comes a whole calendar of NPC schedules to follow and interrupt. Often in these games, certain events are contingent on others happening, so you’ll have to redo some tasks in the right place at the right time. Fortunately, The Forgotten City offers a very natural way of cutting out the fat of replaying loops. When you first enter the city, you’ll meet a nice man named Galerius, who can show the player around and tip them off to some helpful starting points. Once the player has completed a major action, like saving someone’s life, they will be able to start a loop by asking Galerius to perform the major actions for you. This allows the player to skip mindlessly running around and let Galerius “set things up” for them. The game even manages to weave this man’s help into one of the late-game quests in a perfect way. It’s such an improvement on the game’s quality of life that it’d be a mistake for future time loop games to ignore it.
Marvel’s Spider-Man: Miles Morales – Sound Samples Activity
Unfortunately, I was one of the minority of players who wasn’t enraptured by Marvel’s Spider-Man a few years ago. I really enjoyed swinging around the city, but I felt the missions and activities wore thin by the end. Luckily, Miles Morales felt like exactly what I wanted from the Spider-Man experience. The game’s shorter length keeps it from overstaying its welcome, and it also forces the experience to be efficient with what it’s asking of the player. There’s also a surprising amount of new stuff to add to the variety, from new activity types to Miles’ unique abilities. And while I didn’t dislike the original’s story, I felt like Insomniac was able to tell a much more personal one with Miles here.
Speaking of new activities, my favorite new addition to the game was the Sound Samples, set up by the Prowler. He spread out audio recordings of himself around the city, talking about the different sounds he recorded with Miles’ dad to sample in their music. He also recounts key moments in the story surrounding his fallout with the family. Players can find an audio recording, and it will ask them to point at whatever object makes the sound that matches up. It felt extremely true to the characters while adding a new vehicle for narrative throughout the game. The gameplay itself isn’t really that engaging, so it’s a testament to how interesting the concept is that we stick around to see Miles learn a pivotal story in his family’s past.
Finished the Game Surprisingly Close to Full Completion
Metroid Dread – Player Character Movement Feel
The Metroid games, even in a sea of indies inspired by their formula, occupy a space all their own. These smaller releases are taking the core of the franchise and bringing it into the present, while Nintendo spends their time pondering the short-term and slowly evolving over each game to find the future. With such tight incubation, it’s always interesting to see what will come out of the franchise every couple (or 12) years. As the first new 2D Metroid game in a while, I think Dread feels like exactly what the series needed. The new art design works really well, with living backgrounds and biomes that transition into each other a bit smoother than ever before. There are a lot of really memorable fights in this game compared to previous entries, and all of them felt like the perfect amount of challenge. I’m not crazy about the lore they added, but I do think the final boss and end sequence almost made up for it. My biggest critique, however, is how linear the game is throughout its entire runtime; while it certainly hides its guidance well, I still would have preferred to be able to explore more if I chose to.
Hands down, this is the best Samus has ever felt to control. She moves fast, reacts quickly, and has a variety of maneuvers to overcome different obstacles. The addition of the slide, moving melee counter, and phase shift keep the pace significantly higher than previous games, even some of the faster indies out there. I n particular, the use of shoulder buttons for missiles, grapple beam, and free aim were brilliant enhancements to the user experience. In previous games in the series, I found boss fights to be rather standard due to the limits of Samus’ moveset. In Dread, the bosses are able to challenge the player in far more ways simply because of this added freedom, making for a much more rewarding experience overall. Lastly, with the added bonus of random teleporters everywhere, it’s now easier than ever to backtrack and clean up any collectibles left behind, which was a particular pain point in previous installments.
Kena: Bridge of Spirits – Rot Attacks
Coming from a film/animation background, it’s no wonder that Kena‘s biggest draw is its fluid and stylish visuals. A million games have earned the moniker “it’s like if you could play a Pixar movie”, but none have felt like they embody the sentiment so thoroughly. The storytelling and core themes are concise and family-friendly, and you find the attention to detail extends beyond the cutscenes and into the playable gameplay. It feels somewhat reminiscent of old PS2 character action platformers, with all of their benefits and issues. It also sits among a few other shorter experiences on this list, all of which were able to leave an impression in only a handful of hours. Kena, in particular, does a great job feeling bigger than it actually is, and I’m finding I appreciate these types of experiences a lot more as an adult.
Something I was unprepared for, though, were the game’s surprisingly-difficult combat encounters. Kena has few moves in her repertoire in the beginning, but is able to pull off a strong core set of abilities by the time the credits roll. Along the adventure, Kena finds and collects tiny creatures called Rot. When in a fight, Kena is able to build the Rot’s confidence by dealing damage, which can be spent to power her abilities up with the Rot. A normal staff slam or arrow shot can seriously save your butt when powered up. This rewards the player for getting into the fight and adds a nice flow between building up Rot confidence and spending it at the right moment.
Solar Ash – Boss Battles
Maybe it was the atmosphere, or the impactful combat, or the beautiful pixel art that made Hyper Light Drifter resonate so well with me, but it was a clear sign that Heart Machine was a team to watch. With the release of their follow-up, Solar Ash, I find myself on the positive side of the polarized reception. I can understand why some may pick it up and find that the expectations of Hyper Light Drifter are too high to overcome, but my love for Hyper Light Drifter is undefinable enough that I can’t help but take Solar Ash at face value. For a game with tight time limits, it finds a way to be relaxing as you glide across clouds and ruins on your skates. I really enjoyed the writing and performances for the characters, with a surprising amount to learn about the massive black hole we’re in and the chaos it’s wreaked on the universe. Finally, a shout out to the art direction, which makes use of its strengths to be both readable and memorable.
With Shadow of the Colossus sitting as my favorite game of all time and Super Mario Galaxy being so distinct, a team taking such clear influence from them either has to match that level of scale or try something different to avoid paling in comparison. Solar Ash takes the latter approach, with a heavy focus on speed and execution over puzzles and endurance. Similar to the escape sequences of the Ori games, these boss battles task the player with perfection. They must skate across the body of a massive beast, racing between acupuncture points to try and take it down. The game’s difficulty settings adjust how much time is given, which allows for a spectrum ranging between a very relaxing speedrun or a crushing gauntlet of precision platforming. While the challenge doesn’t really extend outside of the boss fights, they truly feel like tests of skill.
Inscryption – Map Events
As I’ve grown older, I’ve become less and less upset about spoilers. Especially when it comes to media I might not otherwise consume, I find a spoiled first experience to be different from, not worse than, a clean one. With that said, there are inevitably going to be games that are better left played. Inscryption is the latest game from the creator of the infamously-meta Pony Island, and I feel like that says enough about what you should expect from this game for you to get the vibe. Trust me and the many outlets praising it, just give it a go. While I haven’t finished the game, its mechanics have hooked me on their own, let alone the twists and turns its taking. It’s a game that pulls influence from a wide swath of genres and specific games, and I’m excited to see where it leads further in.
Given that there isn’t a lot I can discuss while remaining spoiler free, I’ll stick to the part of the game that’s gripped me the most so far. In Inscryption, you follow a structure roughly similar to Slay the Spire, including a branching map and a complex card battle system. With the amount of options for building your deck, I was surprised to see how much the events on the map guided how you should build your deck. There are a surprising amount of event spaces centering around picking new cards, sacrificing cards for positive effects, and passing tests to hopefully get rare cards. Obviously, the core of the gameplay is the battle spaces that bring you into a match of the card game. However, just like in Mario Party, it’s the random spaces that no one remembers that create the best memories and moments.
Psychonauts 2 – Ludonarrative Consistency
It’s really weird to describe, but I appreciate how adult of a video game Psychonauts 2 is. I don’t mean that to refer to the amount of blood or sex present, but rather to point out how deeply connected the game’s themes are with adult understandings of the self and relationships. I’m sure a kid can understand the plot and subtle details of the game just fine, especially with as creative and vibrant of a world and cast as this one, but it isn’t upfront about what its characters are struggling with and what the takeaway should be. But what a vibrant world it is, with the passion of the dev team evident in every cutscene and conversation. After relenting to a friend’s praises for the game, I was very glad to have not missed what will deserve to go down as one of the best platformers of the past 10 years.
The game’s commitment to the brain is probably its greatest asset. Every mechanic, item, power, and location is contextualized in a smart and imaginative fashion, like finding Half a Mind to increase Raz’s health and zipping between thought bubbles to make mental connections. My favorite part of this, though, is the environmental storytelling inside each character’s brain. Everyone is dealing with something inside that they must overcome, realized through level design metaphors. It doesn’t beat the player over the head with the deeper facets of Compton Boole’s fear of judgement from his peers, instead using a cooking show to give people a playable personification they can explore at their leisure. These metaphors not only come across more relatably to the player as a result, but they also lead to varied and creative mechanics that are ever stronger because of their ties to the narrative.
My Top Favorites
Final Fantasy VII Remake + EPISODE INTERmission – Combat with Yuffie and Sonon
My biggest surprise of 2021 was not my excitement over a Spider-Man game, but my love for a Final Fantasy game. I have tried and failed to get into a total of six different games in this series, and as a result assumed I’d be living my life enjoying this juggernaut from the sidelines. I even tried the demo of Final Fantasy VII Remake when it came out, finding it too stop-and-go for my taste. However, when PS+ gave the game away, the magic finally seemed to shine through. I fell in love with a rich cast of characters that many have loved for over 20 years, and I felt like the game really justified its extended length and need for sequels. In particular, the combat feels like the perfect balance between real-time and turn-based, transforming fights in the late game into a complex dance. The constant empowering of and swapping between characters really sells the teamwork of the party.
Since this is a 2021 list, after all, I’ll focus on my favorite part of the game’s DLC that features Yuffie and Sonon. Each character in the main game felt like they filled a specific JRPG niche that made it fun to specialize them. Remarkably, Square Enix has managed to balance the combat around only 2 characters using a few clever tricks. First, Yuffie starts the game with the major elemental magic and both ranged and melee attacks, meaning she has a strategy for pretty much any set of enemies. Second, since there’s more for this one character to do, they allow the player to just focus on that one character by making Sonon fully autonomous. The player still spends his ability (ATB) charges, but they don’t have to worry as much about him. Lastly, the player can perform more powerful versions of Yuffie’s abilities by teaming up with Sonon, pulling off devastating damage through flashy cutscenes. The combat in the DLC is a nice complement to the original, making me excited to see what’s in store in the next release.
NEO: The World Ends With You – Hunger Meter
In an industry built so heavily on nostalgia and iteration, it seems natural that we’d get a handful of dormant franchises each year trying to make their triumphant return. While Metroid Dread was able to reach the masses and garner critical acclaim, a sequel was released for one of my favorite games of all-time and it didn’t get quite as much attention. The World Ends With You was one of the most interesting games to make full use of the Nintendo DS’s unique capabilities, with a unique art style and memorable characters. Luckily for fans, its sequel manages to capture what made the original so special in both gameplay and presentation. Everything has been made to feel a bit more modern, from the slanted 3D architecture looming overhead to the use of smartphones over flip phones. With only one screen to work with, the combat also had to be tweaked a bit. While the focus remains on collecting pins and timing attacks to defeat enemies quickly, the player has a lot more potential for synergies and combos with how varied the powers are. I also really grew to love the new cast of characters, even if the end of the story was really centered around the original’s cast and their loose threads.
NEO: The World Ends With You tries a lot of interesting ideas in its meta-systems, and those are strangely the biggest reason for my love of the game. One example is the way that players raise the stats of their team. Combat in this game rewards rarer pins and currency, rather than experience. Instead, eating at restaurants around the city gives players the chance to buy a variety of dishes that level up specific stats. Each character has their own tastes, meaning eating their favorite foods will have a chance to level up their stats even further. However, once the Hunger Meter is full from eating, the player must complete fights to make room. This system is a fancy form of RPG stat allocation, but it’s presented through an interesting contextual lens.
Returnal – Adrenaline Level
Housemarque’s infamous “ARCADE IS DEAD” blog post is almost always given as context when discussing Returnal, but I think it’s difficult to overstate how much the studio’s arcade roots are necessary to the game’s triumphant success. While they are certainly aiding factors, I don’t think being one of the first AAA roguelikes or even the haunting cosmic horror art direction sell the game as well as just seeing the combat in motion. Weapons feel varied and strong in their own rights, and movement feels blisteringly fast and necessary for survival. This is a studio who has absolutely nailed game feel, including some of the PS5’s best haptic feedback and use of the adjustable triggers. And just like the arcade games of old, it will test your skills with very little leniency. A special shoutout must be given to Jane Perry for her performance as Celine, who sold me on every step she took towards madness while stuck on an alien planet.
While it’s one of the more gamey mechanics here, Returnal‘s Adrenaline Level system is a simple and rewarding way to test a player’s mastery of the game. Every 3 enemies killed raises the player’s Ardenaline Level, offering a perk at each level up until 5. Taking damage resets their Adrenaline back to Level 1, incentivizing players to play smart for maximum rewards. Obviously, a more novice player might be lucky if they can keep hitting Level 3, while advanced players who have mastered the game will benefit more from maintaining Level 5 for as long as possible. To give both types of players what they need, earlier perks are tangible benefits such as increasing the active reload window or seeing traces of enemies through walls, while Levels 4 and 5 simply boost the amount of weapon proficiency and currency earned. It feels devastating at every level of play to lose an Adrenaline streak, but it’s also rewards the player for being aggressive and mobile. That flow state of staying alive is where the most fun is had in Returnal.
Persona 5: Strikers – Combat Translation from Turn-Based to Action
Persona 5 is that rare type of game that feels like it can get anyone into it. I’m not a turn-based combat fan, and it easily sits in my favorite games of all time because of its style, characters, and in-depth life sim systems. So after a few years away from the game, Persona 5: Strikers feels like returning home from college for winter break, meeting up with friends and acting as if nothing has changed. While mostly developed by Koei Tecmo with Atlus’s aid on the narrative, the game manages to look and feel almost identical to the original, down to the flashy UI/UX design. Speaking of narrative, while I preferred the overall plot of the original, I felt like the friendships and individual dynamics of the Phantom Thieves were vastly improved here. It’s nice to see them act like regular teenagers on a road trip, and the two new main characters leave a lasting impression in their own right. At just around 40 hours, I almost started a playthrough of Persona 5 Royal just to stay in that world.
Notice I haven’t discussed the combat yet? That’s because, while not my favorite part of the game, it was easily the most interesting. The original’s turn-based combat feels like a more sophisticated Pokemon, incentivizing type advantages and building out battle archetypes to prepare for any opponent. Translating that style to action combat must have been difficult, but I think it mostly worked out well. Each character feels far more unique than in the original, with playstyles ranging from timing attacks on a rhythm to adding an element to their attacks. The Persona system allows players to pause the fight in order to set up the right move, but players can also pull off attack chain combos in order to use Persona moves without spending precious HP/SP. They even managed to keep in the ever-popular All Out Attacks. Everything I loved about the original can be found in a reasonable form in Strikers, and while some fights just become health sponges by the end of the game, I still think the effort on display here deserves a commendation.
Deathloop – Julianna Invasion
It took a while, but Arkane Studios has finally managed to create the crossover hit they deserved. I can’t quite understand why immersive sims have been a niche genre for so long, especially with how much overlap can be found in Bethesda’s extremely successful RPGs. Nonetheless, Arkane took a big risk with Deathloop, potentially becoming too deep for casual action fans or too shallow for immersive sim fans. Instead, Deathloop rides the line confidently, managing to cater to many different playstyles while remaining smart and focused. It knows it’s a video game and makes it clear early on that it wants you to just go nuts and try different approaches. The performances of the cast, in particular Colt and Julianna, sold the ridiculousness of the island’s situation surprisingly well, and there were enough layers to the four playable levels that kept the mystery alive on repeat visits.
The game pulls a lot from Arkane’s and stealth-action’s past, but its most intriguing inspiration comes from the Dark Souls games and an old Arkane prototype. Having players invade each others’ games isn’t a new concept, but I’d argue it hasn’t reached nearly the potential it offers. Even with Deathloop‘s warnings about losing your loadout after a loop, players will quickly be able to build an arsenal of weapons, powers, and upgrades they can carry forward. These are key to getting strong enough to lord control over Blackreef as Colt, but the player’s plan can be foiled once per loop by Julianna, who is controlled by either a player or an AI. Julianna can use a unique power to hide amongst the crowd, as well as one other power and any guns brought in from the campaign, in hopes of taking Colt out. Colt players not only need to confront Julianna in order to unlock their escape route, but they also are incentivized to because defeating Julianna earns the other player’s powers/upgrades as well as a reset on their precious 3 lives. While the AI was mediocre at exerting pressure, being invaded by a real player instantly puts you on guard. If you aren’t careful, you could lose all your progress in a loop in the blink of an eye. The fact that this is weaved so neatly into the narrative and core single-player gameplay makes this a very special experience.