Last year I was feeling a bit snarky after what I thought was a pretty underwhelming year for new releases, so I populated my top 10 list with nothing but remakes and remasters. I still stand by this choice, as it allowed me to somehow award Dragon Quest XI my Game of the Year three times in a row. Thankfully, 2021 has proven to be a much stronger year. I’m also feeling less dour than I was at the end of 2020, so I wanted to do the inverse and focus this year’s GOTY list on only truly new releases.
However, this left me with a bit of a conundrum. I was lucky enough to score a PlayStation 5 at launch, and one of my absolute favorite features of this new hardware has been replaying countless PS4 classics with new improvements. Because of this, I believe I’ve played more PS5 in the first year of ownership than maybe any system ever, and the surprising amount of free upgrades to my old collection made it possible. While I’m fairly certain the gravy train has left the station and we will be receiving far less of these upgrades going forward, it’s been awesome having a steady stream of them to keep my PS5 in use through 2021. So, due to having played a huge amount of re-releases this year (and also wanting to recognize some 2020 games that got lost in the previously-mentioned snark) I decided this category deserved its own list this year.
Before I begin, it should be noted that this list has some specific parameters.
To qualify, a game must have been originally released before 2021 and received the PS5 upgrade during 2021, so games that had simultaneous releases on PS4 & PS5 are not considered. All of these games offered existing owners of the PS4 version either a free upgrade or the option to upgrade for a fee.
Furthermore, this is a list of games that received a full-on PS5 version, rather than titles like Vampyr or Horizon: Zero Dawn that simply received patches for enhanced PS4 backwards compatibility. The price of the upgrade, bonus content, and PS5 specific enhancements were all considered alongside the overall quality of release.
The Shame Pile: Control: Ultimate Edition and Judgment
Some of the messaging around free upgrades or upgrade paths around launch was a bit murky, and nobody screwed this up more than 505 Games when bringing Control to PlayStation 5.
After originally announcing that it would receive an upgrade to PS5, it was later discovered that only owners of Control: Ultimate Edition (a version bundled with the DLC that wasn’t even out yet) would get the upgrade. This was a separate release from the original version of Control, and even players who bought the DLC were left in the cold. The true shame of this? Not only is Control: Ultimate Edition a fantastic upgrade, but it was an upgrade that was desperately needed for a game that ran poorly on last-gen hardware.
Unfortunately, an even bigger head-scratcher was a game I love dearly from a developer I love dearly — the PS5 version of Judgment, which offered zero upgrade paths for original owners of the PS4 version.
While Control at least offered significant performance boosts, ray-tracing implementation and worthwhile DLC, Sega decided to charge $40 for the luxury of playing the same product at 60FPS and 1440p. These are nice enhancements, but they are also the only enhancements, so that’s a tough price to swallow when others were offering far more. This was an astounding boner on Sega’s part that only screwed over Ryu Ga Gotoku Studio’s most ardent supporters. Judgment absolutely deserved an upgraded version for new consoles, but completely ignoring a standard that they themselves already adhered to with other titles was the wrong call. I blame Takuya Kimura’s agents.
Honorable Mention: Ghost of Tsushima: Directors Cut
In a down year for the triple-A sphere, Ghost of Tsushima was probably my favorite big-budget title of 2020, and I think this is in large part to not having burned out on the open-world formula as someone on this website may have.
I loved Ghost of Tsushima for its gorgeous and impeccably-designed world, satisfying combat, and exploration that screamed ‘Made by the people who made Sly Cooper‘. The director’s cut adds an exceptional piece of DLC in the form of the Iki Island expansion while also doubling the framerate and a near-4K resolution, leading to some truly stunning vistas. While the PS4 version had impressively quick loads, they’re now lightning thanks to the PS5’s SSD storage. Finally, while I tried to not let it bother me as much as it did some people, the complete lack of lip sync for the Japanese language option in the original release was distracting. Having that fixed for this version was welcome.
So why isn’t it on the list? Well, considering price, this puppy comes in at a whopping $30 — three times the price of the most expensive upgrade appearing on this list. The reason is that it’s bundled with the $20 Iki Island expansion, and while I absolutely think that’s an easy purchase for fans of the game, other titles on this list also launched alongside DLC but didn’t force the customer to buy it to get the base game upgrade. Also, GoT had received a PS4 enhanced backwards compatibility patch before the official PS5 release that featured about 90% of the graphical upgrades already, so that additional $10 didn’t feel tremendously justified. For those reasons I couldn’t let it crack the top ten, but this is absolutely a game worth playing, and this is the best way to do so.
10. Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 1&2
Both writers on this website and members of my own family questioned what in the heck I was doing last year by making a list of the best remasters and not including the exceptional Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 1 & 2. Upon further reflection, they were probably right, but I waited to play it extensively until the PS5 version was released. While there were slight upgrades to the graphics that only astute watchers of Digital Foundry videos would notice in motion, it is one of two games on this list that support high framerates for 120hz displays, and even most brand-new PS5 games don’t use that feature.
While that’s fantastic, Tony Hawk 1&2 is also one of two games on this list that actually cost money to upgrade, coming in at $10 for the privilege. That hurts its standing on the list, but that does include a “Special Edition” upgrade with some extra skins thrown in.
Furthermore, while this is a PS5-centric list, the implementation of the upgrade on Series S/X was incredibly confusing, and that version of the game didn’t allow for a disc-based upgrade which was allowed on PS5. Bizarre limitations aside, this is an outstanding rendition of a couple of games pretty damn important to many ’90s kid childhoods, and it’s still fun Pretending I’m A Superman all these years later.
9. Crash 4: It’s About Time
2021 turned out to be a hell of a year for platformers, and while I’m not going to remember Crash 4 as fondly as I will the two games that will feature on my upcoming GOTY list, this is one of the better recent entries in the genre, apart from Nintendo’s output. Developer Toys for Bob did some exceptional work porting the Spyro trilogy last generation, and it’s pretty clear they took some notes from that project.
Crash 4 takes elements from the original trilogy and makes “one of those”, only a bit more intricate and a lot more difficult. I was genuinely surprised how often Crash 4 handed me my lunch, but it has a forgiving checkpoint system that keeps it from being overly frustrating. Add to that some really neat worlds and a surprisingly entertaining script, and It’s About Time ends up somehow being one of the better entries in a franchise that peaked over twenty years ago.
With that said, it comes in pretty low on this list due to being a rather unimpressive upgrade, as the only enhancements are a bump in resolution and faster load times. The game already ran at 60FPS on enhanced consoles from the previous generation, but the 4K resolution really does a lot to show how detailed the world is. This is especially true during in-engine cutscenes that look like they could easily pass for a good kids’ movie. Non-Nintendo consoles have a serious lack of quality games for children, and even with the high difficulty, this is one of the few titles I’d recommend to parents, as well as anyone looking to play a great platformer.
8. Saints Row The Third Remastered
I already said on my list last year how much I adore Saints Row The Third. I legitimately think it’s one of the best games from its generation, and I love its outlandish world, ample variety, and genuinely endearing characters.
The remake from 2020 was actually a fairly substantial graphical overhaul, and it brought steady performance to console owners for the first time, though its 30FPS cap was a little disappointing. The PS5 version brings the game up to a buttery-smooth 4K60 presentation, and they even went back and further enhanced the graphics with improved shadows and draw distance.
Like many games on this list, this is the best way to play an already-fabulous game, but I had an exceptionally good time blowing up the city of Steelport with Pierce, Shaundi, Oleg, CheapyD, and Burt Reynolds all over again. It’s joyously stupid in all the right ways.
7. Final Fantasy VII Remake INTERGRADE
I pissed off a bunch of people last year when I had the audacity to declare the long-awaited Final Fantasy VII Remake to be a pretty good game with a lot of nice qualities. The combat is complex and engaging, and it’s a loving tribute to the first 15% of one of the biggest games of all time. I still question what the hell this project is going to end up looking like upon completion, and I have issues with Square-Enix essentially retconning one of the more important stories in the history of the medium, but I cannot deny how enjoyable FF7R is as pure spectacle. It was one of the best-looking games from the past generation, so what better way to enjoy such spectacle than with double the framerate, thousands more pixels, and better looking doors? The framerate boost in particular significantly improves the flow of combat.
To go alongside this, Square-Enix accompanied this re-re-release with a meaty DLC starring infamous waifu-ninja, Yuffie, called INTERmission (I will never understand how Square-Enix decides to use capital letters).
This was a great piece of content that provides more outlandish spectacle while also giving players some necessary context for Midgar events happening outside the main game. Luckily, it’s also optional, so players who only want to play the main game get that upgraded for free, and that freedom of choice is good enough to un-ironically get this pretty good game to seventh on this list.
6. Terminator: Resistance Enhanced
There might not be a movie franchise with a longer and more storied history of crap-ass videogames than Terminator. Awful Terminator games have been coming out for damn near 40 years, and the IP has been rather awful on the big screen for the last 20, so don’t blame me for skipping out on Terminator: Resistance upon its original release in November 2019. I think most people did, but there seemed to be a steady stream of people surprisingly willing to sing the game’s praises. When I finally bit, I was impressed — in a way, it represents the best of what these PS5 upgrades can offer, as it gave new life to a game that was just about to be forgotten
While the underpinnings of Resistance were always strong, it suffered from severe performance issues on consoles, along with a bunch of bugs. Polish developer Teyon Interactive has done a nice job patching it since then, and the power of the PlayStation 5 is able to keep the game at a (generally) stable 60FPS while bumping up the graphics & resolution and cutting back on some long load times. It still has some charming Eastern European jank on top of some dead-eyed faces to talk to, but this is a great use of the license.
This resource-driven FPS gameplay is a perfect fit for the universe, and for the first time (maybe ever?) in a Terminator game, it’s actually scary when a player encounters a goddamn Terminator.
Extra credit goes to the outstanding music, and added to the PS5 release was a free DLC pack containing a bonus mission where one actually gets to be a T-800, sneak into a compound, and murder a bunch of resistance fighters. Fans will love how pitch-perfect the UI is during these segments, as they perfectly emulate the effects from the original films. This game is an easy recommendation to longtime Terminator fans and it uses the PS5 to deliver the best console version yet.
5. DOOM Eternal
DOOM Eternal is the most disappointing kick-ass game that I can remember. I still absolutely love playing it, I love the many nods to ’90s shooters that inspired its speed and level design, and I love Mick Gordon’s genius soundtrack. The problem is that DOOM 2016 was such a transcendent achievement that it cast a shadow Eternal found too difficult to escape from.
Dropping the ball so hard in the story department put a damper on the overall release, but DOOM Eternal is still an exceptionally-designed first-person-shooter that’s a hoot to play through while mastering its many (perhaps one-too-many?) systems. This PS5 upgrade was also a great way to play through The Ancient Gods DLC, which is mostly good except for the three or four sections that are super terrible.
What gets this game so high on this list is the litany of enhancements made to the PS5 version. For the low cost of zero dollars, owners of the original release get multiple performance modes and enhanced graphics. DOOM Eternal is also the only game on this list that features both ray-tracing and 120fps support (not at the same time) and the RT60 mode is a real tech showpiece for new hardware. Add to that the snappy load times, and this is an extremely technically proficient PS5 upgrade. Playing it again and seeing it look so good helped ease the general lament I have for how uninteresting the plot is.
4. The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim Special Edition
Notice I said Skyrim: Special Edition instead of Anniversary Edition. Bethesda did such a terrible job explaining what the re-re-re-release of their seminal Role Playing Game actually is, that I will try to on their behalf.
The “Anniversary Edition” that was announced over the summer is really just a DLC pack of Creation Club content that they bolted on to the previously-released Special Edition. Owners of Skyrim Special Edition get the PS5 upgrade for free along with a couple new quests, a new survival mode, and a fishing minigame so blasé that it only warrants this singular mention. One can make their Special Edition go all Anniversary on itself for a $20 fee, which honestly seems high for a collection of items and a couple of new spells.
When they announced the Anniversary Edition, I noticed the original was on sale for $16, so I jumped on it and waited for the current-gen release. This was probably the 4th or so attempt I had made to play Skyrim, which is a game I have frequently played the first 90-ish minutes of and wrote off due to never being enamored with Bethesda games. Yet somehow it clicked this time, and I’ve ended up playing a couple dozen hours since its release in November. I think I learned to stop worrying about the “main” quest and simply decided to do stuff, so I’ve found the experience more enthralling than any other attempt. That may be due to the near instantaneous loading times, the rock-solid 4K60 presentation, and years of patching leading to a release that actually seems… rather polished? That’s weird to say for a Bethesda game, but I’m somewhat shocked how much I’m enjoying myself. Maybe I just really like the DualSense?
3. Metro Exodus
Single-player-only FPS titles are becoming increasingly rare, but that hasn’t deterred Ukranian/Maltese developer 4A Games from keeping the dream of atmospheric, story-driven shooters alive with their Metro franchise. 2019’s Metro: Exodus was a fantastic ride, and the free next-gen upgrade is perhaps the most graphically transformative of the list. While the PS4 Pro/Xbox One X versions were fairly solid, significant cuts and downgrades were necessary to make a cutting-edge PC title operate on such old hardware. Metro is the game on this list that probably needed a PS5 upgrade the most, and 4A did a fantastic job bringing it up to modern standards.
Ray-tracing has proven difficult to do at 60FPS on the new consoles so far, but 4A was able to get it running on an already-beautiful game while maintaining a relatively stable framerate that only dips (on occasion) in larger environments. They also included some of the extra graphical bells & whistles from the PC release that couldn’t hack it on PS4, and that helps to make Metro Exodus one of the best looking games available for PS5 despite its age. It’s a fantastic showpiece for ray-tracing, but behind the visuals is a meaty, interesting, and well designed shooter with a dense world begging to be explored.
2. Death Stranding: Directors Cut
I’m starting to come around on the idea of positive long-term reception for Death Stranding. I still stand by what I said in my review — the story is outright hogwash that’s written like a teacher dictating facts to an 11-year-old, the combat is cumbersome & uninteresting, and while I actually enjoyed the exploration and delivery-centric gameplay loop, the overall pacing of the campaign is a bit of a mess. With that said, there is just something about this damn game. I am now, somehow, 25 hours into a new playthrough, and experiencing the collaborative “strand” mechanics again reminded me there’s more good than bad with Hideo Kojima’s ethereal fever dream. I concur with GC’s editor Brad who called it “the ultimate ‘Chill Game’”
It is the only game on this list besides Tony Hawk that charges $10 to get the upgrade for previous owners of the PS4 version, but Kojima Productions packed a lot in.
For starters, it runs supremely well, leading to an already-beautiful game looking even better. It benefits tremendously from a locked 60FPS performance mode that runs at 1800p (there’s also a 4k option with an unlocked framerate that maintains 60FPS outside of some cutscenes). They include many of the features from the PC release such as ultra-wide support that looks stunning on OLED displays in particular, and the Valve-themed goodies like the Companion Cube quests made it to console as well. Furthermore, the game uses the Dualsense controller and haptic feedback extensively, leading to a very immersive experience.
There are new missions, tons of goofy new weapons & items that make for a breezier second playthrough (and possibly a less-interesting, less arduous first playthrough for new players), and a racetrack in case anyone wants to use the driving mechanics from Death Stranding in a minigame. They even went and changed the terrain around the most walked paths by players from the first game to mix things up. Death Stranding: Directors Cut absolutely justifies its upgrade price, and the two years since release have been surprisingly kind to a jarringly-different title.
1. Yakuza: Like A Dragon
This game is the reason I created this list. Yakuza: Like a Dragon was, far and away, the best damn videogame I played in 2021. Unfortunately, I committed to only discussing new releases for my 2021 GOTY list, and Yakuza: Like A Dragon… kinda-sorta doesn’t count?
It actually came out in November of 2020 for previous-gen hardware and Xbox Series S/X, but because of a rumored short-term exclusivity deal with Microsoft, the PS5 version didn’t make it out until March. So, for the first third of the year, a physical copy of the latest entry in one of my favorite franchises sat on my shelf, and I stubbornly waited it out so I could experience it on brand-new hardware.
Was it worth it? Not particularly, as the enhancements only amount to faster loading times and two new performance modes (1440p60 vs. 4K30), so it’s actually one of the less impressive upgrades on this list. It probably shouldn’t be first, but I write the rules for this award and I’m giving it to the game with hobo wizards and lobster-infused summon spells.
Yakuza: Like A Dragon is a maniacal, brave, endearing title that turns a very successful franchise completely on its ear by pivoting to become a full-on turn-based JRPG while still very much being a Yakuza game. Filling the legendary shoes of Kazuma Kiryu was a seemingly impossible task, and yet Ryu Ga Gotoku Studio somehow accomplished this with the lovable doofus-maloofus that is Ichiban Kasuga. His unrelenting optimism and enthusiasm legitimately inspired me to persevere through the last few months of grad school, and the absolutely insane journey he takes alongside a strong ensemble cast is pure magic.
If you choose to play one game from 2021 that originally released in 2020 when sitting down with your consoles in 2022, make it Yakuza: Like a Dragon on PS5.