2020 was much easier to break down in terms of games that were my favorite to play, and the number one was such a standout. 2021 was a very different year. While a lot of players complained about a lack of meaningful triple-A titles early on, I found myself overwhelmed by exceptional smaller games — I really struggled to pick which I liked the most.
But, before I get to that, the supplementary awards.
The ‘Please stop releasing your games in December it is killing me’ 2020 awards go to:
- Monster Train
- Unto The End
The ‘You are genuinely brilliant, but those release window bugs made it hard to get into at first’ awards go to:
- Hell Let Loose
- Necromunda: Hired Gun
The ‘Games I am still playing, but maybe for not much longer’ awards go to:
- Gears 5
- Halo 5
- Rogue Company
The ‘It’s okay’ lifetime award for outstanding writing excellence goes to:
- Gears of War 3
MY TOP TEN FAVORITES OF 2021
10> The Dark Pictures: House of Ashes – PC, PS4/5, XBO/S/X Review
Consistently the Dark Pictures entries end up on my top ten lists, usually because the best social games will always be my most treasured memories. Sitting in the same room as others and laughing/shrieking our way through a horror plot is always immensely fun. This year’s entry is probably my favorite out of the three available (the others being Man of Medan and Little Hope). I think it’s because this game is the best in reconciling what they would like the players to be, versus what players actually want to be in the game. Previously, developers Supermassive Games have attempted to place the players in the role of ‘Director’ and have the people that the player controls be analogous to actors that are killed off when appropriate, or to satisfy a curiosity in how the story might play out differently. In contrast, most people I’ve seen want to be the actual characters. When positioned as directors, it meant that players often had a lot more information than the characters, which routinely led to players making sure everyone got out alive. House of Ashes hides more of its tricks, and a first playthrough with friends feels like one is in the same shoes as the characters on screen. This saves the ‘director’ playthrough for a second time round.
9> Lake – PC, XBO Review
I frequently refer to games as being perfect for ‘Hangover Sundays’. I’m pretty sure that if people searched those words out in my reviews, they’d realize I was a total hack — I’ve fallen back on the phrase whenever I want a shortcut explaining the atmosphere of a game that is easily digested and mechanically unthreatening. I didn’t use that term for Lake because I am desperately trying to get out of that habit, and also because it harkens back to a specific type of TV show found in the ’80s and ’90s. This was a time when I didn’t have as much knowledge on what a hangover even was, so instead of leaning on that crutch I will describe Lake as a game that reminded me of how much I enjoyed empty time. Sitting down and watching a show about absolutely nothing was a joy, and it was a joy that I rarely have as I get older. Sitting down and delivering letters in Lake, and the only point being that the letters are delivered felt really good.
8> Operation Tango – PS4/5, XBO/X/S, PC Preview
Operation Tango is brilliant game of communication where two players are tasked with explaining what they see on their screen and then figuring out what will be useful to the other player. This communication is what will get you through the game, but it doesn’t generate the best moments. To explain what makes Operation Tango brilliant, I need to tell a story of playing the final level in the game with my partner.
We had arrived in a neon-lit area. There were a series of buildings and stalls with milling pedestrians and drones flying overhead. We were tasked with finding and dismantling a bomb. As she sent me information, I quickly scanned nodes that led us closer and closer to our destination. However, an enemy agent was turned loose, and the drones above started attacking me.
“I can’t figure out how they’re seeing me.” I complained. “There doesn’t seem to be a clear rule for how to avoid them.”
As she was in the same room with me in real life, she nodded, and we carried on trying to beat the level.
About 30 minutes into trying to figure out the patrol patterns, the agent saw me through a wall and captured me. Frustrated, I had to put my controller down.
“I just don’t get it, this is ridiculous.” I said.
“Maybe you should stay out of the circles around them.” She casually suggested.
I turned to look at her. “What circles?” I asked incredulously.
“The ones that are around them on my screen. The Agent has a large circle, and the drones have smaller ones.” She said offhandedly. “Perhaps if you stay out of those you won’t get caught?”
Of course, my difficulty lay in the fact that she could see the circles (and omitted this information) while I had no idea the circles existed.
Our relationship survived this.
7> Griftlands – PC, XBO, PS4/5, XBX/S, Switch Review
Griftlands came out of early access this year, and it’s one of the finest roguelite deckbuilders out there. It offers three intertwining stories that are compelling with well-thought-out and meaningful choices to be made along the way. The deckbuilding is also excellent, it just gets too caught up in using its own terminology that is going to be daunting for new players to learn. That said, getting over that hump is worth it because everything here is very rewarding.
6> The Eternal Cylinder – PC, PS4/5, XBO/X/S Review
The opening of the game, before the title screen appears, has a narrator talking about ignoring the one and focusing on the many. His voice has a beautiful vibrancy that immediately had me thinking about Lemon Jelly’s ‘His Majesty King Raam’. Man, what a great narrator. His voice is audio equivalent of being tucked into a comfy bed with heavy blankets. Anyway, the game is an excellent 3D platformer with evolution mechanics and survival elements backed up by an utterly stunning world. Read Ali’s review for more details.
5> Psychonauts 2 – PC, PS4/5, XBO/X/S
I met Psychonauts 2 with trepidation. I have nothing but fond memories of playing the original while sitting in a rented room with a bunch of drunk co-workers as we whiled away a weekend in Montreal drinking 40oz Molson Dry. It felt like special game and a special moment that could not be replicated, because to replicate that feeling would require time travel as well as for me to regress in age. Sixteen years later, Psychonauts 2 arrived. The visual style remains intact and distinct, the worlds are bigger in terms of vision, and the storytelling — oh, the storytelling. Psychonauts was a game that took childlike glee at bizarre events with a little tragedy tucked away, whereas Psychonauts 2 takes those bizarre events and spins a story about loss, reconciliation, forgiveness while never losing its ability to find joy in glorious visuals. I cared about these people in the mid 2000s and, somehow, I cared about them even more in 2021. It’s wild to me that after all that time this IP has grown and matured with me — and maybe matured even more than me?
4> It Takes Two – PC, PS4/5, XBO/X/S Review
No other game has seamlessly introduced new mechanics that drastically change up how a game is played every 40 minutes. Any other game that has tried this always has one weak link — one section that is ill-functioning or badly laid out. It Takes Two doesn’t have anything close to that, and is a boundless delight because of it. It’s a sublime platforming experience with some of the most well-planned co-operative puzzles I’ve seen. The game also goes to great lengths to make play accessible to everyone, checkpoints are regular, and death is not a big deal. However, it still feels meaningful to beat challenges. Even with a terrible story that ends with an unearned conclusion, the uncomfortable Dr. Hakim, and the fact that the publishers are trying to get into NFTs, It Takes Two is still a 10/10 game. I’ll fight anyone who says otherwise.
3> Islanders – Switch, PC, PS4/5, XBO/X/S
There are people that don’t rate Islanders, and some of these people are my friends. It sucks to have friends that are wrong. Islanders is an ultra-simplistic city builder where the objective is to place enough buildings on an Island so that they generate enough points to go to the next island. The thing is, some buildings get negative points based on what they’re placed next to, so the player is constantly trying to optimize their setup. What becomes startling is how cities, construction yards, and farms bloom on each island, and I was constantly taking screenshots of these seemingly organic sprawls. The numbers encouraged me subconsciously to make gorgeous islands. My good friends, the ones that weren’t incredibly wrong about Islanders, sent me pictures of their islands and I appreciated them the way a person might gush over a picture of a friend’s pet, or child. Islanders is a quiet, gentle game that anyone with six dollars simply must buy.
2> The Friends of Ringo Ishikawa Switch, PC, XBO/X/S
Ringo Ishikawa is a troubled teen game. There is a grittiness and empty futility to it that I have seldom seen in this format. The dialogue is blunt, heartbreaking, angry, and listless. These are characters that don’t really know how to talk to each other, and they aren’t going to learn and grow in the way that one hopes that they could. Violence in this game is common and acts as a levelling system in an imitation of River City Ransom, but where other games have resorted to a killer soundtrack and reverence for the original, Ringo Ishikawa has a great soundtrack that reframes the senseless punching as a dead end for all those involved. This is a great game and I look forward to playing everything that the developer works on next.
1> Gnosia Switch, PS Vita Review
I generally do not like visual novels, and I said as much in the review. What Gnosia does so well is that it adds a more easily defined ‘game’ part to the formula, which also acts as an amazing replication of the paranoia in movies like The Thing. In fact, I called it a single player Among Us, but it appears to predate that. The writing is simplistic (it has to be) in the moments where you interrogate the rest of the crew, but it’s incredibly evocative of each member’s personality. The moments where you know exactly who the Gnosian is, but you push your limits and everyone turns on you instead is brilliantly done. The story outside the interrogations gives each character time to breathe with humor, sadness, and warmth. This is an essential purchase for anyone with a Switch.