2021 has been an odd and difficult year, but it was superb for gaming. With the announcement of the Game Awards nominees, I realized I played more great games this year than perhaps any other year in my life.
After finishing my first year of reviewing, I thought it would be fun to share my top ten of 2021, along with some honorable and dishonorable mentions.
This list was INCREDIBLY difficult for me — every title that made the list was truly fantastic and it felt like splitting hairs trying to number them. Thank you to all the wonderful developers for making this a gaming year to remember.
One more note: I played quite a few ports and games that didn’t come out in 2021 that were absolutely phenomenal — special shout-outs to Mario + Rabbids: Kingdom Battle and Ni No Kuni II: Revenant Kingdom. Even though I loved them, I’m not going to include them on this list. There’s only one remaster/port on my top 10 that did enough to qualify it as a totally new game for 2021.
With that out of the way, let’s get to it!
This is for sure the weirdest game I played this year. In a sense, Everhood could be the rhythm-based cousin of Undertale. Set in a strange world where a little doll named Red fights demons, vending machines, and psychedelic knights, the plot is one of a kind. I had no idea where this game was going for most of the adventure, but the eventual payoff realizing the originally unseen gravity of my choices was unexpectedly gripping.
Death’s Door feels like the modern-day top-down 2D Zelda yet to be released. With its stellar atmosphere, combat and worldbuilding, Death’s Door is a triumph that combines the best of 2D dungeon crawlers and infuses it with a smart upgrade system and punishing (yet stellar) gameplay. It’s a standout debut indie from developers Acid Nerve in a year crowded with phenomenal debuts.
Kena Bridge of Spirits
This indie caught the eye of many a gamer with its outstanding Pixar–like graphics, but visual prowess aside, this is a phenomenal debut game from Ember Lab. Playing akin to a cross between Legend of Zelda and Horizon Zero Dawn, Kena will fight her way through a plethora of powerful enemies and collect countless adorable creatures known as Rot to upgrade her abilities. Though a bit linear, that didn’t stop me from wanting to explore every inch of the landscape, and I am so excited for whatever Ember Lab has up its sleeve next.
Mario Golf Super Rush
I have extremely fond memories of playing Mario Golf on the Gamecube, so when a new title was announced for Switch, my friends and I were ecstatic. However, due to limited mechanics, a lackluster single player mode, and an overall lack of polish, Mario Golf Super Rush fails to create sustainable and meaningful gameplay. The new ‘speed golf’ mode is a welcome addition, but playing 18 holes quickly grows repetitive. (And don’t look too closely into Donkey Kong’s eyes on the character select screen – he looks unwell.)
I have a lot of nostalgia for the Game Boy, one of my first gaming consoles. Dragonborne seeks to create a modern-day Game Boy title, and I suppose they succeeded. However, most Game Boy games don’t hold up in 2021, and Dragonborne is vindictive evidence of that. Though it does boast charming 8-bit graphics, it also revolves around a combat system that is un-engaging , one-dimensional, and ultimately, not necessary for progression. You’re better off playing Pokémon Red / Blue (with its bevy of glitches!) than Dragonborne.
Kinda Honorable, Kinda Dishonorable
Effie would be an adorable and engaging bite-size 3D platformer… if it actually worked. Level design, platforming, and exploration is all a blast, but an abysmal framerate and a plethora of glitches on the Switch version make it immensely frustrating. Hopefully these issues will get patched because underneath its technical problems, Effie has a solid gameplay foundation with potential to be a lovely experience.
Pokémon Brilliant Diamond / Shining Pearl
I hate that I loved Pokémon Brilliant Diamond and Shining Pearl. Why? Because from an objective standpoint, they are probably the weakest Pokémon games I’ve ever played. These titles are faithful remakes of the Nintendo DS’s Pokemon Diamond and Pearl, which are generally well revered within the Pokémon community. However, that faithfulness to game mechanics and graphical design, are also negatives. Though the character models look great during battle, the overworld cartoon-like character models look… honestly, bad up close. Many of the animations are lazy, and small quality of life improvements from Sword/Shield that could have been implemented are absent. But damn it, the Pokémon formula is so solid that I had a blast collecting and battling the pocket monsters, and could look past the fact the characters had blocky nubs for noses.
And now, my official Top 10 of 2021…
10. Mario Party Superstars
Kicking off this top 10 list is the Mario Party game fans have been wanting for years — Mario Party Superstars. It’s a resurrection of the classic MP N64 boards coupled with some of the best minigames in the franchise’s history. Gone are the silly car shenanigans and motion control gimmicks, this is Mario Party at its purest form and it’s a freaking blast. With a fantastic combination of strategy, skill, and rage-inducing luck, there are few other titles I would whip out to play on game night.
9. Blue Fire
This punishing indie platformer had been on my radar since its debut trailer, and it did not disappoint. Drawing graphical and gameplay inspiration from The Legend of Zelda and difficult platforming akin to a 3D version of Celeste, Blue Fire was everything I wanted in an action-adventure. Equipped with interesting dungeons, exciting exploration, empowering ability upgrades, imposing bosses, and fantastic environments, this was a phenomenal debut title for the young developers at ROBI Studios.
8. Tales of Arise
I had dabbled in a few Tales titles in the past, but none gripped me in the way Tales of Arise did. Gone are the childlike graphics, now replaced with a stunning art style employing the Unreal Engine, and though the combat still exists within the confides of a circle, it focuses more on real time combat and chaining combos together, rather than the grid system and party positioning in previous titles. The story starts strong and continues to grow as the plot swells to its climax, and there is so much to do. For anyone that’s ever dreamed about a Dragon Quest with action-adventure combat, this is it.
7. Psychonauts 2
After 16 years of wondering if the original Psychonauts would ever get a sequel, Psychonauts 2 burst onto the scene. With incredible world and character design that looks straight out of a Tim Burton film, the stellar platforming, abilities, and level design mean that Psychonauts 2 is an immersive, engaging experience. Not only that, but every aspect of plot and gameplay is perfectly woven into the central concept of mental health and the inner workings of the mind, making this a perfect title for gamers of all ages.
6. Persona 5 Strikers
Being the direct sequel to Persona 5 — perhaps my favorite game of all time — Persona 5 Strikers had a lot to live up to, but Atlus and Koei Tecmo hit it out of the park. A lot of people, myself included, originally thought Strikers would simply be another cash-grab spinoff throwing the Phantom Thieves into musou-style combat, but we couldn’t have been more wrong. This is a full-fledged action-RPG sequel carefully transplanting the best mechanics of Persona 5 into a new style of combat and exploration, along with a satisfying and thought-provoking plot to boot. Jumping from rooftop to rooftop and stealthily ambushing countless enemies with an all-out attack while listening to Strikers’s hype-inducing tunes is the most badass I’ve ever felt playing a videogame.
5. It Takes Two
A fully co-op story-driven game is a rarity in 2021, which is a shame because It Takes Two proves what a powerful, enjoyable, and potent experience it can be. Telling the tale of a dysfunctional couple turned into ragdolls, two players will work together to solve puzzles and platform their way to becoming human again, ultimately salvaging the couple’s marriage. It looks incredible and is just as fantastic to play. Every chapter also introduces new gameplay mechanics for the duo, each one feeling just as fresh and inventive as the previous. My best friend and I had a blast teaming up with militaristic squirrels to defeat a colony of bees, fighting vicious household appliances, and discovering what made the couple’s marriage so magical before it began to implode. If it weren’t for a somewhat lackluster ending and a very upsetting scene involving a stuffed elephant, this could have easily been my game of the year.
4. Before Your Eyes
Few, if any, games have ever moved me in the way Before Your Eyes did. A gut-wrenching tale depicting the life of a young piano prodigy where the player advances the action by blinking, this is a journey everyone should experience. Never has a gameplay mechanic been cathartically married to the medium and story more beautifully than the blinking in Before Your Eyes — it makes for the kind of unique and unforgettable moments only an interactive artform can create. Play. This. Game. It’s only an hour and a half, you won’t regret it.
3. Nier Replicant Ver 1.22474487139
I fell in love with Nier Automata’s existential story and psychology when it came out in 2017, but I knew nothing about Automata’s prequel Nier Replicant, a spinoff of the Drakengard series. This remaster/remake does just enough to make it feel like an entirely new game, and though it does carry over some tropes from the PS3 era of action adventure RPGs, the plot is one of the most memorable I’ve ever experienced. Director Yoko Taro isn’t afraid to ask uncomfortable questions through a masterful story that requires multiple playthroughs to grasp. And when I realized what the enemies I had been mercilessly slaughtering represented halfway through my second playthrough, I was floored. And. That. SOUNDTRACK. I feel like this game fell through the cracks because it’s considered a “remake/remaster,” but it is so much more than that, and should not be ignored.
2. Ratchet and Clank: Rift Apart
Having not played a Ratchet and Clank title since the PS2 era, Rift Apart served as my re-introduction into the series, and was the first title I played on the PS5. And wow, what an immersive experience it was! Perhaps the best-looking and -sounding game I’ve ever encountered, Rift Apart is a joy to dive into. With finely-tuned combat and exploration, fantastic weapon variety, and an upgrade system that encourages experimentation, every second of gameplay felt marvelous. Though some thought the plot was cookie-cutter (which I somewhat agree with) Rift Apart more than makes up for this with incredible character design and dialogue. From the main cast to one-off characters never to be seen again, everyone feels like they’re from a first rate Pixar film, and I was laughing out loud at every turn. Not only is Rift Apart one of the most enjoyable and approachable games I’ve ever played, but it’s also a phenomenal experience. If you have a PS5, this one’s a no brainer.
1. Shin Megami Tensei V
Being the Persona 5 fanboy I am, I was excited to give the remaster of Shin Megami III Nocturne a go earlier this year. I enjoyed the experience enough, but was distracted by the lack of improvements from the original PS2 version. Because of this slight letdown my expectations for Shin Megami Tensei V were lowered, but I blinked and found myself fifty hours deep, completing my first playthrough, and having no intention of putting it down. Shin Megami Tensei V has one of the most addictive combat systems and reward loops I have ever experienced — its turn-based combat requires careful planning and execution for every battle, and enemies can easily one-shot the party even on normal difficulty if the player isn’t prepared. But, this sort of challenge encourages the highest level of experimentation — with more than 200 demons to recruit, fuse, and fight with, the possibilities are endless. The design and presentation of this post-apocalyptic world are stunning, and Atlus delivers one of the best-looking games on Switch. The story also constantly challenges players’ morals, and when all is taken into account, Shin Megami Tensei V is one of the most engaging, complex, and rewarding games I’ve ever had the pleasure to compulsively play.
That does it for my list! I would love to know in the comments what some of your favorites from this year were!
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