If you’re a frequent and longtime reader of GameCritics, you may have noticed that my output has dried up significantly over the past year. Take a look outside and I don’t think you can blame me. While the hope for a better tomorrow was what kept me running (albeit mostly on fumes) in 2020, that better tomorrow never came, leading to a 2021 in which energy-sapping depression seeped into every aspect of my day-to-day life, right down to my gaming habits. Up became down, hot became cold, and I got way into an MMO for the first time in my life while stuff that would have grabbed me under normal circumstances failed to gain any traction.
Since I’m grateful for anything and everything that made the sting of 2021 a little easier to bear, I’m doing two year-end lists this time. The one where I actually make a conscious effort to celebrate the year’s biggest successes is still to come, so here’s some stuff that didn’t qualify for that list, but meant a lot to me anyway. Maybe it was a re-release of an old favorite, maybe something got an important update, maybe it was just good enough at the right time. Here’s the list of my not-favorite releases of 2021.
10. Disco Elysium: The Final Cut
When Disco Elysium – comfortably one of my all-time favorite games, and one that I regret not giving a perfect score – was finally released on consoles this year, I expected a wave of newcomers to be swept away by its brilliance. That… didn’t exactly happen. It’s not really the kind of game that should be played on a console, for one thing, and a story centered on self-loathing probably wasn’t what most folks were looking for in 2021 (even if its eventual message is rather optimistic and hopeful, once it arrives at its destination). Still, Disco Elysium remains the best-written game I’ve ever played, and a seamless integration of narrative and play. This wasn’t its year, but I hope every seasoned gamer discovers it at some point down the road.
9. The Ascent
There is absolutely no reason for The Ascent to look as good as it does. Stripped down to its barest wireframe, it’s an almost shockingly basic twin-stick shooter that barely even tells a coherent plot. I keep seeing it compared to Diablo, and I must assume that this purely comes down to the isometric camera angle, because Diablo had actual depth. Why did something so simple need to be the prettiest game of 2021? I don’t know, but damned if it didn’t work on me, because I just loved existing in this world – taking in the views, the neon lights, the constant rumble of activity around me. Granted, it wasn’t enough of a pull to get me past the eight- or nine-hour mark, but I enjoyed what time I spent with it.
8. Oh look, it’s Tetris Effect again
It feels like this is the fourth year in a row where Tetris Effect has been eligible for year-end consideration. It’s a game that was essentially perfect in its most basic form and I was happy to leave it at that but they keep finding new ways to rope me back in. First it was Tetris Effect in VR, then it was Tetris Effect with other people, and now it’s Tetris Effect on a handheld as the game made its Switch debut earlier this year. Which means now I can bring Tetris Effect to bed with me and just sort of vibe myself to sleep. I think that’s every possible variant for the time being, at least until they figure out a way to beam Tetris Effect directly into my brain.
7. Necromunda: Hired Gun
I was in a real funk earlier this year, and believe it or not, Necromunda: Hired Gun was what pulled me out of it and made me love videogames again. It’s not even very good – it’s barely stable on the technical front, it’s full of extraneous systems and weird lurches in pacing, and it’s seemingly completely unaware of why people play games like this. But, anything that can give me even 10% of the rush I felt playing the 2016 reboot of Doom for the first time knows the way to my heart, and when Hired Gun is at its best – embracing over-the-top action in maximalist industrial environments that look like heavy metal album covers – it’s a thing of beauty. This is the most I’ve ever gotten into the Warhammer 40k universe, and it seems that the trick was just to make it really stupid.
6. Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic (on Switch!)
I talked about this recently on a podcast I did with Richard Naik where we just kinda rambled for an hour, but whenever I restart KOTOR, I think that this will be the time I go for a Light Side run… and then I immediately meet Carth and I just can’t go through with it. I cannot be morally aligned with Carth. The choice between Light Side and Dark Side is an illusion when the path of good is represented by Carth. So, taking this classic RPG as the Sith simulator that it is, I enjoyed revisiting it for the billionth time in this close-to-perfect Switch port. By today’s standards, the cities that once felt so sprawling probably now look like glorified hallways, but I can’t overstate how thrilling it was in 2003 to explore the Star Wars universe on such an intimate level. It was such a staple of my teen years that it still feels elemental today.
5. Death Stranding: Director’s Cut
There were two major triple-A titles to get the “director’s cut” treatment this year, and both play fast and loose with the term. The idea of Ghost of Tsushima getting a director’s cut was laughable to me, because it suggests that the game was made by people instead of algorithms. On the exact opposite end of the spectrum, I don’t know how anyone played Death Stranding and assumed that we were witnessing anything but Hideo Kojima’s uncompromised vision, nor do I understand how adding a racetrack (in a game with notoriously bad vehicle handling) brings us closer to said vision. In any case, this was a bold, delirious, imperfect masterpiece two years ago, and it’s no less digestible now that its themes have taken some sort of corporeal form in the post-COVID age. I’m glad that this one has endured conversation, and I think we’ll be continuing to talk about it for some time to come.
4. Umurangi Generation, because you ignored it last year
This was my number-two pick in 2020. I ranked it above Hades, for god’s sake. It was the most relevant release of that year, which means it’s only gained relevance by the end of 2021, as things have not gotten a whole lot better. I let the lack of commotion surrounding Umurangi Generation slide when it was a niche PC title, but this year it came to Switch and now, officially, you have no excuse. If you’re a fan of chill arthouse hangout games with slow-boiling, cut-to-the-bone political messaging – or, hell, if you just trust my taste – you owe it to yourself to check this out at some point. Seriously, just put it on your eShop wishlist and wait for a sale if you need to. It’ll still be there when you’re ready for it.
3. Forza Horizon 5
I’ve never been a big fan of Forza Horizon because it’s just a series where you drive around and look at pretty environments, but it just so happens that this new one rolled along when I was in the mood to just drive around and look at pretty environments. As someone who seeks out challenge in videogames, I’m almost diametrically opposed to the completely frictionless Forza Horizon experience, which does everything it can to make the player feel like a king at all times. But yeah, casually cruising around Mexico while listening to Hot Chip and Wolf Alice hit me in a surprisingly direct way this year… at least until Halo Infinite stealth-dropped its multiplayer a week later and I forgot all about Forza. But that was a really good week, though!
2. Castlevania Advance Collection
There’s almost nothing that goes down quite as easy for me as a good Castlevania game, and now that Konami is done revisiting the era that I’m not as fond of – the ones with the fixed jump arcs – they’ve moved on to that wonderful post-Symphony phase. Circle of the Moon remains my vote for the most underrated entry in the series (and one that’s only improved with time, now that we no longer need to play it on the unlit GBA screen), and the immediacy with which the soul system in Aria of Sorrow clicks reaffirms why Igarashi returned to the idea in Bloodstained. I’m still waiting for the DS games to get their due, but with the release of this compilation, the job is at least halfway done.
1. Final Fantasy XIV
Not only was this the game that I spent the most time actually playing this year, but it was my big COVID project. I wouldn’t be so dramatic as to say that FFXIV saved my life, but it gave me comfort and structure during the absolute worst episode of depression that I’ve ever been through — and since it got mandatory story patches in the lead-up to Endwalker, I’m counting it as a 2021 release under the “ongoing game” qualifier. It’s funny that this is the one Final Fantasy game that plenty of fans will permanently rule out playing purely on the basis of it being an MMO, because once you’ve spent as much time with it as I have, it feels like the only Final Fantasy game that matters.