2021 was a year that broke our brains just a little bit. You don’t need me to tell you that, and I’ve already spoken about this elsewhere anyway. I finished fewer games this year than any other year in recent memory. As a critic, I’ve generally believed that I should at least make a valiant effort to complete a game before judging it – the more of a work you’ve seen, the more informed your reaction to it will be.
This year, though, sanity won out, and I found it unusually easy to dismiss stuff that wasn’t grabbing me. Even the games that I did like often still offered friction, usually thanks to random mood swings. Very little stood out in 2021, which made it difficult to fill a list of ten. So this year – and hopefully only this year – I’m waiving my usual rule that I need to have completed a game for it to qualify for my list. If I enjoyed a game and I’m confident enough that it won’t suddenly soil all of my good will toward it in the eleventh hour, it’s eligible.
Late arrivals that I need more time with:
Exo One (XSS)
Praey for the Gods (PC)
I recognize that these are good, but they just didn’t grab me:
Chicory: A Colorful Tale (PC)
Death’s Door (PC/Switch)
The Forgotten City (PS5)
• Hitman 3 (PC). This was easily the weakest of the trilogy for me, with the level design not quite hitting the same consistency that it did in the previous two. But even a middling Hitman is a delight compared to most of what’s out there.
• Knockout City (Switch). Creating a new multiplayer IP that’s both easy to understand and wholly unique is tricky, but this one pulls it off. It didn’t have the longest legs but I had a blast with it over the summer.
• Metroid Dread (Switch). A terrific side-scrolling action game, but merely an okay Metroid. The former is more important, though, and after the series has been on hiatus for so long, it’s just a relief to see it working on some level.
• Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart (PS5). I have very little experience with this series and only played this because it came with my PS5 bundle. Having said that, it’s good! A bit too safe and ordinary to land on my top ten, but Insomniac is one of the most consistent AAA developers in the business.
• Skul: The Hero Slayer (PC). Feels a lot like Hades in terms of both structure and the distribution of variables, albeit without that game’s groundbreaking approach to continuous narrative. One of the best roguelikes of 2021, especially for genre fans who like to tune out the story as they play.
The Top Ten:
10. Unpacking (XSS)
This here is a calming puzzle game with an uplifting hidden narrative about the things we choose to retain in our lives. I will admit that I’m attaching some personal bias to Unpacking, as it’s one of the few videogames this year that my girlfriend and I bonded over. She’s still relatively new to the medium, having bought a Switch in 2020 primarily due to quarantine boredom but not having used it for much outside of Animal Crossing. I believe this was her first official brush with the “activities that are tedious in real-life but make for weirdly hypnotic videogames” genre. I can’t wait to introduce her to House Flipper.
9. Shattered: Tale of the Forgotten King (PC)
As mentioned, this was a year in which I actually completed so few games that I had to waive my usual rule about a title only qualifying for my top ten if I’d seen the whole thing. As such, anything that nevertheless did hold my attention until the credits rolled deserves special consideration. A great soulslike is both intimidating and enticing in equal measure, and while developers have no trouble grasping the former, they frequently struggle with the latter. After a relatively mundane first couple of hours, there came a moment in Shattered when understood the game’s true scope and felt a sense of wonder similar to what I felt looking around the skyboxes of Firelink Shrine for the first time. It’s an overambitious, janky thing, but then that’s just part of the Souls charm, isn’t it?
8. Eldest Souls (Switch)
Our editor-in-chief Brad Gallaway hates this thing. When I told him it was getting good reviews, he said, “I don’t believe for one second that people actually like that game, they’re just afraid to say it’s too hard.” Naturally, I adore it — but then I am a weirdo. I tweeted that it was a boss rush game in which my death count had me averaging fifty tries per boss. I stated this with the intent of communicating that I was enjoying myself. But naturally, people took this to be a bad thing, because that’s what a normal person would do. A normal person does not enjoy repeatedly bashing their head against a brick wall and smirking every time the crack gets just a little wider. I’m the guy who likes pain. No coffin please, Eldest Souls – just wet, wet mud.
7. Before Your Eyes (PC)
One of the most conceptually interesting releases this year, Before Your Eyes is a narrative adventure controlled entirely by blinking. Seriously – you hook up a webcam and advance the story by closing your eyes when prompted. It sounds gimmicky, and I know this sounds like a cop-out, but trust me when I say that developer GoodbyeWorld Games uses this mechanic to tell a story that simply wouldn’t have had the same impact otherwise. I also say this as somebody who, unfortunately, had to constantly pause and re-calibrate the sensor, likely due to both the position of my computer and the light reflecting off my glasses. It was worth it, because beneath the technical annoyances I found a beautiful requiem on the value of life told in a manner that no other medium could. This is interactive storytelling working on a level I’ve never seen before and will likely never see again.
6. Loop Hero (PC/Switch)
When it released on PC earlier this year, Loop Hero was dangerously addictive. When it was ported to Switch not too long ago, as my friend McGarnical put it on Twitter, it should have come with a surgeon general’s warning. The genius of Loop Hero is that it distills one of gaming’s basest pleasures – getting a steady stream of new loot – into something nearly involuntary. It almost feels like we have as much control over our hero’s adversaries as we do over the hero himself, merrily setting up barriers for him to push through. There’s no growth without struggle, after all – yet is there ultimately any growth at all, or does Loop Hero trap us in an endless cycle, promising a conclusion that it will never provide and keeping us distracted with a steady stream of treats in the meantime? I don’t know and I don’t care. I just know that Loop Hero transfixes me every time I boot it up.
5. Griftlands (Switch)
One of the coolest roguelikes in quite some time is also one of the worst-tutorialized – especially on Switch, where navigating an interface that was clearly designed for a mouse and keyboard feels like learning a new language. But players who push themselves over that initial hump will be rewarded not just with a super crunchy and flexible deckbuilder, but also with an ambitious experiment in interactive storytelling. “Moral choices” became cliché a couple of generations ago, and they’re so mundane at this point that we barely even register them, but they’re a natural fit for a roguelike where there are actual reasons to act in self-interest because hours of work can be undone in a second. The way that necessity funneled me down uniquely dark corridors throughout every single Griftlands run had me thinking that the roguelike genre has only just scratched the surface of what it’s capable of.
4. Returnal (PS5)
Here’s one for my very specific and weird taste – not just a roguelike, but the git gud kind. With very little in the way of permanent upgrades, there’s no safety net in Returnal – no guarantee that the player’s time investment will ever amount to anything if they don’t learn the enemy attack patterns and find a play style that suits them. The visual design and ambience strongly reminded me of Metroid Prime, and I was particularly impressed with how some of the more sprawling biomes (particularly the second and third) were able to maintain a sense of place even amid the procedural generation. The plot eventually indulges in one of my least-favorite tropes, but it’s also kept vague enough that you can largely just ignore the implications of what the story is actually about and just enjoy the protagonist’s downward spiral as a sort of tone piece. This is the first AAA roguelike that I’m aware of, and that alone makes it worth a look. That it looks and plays as good as it does only sweetens the deal.
3. Halo Infinite (XSS)
In a year when we were all craving comfort food, no list of 2021’s greatest successes would be complete without mentioning the glorious return of Halo. I’m still working on the campaign (which had the audacity to release the day after Endwalker), but while I’m generally against the open-worldification of every major franchise, enormous outdoor play spaces have always been Halo‘s forte and they flourish here. And in any case, Infinite already secured its spot weeks prior when the multiplayer dropped, feeling so familiar and natural at this point that we can all practically slide into a trance while playing. This one just barely inches out Returnal purely for the fact that Infinite has Chief fall into a coma and literally sleep through all of the stupid nonsense teased in Halo 5‘s ending.
2. Deathloop (PS5)
This year I’ve become what I hate, as my top four games of 2021 are all AAA releases. Notably, they’re all entries that march to the beat of their own drum, using bigger budgets to either expand their own niches or explore new territory altogether. Deathloop feels like both of those things at once – a natural progression and crown jewel for Arkane Studios (low-key one of the best developers for years running, further perfecting their near-monopoly on the immersive sim genre here) and simultaneously something completely unique, both in terms of flow and vibe. There have been other time loop games, and there have possibly been better time loop games, but none have so perfectly captured the measured confidence of Bill Murray successfully executing a robbery in Groundhog Day just by knowing exactly when the bag of money appears and when the people around it are all looking away. No one does lived-in environments like Arkane, and the slow, simple process of getting to know Blackreef – and using that knowledge to devious effect – was one of 2021’s purest joys.
1. Final Fantasy XIV: Endwalker (PC)
In isolation, I don’t know if I could actually claim that Endwalker was the single best new release that I played all year. It’s an expansion to FFXIV and comes saddled with all of the flaws inherent to it. But Endwalker doesn’t exist in isolation, and taken with the understanding that anyone who can even access this campaign is obviously okay with said flaws (or else they wouldn’t have spent hundreds of hours with the damn game to begin with) it’s not only FFXIV‘s best expansion to date, but a triumphant conclusion to what must now surely be the greatest comeback story in the history of the industry. The fact that we can now take a step back and view this enterprise as something resembling a whole – however long it’ll continue trucking along after this – means there’s no greater time to celebrate FFXIV as the monumental achievement that it is. Yoshi-P and his team (with special marks to main scenario writer Natsuko Ishikawa) have done a remarkable job of making this all feel like a carefully-laid plan, and when you consider the mess that they were handed, that’s a stunning feat.
Thank you for reading, and I hope that 2022 treats us all just a little better.