10 Interesting Games Which Are Not Among the Top 10 of 2021
I don't decide on my top games of the year until after the year is over, so I can't tell you what my 10 best games of 2021 are yet. But thankfully, more than 20 games came out in 2021, so that doesn't stop me from talking about 10 games that aren't in the top 10.
These are all games that released this year, that are worth talking about for some reason, and that are also not in competition for my top 10. Some of them aren't actually very fun, some of them aren't new enough, and others were just beaten out by a bunch of better games. They're not the 10 best and they're not even in the honorable mentions, but at least they get this!
(these are ordered by release date, not what I think of them)
Necrobarista: Walking to the Sky (1/19/2021, Route 59/Coconut Island Games)
This is actually a DLC, not a full game, and this screenshot is actually from the full game, not the DLC. Wah!
My original review of Walking to the Sky was the first thing posted to this site and still gets traffic even though it was written as a Discord post and doesn't even have a cover image, but that's probably because nobody usually bothers to review free expansions. That's a shame, because it means a lot of people may have missed out on this, especially on platforms that don't promote update news.
WttS is an extra chapter focused on two background characters who only existed in the main story to set up a few gags. That sounds like a recipe for disaster, but it works because it doesn't attempt to invent any new relevance for them. They don't do anything that impacts the main plot in any way, and the story likely isn't even concurrent with it. Instead, it's an exploration of the game's themes from a new perspective. It'd be spoilery to say exactly how, but suffice to say it does it well. Will it change your mind about the game if you didn't already like it? Not at all! But for everyone else, it's one of the best parts of what was already a great story.
Alas, mini-expansions with no standalone release are definitely not eligible for the top 10, so this list is all the year-end recognition it's going to get from me.
Atelier Ryza 2 (1/25/2021, GUST/Koei Tecmo)
This is here because I haven't finished it and there's exactly a 0% chance that I'm going to before I want to post a top 10. I could do what I did last year for Yakuza: Like a Dragon and put it on that list anyway, but that was a special case for what ended up being my favorite JRPG bar none. Could Ryza get there? I doubt it. But it's way too early for me to say how good of a game it is.
Still, I want to bring it up here because I haven't seen much discussion of it on other lists and that's a bit of a shame. Some of that's definitely down to this being an extremely long-running series that you probably either already like or could not possibly be less interested in, but Ryza 2 shakes things up enough that I think it's worth a look even for those who haven't enjoyed the series previously. There are a ton of new systems here that give you more ability to customize your characters and the game world, and traversal has been updated to make moving through environments more enjoyable.
I don't know why other games haven't picked up this series core mechanic of creating items through puzzly minigames. It's much more enjoyable than gluing six twigs and seven rocks together to make an axe, and it allows for mechanical customization that other crafting systems can't get close to.
Rounds (4/1/2021, Landfall)
A game about jumping all over loads of crazy stages and trying to shoot the other players to death before they do that to you. There are plenty of games like this, and even its visual style is pretty clearly inspired by things like Stick Fight, but Rounds stands out thanks to mixing in cards. Each time you lose a round, you get to pick from a couple of powerful cards that significantly alter how you approach the next fight. Some might give you a shield you can use to block bullets while others will give you homing bullets in exchange for less damage, and still others will buff your movement abilities. It's a self-balancing game since players with less skill at the base game will quickly get abilities that make up for it, and every game I've played has been close.
NieR Replicant (4/23/2021, Square Enix)
And here's the first one that's on this list because I just don't like it enough for it to be anywhere else. Don't get me wrong, this has a great story and some incredible music, but it's also needlessly repetitive and fetch-quest obsessed to the point that it sometimes feels actively disdainful of your time. There are great ideas and it'll be almost immediately obvious that this stumbled home drunk so NieR: Automata could run, but being a prequel to one of my all-time-favorite games can only get you so far.
Turns out that "so far" was approximately the first ending in this case. Then I realized that I'd have to play the second half of the game over and over again with minor variations and complete loads of incredibly generic fetch quests to ever see the true ending. I get what it's going for and I love what it later became, but this ultimately doesn't quite come together.
Very Very Valet (5/25/2021, Toyful Games)
A chaotic couch co-op game about trying to park cars. That sounds boring, but thanks to wonky driving controls and customer's indifference to how many doors their car is missing when you bring it back, it's a hilarious time that largely avoids being frustrating through sheer power of stupidity. This would've had a shot at the top 10 if not for a certain other couch co-op game involving birds, but even so it deserves a shout out as one worth remembering from 2021.
Griftlands (6/1/2021, Klei)
I thought that this'd be a shoo-in for the top 5 of the year when I was doing my first run of Griftlands. It's a mix of Slay the Spire and an RPG that somehow manages to do both parts well, and the first third of it is absolutely brilliant. Then you unlock the second character, who is less mechanically interesting and just in general basically fine. Finish that route and you're left with an unlikable jerk who isn't even fun to play as your last reward. As much as I loved that first character, a game that's one third brilliant, one third average, and one third bad isn't something I can easily recommend, so it certainly doesn't come close to the year's top 10. That said, if you can get it on sale and don't mind that it'll run out of content long before the competition in this genre, you'll at least get the beginning of a really special game.
Scarlet Nexus (6/24/2021, Bandai Namco)
SN has one of the best combat systems I've ever seen in a game. Unfortunately, everything else about it is either unremarkable or bad. You'll have a blast destroying enemies with all sorts of amazing telekinetic powers and then be subjected to a long cutscene that makes absolutely zero sense. Then you'll open up your quests menu and realize it's all dull "kill 10 frazzlebuttocks"-style garbage and that there aren't even good rewards.
All of which could've been fine - this is hardly the first game ever to focus on doing one thing really well, and plenty of those that have come before have dedicated fans. But once you get far enough in, you'll realize that Scarlet Nexus isn't actually one of those games. It has a brilliant combat system, sure, but it eventually stops being focused on that strength. Later chapters push the awful story harder and harder and reduce the variety of combat more and more until the experience becomes an endless series of identical fights only broken up by incomprehensible story. Even worse, boss fights against humans become more common, and these are all drawn-out slugfests where your most fun abilities don't even work.
HUMANKIND (8/17/2021, AMPLITUDE/SEGA)
This is a game marketed in ALL CAPS from a studio who officially has their name in ALL CAPS and a publisher who famously also has their name in ALL CAPS. Besides being very loud, HUMANKIND is a game that flies a little too close to the Civ. I love that someone is trying to give Firaxis' venerable strategy series some direct competition, and I also love that Amplitude brought along some ideas and themes from their successful Endless 4X games. It was never realistic to think that they were going to compete against Firaxis' 30 year head start or even the half-decade of content Civ VI has to work with, though, and indeed there's not really any question which game is currently superior. Still, Humankind does a lot of mechanically interesting things, so it could get there if Sega is willing to give it the time it needs to reach its full potential.
That said, it's also an oddly character-less game. Amplitude ditched their assymetric factions that made previous games so unique in favor of having you switch historical civs every era, which results in not having much connection to anything or even a lasting point of reference to other players beyond their color. They'll need to fix that and ditch the obnoxiously pessimistic narrator to get me back with any regularity.
Arietta of Spirits (8/20/2021, Third Spirit Games)
I just reviewed this one two weeks ago , so I'll keep this brief. AoS had the misfortune of being another 2D indie Zelda-like in a year that also saw Death's Door, and it can't really match the incredibly high standards set by that game. Still, if you're itching for more of this sort of gameplay and don't mind following up a masterpiece with a game that's just pretty good, this is worth you're time. I think it would've gotten more buzz if it had given DD more than a month of calendar space.
Circuit Superstars (10/12/2021, Original Fire Games/Square Enix)
CS was kind of doomed to be a neglected title as a racing game in a year that saw both Forza Horizon 5 and Hot Wheels: Unleashed. It's a weird game that looks like an arcade racer but has the mechanics of a racing sim. It's a very small package that's all but impossible to recommend over this year's bigger titles, but at the same time there's a certain satisfaction to driving well in this game. There are no racing lines to help you and you feel your car's inertia much more than in similar titles, so making that perfect turn is both much more difficult and much more rewarding than in other games.
...And then you mess up the next turn and the whole race is a wash, which takes the rewarding factor down a bit. Alas.
And that's that! Ten games that I think are worth remembering after 2021. Some of them are great games, and all of them will probably have their fans. Not too shabby! Feel free to post your own memorable games in the comments or in a separate post.
Even though I haven't finished everything I think could deserve a spot, I'm going to try cutting myself off on the top list at a reasonable time this year, so that'll probably come in the next week. And then I'll finally get around to something in February that should've made the top 5 and my list will be horribly out of date. Damn you, flow of time.