Catchin’ Death-Returns: Logan’s Favorite Games of 2021
My top five games of the year
What an absolute year. I played quite a few games over the last twelve months, beaten over several game systems. I started the year strong with my PS5 and moved into a handful of backlog titles as well.
The list that follows are my five favorite games released in 2021. Before I get into the main part of the list, I wanted to cobble together a small number of games that I missed out on. This list includes (but is certainly not complete): Metroid Dread, Far Cry 6, Psychonauts 2, Guardians of the Galaxy, Eastward, It Takes Two, Persona 5 Strikers, and New Pokemon Snap. A nice mixture of genres there, and you shouldn’t be surprised if I talk about several of these throughout the rest of 2022.
(The game I played the most in 2021 was undoubtedly Destiny 2. Though it has new content and could find its way onto this list, Destiny 2 is still not where it should be. The power grind and nickel & dime monetization continue to be pretty gross. The story was the real highlight for D2, and I am excited to play The Witch Queen. Call it an honorable mention for 2021.)
Let’s get time-looping with my fifth pick for my favorite games of the year…
I’m not sure if I’ll ever be able to beat Returnal.
At the very least, it’s going to take a while. Returnal is a brutally difficult rogue-like shooter; its alien monsters spit waves of colored bullets and are terribly tough to kill sometimes. Of the PS5 games released in 2021, it has the best sound design and the best use of haptic feedback. The controller hums and beeps, coming to life as you fight for your life in this world. As Selene, you start off with nothing. By exploring each of the game’s sections, you find random upgrades and weapons. Unfortunately, everything in Returnal is kissed by malignancy. Upgrades have draw-backs and come in the form of cursed chests and parasites.
The only way to survive is to efficiently move through the world. You have to learn patterns and make constant choices. Is a parasite worth it? Which weapon should you pick up? Are you ready for the next boss? These choices are what make Returnal’s moment-to-moment exploration so inherently fascinating. It helps that the enemy encounters vary in strength and tactics, keeping you on your toes even as you get better. Returnal is tough, but its sci-fi horror flavor is uniformly excellent.
4. Pokémon Shining Pearl
If there is one franchise I trust, it’s likely the Pokémon franchise. It has many of the same issues as other games — it’s not untouched by so much corporate greed and control — but I know what I’m getting. I’ve been playing Pokémon games for nearly my entire life, and its strengths haven’t faded.
In the mainline titles, the gameplay loop has barely changed. Shining Pearl/Brilliant Diamond is the epitome of this. It is a remake of the Nintendo DS originals, but with a new art style and a handful of modern touches. I’m here to tell you: I had so much fun in this world. I love beating gym leaders and building a balanced team. I love the post-game, with its avalanche of legendary Pokémon and new Routes. The monster design and core RPG remain compelling, even if no new ground has been broken. Is this one of the best games of the year? Probably not. But my time in Sinnoh was well worth it.
3. Death’s Door
I love Death’s Door because of how beautifully clean it is. I don’t mean its world or its compelling characters — I mean… Pothead! — but the minute-to-minute combat and exploration. Death’s Door is the newest example of a perfect Metroidzania, a subgenre that has grown in scope and popularity as the years have gone on.
It’s Death’s Door’s unique flavor and humor that set it apart from its predecessors. You play as a Crow that works for an interdimensional soul collecting service. After a thrilling boss fight, your Crow must journey through various lands, slaying constant monsters and unlocking different powers. These powers aid in exploration and make combat varied. And this combat is fun. It’s all rolls and positioning. Your Crow is pretty fragile, and the beasts of this game come fast. This is not a Souls game though; a little bit of trial and error gets you there. Additionally, throwing fireballs while you are on the search for health seeds is oddly relaxing.
By the time I rolled credits, I was a bit in awe. This game’s story is filled with melancholy and serves as a conversation about life. Play Death’s Door.
2. Resident Evil Village
All new horror media is distilled through the benchmarks that howled throughout genre history. Resident Evil 4 is a village-hellscape game that stood on the shoulders of Leon Kennedy’s previous adventure and Resident Evil 7 was a modernization in the same way that 4 was. If Resident Evil 7 was the love child of Amnesia: The Dark Descent and Tobe Hopper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, then Resident Evil Village is the freshly sewed together walking zombie amalgamation of 7 and Classic Gothic Horror.
I have to talk about Resident Evil Village through the lens of references because the Resident Evil series has grown past its humble roots. Tying together the background of the world to RE history in Village is a delicious treat for franchise veterans. It’s also fun to see those Gothic tropes given extreme new life.
Resident Evil Village is not the scariest game ever, but it may be the perfect ideal for this franchise in the modern age. It’s big, but it has respect. The gameplay is harrowing, but never soul-crushing. The monster designs are as excellent as ever, and they are very fun to shoot with a shotgun. I wrote about Resident Evil Village here, and I stand by those words. Resident Evil Village is a memorable game for horror fans the world over.
That’s right: Deathloop is my Game of the Year for 2021. Every since I saw/heard/gushed over the initial footage of this game, my anticipation for Deathloop grew. It was in 2020 that I dug deeper into developer Arkane’s back catalog and finished out the bigger titles. I rolled credits on Dishonored 2 and Dishonored: Death of the Outsider. I repeatedly hemmed and hawed over replaying through the utterly excellent Prey (which I will eventually do! Probably).
Deathloop seemed like the logical conclusion to these games. It removed a few of the things that I disliked in the Dishonored titles and carried through Arkane’s magically fascinating world-building and action set-pieces. When this game was released in September, I got all of that and more. Deathloop (at first glance) feels overwhelming. As Colt, you are underpowered and confused. Each section of Blackreef is a cesspool of psychopaths, each armed with weapons and mystical abilities. There are safe routes and secrets to find, often hidden over times of day and behind player action. For me, I tried to sneak my way through my first couple of days, grinding when necessary to unlock better stuff. Powers like Shift and Nexus make the game easier, but that wasn’t the real key to Deathloop’s strength. It’s the way that this Island maps itself on the player’s brain, balancing enemy placement and initially complex objectives.
Some reviewers claimed that the game held your hand, but I loved the way they handled it. If they had let the players fend for themselves in these levels, the game’s narrative focus would be gone. And that would be a shame. Aside from an odd and icky plot choice toward the end, Deathloop’s story is filled with mystery and delicious backstory to uncover. I loved looking through vintage computers for scuttlebutt and dropping eaves on goons to learn all about their favored Visionary. Juliana would taunt Colt through my PS5 controller, while the haptic feedback gave booming life to Deathloop’s violence suite.
Deathloop is a rare kind of game. It was the perfect PS5 game to start the system’s first full year. While previous Arkane games felt more cohesive, Deathloop’s kitchen-sink approach gave me hours of fun and obsession. I’m a bit sad that Microsoft bought Bethesda, but studios like this one have convinced me that an Xbox is a required purchase.
That’s the list! A lot of action games on this list, and one remake of a DS-era RPG. A fascinating year defined by a pandemic and two brand new consoles. I felt like I was playing catch-up, but I was blessed to be able to play what I wanted.
Happy New Year.