I don’t know if 2021 (as a year) was better or worse than 2020 — they were both pretty rough! — but I find myself feeling a tad more optimistic than I did before. We could hem and haw about it until the cows come home, but I do believe that ’21 was a much better year for new releases in ’20, so I don’t feel the need to go overly snarky and make my list entirely out of remasters. This was a great year for games, and I want to recognize the wide variety of brand-new, original releases that captivated me throughout the year.
2021 Game That I Want To Play More Of In 2022: Halo: Infinite
So based on the two-ish hours that I’ve played so far, there’s a decent chance Halo: Infinite could have made my top ten if I’d had more time with it. Unfortunately it didn’t come out until December 7th. Between then and now I was busy grading papers before Christmas break before taking my own vacation. There just wasn’t time. It seems quite good and I look forward to finishing the campaign, but two hours with a title isn’t enough for it to be seriously considered for selection.
Of course, this is the price 343 must pay for delaying a game into the post-Black-Friday holiday doldrums (after delaying it an extra year) and releasing it piecemeal. The multiplayer launched in November, followed by the campaign, and I hesitate to even call this a 2021 release considering it’s still missing bedrock Halo features like Forge and campaign co-op. I’m somebody who grew up playing the entire Halo franchise in co-op, and its continued absence from Infinite is nothing short of astounding. Unfortunately, waiting a year for a game to be “complete” is the new normal, but I do look forward to seeing how Halo: Infinite changes in the future.
2022’s Biggest News Story: The upcoming videogame Labor War
Here’s a little ‘Inside Baseball’ for readers. This summer, during the height of the Activision-Blizzard accusations that rocked the entire industry, I wrote a rather scathing opinion column decrying Activision employees for not having already unionized in the face of damning corporate malfeasance. Thankfully the EIC and I both realized it was perhaps a little mean-spirited and it never saw the light of day, but I still feel their lunchbreak walkouts and “not a union but let’s pretend like it is” press releases were, frankly, rather weak attempts to convince Bobby Kotick to not be a monster.
So, after another round of truly horrific accusations centered on the top of the company, we have finally seen, for the first time, a true unionization push at a major videogame company in the United States (…and it only took forty years).
As somebody in a union who benefits from worker representation, I am very happy these employees have taken this step, and I support my brothers and sisters in their struggle for dignity in the workplace. Hopefully the people doing this realize that this is going to be a fight unlike any they have ever faced, and the bonafide lizard people on the board of Activision (made up of numerous ex-Trump Administration officials) will do everything in their power to stop them. I would encourage all of these brave workers to research the American labor struggle, learn about the tremendous sacrifices made by unions over the past 120 years to earn a seat at the table, realize this is bigger than the individual, and trust in each other to gain what is rightfully theirs.
2021’s Turd of the Year: Cyberpunk 2077…still
Let this sink in: Cyberpunk 2077 only was allowed back on PSN as of June 2021.
That’s right — Cyberpunk 2077, the most hyped videogame of an entire generation made by a team whose previous two major releases (Witcher 2 & 3) are generally considered some of the greatest RPGs of all time, was so unbelievably broken that a major platform holder kept it off their digital storefront for six months. Games writing has an issue with hyperbole, but if that’s not the biggest release disaster since E.T., then I don’t know what is. A year after its December launch, Cyberpunk 2077 still seems like a game in beta while CD Projekt RED continues to release revised roadmaps with no end in sight. I didn’t play Cyberpunk at launch, but in September I picked up a physical PS4 copy for $9.99 (lol) in anticipation for the PS5 version set to be released by year’s end. Shockingly, it was delayed into 2022, so they couldn’t even get that right.
On top of all this malarkey, it’s abundantly clear that even when this game is fully finished, it’s hard to see Cyberpunk 2077 actually being the revolutionary RPG that was pitched to us for nearly a decade. I still want to play it, and hopefully the PS5 version will bring some level of polish alongside it, but the stench of this dumpster fire will stick around for a very long time.
Honorable Mention: Mass Effect: Legendary Edition
I cannot write about my gaming in 2021 without mentioning Mass Effect: Legendary Edition. Unfortunately, I committed to no remasters this year, and it didn’t qualify for my recent Top Ten PS5 upgrades list due to only being a PS4 release with backwards compatibility enhancements. I have unwittingly locked what may have been my most enjoyable experience of the year into an odd limbo, so I’m giving this very honorable release an honorable mention.
I spent over 100 hours going through the entire trilogy again thanks to this exceptional remaster, and I am thrilled these games have now been officially compiled into one easy-to-access package. Electronic Arts did their damnedest to splinter the experience during the original release by putting important content in various DLC bundles, leading to a series that only felt complete to players who bought everything. Remember, these bastards hyped the Protheans for two games, and then made a playable Prothean a pre-order bonus for ME3. The Arrival DLC from ME2 and the Leviathan DLC from ME3 are immeasurably important to understanding the entire narrative, and finally getting to play them retroactively made me like Mass Effect 3 significantly more than I did before.
This franchise was a victim of the industry’s worst practices from that generation, and now that it’s all together in one coherent box this trilogy can truly sing. While ME1 got the most TLC, all three games have been touched up very nicely, and there’s a big performance boost for PS5/Series S/X owners. Furthermore, this run made me finally see the light of playing as “Femshep”, as I now believe Jennifer Hale to be The One True Shepard. The Mass Effect trilogy deserved a remaster of this quality, and the Legendary Edition is easily one of the finest releases of 2021.
10. The Great Ace Attorney Chronicles
…Okay I already broke my rule, but at least this one is new to English speakers.
As a devout Phoenix Wright fan, I had already made peace with the fact that I was probably never going to get to play The Great Ace Attorney Adventures titles. It had been years since the last new Ace Attorney game, Capcom had never fully gotten behind the franchise in the West, and given it’s subject matter and setting, I questioned if it was even possible to adequately translate it to Western audiences. These games were set in Industrial-Era Japan (and later Industrial-Era England) and designed for a Japanese audience that would be more familiar with the cultural touchstones.
So, color me both surprised and impressed that Capcom America decided to greenlight a Western release of both Ace Attorney Adventures games in one excellent compilation. A particular congratulations is in order to their world-class translation team, who took the monumental task of adapting a very Japanese game and somehow made it coherent to English speakers while also maintaining the sensibilities of the original. This must have been a tremendously difficult project, and the team knocked it out of the park while also providing the snappy, witty dialogue the franchise is known for. As I said in my review, These titles represent the best of what the Ace Attorney franchise has to offer, and I’m frankly kinda amazed we in the west finally got to play them. Now, if Capcom can finally complete the franchise and officially translate Ace Attorney Investigations 2, I can die a happy man.
9. Voice of Cards: The Isle Dragon Roars
This was a late entry on the list, as I didn’t even know this game existed until December. Considering my affinity for Yoko Taro’s work, finding out what it was left me wondering “how the hell have I not been hyped for this?!”. Voice of Cards has a wonderfully unique concept where it’s a essentially a rather standard JRPG, but it’s presented as a tabletop gaming session with the world and characters being represented by cards. Considering how integral Dungeons & Dragons is to JRPGs, it’s a rather good fit.
The glue that holds the experience together is voice actor Todd Haberkorn. As “The Game Master”, he acts as the Dungeon Master and narrates the entire experience while also voicing all the dialogue between characters. He has a firm, calming tone that gives the sense of a well-seasoned DM gently guiding a new explorer through their first adventure. He’s accompanied by another exceptional score from longtime Yoko Taro collaborator Keiichi Okabe, and considering the whole game takes place on a table, the ambiance is strong. This one feels a bit under-the-radar for being a Square-Enix JRPG made by one of gaming’s true visionaries, but Voice of Cards is not one to miss, and it’s got a friendly price of $30 to boot.
8. Hitman III
After seven different Hitman games, I figured I had murdered the 1% in every creative way imaginable. Then I stuck a guy in a giant microwave in the eighth. Hitman III continues the World of Assassination from the previous two entries, leading to a razor-sharp refinement of the formula, and the second in the trilogy ended with a massive curveball that III was able to take to a satisfying conclusion. These games are known for their excellent maps full of detail and ingenious ways to dispose of foes, and Hitman III does not disappoint. Berlin in particular was a highlight for me, as it does an amazing job of essentially flipping the script on Agent 47. Hitman III also did a great job of making the leap to current-gen hardware with a solid 60FPS framerate and lighting enhancements adding to the already-stellar presentation.
While this is a list of the best original games of 2021, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Hitman III‘s greatest trick. For digital owners of the first two, those titles can be transferred into Hitman III with all of III’s gameplay revisions and graphical updates. So instead of this just being Hitman III, this title can be transformed into the definitive Hitman trilogy with an ungodly amount of content. With that said, Hitman III is a successful capper to IO’s latest iteration of their assassin simulator, and anyone who hasn’t yet tried the series now has a convenient way to do so. I truly cannot wait to see what these guys do with 007.
7. Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart
If there was one game to show people what my shiny new next-gen console can do, it would be Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart. It is the showpiece game for the PlayStation 5 one year in, with excellent ray-tracing implementation adding so much to its colorful world. This is also one of the few games I’ve played on my PS5 that I’m convinced could not exist on previous generation hardware due to how they use the loading capabilities of SSD in conjunction with gameplay. Zipping through alternate dimensions and seeing whole universes pop up instantaneously is quite a sight to behold.
Thankfully, the team at Insomniac Games care just as much about mechanics as they do for graphical fidelity, so Rift Apart is a rather outstanding action-platformer with tons of fun weapons to wreck fools with. It also tells a fine story in the Ratchet & Clank universe that maintains a bit more of the edge from the original titles, as I never found the 2016 reboot (and its sanitized ‘kids movie’ feel) particularly engaging. Also, I love me some Dr. Nefarious, and he is in top form here as an utterly delightful foil for our protagonists. Rift Apart is a no-brainer play for anyone lucky enough to get a PlayStation 5.
6. Psychonauts 2
So what long-sought-after sequels are left? We got Duke Nukem: Forever, we got Shenmue III, and now, somehow, we have Psychonauts 2. I guess I’ll be over in the corner with my petition for Sony to make Legend of Dragoon 2 if anyone is interested.
After multiple odd crowdfunding campaigns, a corporate takeover of Double Fine, and possibly a multimillion dollar donation from some kooky dude, Tim Schafer finally got to make Psychonauts 2, which I can emphatically say is definitely a sequel to Psychonauts. More of a true platformer compared to the combat-oriented Ratchet & Clank, players once again control Raz as he jumps from consciousness to consciousness, unraveling mystery while providing a extremely well-written and well-delivered script that delves into some heavy subject matter.
It doesn’t quite match Ratchet & Clank’s technical mastery or gameplay refinement, but Psychonauts 2 has a heart of gold, and it’s a genuine miracle that it exists as a major release in 2021. I can’t imagine any fan of the first being disappointed here, despite having to wait sixteen years for it, and that is quite the accomplishment.
5. Tales of Arise
Namco-Bandai’s Tales series has been humming along for a quarter of a century while providing a long list of darn fine action-JRPGs, and Tales of Arise continues that tradition. As the first to appear on the current generation of hardware, it does feel like a noticeable evolution in a franchise that hasn’t changed much since Tales of Symphonia in 2004. This is an absolutely huge title with tons of content to keep one occupied in a beautiful world full of interesting locations and characters. They’ve also done a great job updating the formula with a few quality-of-life improvements that make Tales of Arise feel modern while sticking to tried-and-true genre conventions.
While it’s a tad annoying how much one is encouraged to buy level boosts and items with real money through the online store, this has been a feature of the franchise for a long time, and it’s easy to ignore. Tales of Arise is a fantastic JRPG that revitalizes a strong franchise while feeling like a very modern release, and it’s a great choice for fans and newcomers alike.
4. Lost Judgment
PlayStation 5 owners who are also fans of Ryu Ga Gotoku Studio’s work had a hell of a 2021. Yakuza: Like A Dragon appeared on the system in March, then in April we got a port of 2018’s Judgment which was well made (but overpriced), and in October came its sequel. I continue to be astounded by this company’s continued quality and quantity of releases, and this continued with Lost Judgment. Takayuki Yagami’s venture into a troubled high school feels rather out-of-left-field for a franchise about beating up mobsters but, sure enough, Kamurocho’s most infamous detective can seamlessly transition to being an undercover school counselor to warm our hearts while solving a murder.
The Judgment franchise has officially taken the “King of the modern beat ’em up” title from Yakuza after it relinquished the belt so it could cosplay as Dragon Quest (to great success, I might add) and this is yet another spectacular release. I don’t know what else to say about these games and this developer. I reviewed Lost Judgment, loved it, and it seems every year I write about how goddamn impressive it is that Ryu Ga Gotoku Studio is able to churn out multiple bangers so consistently. Now that Yakuza flipped genres on us, Lost Judgment is able to feel much more like its own franchise standing alone in the pantheon of its illustrious developer. Please let Takuya Kimura make more of them.
3. Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy
This is definitely not a title I saw making my top ten at the beginning of the year, as the bad taste of Marvel’s Avengers still lingered. And while Avengers is the horrible nightmare future of gaming monetization we hoped would never come to pass, Guardians of the Galaxy feels almost like a weird throwback — it’s just a singleplayer game without being a mess of currencies and DLC. It also very skillfully balances feeling like a Marvel movie game and a Marvel comic book game, as this take on the characters definitely take some cues from James Gunn, yet still feeling like its own thing. The art design and worlds are well-done, with a few eye-popping set pieces being a nice highlight.
This is another game I actually reviewed for the site, so pop over here to get my full thoughts, but Guardians of the Galaxy is a crowd-pleaser, and such a pleasant surprise. Hopefully the sales figures justify a pivot to more Marvel games like this.
2. No More Heroes III
I wasn’t sure we needed another Travis Touchdown game in 2021. I feared his return would give me flashbacks of how poorly Duke Nukem worked out in 2012. That isn’t the case here, as director Suda 51 was able to use Travis as a vehicle for making a bunch of ’80s anime jokes. Thankfully, I found them funny, and the act of playing through No More Heroes III was a hilarious send-up of all the stuff I thought was cool when I was nineteen. I also appreciated playing with the joy-con motion controls, making this secretly the best Wii game of 2021. The Wii was much better than people remember, but that argument is for another list.
It’s got problems. The content between the boss battles can be rather mundane, its open world is lifeless, and traversal suffers from serious performance issues. However, in a way, it’s almost charming in the context of NMHIII. This is a franchise that’s never been known for polish, and having it be somewhat janky kinda fits with the aesthetic. No More Heroes III is not a perfect game, and it’s probably the least technically-impressive game on this list, but nothing else this year put a bigger smile on my face while I played musical chairs with an intergalactic assassin.
I want to state this emphatically: I hate roguelikes and have never enjoyed playing one. For that reason, the fact that I liked Returnal at all is a small miracle, but having it be the best new game I played this year by a wide margin is even more bewildering. I tend to reward mechanics over presentation, and no game this year felt better to play than Returnal. The movement is… well, it’s perfect and I wouldn’t change a thing. The team at Housemarque successfully took their bullet-hell sensibilities from Super Stardust and Nex Machina to create a truly one-of-a-kind third-person shooter that simultaneously feels retro in design, while also being on the cutting edge of technology. This is a beautiful game with randomly generated maps and not a single loading screen the entire way through a run — a seamless experience that could only be done on new hardware. Returnal is also the single best use of the DualSense controller released in 2021, with excellent trigger feel and very good speaker implementation.
This game kicked my ass, and it will kick your ass too. Like any true roguelike, success hinders not only on the players skill, but random weapon drops throughout a run. The “just one more run” mentality kept me up many a late night, fighting to a conclusion that had me literally jumping around in joy when the mountain was conquered. My roommate was concerned. This is not a game that I would call particularly welcoming to players who aren’t looking for an extreme challenge, but anyone who wants that will find no finer gameplay experience this year than Returnal.