2021 Games of the Year
The ultimate celebration of 2021’s best video games
Here we are again, folks. When it comes to 2021, I don’t have much to add to my reflections from 2020. Although last year’s thoughts make for interesting reading now that 2021 is behind us. As 2020 closed, most of us were still reeling from the shock of COVID-19 and the utter devastation it wrought. I had tried to end on a somewhat positive note, by pointing out that rising vaccination rates should help us “gradually pry [ourselves] from COVID-19’s fierce and seemingly unrelenting death roll”.
My optimism in 2021 was blunted by the alarming speed with which anti-science thinking metastasized, and the continuing inability of many governments to deal with new phases of the pandemic (at the time of writing, I am furious about the Australian government’s comprehensive failure to guarantee access to rapid antigen tests as COVID-19 cases rip through the community like a raging bushfire).
But before I completely indulge my desire to hammer politicians with as much profanity as I can muster, I need to pause and acknowledge the power of gratitude. You might be surprised just how powerful gratitude is as a way of coping — and even healing — in a world that feels like it’s falling apart around us. Those of us lucky enough to enjoy the magic of video games already understand that it is almost impossible to overstate their importance in our lives — especially during times of crisis.
Once again, game developers have come to the rescue. Taking the time to discuss our favourite games from the last year is our way of celebrating the talented people who — despite living in the same world as us and suffering through the same traumas — nevertheless use their abilities to build extraordinary digital experiences that we can enjoy.
So, this 2021 Games of the Year feature is again dedicated to game developers. Thank you for toiling away under incredibly difficult circumstances. We stand with you, and we unequivocally support your rights and wellbeing (this includes but is certainly not limited to safe and respectful work environments, fair pay, and the right to unionise).
2021 GAMES OF THE YEAR
We have very deliberately titled this feature 2021 Games of the Year. The plural matters. As per our tradition, SUPERJUMP does not award an overall “Game of the Year” trophy to any single game.
Rather, each contributor can select up to three of their favourite games of 2021 to discuss. Naturally, some games have more contributions than others (so, if you like, you could deduce a “winner” on that basis).
In order for a game to be considered for this piece, it must have been released in 2021. The only exceptions we have allowed are:
- Games as a service, experiences that have seen substantial updates in 2021 (e.g. the Endwalker expansion for Final Fantasy XIV).
- Games that released in a previous year but saw massive content updates this year that radically changed or improved the experience (e.g. new seasons for Apex Legends or Destiny).
Last year we invited several special guests to join us. It was such a great experience that we decided to do it again! This time around, you’ll see both new and returning faces. These are folks who we greatly respect and admire, and we’re delighted they joined us.
Edmond Tran is the Managing Editor at Games Hub, and the former Australian Editor and Senior Video Producer at GameSpot. Ed had an extensive career as Video Producer for CBS Interactive, having contributed to brands such as CNET, ZDNet, and TV.com.
Daniel Vuckovic is the Founder and Editor at Vooks.net. Vooks is a staple of the Australian Nintendo community, having operated continuously for the last 20 years.
Gemma Driscoll is a co-host of ABC TV’s Good Game: Spawn Point and is a regular presence on ABC Radio. Gemma is also an independent content creator on YouTube.
James O’Connor is the Narrative Designer at Mighty Kingdom, co-host of Pods in the Key of Springfield, and co-founder of Point & Clickbait. James is also a prominent video game journalist, having contributed to most of the industry’s largest publications including Edge, GameSpot, Kotaku, and many others. James’ words have also graced SUPERJUMP.
Shannon Grixti is the Founder and Managing Editor at Press Start. Press Start is Australia’s most prominent online gaming publication, reaching an audience of millions every month. Press Start was recently recognised as the Australian Game Awards’ Publisher of the Year.
Thanks to our special guests for generously taking the time to contribute to this feature. And thank you to the wonderful SUPERJUMP team who are back again to share their insights. I’m pleased to welcome back long-time contributors, as well as several brand new faces.
Age of Empires IV
Created by Relic Entertainment and World’s Edge
The Chinese wheelbarrow paradox.
The Mongol scout rush.
The Rus’ relic-bearing warrior monks.
Underneath Age of Empires 4’s pretty visuals lies a strategy framework 16 years in the making. This accessible foray into the RTS genre has just as much nuance as its predecessors. Relic Entertainment’s asymmetric armies tiptoe between convention and heresy to great effect.
Age of Empires 4 builds on the hard counter system that makes the franchise so compelling. Civ-specific bonuses and additions like stealth and sacred sites shake the cobwebs off an aging franchise while prioritizing balance as its predecessors did. Being able to repair landmarks (used to progress Ages) turned many 4v4 rounds into cat and mouse games. Divisive aesthetics and heat-seeking arrows aside, there’s a lot to love in Age of Empires 4.
The business end of a bombard has never looked so magnificent.
Created by Respawn Entertainment
I didn’t play a whole tonne of games in 2021. Sure I reviewed more than a few, but there was only one that I played daily (well, almost daily anyway), and that was Apex Legends. Now I’m not a massive shooter player, and I’m usually not good at them, but it was different. The various characters and their abilities, playing as Lifeline, gave me flashbacks to being a medic in Battlefield 2, playing as Loba to steal the best loot to provide me with half a chance. Then the character Valkyrie dropped, and I found my spirit shooter.
Being able to shoot, zip-up in the air away from a fight, push forward with confidence meant I won a few games. Apex Legends is rather great? Plus, at least I had something to play on my PS5 this year. Unfortunately, the combo of working from home, working on my site, and playing Apex every day meant I ended up with a wrecked wrist requiring surgery. As soon as this thing’s healed, I’m jumping back in.
Created by Neon Giant
It certainly wasn’t the most talked-about cyberpunk game to come out in the last few years, but there’s an argument to make that The Ascent might be the best of them. Developer Neon Giant really nailed the look and feel of the world, arguably the most important part of making a game in this genre. Neon lights, dirty narrow alleys, augmented humans, and alien races are on full display, making the game as compelling to look at as it is to play.
Fortunately, the good news doesn’t stop there. Called a shooter-RPG by the developer, the game really delivers on action that is fun, deep, and central to the experience. The selection of guns is huge, with new ones dropped by enemies you dispatch during most battles. Those fights can be sweaty affairs, where you are always outnumbered and occasionally out-gunned. Making use of cover and your dodge-roll move is essential to survival. Your tactical items, ranging from simple grenades to a personal mech, will help you out of tight spots, as will augmentations like health rejuvenation and weapon lock-on.
There is so much to see and do in the early-going that you can easily get overwhelmed, but the always-on mini-radar and helpful direction line can guide you to your selected objective. The screen is always filled with NPCs, many of whom have something to say to you and others who offer side quests that will send you to new parts of the city. Getting to those places is relatively easy, done via subway or cab, making on-foot traversal mostly optional. That is a very good thing, as the Arcology is massive and it’s very easy to run into a fight you can’t handle.
The Ascent is a cyberpunk game that really nails the feel of being in that kind of world. The design of the space and the visuals to accompany it really sell the idea of this seedy, dirty, teeming world where nothing is certain except the possibility of violent death. Cybernetic augmentation, high-tech gear, and neon lights are hallmarks of the genre, and they are all here in spades. The combat is fun and kinetic, there is so much to see and do, and the quests are interesting. I can’t ask for too much more in an RPG, and I’ve enjoyed every hour I’ve spent roaming through the trash-filled alleyways of the Arcology, death always just a few wrong turns away.
Created by DANG!
Lucas Di Quinzio
This year, a remastered version of Quake was released and everyone who played it was promptly reminded that Quake still rules. Quake and Doom hold up so well because they remain great at — and sorry if I’m getting technical here — letting you go fast and wreck shit real good. Boomerang X delivers on both fronts. It has a way of making you feel like a balletic, gravity-defying genius.
In Boomerang X, your three-sided boomerang is not only your sole weapon but your primary mode of transportation as you can teleport to meet your boomerang while it’s in mid-air. As the arenas become increasingly vertical, you’ll be spending more time in the air than you do on the ground, zipping around and pirouetting so you can line up combo kills to unlock your special attacks and, well, wreck shit.
What makes Boomerang X great is that it allows everyone to feel like an acrobatic murder machine. There’s a wealth of gameplay tweaks and accessibility options at your disposal. You can adjust auto-aim, the amount of slo-mo, and even flip on God Mode if you’re stuck. Boomerang X still makes me feel like an old-school FPS pro despite having those assists on. It makes me think ‘oh, hell yes’ repeatedly. It lets you go fast and, you guessed it, wreck shit real good. Sometimes that’s all you want.
Deep Rock Galactic
Created by Ghost Ship Games
“Sometimes I wonder if mining is all there is to life… Then I punch myself in the nose!”
When thinking about my favourite games of the year, Deep Rock Galactic immediately came to mind. Although it originally launched in 2018, Deep Rock received its biggest update yet this year and has earned a place on this list. Deep Rock Galactic is pretty simple. You play as a hardy dwarf and team up with other dwarves to mine for valuable minerals to complete your mission objective. The catch? You’re mining on the dangerous, bug-infested planet of Hoxxes IV.
The developers had a clear goal in creating Deep Rock: creating nonstop, unadulterated fun in the middle of a horrific cave while fending off gross bugs. They nailed it. This game gives players a genuine thrill whether it’s searching for valuables, hunting for boss monsters, escorting a huge drill (named Doretta, by the way), to running for your lives in this enjoyable co-op first-person shooter. The simplicity makes Deep Rock pure fun!
The game provides four classes you can choose from that offer very distinct playstyles and personalities. They give everyone a meaningful role in the group. No one is a bystander in this game.
The Scout, for instance, has a grappling hook to reach high places, helpful for reaching out of reach minerals. When there’s not a natural ledge for the Scout to land on, an Engineer can shoot one up there! This type of teamwork comes naturally from Deep Rock. The developers constructed each class to do a particular skill well, but to survive means pouring all those talents together as a team. The players know this too, which is very rare in team-based games. The community has to be one of Deep Rock’s strongest elements: everyone I’ve played with has always been kind and entertaining, always coming together as a team.
Deep Rock Galactic was already an expertly crafted game that knew how to have fun, but the release of Season 01: Rival Incursion this November raised the bar even higher. It saw the addition of crazy new weapons, mission events, customisation, and a Performance Pass. Deep Rock Galactic guarantees a good time and it is time for you to take this hidden gem home!
Created by Bungie
The road to being a Destiny fan has been rough and I’ve gone on record as having doubts about the game’s future. However, despite being sold, plans for a sequel scrapped, poorly received design decisions, and even the COVID pandemic, Bungie has delivered us its strongest year. I’m not speaking specifically of just Destiny or for Looter-Shooters, but for all story-driven live-service games.
It’s been a year of multiple hard-hitting storylines backed by new gameplay modes that have directly resulted from developers learning what the community enjoys. We’ve gotten new weapons (some brand new, others brought back from the first Destiny, and a few from Halo). We’ve gotten new end game content that is challenging, but not too punishing, all whilst making the game’s progression easier every season. The game has leapt forward in every direction and I found myself enjoying the franchise far more than I did previously. I’d even argue that people have stopped calling this a “dead game” because they themselves are too busy playing it!
Created by Toukana Interactive
Like a zen garden, Dorfromantik from Toukana Interactive is as deceptively intricate as it is meditative. Dorfromantik is an exquisite hand-drawn single-player puzzle game about fitting tiny townlet hexes together and assembling an ever-growing village.
On the first playthrough, it looks like you are just placing tiles and matching them up to earn a score that grants you more tiles to place. However, it wasn’t until a few hours in that I realized this game could go on perpetually if you play your tiles right. The gameplay involves taking one tile at a time, rotating it, and placing it as it best fits into your map; matching trees to trees, houses to houses, and so forth. More matches equal more points, and more points mean more tiles.
Beyond the view of comfy hexes is a puzzle game that requires forethought and compromise. If you place tiles anywhere willy-nilly, you’ll have a short playthrough. Periodically, the artistically pleasing thing to build can be detrimental to moving further. In early access, Toukana has already reached significant roadmap markers. One update includes a creative mode that foregoes the point system and allows players to build freely. The creative mode is a great addition that spotlights the already beautiful art style.
Dorfromantik is a perfect late-night or early morning addiction that goes great with coffee. German for the word ‘village romance’, I think I’ll be enjoying this one not just in 2021, but for years to come.
Final Fantasy XIV: Endwalker
Created by Square Enix Business Unit III
There’s not much that can be said about the new expansion of Square Enix’s widely popular MMO that hasn’t already been written. Endwalker is a brilliant last chapter to a tale that began over seven years ago in the hopes that it would be even half as successful as it is today. The story, which can seem to drag its heels in order to help players reach that new level 90 milestone, will leave fans both old and new at the edge of their seats.
The themes this expansion takes on are incredibly difficult to contemplate and discuss, yet the writing team of FFXIV doesn’t shy away from them, coming up with their own answers as to why it is so important to do so. The new locations, some visually stunning, others more on the gloomy side, all serve their purpose regarding the tale that they’re meant to tell, with the music further enhancing this emotional journey.
That’s not to say that this expansion is all about the big moments. There are also smaller details that take inspiration from certain elements or characters that appeared during the long span of this tale, which are brought up in ways that are quite impactful to the player. An example that comes to mind is when the parents of a deceased character meet with one of the heroes in a highly emotional scene. There was nothing at stake here. It was during a preparation mission. Yet by cleverly building on everything that’s come before, Endwalker has the ability to make even those types of missions quite memorable.
Ultimately, that’s the key to the success of this expansion: that it gives players so much to take away from the experience. But the writers did not rest there. They kept going, and the result is a story that, while it takes inspiration from these old elements, feels brand new. It’s as if Hydaelyn, Zodiark, and the Ascians were concepts that were introduced in Endwalker. The culmination of everything comes in a scene near the end of the game that each person can only witness or experience individually.
It is a scene that perfectly encapsulates this expansion’s title — Endwalker — since it occurs as you’re literally walking towards the end. The scene captures the pure essence of the game and, while everything before and after it is great, this truly is what elevates it to a whole different level of video game storytelling. It is what boosts this game to a perfect ten in my book and something that, at my age, I never thought I could experience. Final Fantasy XIV is the greatest in the franchise. What more needs to be said?
Final Fantasy XIV has cemented itself as a landmark game, not only among MMOs but in narrative experiences. Gorgeous new areas, amazing new jobs, and an elegant conclusion to a decade-long story arc makes Endwalker a lovely bow on top of the gigantic package that is FFXIV.
The Forgotten City
Created by Modern Storyteller
Lucas Di Quinzio
In a year that has seen a surprising amount of time-loop-based games and an abundance of world-class Australian games, The Forgotten City is, for my money, the best of both. It’s an intricate and absorbing puzzle box that makes the most out of its premise. The titular city is an impressive feat — an Ancient Roman city dense with engaging characters, intertwining storylines, and secrets lurking underneath.
Everything serves the greater mystery, leading me to go ‘just one more thing’ until, oops, my entire afternoon had gone. It completely engrossed me in a way few games do — I had the proverbial corkboard and red string out as I unearthed more of the story. I finished the game in a weekend because I wanted nothing else in my brain until I was done, something I hadn’t felt since Return of the Obra Dinn.
It’s hard to explain why without getting into the particulars, so I’ll say just go dive into The Forgotten City and get wrapped up in the mystery yourself. And shout out to Galerius, your trusting and friendly neighbour/extremely speedy sidekick, who was my favourite character this year.
This one came as a bit of a surprise for me. A few months prior to its full console release, I read a small article exclaiming that a critically acclaimed Skyrim mod was about to be released under its original name: The Forgotten City. I was tangentially interested and put it on the backburner of games I had to learn more about. Something about the promotional material gripped me, however, and forced the IP to the forefront of my brain.
Once it was released (and to similar critical acclaim as the mod) I picked it up and gave it a try. I’m not sure what I expected, as touting your game as an offshoot of one of the most notorious RPGs of all time surely meant that it would be similar to that game in almost every aspect. Instead, what you get is a beautifully realized first-person narrative-driven mystery soaked in real-world history and dripping with enough atmosphere to open a five-star restaurant.
Made by the Australian team Modern Storyteller (consisting mainly of only 3 people, no less) the excellent story-driven plot revolves around time travel, betrayal, greed, human nature, and religion. Some of these narrative beats are certainly realized better than others, and the limitations of such a small studio can be seen in some aspects of gameplay, but they are so easily forgivable if you allow yourself to be sucked into the world and its characters.
Developed with the Unreal engine, the historic Roman/Greek-inspired setting is gorgeously lit and wonderfully realized–especially when compared to Skyrim’s abysmal graphics. The characters are memorable and the canon ending is so bonkers and out of left field, it just begs to be found.
The entire experience feels like an incredibly intriguing “What if?” story that incorporates so many distinct elements that, even though bigger experiences may be a distraction, you’ll want to see where the story made by this humble team leads you. I was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed this mod-turned-indie game and how much of a legitimate impression it left on it. I’m looking forward to what else this capable little studio pumps out in the future.
Forza Horizon 5
Created by Playground Games
Way back in 2019, I wrote about how Forza Horizon is food for the car enthusiast soul. To some extent, I was mourning the death of franchises like The Need for Speed; at least in terms of what they used to be in their earlier incarnations. I pointed out that the early Need for Speed games (particularly the first three) were not about ‘street cred’ or pimping your ride to the point where it looks like a Pentagon committee designed it. Rather, they sought to encapsulate the beauty of exotic cars and the experience of driving them. Yes, you were racing against others. But this was also the pre-Burnout era, so you weren’t awarded points for ‘near misses’ or for pulling off spectacular crashes. The early association with Road & Track magazine certainly underscored the ‘car culture’ feel of the series.
I say all of this because developer Playground Games has — just as they did in 2019 — captured and distilled the essence of driving in Forza Horizon 5. Of course, the Forza Horizon games still award points for various ‘extreme’ manoeuvres, but here, the bombast somehow feels less egocentric. This is probably because it sets every meticulously detailed vehicle in the game against a jaw-dropping open world that is just as centrally important to the experience. This is why Forza Horizon 5 is so good at approximating the sense of exhilaration around driving exotic cars: winding your way around an enormous volcano and then snaking through the colourful city streets below — all while enjoying upbeat radio tunes against the roar of the engine — is pure bliss. You can almost feel the wind in your hair.
I have a confession to make. Sometimes I log into Forza Horizon 5, drive around in my Toyota Sprinter Trueno AE86, blare the techno from the Initial D soundtrack, and pretend to be the main character in an anime. You know what? I’m not ashamed. Something is thrilling yet relaxing about driving. There is a satisfaction of going fast, hitting a corner perfectly, and feeling your heart, the engine, and music pump as one. Is that oil in my blood?
Beyond the fighting games, shooters, and sports simulators, back in the dimly lit corner of the video game world is a niche of gamers who sit at racing wheels going faster than you thought imaginable. Racing games often appeal to a distinct crowd of gearheads and leave very little for those uninitiated to enjoy. Forza Horizon 5’s open-world challenges those who claim racing is nothing but “going around in circles over and over again.” Forza Horizon 5 isn’t as close to a sim racing game as some other auto sports favorites like iRacing, and it isn’t nearly as comical as a game like Mario Kart. In some ways, it delivers both of what these games offer and then some.
What Forza Horizon 5 lacks in realism it makes up in its fun and diversity. The beautiful and massive Mexican landscape is teeming with everything from street races and cross-country to drifting challenges and huge jumps. There are collectibles scattered and a growing index of cars available to drive and customize. Forza Horizon 5 has a battle royale mode called the Eliminator and a mode featuring mini-games like tag and capture the flag. You can race cooperatively with your friends, against them, or even against a ghost representing their previous race times. The Horizon Festival is full of opportunities, but nothing stops you from just cruising around. Forza Horizon 5 improves upon its already solid predecessor by leaps and bounds. A game for anyone who has ever loved a car and going fast.
The Great Ace Attorney Chronicles
Created by Capcom
I have never seriously considered an Ace Attorney game for the top slot in a GOTY list, even though, when I really think about it, this is surely one of my favourite game series of all time. The Great Ace Attorney Chronicles brings over two Japanese 3DS games that looked like they would never get an official translation and bundled them into one package. As it turns out, this is the ideal way to play.
I don’t think it’s cheating to list a compilation, because this really is just one very long game — the story starts in Case 1 of the first game and ends over 70 hours later on Case 5 of the sequel. And what a story it is — by the end I was deeply invested in Ryunosuke Naruhodo’s bitter struggle for truth and justice. The constant twists of the finale paid off on each of the thousand threads the game had weaved up to that point.
This is an astonishingly complex feat of narrative design, filled with personality and charm, and a new cast that I fell properly in love with. It features some of the best cases in the series (only one dud among the 10), and lots of surprising takes on the now well-worn formula. It might be the ultimate Ace Attorney experience.
Guardians of the Galaxy
Created by Eidos-Montréal
Marvel’s most recent foray into AAA gaming has flaws — glaringly obvious flaws — but I would be lying if I said it did not win me over in the end.
Where Guardians of the Galaxy (GotG) failed in providing us with the most engaging gameplay flow, it more than made up for it in the storytelling department. It can be hard coming up with a fresh and interesting story for a relatively obscure cast of comic book characters — especially when a fascinating iteration of it already existed elsewhere.
Yet here we are, a great retelling of the Guardians that kept James Gunn’s riotous sense of humor and each of the Guardians’ signature traits that made them lovable. It keeps trekking the roads less travelled in the movies — exploring themes of love, loss, fear, family, and friendship. It may have been done before, but the amount of work put into GotG’s story beats — the dialogue, the music, the scene directions — made the entire narrative a gripping experience.
They fully fleshed out each of the Guardians as a character, complete with their own arcs interwoven with the main narrative. The game takes its time diving into each of the Guardians’ psyches, making each feel like a valuable member of the team, even if the gameplay fails to fully realize that vision.
Still, the gameplay functions well enough for players to enjoy each of their skills — be it in isolation or in tandem — and even bits of their personality. Also, credit where credit is due, as despite the middling gameplay quality, at least it did not overstay its welcome.
Congratulations to Guardians of the Galaxy for winning Best Narrative at The Game Awards 2021, as well as taking my pick for SUPERJUMP 2021 Game of the Year. Here’s hoping we see more of Quill and Co. in the future, preferably with a bigger cast of characters. Eidos-Montreal’s got this — probably.
I genuinely believed that there was nothing anyone could do to make me like Marvel anymore.
I was also skeptical that there was anything left to explore about the Guardians. I had read the comics and part of why the movies do well is that each character is a predictable caricature: Drax is loud angry, Gamora is quiet angry, Rocket is recklessly angry, Peter is a labrador personified, and Groot goes ‘I am Groot’. I only picked up the game because I was between games and was happy to take the risk.
This game surprised me. It’s fun, features amazing sci-fi locations, and the combat is a blend of shooting and cooldown based abilities. It’s the writing that really takes the cake here. It’s set in the comics version of the lore, where Drax is the one who killed Thanos. Whilst the story beats are big and impactful, the moment-to-moment banter between the team really sells it. I know so much more about these characters now and can appreciate them in a new light. I’ll even admit I cried twice over them!
If you need a comparison, it is Mass Effect-light. You have a ship, a team, a grand end of the world story, decision-based storytelling, squad-based shooting with abilities, collectables, outfits, and amazing locations to explore.
Created by 343 Industries
Halo Infinite is something that I didn’t anticipate playing by the end of the year, as someone who began 2021 with little to no experience with the Halo franchise. Being able to play every entry in the weeks leading up to Infinite made me feel like I was on the edge of my seat for Infinite’s story. I just wanted to see how the culmination of these games unfolded. Even Halo Wars 2 had a role to play!
Infinite does an incredible job at providing a Halo CE-like open world for people to explore, even if that open-world left me wanting a little more.
Thankfully, players can experience Infinite as if it was any old Halo game, and ignore the open-world entirely. Missions in the newest entry leave the player in proximity to and pointed at what the next mission is, allowing it to be played entirely linearly if desired. This kind of optional approach to the mission structure is well-appreciated, and something I’m longing to see more in some other open-world titles that require the player to traverse to the other side of the map after completing a mission. Halo Infinite is wonderful, and although the story is short, it’s a great step forward after Halo 5 Guardians. I can’t wait to see how 343 builds on this next!
After Halo 5: Guardians’ disastrous campaign, Halo Infinite restored my faith in the Master Chief.
The moment-to-moment gameplay of Zeta Halo’s semi-open world segments hits the lofty peaks of its predecessors. Mechanics like the grappleshot lent a fresh sense of momentum as I took on the Banished, Infinite’s main targets. Despite being known for its cunning AI, I’m surprised it took 343 Industries this long to nail boss battles.
While Halo Infinite’s gunplay reigns supreme, I wish I could say the same of its open world.
While there are thankfully no towers to climb, the sprinkling of assault bases and side quests lack the oomph of previous Halo setpieces. The enemies are clever as ever (ask the grunts) and the campaign rewards lore buffs, but it seldom left my jaw on the floor. Cleaning up Halo 5: Guardians’ mistakes while taking the narrative on a different tangent was an untidy affair.
What set the stage ablaze for me was its well-oiled multiplayer component.
With a slew of balanced equipment and a trimmed purpose-built arsenal, Halo Infinite’s free-to-play multiplayer plays like a dream. Gun balance has been the best it has ever been and Infinite’s blend of old and new keeps the past sacred as it shakes things up. Pricey cosmetics and a shortage of game modes hold it back from true multiplayer greatness.
Halo is no longer the corridor shooter of yesteryear.
In Halo Infinite, Master Chief grapples forward to a new future.
Developed by Daniel Mullins Games
At this point, you’ve probably already played or heard a lot about what Inscryption does. But if you haven’t, what are you doing?! Go play it!
Despite not being the biggest fan of card games, Inscryption really pulled me right in. Sure, it was the amazingly unnerving aesthetic, presentation, and small details that drew me to begin with, and the uh…weird goings-on around the game that kept me up all night until I saw it through. But it was also the fact that the card game portions of it were straightforward enough to be understandable, with enough layers to feel like you had to use your brain, and additional twists slowly introduced at a nice pace so as not to overwhelm you. Anyone who has gripes about Act II–you shoulda just stuck with what you knew!
I also thought that it was clever in that the card mechanics had elements that were fashioned to work with you, rather than act as a challenge obstacle to overcome. No matter what your level of skill with card games is (mine’s terrible), it made you feel like you were somehow cleverly exploiting the system. It’s a game that wants you to keep on trucking and keep falling deeper into the rabbit hole, and I think it does that incredibly well without feeling like a cakewalk. And that’s great design! But yes, it’s also fantastic for all the wild reasons you probably shouldn’t just leave laying bare in a thing like this without a big spoiler warning — but each new discovery or revelation made me giddy. I love that shit. Inscryption is as good as everyone says it is! Just Play It.
It Takes Two
Created by Hazelight Studios
Despite coming from Hazelight Studios, the Swedish developer known for making unique co-op-only adventures like A Way Out and Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons, I wasn’t sure what to expect from It Takes Two. Of course, it was getting incredible reviews, but co-op isn’t exactly easy to do well. Could Hazelight continue to make magic with their third title? The answer is resoundingly, emphatically, yes.
Over the years, I have passed along my love for video games to my son, and have been blessed to play many co-op games with him along the way. LEGO titles, sports games, insane mashups like Castle Crashers, and more. I’ve searched high and low to find games we could play together. He’s now a teenager, and as teens are wont to do, he’s typically reluctant to do anything with dear old Dad.
That doesn’t mean I’ve stopped trying though, and over time I wore him down with my constant suggestions that we try out this new co-op game called It Takes Two. Even with his required concession that we skip all cutscenes, we had a blast with the incredibly inventive and varied gameplay elements. In this flip-flopped reality of a tiny-humans-in-a-giant-natural-world adventure, everything must be done together. Despite such a premise being anything but new, it all feels amazingly fresh and unique.
That it feels so much better than either of the studio’s first two adventures is a testament to the knowledge and design chops gained by Hazelight and its driving force, Josef Fares. The game puts you in the shoes of a husband and wife staring down divorce and having been turned into doll versions of themselves by their daughter. Guided by a talking book on love and relationships, they must work together and communicate to get back to normal and put their lives back together.
Along the way, they will battle hornets and shop tools, grind on rails and bounce on all kinds of things, and find ways around these now-alien landscapes that were once elements of their home. The puzzles never seem unfair, the battles never insurmountable, and the best weapon players have is talking to each other to coordinate their activities and find success. It is the constant back and forth with your playing partner that makes the game a joy, just as much as the on-screen action.
The sense of satisfaction that comes from figuring out what each person needs to do is immense and immediate. If co-op is your thing, you simply must play It Takes Two. No matter what genre you typically enjoy, you’re bound to find something to love with this game. Even if you don’t live with another gamer, you can connect with a friend online with the included “Friend Pass” which allows both players to use just one purchased copy. So really, there’s no excuse not to do it. Don’t wait for a sale, this game is a value even at full price.
2021 was a bit of a flat year for me, whether that be due to the ongoing pandemic or an underwhelming slate of releases, I’m not sure, but one of the high points of the year was definitely It Takes Two.
I played through the release over a weekend and while I didn’t feel that it reached the highs of A Way Out, it was still one of the most creative and engaging games that I can recall playing. Both the bonding experience that I had with fellow writer Brodie as well as the way that the game continually changed up the experience provided something unique that I hope to see more of.
While I felt that the ending was a little bit cliché, and I definitely was hoping for a twist similar to that of A Way Out, it will still go down as a game that I’ll always remember in a fond light.
I played It Takes Two all the way through on the couch with my partner, and was wildly impressed by how many “oh wow, this is clever” moments it had. The real genius of It Takes Two is that it’s equally engaging regardless of whether you have played a lot of 3D action games or very few — I am not sure how they pulled that off as well as they did. A gorgeous and absorbing experience, and one all the better for committing so fully to being a co-op-only experience. In its best moments, it has that Nintendo magic that very few games made outside Nintendo have.
To my (and many others) utter dismay, couch co-op is quickly dying, replaced instead with online multiplayer. There’s one studio, however, that has been doing everything it can to keep couch co-op alive: Hazelight Studios. Their last two games have not only encouraged cooperative play, they demand it. A Way Out sees the players embroiled in a scheme to escape a prison, with the narrative full of twists and turns.
Through it all, however, cooperation is key, as you and your partner work together to solve puzzles and weave your way through an interesting–if not flawed–narrative. Hazelight followed this gritty prison escape experience with the much more lightly toned It Takes Two. The premise of the game is an interesting one; you play as either Cody or May, a married couple in a failing relationship, on the edge of divorce. Their young daughter, Rose, attempts to fix their marriage by play-acting with two handmade dolls that resemble her parents.
Without explanation, the couple finds themselves trapped within the dolls, unable to escape back into their human bodies. With the help of Hakim–a sentient self-help book written to aid in failing relationships–they travel throughout their house to find a way back to their bodies. The premise is bizarrely unique, tackling much deeper aspects of marriage and relationships than the cutesy art style would initially imply.
It Takes Two is downright gorgeous, with beautiful lighting effects, excellent animation, interesting and detailed set pieces, and memorable character designs. Cody (voiced by Joseph Balderrama) and May (voiced by Annabelle Dowler) give outstanding performances that truly lead you to believe these are two individuals who once saw something special in each other, now at odds.
Where It Takes Two really shines, however, is its total willingness to experiment with gameplay. Every level you explore comes with a new gimmick or gameplay mechanic, held together with solid platforming. Whether it’s using the head of a sentient hammer in tandem with throwable nails to traverse a tool shed or opposing polarity sides of a magnet to push and pull objects throughout the environment, you really never know what the next stage is going to hold, which makes them all memorable in their own right.
I was able to play through the game with my significant other, and it quickly became something we both immensely looked forward to. It Takes Two got a lot of attention at multiple game awards this year, and for good reason. It evokes the feelings of what gaming is truly about, and if that isn’t worth Game of the Year, what is?
Kena: Bridge of Spirits
Created by Ember Lab
Ember Lab is only a small indie studio, following in the footsteps of many others before them such as Supergiant Games, Matt Makes Games, etc. It demonstrates that you don’t need a huge team of over 300 people to create something wonderful. Reminiscent of a Pixar film, Kena: Bridge of Spirits is a visually captivating tale. The only difference is, here you get an active role in the story as you jump in the shoes of the titular character, helping her solve the mysteries of the dying forest.
The game, albeit not too long (it can be completed in over 20 hours) is able to talk about complex issues such as brotherhood, responsibility, leadership, comradery, love, and loss, respectfully. But besides all that, it’s also fun to play! Kena is an incredibly challenging game that features complex boss battles and difficult riddles to solve, which further enhance the gameplay experience. Of course, if too difficult, both can be made easier for players who prefer to enjoy their games for the story alone.
The addition of cute companion characters, adorably tiny creatures known as The Rot, is a clever innovation by the creators and helps differentiate the title from others of the action-adventure genre. Players can command the little creatures and teach them even stronger abilities during the course of the game.
Apart from that, the music also blends in nicely, with tunes from the Gamelan Chudamani of Bali, which provide a more earthy sensation and further enhance the titular character’s spiritual journey. Kena: Bridge of Spirits is not the massive triple-A experience that is expected to sell out of store shelves and break sales records. But it is a gorgeous tale about life and a fantastic effort by a small studio of independent developers which hopefully will serve as the opening point for them to create even greater things in the future. If this game is anything to go by, they definitely have the right qualities to make it happen!
Created by Gamious
I’d argue that what Death Stranding did wrong was an attempt to match a mail delivery sim (which is usually meant to be stress-free) against a depressing backdrop and apocalyptic story. Thankfully, Lake creates an enjoyable mail delivery sim experience you can relax to.
The game features a great story set in a small, sleepy town in the 80s. Filled with lovable characters, an amazing soundtrack, and a gameplay loop that never gets boring — it’s hard to put this game down. It’s a game that gives players a good deal of agency in steering the game’s story towards the ending you want. It was a game that provided me with a sense of peace amid another stressful pandemic year.
Library of Ruina
Created by Project Moon
Library of Ruina is the second game from studio Project Moon, who in a short time has made a name for itself with unique game mechanics, disturbing stories, and having very little care to adhere to genre conventions. To wit, Library of Ruina is an RPG visual novel deck builder. The challenge doesn’t come from leveling up, but from figuring out how to fight an ever escalating series of battles with new rules and cards.
Meanwhile, the story is one of the most impressive seen this year for those that get into it. Like their previous game, while this is a RPG, and a deck builder, the game does not care at all to follow those rules. Boss battles turn into crazy puzzles for you to figure out. There are at least four different game-breaking strategies you can uncover, and the trials this game puts you through are some of the hardest in the genre.
On top of that, Library of Ruina features note-for-note, the best soundtrack in a game I’ve heard in a long time. If you don’t believe me, go look up “Gone Angels” and “and then it is heard no more” and let me know how long it takes for you to recover from listening to them. Let me warn you and say that Library of Ruina is not for everyone. This is a wordy, slow-paced game. You can spend more time watching the pre and post battle cutscenes than the actual fighting itself. But when those difficulty spikes hit you, the game hits back hard. This is not a game about adapting during combat, but creating a plan and deck strategy beforehand.
There is no other game like this on the market, and while plenty of you will fall in love with Inscryption, Library of Ruina is my favorite deck builder of 2021 and my favorite game of the year.
Little Nightmares II
Created by Tarsier Studios and Supermassive Games
I almost forgot that Little Nightmares II came out in 2021. The moment it was available, I downloaded and played all the way through with my sister (who is something of a Little Nightmares expert — she’s particularly into the bizarre lore behind the series, and has enhanced my appreciation for it). While I thoroughly enjoyed the first game, Little Nightmares II is nothing short of a horror masterpiece.
Little Nightmares II must surely be considered 2021’s standout performer in art design. The game’s plot is never revealed through direct exposition (in fact, there are no talking characters at all) — rather, each environment you pass through contributes to the broader world lore and the central plot unfolding within it. Not only that, but I think Little Nightmares II should win the award for 2021’s best boss design. It’s not so much that the encounters are mechanically satisfying (in fact, the overly stiff and timing-dependent combat is my sole criticism of the game); it’s that on each level, you have the opportunity to observe the area boss well before the final showdown. Watching the teacher stalk students in the classroom — occasionally pausing to slam her metre-long ruler on a desk, or peer at a student eye-to-eye — is genuinely terrifying, leaving me begging not to be seen.
Every single ‘screen’ in Little Nightmares II is a gorgeously-crafted set piece that feels like an award-winning horror film in microcosm. But when all these ‘screens’ are strung together, they form a much grander and more sinister whole.
Created by Four Quarters
In a year where our collective existence could be boiled down to repetition and anguish, you wouldn’t think there would be any enjoyment found in a game about surviving a world thrown into an endlessly looping nightmare. Yet here Loop Hero stands among my favourite games this year. Initially, I thought little of the retro roguelike. Though its story was intriguing, the lack of hands-on character control took me aback. I found myself making the same mistakes over and over with a less than solid grasp of how to course-correct.
“Where’s the fun in this?” I remember thinking after getting my butt handed to me for the millionth time by that loop’s final boss. Then suddenly it was six hours later, and I was hunched over a hand-drawn map of the level, Wiki open in a separate tab, frothing at the mouth over my recent victory. Finally, my hard work had paid off…. Now it was time to move on to Boss Number 2!
What followed was weeks of blood, sweat, tears, and words I can’t repeat. I sunk deeper and deeper into guiding my hero through a hellscape of my making, only to realize by loop 10 that an ill-placed tile in loop 2 would be my downfall. However, I was learning. Every loop became a chance to push myself (and sometimes my luck) and take another step further in snagging those bigger rewards. I loved every minute and encourage you to take this gritty, but rewarding challenge!
Lost in Random
Created by Zoink Games and Thunderful Group
Lost in Random was a sleeper-hit of 2021 (surprising given that EA published it, one of the largest names in gaming). It may not be perfect, but it certainly tries to be unique and mostly succeeds. In a time where we are surrounded by duplicate, cookie-cutter open-world RPGs and first-person shooters, this game stands out. It’s one reason I want to highlight this gem, hoping we’ll see more games that break the mold with brave genre mashups.
Lost in Random is many things weaved into one: real-time action, dice-rolling game, a card builder, and even a digital board game. You’d be excused for thinking that this is too many distinct features to fit into one game. That the end product must be a sloppy mess or an idea spread out too thin. I’m here to tell you it works!
Gameplay revolves around shooting at crystal weak spots on foes with a slingshot (hitting enemies anywhere else does zero damage) to collect crystals to power your dice rolls. Rolling your dice, known as Dicey, will give you a small selection of cards from your customised and upgradable card deck to use in battle. Moves include spawning a big mallet to do melee damage and stun, spawning a bow for long-range damage, planting mines, slowing time, and more. This combat is unique, engaging, and simple to get to grips with despite how it might sound, with my only gripe being that it doesn’t take this concept even further.
To accompany the gameplay is the story of two sisters — Even and Odd — in a magical world based around chance and randomness known as Random. It begins with Odd being taken away by the evil Queen to serve her following a die-roll ceremony that decides the fate of children when they turn 12. Even is on a mission to rescue her. Along the way Even ventures to several fantastical places. There is Two-Town, a place where every inhabitant has a double with the opposite personality. Threedom, which has been embroiled in a war between eccentric triplets for years. The narrative weaved through these Tim Burton-esque environments will frequently surprise you in interesting ways and keep you smiling through charming characters and witty dialogue. I love Lost in Random because it is original; it does its own thing and while it may not do it perfectly; it is captivating visually with fun gameplay to match, set in a charming world based on randomness.
Mass Effect Legendary Edition
Created by BioWare
Few games have a vice grip on my heart as tight as the Mass Effect trilogy. The series changed the trajectory of my life and showed me just how powerful video games could be as a medium for telling captivating and emotionally rich stories.
After nearly a decade since the release of Mass Effect 3, my friends and family foolishly thought they had lived through the worst of the fun facts and lore dumps at the dinner table. You can only imagine their joy when my entire feed became news of the upcoming remaster. The improved visuals, weapon handling, and general gameplay improvements brought the series closer to the quality new players would expect in 2021. For the veterans, they were a fresh coat of paint on the front door. As soon as that opening theme played, I knew I was home and in this home, we always punch reporters.
Created by Mercury Steam and Nintendo EPD
I have a confession: I’ve never been a huge Metroid fan. I tend to struggle to enjoy ‘metroidvania’ experiences in general, actually. I just don’t find puzzle-like worlds very appealing. Getting lost and trying to figure out my next move just never struck me as particularly entertaining. I know I’m probably in the minority there, but it’s the truth.
With Metroid, I think the only game in the series I really got into seriously was Metroid Prime on the GameCube. Maybe it was the shift in perspective; I don’t know, but I made it through with a smile.
Enter Metroid Dread, the game that was on seemingly everyone’s lips through October. After reading a few reviews, I decided to dive in and give it a go. Maybe a shiny new Metroid could warm my icy heart?
Well, it seems to have worked. Metroid Dread is not only my most-played Metroid game by far, but it’s also one of my most-played games of 2021. We should give developers Mercury Steam massive credit for building a modern Metroid that somehow satisfies traditional fans while simultaneously enticing newcomers.
What impressed me most about Metroid Dread is that it gives some concession to modern convenience (by featuring a truly workable map that roughly indicates points of interest as you go), without ever condescending to the player. Every time I discovered something new — especially if I got stuck for a moment — I felt like a Mensa candidate. I knew I was exactly where the developers intended at the time they intended it and yet I felt like I had reached that point in a completely organic way, all by myself. This fact continues to stun me, and I can only describe it as being the work of utterly brilliant game design.
Thanks, Mercury Steam and Nintendo, for helping me finally love Metroid.
Earlier this year, I raved over how Metroid Dread was the first Metroid game I’ve ever completed sans-walkthrough. My willingness to return over and over to my original save file was certainly spurred along by Samus Aran’s stellar controls, which allowed me to skirt countless near-death experiences with veteran savvy.
Samus’ journey begins like all others: stripped of her most defining abilities, slowly gaining them over the course of the game and using them to decimate bosses and level layouts. It’s a premise I have yet to grow tired of. It also helps the combat is enjoyable! Nailing a perfectly timed counter against one of the insta-kill E.M.M.I. enemies was both death-defying and instantly gratifying. Bobbing around with the space jump always offers a sense of vertigo, even when confined to two dimensions.
Metroid Dread didn’t always live up to its haunting title (thankfully no jump scares here), but its reverence for optimizing Samus’ movement helped it vault several other games from 2021.
Created by Nintendo EPD
Originally released in Japan in 2016 for the Nintendo 3DS, Miitopia has made its return May 2021 remastered and ready for Nintendo Switch users to dig into. Miitopia allows players to create their own characters within the game and for a multitude of roles. It’s not just your main character you can tweak and customize, but every single character around you. It’s how Miitopia delivers in offering players the ultimate, personalized world. No two games will look exactly alike.
The goal of Miitopia is to save the world from getting their faces stolen by the evil Dark Lord. It’s the perfect game for someone just starting out playing RPG-style games. The platform and UI are easy to use and learn, the controls straightforward, and, again, the world is customizable. It’s an approachable game for everyone.
A big focus in Miitopia is fostering friendships and relationships with your party. There are cute little cutscenes that show you how well everyone is getting along. Sometimes someone in your party will even give you a present! You can go on outings to cafes, the lake for fishing, or the library. The better your team gets along with each other, the better you’ll do in battles. But beware; sometimes party members can grow jealous and create drama amongst the team.
Miitopia is one of my favorite games I played this year. I spent most of the year working from home and not leaving the house for more than an hour or two to go to the grocery store, so having a fun, cute, and happy-go-lucky game to lean on was a real lifesaver to my boredom.
New Pokémon Snap
Created by Bandai Namco
It took them a while, but we finally got another Pokémon Snap, and it was just the perfect game at the perfect time. I got the game to review just before we went into one of our lockdowns, and I played it for a week straight. Sure I had to review it, but I spent hours playing this before writing. I finished it, went back, boosted my scores, and tried to find even more and more interactions with all the Pokémon. This game has some depth. For a couple of days, I was world number one in this game on the leader board, then it was released, and I quickly realised how much better other people were at the game than me. Still, who could have thought a game taking pictures of Pokémon could be so competitive. A throwback to 20 years ago, it felt good to have that Pokémon Snap experience once again.
NieR Replicant ver. 122474487139
Created by Toylogic and Square Enix
It’s difficult to talk about NieR Replicant without going into spoilers, but I’ll do my best. Initially, I think it needs to be said that I didn’t have the chance to play the original when it was first released. So, to me, this was a brand-new experience. And how glad am I that it was! Because this version, with the fully updated graphics and gorgeously renditioned audio tracks, carried me on an emotional journey that can only be expected from a Yoko Taro title.
Starting the game felt a tad uninteresting, to be blunt. Sad boy trying to save sick sister in an empty world, etc. It seemed like the perfect backdrop to a draining story I would probably forget a few weeks later. But, as it went on, and the characters of Kaine, Weiss and Emil were introduced, it was as if they brought new life into the game. I became intrigued by what was ahead in the story and what the end would be. Of course, what I failed to realize is that this is a Yoko Taro game and things are not always as they seem.
Once I reached the end, I foolishly thought that’s all there was to it. Yet the brilliance of this game is that the end is barely the beginning. I would maybe call it the middle point of what is a far greater, more emotionally taxing plot. It doesn’t reach the levels of its sequel, NieR Automata, which has a bizarre total of 24 endings, but the many ways this story can end (most of which serve as pathways for the true ending) are all poignant and difficult for the player to accept.
It’s like slowly lifting the veil over something that you know is going to scar you for life, yet your curiosity gets the better of you, so you end up doing it anyway. The music here helps push those emotions along, or it would be better to say that it further enhances them. After all, for a remaster of a 2010 title to walk away with an award for the best soundtrack from this year’s Game Awards, I believe that speaks volumes of its audio quality.
NieR: Replicant ver. 122474487139 is a remaster of a tale that everyone should experience. It’s also an incredibly innovative way of storytelling, where nothing is as it seems, with music that will keep playing in your ears long after you’ve put down the controller. Those are chief among the reasons — even to this day — it holds up well against the opposition.
In 2021, Western audiences saw their first opportunity to play as Brother Nier, in NieR Replicant ver 1.22. The original NieR was presented with a grittier Father Nier protagonist, while the Japanese audience received the original NieR Replicant with a much younger protagonist instead. While this half-remake, half-remaster of the original game keeps many of the flaws of the original, the game is an excellent romp overall. Despite a year of new releases, Replicant somehow still shines above many of them by having the best soundtrack I’ve heard all year. Yosuke Saito and Emi Evans deliver on the remastered OST here, proving to us yet again that NieR expertly blends music with gameplay and cutscenes in a way that no other franchise really is capable of doing with the same gravitas.
Of course, NieR is also renowned for its superb storyline as well. Much like fans of the franchise will recall from Automata, NieR Replicant provides the same type of gut-punch with a storyline that will have fans feeling an emptiness inside them. Out of any game I’ve played this year, there hasn’t been anything that gives me quite the same lasting emotional effect as NieR Replicant.
The original NieR Replicant was a game ahead of its time and the remaster does wonders to bring it to modern-day standards. The haunting soundtrack, genre-blending gameplay, and deeply unsettling narrative haven’t aged a day. The modern graphical overhaul further enhances the game’s supremely effective atmosphere.
Outer Wilds: Echoes of the Eye
Developed by Mobius Digital
Plenty of people have given me dismissive looks when I tell them that a DLC expansion pack is my game of the year, but those people clearly have not played or experienced the magic that is Outer Wilds, let alone Echoes of the Eye.
But folks, it is that good!
Outer Wilds (2019) is one of those magical games that makes you appreciate the amazing things video games can achieve with interactive storytelling. It manages to nail moments of heightened emotional impact without saying a word, in a fashion that feels all thanks to the actions you decided to take. Start on a planet. Go anywhere. Make discoveries along the way, and chart your own journey to uncovering the ~mysteries of the universe~ and the time loop that’s affecting it. (By the way, what is the deal with time loop games this year?)
Everyone’s journey through Outer Wilds will vary greatly, but the effects are the same. So I didn’t expect Echoes of the Eye to surpass what the base game had already achieved at all. I had it on the backburner for many months, thinking “Ah, I know what that’s going to be like.” Friends, I did not. The fact that Echoes of the Eye takes place on a single celestial…object, as opposed to an entire galaxy, means that those moments of dramatic narrative and mechanical revelations come much more regularly. You gasp within minutes of arriving, and the pace of discovery is just masterful all the way to the very end. Obviously, to spoil things would be a shame. But trust me when I say that Echoes of the Eye does diverge from Outer Wilds quite significantly in terms of its tone and some of its mechanics. It does feel distinct in and of itself. It’s a masterpiece, and the lingering mood it left me with at its conclusion has stuck with me ever since.
Everyone who’s played Echoes of the Eye agrees: it’s a masterpiece. And if you haven’t tried Outer Wilds before — I’m so happy for you. It’s going to be a fantastic experience.
Pokémon Brilliant Diamond & Shining Pearl
Created by ILCA
In contrast to 2020, Nintendo was more focused on giving players what they wanted this year. While the conclusive updates for Animal Crossing: New Horizons and Super Smash Bros. Ultimate were significant, there was no better example of this than Pokémon Brilliant Diamond & Shining Pearl. Fans waited for these games for 15 years, long enough for an entire generation to grow up playing Nintendo titles.
Though early footage of the game left some fans with cause for concern, the pair of Sinnoh adventures fully delivered a classic Pokémon experience once more. Recreating a top-down style RPG on the fully 3D-capable Nintendo Switch was a bold choice that ultimately payed off. This choice captured the charm of classic sprites and also challenged returning fans, now adults, to immerse themselves in the Sinnoh region like they could as a child.
The soundtrack composed by Shota Kageyama makes smart choices when updating MIDI instruments featured in the original score, doing great justice to Sinnoh’s grand landscapes and liminal spaces. Even when the nostalgia lens is removed, Pokémon Brilliant Diamond & Shining Pearl hold their own as formidable games. The Grand Underground provides the longevity that recent titles in the series lack by introducing a fresh, unique way to catch them all.
Several quality-of-life improvements, such as Pokétch HMs, create a seamless experience for new and old trainers alike. New features like the Veilstone Style Shop cater to the increased demands of customization in modern video games. Ramanas Park, unlocked in the post-game, gives the player access to Legendary Pokémon of generations past, but only after they have earned it by finding rare Mysterious Shards. Aside from the Mew and Jirachi presents given early on, the games somehow strike a perfect balance of providing variety without compromising difficulty.
Brilliant Diamond & Shining Pearl only seems to falter with their numerous glitches and lack of content from Pokémon Platinum, though even these aspects are indirectly faithful to the original. Certain areas such as the GWS and Newmoon Island remain inaccessible going into 2022, which implies a wealth of future content for players to continue the lifespan of their adventure. The games have also promised support with Pokémon HOME, while Platinum content arriving in DLC remains a possibility.
In any case, even the fastest Pokémon players may continue to find new things heading into the new year, which shows the thought and care on developer ILCA’s behalf. Historically a support studio, The Pokémon Company gave ILCA the high-stakes task of handling the Diamond & Pearl remakes in Gamefreak’s stead. The end product proves they could rise to the occasion and create a game that lives up to the franchise’s legacy. Overall, Brilliant Diamond & Shining Pearl is not only a return to the Sinnoh region, but a return to form for the series; while also being an excellent appetizer for the upcoming Pokémon Legends: Arceus.
Created by Colorgrave
Since several of my top games are going to be what people are going to be choosing, I wanted to give some space to an amazing game I played that I know most people did not. Prodigal by developer Colorgrave is a love letter to the GBA Zelda games released last year. While it may not look it from the outside, this is a very robust, emotional, and amazing game.
You play as Oran; the story begins with him returning home after finding out his parents have died. No one in town trusts him because he originally ran away and stole all their money. Prodigal’s story plays as a redemption arc with him having to confront the mistakes he made and trying to be a better person. By the end of the game, you’ll fight monsters, find love, and explore a lot of dungeons.
The game handles really well and focuses a lot more on puzzle design compared to other Zelda-likes. There are only three active items, but we can use them in a variety of ways throughout the game’s dungeons. The world is full of side quests and bonus items to find, along with a lot of lore surrounding the world of Prodigal, along with an amazing soundtrack (go listen to “Prodigal Sun” on Colorgrave’s Youtube channel).
All this would be great as is, but the developers have been updating the game for the past year and there is enough added content to fill a second game, along with a new ending. There is confidence and heart in Prodigal and it is definitely a must play for any fan of action adventure games.
Created by Double Fine
Lucas Di Quinzio
Psychonauts 2 is the most joyful game to come out this year. Everything about the game radiates joy. The fact it was even released at all and is a success, with Tim Schafer and Double Fine joining Microsoft’s ever-expanding stable of developers, is a happy ending for one of gaming’s genuine good guys. The fact I’m talking about a huge corporation buying an independent studio in glowing terms is saying something.
The world of Psychonauts 2 is a joy to inhabit. Each mental world you enter is a new delight. They’re all sprawling kaleidoscopes, but each one is crafted with care. Everything in these levels serves the story of the character whom the mind belongs to — even the enemies and the myriad of collectibles add to the big pictures being painted with these masterclasses of level design. They are an absolute joy to explore, and in a marked improvement on the original, they’re a joy to traverse through as well with fantastic-feeling platforming.
The original Psychonauts holds up today due to how it handles the subjects of its mental investigations.
There is a great deal of empathy towards characters that could have easily been crude stereotypes. Psychonauts 2 has 16 years of advancements in public mental health knowledge in the bank and uses it to tell tales of how different people deal with trauma. There’s still that sense of empathy and Raz remains in the middle of it all, with his unbridled enthusiasm and determination to help the heroes he spent his childhood reading about. Psychonauts 2 tells a touching story while never letting go of that sense of joy that is inhabited by its main character.
I’m sure I’m preaching to the choir here, but Psychonauts 2 is awesome! You may see the ‘2’ in the title and turn away thinking, ‘How can I play the second game if I haven’t ever played the first?’ The original Psychonauts came out way back in 2005 and Double Fine doesn’t expect you to know of its original to play its second installment. A thorough recap of events aims to help newcomers and act as a refresher for veterans. The studio even takes the story in a direction that stands on its own.
A big part of my love for this game is how the narrative is deeply intertwined with gameplay and level design. In Psychonauts 2, much like the original, you’ll dive into the minds of various people. This isn’t just for insane level design possibilities, it’s way for players to metaphorically explore the minds of others.
A moment that stands out to me early in the game is when the protagonist Raz jumps into the mind of an individual, hoping to change their mind on an important decision concerning Raz and his fellow interns. To do so, Raz explores her worrisome and apprehensive psyche to find out what made her that way, and how to encourage them to take more risks. It doesn’t quite work out. We’ll experience the landscape of her mind transform from a hospital into a casino, giving physicality to the many complex inner workings of the human mind. Another great example is Compton’s Cookoff, which uses a culinary game show to illustrate the effects of performance anxiety and overcoming such fears.
Psychonauts 2 maintains the excellent writing from the first game that will have you chuckling from a well-timed joke one minute to self-reflective the next as you explore the various mental worlds. The game continues with its themes of mental health and bonds with friends and family straining with time. Psychonauts 2 approaches its serious themes with care and sincerity, but also with joy and entertainment at the forefront.
All in all, Psychonauts 2 is a blast that is constantly subverting expectations and introducing engaging new mechanics into the mix. The characters are well-written, balancing great humour with genuine emotions. Level design is absurd, with each level (‘mental world’) you experience featuring its own unique design and gameplay.
I met my second panic attack in Psychonauts 2.
Using a time bubble to understand the dark being’s attacks isn’t quite how my first one went. But the sense of elation after vanquishing it was just as satisfying. In a year where humanity has seen enough suffering, I’m glad a studio chose to be earnest and optimistic.
Psychonauts 2 weaves a sensitive narrative of grief and loss right from its stages set in the fractured minds of people.
These minds house all kinds of grief, manifested in ways both good and bad. Platforming through them as a kid would have taken the meat off the environments’ deeper themes. Right out the gate, Psychonauts 2 sheds its platformer identity and dons a therapist cape.
This game asks “Are we not all products of circumstance?” and succeeds.
Seasoning a rich plot with silly quips and hard-hitting emotional beats is a challenge that Raz’s journey tackles head-on. Themes of guilt, family, heartbreak, and broken friendships don’t stop Psychonauts 2 from making you smile between its darker moments.
The game’s biggest achievement? Well-written characters who were broken yet undeterred. Their pain almost felt familiar and Psychonauts 2 taught me to embrace them as they were.
Ratchet & Clank: A Rift Apart
Created by Insomniac Games
I’ve always been a sucker for alternate and parallel universes, mostly because I’m still hoping I can swap places with a version of me that became a famous actor/forensic scientist/vet at 16 like kid me had planned. Ratchet and Clank: Rift Apart didn’t fulfill that fantasy, but it provided me with 15 straight hours of addictive action, phenomenal visuals and one of my favourite Jennifer Hale performances to date. That’s right, this is a Rivet-stan account. Deal with it.
There wasn’t a single moment where I pulled my eyes away from the screen, completely enraptured by the flow of combat as I tore through enemies with some of the coolest weapons the series has given us. Also, two words: hover shoes. Rift Apart has reinforced my already iron clad belief that there is not a game around that cannot be improved upon with the addition of hover shoes.
Multiverse shenanigans have never looked this good and I can’t wait to see where this takes the series from here!
Across 17 games in the franchise, Insomniac’s Ratchet & Clank series has always delivered the action with an arsenal of crazy weapons and gadgets. The duo’s maiden voyage on the PS5 continues that heritage with a heartfelt story and a heaping dose of technical wizardry. The development team didn’t stray too far from the tried-and-true formula with Rift Apart, but there’s nothing at all wrong with that.
The graphics are some of the best PlayStation has to offer, with only The Last of Us Part II being able to rival it. Individual hairs are visible in the Lombax fur, window panes are discernible on massive buildings from across the level, and textures for natural environments on several of the planets are second to none. Sound design and DualSense integration help to elevate the experience as well. The excellent positionality of the audio conveys everything from the slightest footstep to the largest explosions with aplomb. The DualSense feedback and adaptive triggers go a long way to create a sense of immersion.
The big selling point of the game, the rift technology, is a wonderful addition to the series. It gives players a sense of movement and freedom that complements the already-excellent mobility of the characters across the brilliant level architecture. My only complaint about this game mechanic is that I wanted to do more with it, something like a portal gun to let me drop out of a rift anywhere I wanted. Perhaps in the next R&C adventure that will be on the menu.
For those who are veterans of past games, everything about the action will feel comfortable and welcoming. The vast array of weapons feel as good as ever, and despite a few missing pieces I would have liked to see included, everything that is here works in perfect harmony with the world design, making the game an absolute joy to play.
Though they didn’t try to reinvent the wheel, there’s a lot to love about Rift Apart. It excellently uses the PS5’s enormous power and technological advances to craft an experience that will delight fans of the series and hook new players for future sequels. And the story delivers the classic themes of self-confidence and fighting for what is right, especially the people you care about. Where will our heroes go from here? The end of the game should make it clear, but you’re going to have to play through all the blasty goodness to find out.
Ratchet & Clank stands out as a franchise that I remember playing to death in my childhood years and although Rift Apart didn’t do anything super out of the box, it did really expand on a series that I love so much.
I feel like great platformers are few and far between these days, so I’m super glad that Sony allowed Insomniac to create this game. I thought that the story was well told, with characters new and old having their time to shine, and I thought that Insomniac’s creativity both through weapon design and level design were second to none.
I do feel that the rifts could have been taken further and also open areas of the game maybe expanded on as well, but again, it was a really joyful experience that came at the perfect time.
Resident Evil Village
Created by Capcom
I would say that compared to others on our team, my love for Resident Evil is definitely limited (my knowledge of the franchise is nowhere near as substantial), and yet, Resident Evil Village was still an experience that I enjoyed more than most this year.
I think that in the last year more than ever, I was looking for shorter, more linear, story-driven experiences that would take transport me to another world, rather than the more, social games that I had probably leaned on earlier in the pandemic. While I can understand the issues that most people raised with Resident Evil Village, I felt like the story was compelling and left me wanting more for the next instalment, and also felt like the highs definitely outweighed the low points of the game.
The castle was one of the best areas of any Resident Evil game (that I’ve played at least) with figures such as Lady Dimitrescu being larger than life. similar, Donna Beneviento’s area was short-lived, but very tense and the perfect amount of terrifying. The game definitely had a little too much action in the latter stages, but I still felt more eager than ever to see how it shaped up in the end, and it didn’t disappoint.
RE: Village is a game that is as electric as it is downright terrifying. It answers some of the biggest complaints that were thrown at its predecessor, in particular with its large ensemble of wickedly fun and brutal characters and enemies. Lady Dimitrescu may have won the internet’s humorously strange attention, but it was Angie, a sick and very twisted doll, that really stole the show for me. Her “P.T.” inspired section of Village showcased some of the best horror that the series has seen in years.
For anyone who loved the slow and eerie environment of Village’s predecessor, they may find it overwhelming to step into the outdoor environments of its sequel. It’s definitely one of the more “open” settings that the series has seen, but it’s one that rewards exploration with fantastic world-building, valuable weaponry, and a few spooky scares to go with it. The best part of Village is that no matter how big its world seems, it never ceases with the intense feeling of claustrophobia that the series is known for.
Whether it’s exploring the maze-like dungeons of Castle Dimitrescu or encountering the nasty experiments within Heisenberg’s Factory, there is never a moment within the game that doesn’t feel like a highlight. There’s so much diversity within Village that I’m intrigued to see just how much further they’ll take things in the inevitable sequel that it sets up. There’s never a dull moment, and even when it feels quiet, there’s always something around the corner to keep you interested.
Village at times almost feels as if it’s a montage of the greatest hits from the series. It borrows so much from what makes the series so great but also twists its familiar mechanics and moments in such a way that it feels like its own unique standalone experience. If there was ever any doubt that Resident Evil was losing its way, Village steps in and ups the ante to such extreme heights that it’s impossible not to wonder just what Capcom has in store for us next.
Resident Evil is a franchise that’s been on a rampage over the last few years. Resident Evil 7, the Resident Evil 2 Remake, and Resident Evil 4 VR have all been released to critical and commercial success, and that trend continues on with Resident Evil: Village.
From the massive impact “Vampire Mommy’’ Lady Dimitrescu had on the internet to the excellent reception of the game’s commercial release, RE: Village carries the recently-re-earned triumphant Resident Evil torch confidently. The dark, gothic, foreboding Eastern European setting is the glue holding this masterpiece together, and is genuinely one of the most interesting locales seen in video games for quite some time.
RE: Village gives the same sense of dread and anxiety one receives while watching Bram Stroker’s Dracula or Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca and — regardless of the sizable armaments at your disposal — guarantees to put you in a constant state of unease. On top of the outstanding locations, the game introduces unique characters (like my favorite, the larger-than-life Duke), and new plot threads which are weaved into the already bonkers Resident Evil canon.
Despite a few control issues, the gorgeous visuals, tense atmosphere, impeccable sound design, frantic survival gameplay, ludicrous story, and excellent use of the adaptive feedback on the PS5 make, RE: Village is one of the best games I’ve played in a long time. The horrors of the Beneviento House have been casually seared into my brain as well, so bonus points for that.
Created by Housemarque
Scary games are not my cup of tea. When I picked up Batman: Arkham Knight, the first thing I did was Google whether there were any jump scares to be aware of (there are, thanks, Man-Bat). Lucky for me, despite Returnal’s haunting setting, it’s far from a horror game, instead relying on an unending sense of isolation to drive its incredibly challenging third-person shooting gameplay.
Returnal was punishingly hard (the third biome led to many rage quits thanks to some kamikaze-ing drone enemies). Each of my defeats, however, fostered both a sense of accomplishment and knowledge acquisition. Using the tools at the main character Selene’s disposal — including an impervious dodge mechanic, a grappling hook, and insulators that protect from certain terrain — I learned to McGuyver my way out of situations enough to beat one of the least finished games of the year.
In playing Returnal, they reacquainted me with my ability to persevere in a gaming space. It’s easy to delete and uninstall a game, swearing you’ll come back to it in the process even though you likely never will. Returnal’s addictive controls urged me to see the game through and cemented it as my favorite of 2021.
Created by Tose and Bandai Namco Studios
The satisfying crunch of mind-breaking an enemy in Scarlet Nexus is reward enough to learn the game’s mechanics. The sound design here is phenomenal, with a techno-jazz-infused soundtrack enhancing areas beyond the descriptor of a hyper futuristic metropolis. While Scarlet Nexus also offered a glimpse into what a cyberpunk world might look like without devastatingly crippling bugs (cough, Cyberpunk 2077, cough), its knack for snappy action-RPG gameplay in a new property by genre veterans Bandai Namco elevated it to GOTY status.
By utilizing the Struggle Arms System, either of Scarlet Nexus’ protagonists can take on abilities from their colleagues, infusing already satisfying psychokinesis powers with elements like fire and lightning, or properties such as invisibility or teleportation. That most enemies have a weakness to one (or multiple) of these additional abilities means the game encourages you to experiment with the best mode of approach. Mixing and matching powers (you can add up to two at a time to either character) bestowed a different type of control.
Beyond merely feeling satisfying, Scarlet Nexus allowed me to play as I wanted, empowering me to brute force problems in-game however I saw fit. If you love this game, just for its incredible soundtrack — which includes cuts like the Mizuhagawa District — that’s fine too!
B. M. Gonzalez
I felt my heart lurch in my throat the moment the main menu song played, ignoring the prompt below asking me to press any button to start. I didn’t know Kasane and Yuito yet — two young faces looking away from the camera — but their story was already budding into fruition as musical notes. A song with equal measures of heartbreak and revelation, to which I couldn’t stop listening.
While Scarlet Nexus’ soundtrack instantly pulled me in, it was its plot and the hauntingly crafted world that made it hard for me to put the controller down. New Himuka is a nation brimming with psionic abilities and an excess of technology heavily monitored by the government. It’s easy to forget the clutter of security cameras watching you at all times amongst the holographs and contagious music filling me with that rookie excitement of being a part of the Scarlet Guardians (Others Suppression Force). It’s easy to forget the fragility of life until dangerous creatures called Others — a mix of human limbs, flora, and metal — fall from the sky, the city flaring an urgent red.
While the game dabbles with themes of government censorship, corruption, classism, ableism, trauma/loss, and the otherworldly, the backbone of the game lies in its recurring theme of bonds. We see it visibly pop up through the red wires across the city and experience it in the relationships made with your team (depending on which protagonist you select). Your strength and insight into the world around you grow as you foster relationships with those you encounter. You can even “borrow” your teammates’ powers in combat through the Struggle Arms System (SAS) and watch them instinctually shield you from a devastating strike, depending on your relationship level with them.
There is a dangerous thrill in weaving across the battlefield with everyone in harmony as that Brain Drive symbol flashes, synth music spiking in tempo, matching the team’s collective heartbeat. Test that harmony further and pull your enemy into a Brain Field. The world around you shimmers until it’s all red-streaked neurons, raging power, and thudding music. It’s one of the powerful results of a bond and it carries with it danger. Stay too long in the Brain Field and your health will whittle down, sanity transforming into frothing mania. You are punishment personified, your victims thrown into a DIE or SURVIVE scenario (which makes moments where you end up as the hapless victim terrifying).
Scarlet Nexus casts bonds as both a positive and negative force. It can build you up and be a shoulder to lean on. With a cast being a majority of young teens grappling with a dangerous world and trauma, everyone plays a role in keeping each other standing. However, bonds can also break us.
As you dig deeper into the story as both Yuito and Kasane, you see through their eyes what we as humans are capable of — the mountains we will move and the desperate actions we will take — in keeping those bonds. It makes the main menu song even more poignant because it’s not one reserved just for our two heroes.
If you find yourself grabbing the game and wishing for more, you’re in luck. Scarlet Nexus continues to evolve and flesh out further as an engrossing world thanks to its animated series. We see more interactions between multiple characters alluded to in-game, harrowing events viewed from multiple perspectives, and more of the world’s lore. It serves to create a strong appreciation of the main story, its “brain punk” world, and cast of vibrant characters.
Sea of Thieves
Created by Rare
Although Sea of Thieves initially launched in 2018, it’s blasting its way onto my 2021 list. After a series of significant updates in 2020, Rare dropped a cannonball on the community. They announced that 2021 would be the start of a seasonal update calendar and a plunder pass for extra loot. After the initial skepticism, I think it’s safe to say the community is more than satisfied with the seasonal updates.
There is a feeling of reward in everything you do in the game as you progress through a season. Each seasonal update has felt substantial, adding troves of content to the game, including quality-of-life updates, underwater siren shires to loot, lost shipments from sunken ships to retrieve, treasure to bury and dig up, and fireworks to shoot off. There’s even a storyline featuring the legendary Jack Sparrow himself.
I found myself mesmerized by the love crammed into this game, like a kid watching his grandma kneading chocolate chips into a bowl of cookie dough. If I weren’t such a softie, I’d say it’s almost obnoxious how apparent Rare’s self-love for this game is. But I’m no cynic, and I too cherish their passion for baking this cookie called Sea of Thieves. It’s truly “a special place where you can be a pirate and a good man.”
Super Mario 3D World + Bowser’s Fury
Created by Nintendo EPD
While Super Mario 3D World is a pretty fun game and worthy of coming to the Switch for those who didn’t own a Wii U (and there are just a few out there), the bonus Bowser’s Fury provided a window into the future of Mario, and I can’t wait for it. While the next Mario game isn’t likely to have the gigantic Bowser battles, we got to see within it that Nintendo has made a Mario game that’s “open world” and can scale. A game that you can go anywhere, complete things in any order, and use the verticality of the world. Sounds like another Wild video game. Super Mario Odyssey was tremendous, but it still had worlds sectioned off, loading times, and all that old 3D Mario-ness. Bowser’s Fury felt utterly fresh. Nintendo will need more ideas and hooks to let the game last a little longer, but I’m ready for it whatever they do.
Created by Witch Beam
I am so glad to see Unpacking getting so much kudos around the place. We crowned it Game of the Year over at GamesHub, and it’s been getting healthy representation in all the 2022 award nominations popping up. It should win all the awards.
No doubt you’ve heard a lot about it already. About its exceptional art, phenomenal audio design, and the way it brilliantly manages to tell a story through the understated act of pulling things from a box and finding a place for everything (or in some cases, not finding a place for everything). But my favourite thing about it is the way it triggered my own nostalgia for years gone past. I reckon I’m about the same age as the Unpacking protagonist (and the developers, most likely), and I’ve gone through a lot of the same stages of life represented in the game. Pulling items I recognised from my own life, however abstracted they might be, really sparked a deep sense of nostalgia for days gone by. That’s pretty powerful!
As a neat freak I also just love how satisfying the feeling of arranging things is. I had played a demo build of the game a while ago, and kept coming back to it regularly because the act of putting things away was just so meditative and zen. I think it’s wonderful that one of the best and most talked about games of the year is the kind of calm and gentle game that it is. Unpacking is raising the bar and stretching our expectations about what we consider an exemplary video game. Great job, Witch Beam!
Unpacking had been on my radar for years, and every time I saw it or played a preview build I was amazed by the simplicity of its slam-dunk premise: you unpack across a bunch of house moves, and it’s nice, and that’s enough.
Unpacking takes the painful process of moving house and wrings out its rare moments of clarity and joy — a perfectly placed item, a rediscovered item, the feeling of seeing a space come together — so that joy is all that’s left, barring one incisive move, which contains some of the most clever wordless storytelling I’ve ever seen.
Coming to know and like the person whose moves you’re facilitating is the kind of rare experience that is hard to explain or describe, but which makes sense immediately when you’re playing. This is absolute lightning-in-a-bottle stuff.
Created by Sbug Games
With only having three spots to showcase games here on SUPERJUMP, I wanted to talk about Webbed and how it was one of the most entertaining games I had a chance to control this year. The game’s concept is that you’re a spider: that’s it. You can create webs, swing around, shoot laser beams from your eyes, and dance, just like all spiders can.
The brilliance of Webbed lies in its fantastic ‘game feel’, and indeed it is one of the best I’ve ever played in that way. From the first time I tried the demo, I had a smile on my face the entire time slinging around, catching bugs in my webs, and just doing whatever a spider can.
This is by no means the longest game released this year, but it’s one that I would easily recommend anyone at least play and get into the swing of things. I hope that this kind of gameplay isn’t a one-and-done affair, as the game is proof of concept that the mechanics can work. All we need now is a game to truly explore this space.
Created by Worldwalker Games
For a game with procedurally generated characters and stories, it’s amazing how engrossed I became in the game’s various campaigns. A must-play for any table top RPG fan, this game lets you build a legacy using characters of your own making, even allowing them to appear in multiple campaigns. A masterwork that allows players to build their own mythology!
MADE WITH ♥
I want to close this piece by thanking our incredible contributors and special guests for coming together to celebrate our favourite games from the last year.
I must also thank you, dear reader.
Your continued support does not go unnoticed. Every time you visit, every time you read and clap for one of our stories, you put wind in our sails. It propels us forward so that we might reach even greater heights together.
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