The Best Games of 2021… And What That Means.
Maybe it’s weird to start a discussion on the best games of 2021 by questioning the philosophy of this sort of list, but that’s the kind of person I am, and this is the point I’m trying to make.
Video games, like movies, are at a weird impasse of commerce and art. Games are so mind-bogglingly complicated to make at a AAA level that direct marketability and a wide net are part of making one. It’s why we have ‘best of’ lists akin to the Oscars when more accessible art forms like music tend to obsess more about that. It feels like there are way more arguments about an objective good within the Video Game space than there is within music or traditional art, where subjectivity is king.
Humble opinion here: Subjectivity is king. The best-of lists are flawed. Here is my best-of list in no particular order because they are all on here for different reasons. Some are just plain fun, and some are significant achievements for the art form.
Also, these are games that were released in 2021. If that weren’t the case, I’d be talking about Going Under a lot because I missed that last year, and I’m furious about it. I’ve certainly championed other games this year, but we have to draw the line somewhere.
Pathfinder: Wrath of the Righteous
For those not in the know, Pathfinder Wrath of the Righteous is the closest thing you can get to Dungeons and Dragons proper on the PC. The Pathfinder system is incredibly robust and harkens back to the days of min-maxing and munchkins. Wrath of the Righteous specifically is the second is a series of games that converts classic Pathfinder adventures into PC playable games. It’s a remarkable achievement with more assets, spoken lines and care than any one person is ever going to see. As an achievement itself, it gains a spot on this list.
What prevents it from being a true masterpiece is actually part of what makes it so good; it’s too true to the original system that it’s based on. This results in a game where an incredible amount of knowledge and care is needed to progress and succeed. Even far into the game and following online build guides, you will be torn apart if you waltz into a random encounter without your 32 buffs at the ready. This marriage to the original layered mechanics of the game can turn the 4th and 5th acts of the game into a slog of dozens of hours without the content to justify that time investment.
That said, acts 1–3 are an absolute delight no matter which way you slice it, and if that sort of careful planning and building pathing is your cup of tea, this game is going to feel more like a crack addiction than a video game. It’s a fantastic game; it has its flaws, that doesn’t stop it from standing out.
With an early December release date, games like Solar Ash are why I like making these lists so late because otherwise, we can miss amazing games that slip in just under the radar.
Solar Ash falls under a game genre that I love that focuses on movement and feeling kinetic than other elements when it comes to gameplay. Last year’s beloved addition to that genre was The Pathless, and when I talked about that game, I mentioned that I’d love a game like it with a bit more of the monster-hunting involved.
Solar Ash is that game.
Solar Ash is gorgeous, has the most absolutely bananas opening crawl you can imagine (The HYPERVOID) and feels phenomenal to play. It’s an execution-based platformer that occasionally asks a LOT of the player, but even failure somehow feels smooth. Trying the same challenge, again and again, doesn’t feel tiring and executing properly feels phenomenal. It results in a fantastic game.
I feel like we’re still a release or two away from the best version of this kind of game. Similarly to the huge progression, we’re seeing within roguelites, from last year’s Hades to Returnal (Which is not on this list as I haven’t gotten my grubby fingers on a PS5 yet), I’m excited to see where this Hyperlight Drifter inspired genre (seemingly exclusively published by Annapurna Interactive) is going.
Either way, if you want to play the current peak and my choice for the best FEELING game of 2021, Solar Ash is exactly what you need.
Inscryption is hard to describe without actively damaging the experience you’ll have playing it yourself. If you’ve heard anyone else talk about Inscryption, then they probably said the same thing.
Inscryption is chilling, charming, surprising, mechanically competent and has a pretty kickass card game at the core of it. The card game is so good that the creator made a ‘Mod’ to the game where you can play the game separated from the story at the behest of fans who’d finished the game. That says something.
As an experience, Inscryption is the most gripped I was all year when it came to a game. My first play session was supposed to be a ‘quick try’ before I went to bed for the evening and extended into barely sleeping after checking how long it took to get to the end and resolving that I didn’t have the brainpower to be awake for that many more hours. If I hadn’t needed to pass out, I would have finished it that night, and I burned the midnight oil again the next day to finish it.
The closest spoilers that I’m willing to get is that I truly feel like Inscryption is one of the best entries into ‘Game Theory’ genre of games we’ve seen, where an incredible amount is hidden under the surface to appease theorists and message boards. The core game is brilliant, the feeling that there is more to it is enthralling and I’m going to need to do a spoiler talk about this in the near future.
Valheim is on this list as the most fun that I had in 2021, and if we were talking about an exclusively fun-based and hours-logged list, it would be my number one. This is strange, considering I’ve never been THAT hooked by this sort of ‘survival game,’ but there are enough innovations within Valheim to break down those barriers.
Admittedly Valheim is a touch held back because you almost require a squad, or at least a partner, to play the game with. As a solo experience, it’s passable, but with a group, it’s a time-devouring monster as you swap from fighting Deer Gods to building the 6th summer home.
A big part of this comes creative design work from the team of 5 that made Valheim. Incredible art direction makes the game surprisingly pretty on a shoe-string graphics budget, but more importantly, it drastically changed the execution of its survival systems. Valhiem rewards the player instead of punishing them for the survival mechanics (You’re buffed for eating as opposed to being weakened by starving.), which is a method that I expect to see in all future entries into this genre. It feels good to eat, cook and wear the right clothes in Valheim as opposed to feeling like something you HAVE to do because the game wants you to. I never had much fun cooking in The Forest.
Seeing as it’s early access, I’ll be poking my head back into Valheim with every larger release to play again with the crew. Having two avenues of progression (with combat and building) leaves enough to discover that I’m happy to return again and again.
Death’s Door is one of the more interesting experiences I had tonally this year. The trailer and vibe of being a dealer of death lean towards a film-noir aesthetic for most of the adventure but instead the game chooses to lean on the charm when it comes to your opponents and allies for most of the adventure.
This was a genius decision.
Most of the game’s story and ideas deal with passing and moving on, which certainly could have been a huge downer. Even the ‘bosses’ are treated with respect and reverence for death that most games don’t have. In a different environment, this could have led to a melancholy tone that felt like a drag, but as it stands currently, the game feels lighthearted but wise, like a kind grandfather.
Alongside this fantastic tone, the game has an interesting approach to difficulty. You have most of your valuable tools at the beginning of the game, and the central combat loop (in which your melee strikes replenish your limited ranged ammunition) rewards focused aggression. This means there is a fairly easy-to-understand difficulty curve where enemies get better at reacting to your gap-closing, but they never get overly punishing.
Brilliantly, the game also lets you construct your own ‘sage zones’ by adding health pots to an area. If a particular fight always takes a hit or two off of you, then you’re safe to heal up right after it; all it takes is a little exploration to find the resources you need.
IMO the only thing holding Death’s Door back from being truly remarkable is that it feels like it comes second place in most of its elements for games in recent memory. It plays similarly to Hades, but it’s not as sharp mechanically; it’s charming visually but rarely stunning; it touches on deeper themes but doesn’t carry them as well or as far as some other story-based games we’ve seen.
There is honour in being very good at many elements, that’s why I’ve felt the need to include it on this list, but Death’s Door, unfortunately, lacks that remarkable element that keeps you recommending games for years to come.