The final piece of 2021 coverage from the staff of GameCritics is now here… and in video form!
I know it’s traditional to keep this to a Top 10, but I played a lot of great games this year, and there were some that were too painful to cut – so let’s go with the baker’s dozen best games of 2021!
13 – NUTS
A game about squirrel surveillance has no right to be so compelling. With simple modeling, blank textures and bold colors, NUTS takes the beauty of nature and transforms it into something strange and off-putting. It feels like a secret world where tiny monsters scurry about in the night, and the only way for the player to find them is to set up cameras and watch the footage the next day. It’s challenging, alienating, strangely sweet, and in the end, inspiring. This is a weird way to start the list since I literally can’t explain why the game is so special without spoiling it, so take a look at the rest of the list, see what you think of my taste, and then come back to NUTS when you’re done – you probably won’t regret it!
12 – THAT FLIPPING MOUNTAIN
The first ‘rage’ game I ever finished, the decision to add super-tight controls to these physics was a masterstroke, leading to something utterly baffling – a game that hates its players while being completely fair about it. It was crazily difficult, of course, but so upfront and kind about it that I couldn’t stop playing, and the aforementioned control scheme made it easy to spend twenty hours somersaulting around a dangerous mountain.
11 – SUNBLAZE
A trainee superhero gets trapped inside her danger room simulation, and has to overcome some truly devious traps to get back out. Charming and less gory than you’d imagine given all the buzzsaws, Sunblaze will tax players’ skills and patience in the most satisfying way possible. Every time I thought I had a handle on the mechanics it threw a new curve my way, forcing me to completely relearn how to play. Brutal challenge, satisfying results.
10 – DYSMANTLE
I was already partial to zombie survival crafting games, then Dysmantle took the bar and raised it somewhere into the stratosphere. Trapped on a mysterious island full of killer mutant zombies, the player has to both figure out what’s going on and fight to stay alive in an intensely hostile environment. Without food or water to concern themselves with, the player is free to focus on exploration and crafting, which is where the big hook comes in – basically, everything on the island can be destroyed and repurposed, turning the player into a kind of one-man wrecking crew. It’s a delight to play on every level.
9 – SPEED LIMIT
Action in its purest form, Speed Limit makes nods to a series of arcade classics and notable action films while maintaining its own character and flow. Starting off with a gunfight against a SWAT team on a subway, the game constantly escalates the action until players are screaming through the sky in a fighter jet, battling a futuristic super-plane over the city. Do I understand what’s happening in the game? Not at all. Does it matter when the gameplay is this fantastic? Not in the least.
8 – SKATEBIRD
It’s a game about birds who use skateboarding to commit anticorporate sabotage. Why aren’t I playing this right now?
7 – SHINDIG
The chillest and sweetest point-and-click adventure ever made, Shindig puts players on an island full of talking animals with varying degrees of anthropomorphization and tasks them with setting up a party. That’s pretty much it, and every second of it is delightful. Each of the characters is charming in their own way, the puzzles are challenging without resorting to moon logic, and even if the party wasn’t worth all of the effort, getting to know the island’s residents is a reward all its own.
6 – COZY GROVE
A mix of the gameplay from Animal Crossing and the melancholy of Don’t Starve, Cozy Grove traps players on an island full of ghost bears who need help dealing with the trauma of their lives. A story about navigating regrets and reaching out to help others even if it seems like it’s far too late to make a difference, this is one of the most humane games ever made, even if it’s largely about bears. Also the game features Jeremy Gruffle, perhaps the single most beautiful character to ever appear in a video game. I literally asked a friend to make me a Jeremy Gruffle plushie so that I could hug him every day and protect him from the world’s disappointments.
5 – An Airport for Aliens Currently Run by Dogs
Absurd comedy at its finest and most affecting, An Airport for Aliens Currently Run by Dogs is little more than an endless series of nested fetch quests, but at the same time it manages to build an entire cohesive world for the player while they’re trying to figure out which space plane goes where. Perhaps its most impressive accomplishment is the way it manages to dovetail the love story at its center with the bizarre stories of the dogs who work at the various airports – this is a world where everyone is in over their head, making it up as they go along, and trying to do their best. As long as everyone helps each other out, we’ll all get where we’re going – even if a puppy has to get extremely drunk to make it happen.
4 – RESIDENT EVIL 8
Resident Evil Village took everything that worked about 7 and moved it to a larger stage. It manages to somehow be a tonal remake of Resident Evil 4 while perfectly servicing the characters and themes of the previous games, coming to a fantastic conclusion. it’s one of the best things to ever have the Resident Evil name attached to it.
3 – I EXPECT YOU TO DIE 2
No surprise here – I Expect You To Die was the best VR game ever made, and this sequel does everything that it did, only better and with a more cohesive structure and narrative. Every level is a playground of creative exploration, offering multiple solutions to every challenge, and the plot, which sees an actor attempting to conquer the world at the behest of the mysterious Doctor Zor, is the exact kind of ’60s spy frivolity that players come to this series for. It’s a perfect sequel to a perfect game.
2 – GRAVITATORS
Possibly the best spaceship-themed twin stick shooter ever made, Gravitators transcends beings a throwback or retro piece, offering such a massive and varied experience that anyone looking to challenge themselves absolutely needs to play it as quickly as possible. It’s a testament to how much I loved one other game that this isn’t my game of the year.
It’s no surprise to see this at the top of the list – Until Dawn was my game of the year when it was released, and Supermassive Games have finally managed to top it with a masterpiece that perfectly utilizes their branching narrative structure. The characters are great and the story is wonderful, but the real pleasure in House of Ashes comes from replaying it again and again, and seeing just how drastically different each new playthrough is. This isn’t a long game – an average playthrough lasts 3-4 hours, but it’s so immensely broad that a player could go through it half a dozen times have completely different experiences. It’s an elevation of the interactive movie formula to a whole new level, and I sincerely hope they can keep this up with next year’s The Devil in Me.
Before we go, let’s take a sneak peek at what’s likely to top the chart next year:
So this game is about a bunch of scientists and construction workers trapped at the bottom of the world, trying to figure out what happened to an abandoned research station, battling horrific monsters with incredibly fiddly controls and brutally realistic physics? It’s as if it was made specifically for me, and I can’t wait to get my hands on it. Honestly, I considered putting the demo on my best-of-the-year list, although that didn’t seem fair to games that actually came out this year.
I’ve been the hidden object guru! Hope your 2021 was bearable, I’ll see you back here in the new year for more games, but until then… au revoir!