The Top 10 Games of 2021
With another loop around the sun complete, it's time to once again round up the best games of the year on a list that conveniently matches the number of fingers possessed by the average member of a species of particularly numerous primates.
There were a lot of predictions at the beginning of the year that, because of COVID delays in 2020, 2021 would turn out to be as big of a gaming year as a 2017 or 2007. For me, at least, that didn't really pan out. While there were undoubtedly some fantastic games released last year and there were enough I found notable for me to make a second list, this was a year without much in the way of new ideas, aside from a few brief games that may place quite highly here. My list is dominated by games that are either sequels or perfections of old designs, with really only one spot going to a game that was a truly new experience.
Still, there's no shame in doing an old thing very well, and not every year can produce an all-time classic game for me. 2021 might not have lived up to those lofty predictions, but it still delivered a solid crop of games that are worth remembering.
Before we get to the list, some honorable mentions that didn't quite make the list:
- Unbeatable [White Label] Best OST (yes, this is a demo for an unreleased game. yes, it's that good)
- It Takes Two
- Hot Wheels: Unleashed
- Atelier Ryza 2 (didn't finish it in time)
- Escape Simulator Best Puzzles (Ditto)
Entries are formatted "Rank. Title (Developer/Published, platforms)" The platform I played on is underlined and the title link goes to my original review of the game. I haven't reviewed #6 yet, so it doesn't have one.
10. Tales of Arise (Bandai Namco, PC/PS4/PS5/XBO/XSX)
Tales of probably deserved to have its first appearance on one of my yearly top 10s with Berseria, but that game had the bad fortune to release in 2017, when there were 10 games that could have been #1 in another year. Still, Arise carries on a lot of the ideas that made Berseria great and adds enough of its own to make itself the new pinnacle of this series.
Tales has always been known for innovative combat systems that draw more from fighting games than traditional JRPGs, but ToA blends in lessons Bandai learned from 2018's Ni no Kuni II to create something I've only found a handful of times in this genre: battles that are fun in their own right instead of as a way to progress the game or earn stats. At least until the game goes a bit too hard on reskins and massive HP bars in the final act, ToA manages to consistently create tense battles against bosses and exciting combo challenges against weaker enemies.
While the battle system was the highlight for me, the rest of the game usually wasn't far behind. It's always a joy to look at and features one of Motoi Sakuraba's best OSTs, to say nothing of the story's surprisingly adept handling of some very dark themes. If all of this sounds either like a game that should be higher than #10 or a year that was much better than I'm giving it credit for, well, the key words here are "usually" and "until... the final act." ToA is a truly excellent game that had a shot at being my Game of the Year until it, well, didn't. The last 10 hours of the game are mostly an uninteresting slog, and even though it does at least recover for the ending, I just can't place a game that stumbles for that long any higher than this.
Other Awards: Best RPG
9. KeyWe (Stonewheat and Sons/Sold Out, PC/Switch/PS4/PS5/XBO/XSX)
KeyWe builds on the co-op foundation of games like Overcooked that task you and a group of friends with coordinating to do a set of tasks very well under ridiculous circumstances. It takes the idea to new heights in two ways: by reducing the player count to two, forcing even more perfect coordination than before, and by upping the silly factor all the way to making the players a pair of flightless birds from New Zealand.
KeyWe theoretically only features four tasks: typing out messages on a giant keyboard, packaging and shipping boxes, constructing messages from cut out words, and mailroom sorting. But while every main level can be grouped into one of those four archetypes, each one also features some major variation on the theme that often requires a new strategy to succeed. There might be a flood that causes certain parts of the level to be less accessible, a blizzard that buries essential items in snow if you're not paying attention, or perhaps the entire apparatus you're used to working with has transformed into a new machine that hardly resembles the old level at all. KeyWe's gold times are extremely unforgiving, and there's one that we still haven't quite managed to get, but once you and your partner get the strategy down and sail through the level like the professional mail kiwis you are, it's satisfying in a way few games are.
If that's not enough, KeyWe also includes collectibles and secrets scattered throughout all the main levels and a set of three minigames with their own brand-new mechanics and goals for each of its three seasons. A brilliant experience all around.
Other Awards: Best Co-Op Game
8. Growing Up (Vile Monarch, PC)
Growing Up begins a sequence of games that made this list for doing an old idea extremely well rather than for doing anything particularly new. Not that this game was ever trying to be more than that. It's very openly a reskin and refinement of Chinese Parents to take place in 90s America. If you're not familiar with the original game, that means it's a stat raiser where you learn loads of skills to succeed in school, make friends, meet parental goals, and eventually graduate high school and start the cycle again. Unlike the Chinese version, though, the game is designed so that you can attain the best results in your first life rather than needing to pass success down the generations to have even a faint hope of going to a good school or reaching the top tiers of a skill.
In fact, Growing Up is so devoted to that idea that you actually don't pass anything down to the next generation other than appearance traits. Everything else is irrelevant as soon as your next run starts. That might sound bad for the game's replayability, but it makes that a non-issue by shifting the focus of gameplay from generational growth to connecting with your NPC friends. Friendship events now happen passively instead of requiring you to give up training opportunities, and the characters are rounded individuals with real goals and conflicts instead of one-note cliches.
The best of these stories are good enough that GU had a shot at Game of the Year, but the others, sadly, are just fine. More annoyingly, you can't select which 2 to 3 friends will be available in a run and you can't skip seen events without the game choosing conversation options randomly, so trying to see all of them almost necessarily entails repeating a few several times over however many lifetimes it takes you. Still more annoyingly, you also can't see which characters have been selected until their first event triggers, and which means that you can't know if the high school friend you were trying to meet is even in the game until you've almost finished another run. I never managed to see one of the original characters and haven't gone back to play since they added a new one because of those frustrations.
This is a masterful refinement of what was already a very good game, but it went a little too far in its mission to remove gamey-ness by completely killing inherited bonuses and making friends appear randomly. If a future game can find a way to combine the vastly superior mechanics in individual runs of this game with the more satisfying meta-progression of Chinese Parents, it could place very highly on that year's list. For now, it's #8.
7. Jackbox Party Pack 8 (Jackbox Games, PC/everything ever)
Most games on this list got their spot by being good at just about everything they try to do, but that's not at all the case for JPP8. Of its five new party games, Drawful Animate is wholly unremarkable, The Poll Mine is too long for what it is, and Wheel of Enormous Proportions is hard to choose over the earlier Trivia Murder Party. That leaves Weapons Drawn, which is fun but difficult to play unless everyone is in the same room, and Job Job, which is singlehandedly responsible for JPP8 being #7.
So let's not even talk about those other games here. The star of this pack is Job Job, and it's worth it for that game alone. You're tasked with answering a sequence of ridiculous questions that sound vaguely like something you might get in an interview, then chopping up other people's answers to create ransom note-style answers to even more ridiculous questions. It's really just a minor variation on Quiplash, but that extra restrictiveness of needing to use other player's answers to unrelated questions forces you to be more creative in constructing answers. The results are consistently hilarious and the game length is perfect to make you want another round after finishing your first game. It's without a doubt the best of the 40-odd games Jackbox has made, and is one of my favorite party games of any kind.
Other Awards: Best Multiplayer
6. Forza Horizon 5 (Playground/Microsoft, PC/XBO/XSX)
Easily the least innovative game on this list, FH5 doesn't really do anything remarkably new outside of providing creative tools for players to make their own challenges. But, well, when you're working from as well-built of a base as Forza Horizon 4, sometimes it's enough to just offer more at a slightly higher level of quality. And that's what's on offer here. There are more cars, more events, more customization options, and more of any other noun you can think to put there, all on a map that is itself bigger and more densely packed with things to do.
If you don't like racing games or Horizon's specific approach open world approach to it, this really doesn't even make a vague attempt to change your mind. It's the best version of what was already an excellent series and one of the best podcast games you can possibly get. This is probably about as high as I could ever rank a game that is just an improvement of old ideas, but that is itself a huge compliment to how mechanically solid FH5 is. An amazing example of a very talented developer at the peak of their craft.
Other Awards: Best Racing Game
5. Death's Door (Acid Nerve/Devolver Digital, PC/Switch/PS4/PS5/XBO/XSX)
2021 may not have seen a Zelda game from Nintendo, but in my eyes it still had the best one since 2005. Death's Door is unashamedly 2D Zelda mixed with aesthetics from Souls and ideas from Acid Nerve's previous game, Titan Souls. The result is phenomenal. DD at last brings precise grid-free movement to a 2D Zelda-like, and it does it with bosses and enemies that fight aggressively enough to force you to make full use of your new mobility. You can use a number of magical abilities to deal damage from a safe distance, but you can only recover charges by striking the enemy from melee range, so combat is a dance alternating between different ranges as you gain and use charges.
All this takes place in a world packed with secrets and optional endgame quests that guarantee you always have an interesting goal to pursue. A playthrough takes around five hours, but even after that there's a challenge mode requiring exclusive use of the weakest weapon in the game that's worth another run. Add to that a great soundtrack, well-written and quirky characters, and some fantastic boss fights and you've got a masterpiece of a Zelda-like.
I never did take a screenshot of this
4. Ratchet and Clank: Rift Apart (Insomniac/Sony, PS5)
I can't speak to how new many of Rift Apart's ideas are because I have almost zero prior experience with this series, but I can say that, however innovative it may or may not be, it's another example of phenomenal execution. RA provides loads and loads of the quirky weapons that the series is famous for, but more importantly it somehow manages to make all of them feel worthwhile in combat and give all of them powerful upgraded versions that are even more fun to use. You unlock those upgrades by using the original weapon, so you're encouraged to constantly swap out your guns in a way that feels exciting instead of restrictive.
The titular rift mechanic isn't used for anything you haven't seen before, but it does allow for fun encounters that combine enemies from many different parts of the game and for levels that jump between radically different versions of the same environment. If you enjoyed the timeline shifting levels in Dishonored 2 and Titanfall 2, this goes to similar places.
I also got much more invested in the story than I expected to. This isn't going to win any literary awards, but it's a solid space comedy that keeps both of its character perspectives engaging and rarely misses a joke. If I did this list on the sole basis of fun factor, Rift Apart would probably win. But I'm a gaming hipster who usually goes for the most impactful story, and so it'll have to be content with a very respectable #4.
Other Awards: Best Console Game, Best Action Game
3. Impostor Factory (Freebird Games, PC)
Impostor Factory is the hardest game to talk about on this list because it's the third in a series of games that are extremely focused on the narrative, and also because of the way the experience grows from what you initially think it will be. IF calls itself a "bonkers timeloop tragicomedy murder mystery" and it is. But it also isn't that at all. IF is, in some ways and at some times, a clear successor to To the Moon and Finding Paradise. At other times, it's nothing like them. There's a case for it being a sequel that requires playing the first two to understand, and there's also a case that you could play it standalone and have a full experience. And I can't really expand on any of those contradictions without spoiling what makes it so special.
What I can say is that, like its maybe prequel games, IF deals with the question of what makes a life well-lived. It comes to a different and less direct answer than you might expect from Freebird's other work. Those games looked at what matters to an individual in their last moments, and this zooms out a bit. Or a lot. It's hard to explain, but not at all hard to recommend as an essential experience.
2. Sumire (Game Tomo, PC/Switch)
If there's a theme in this year's top three games, it's death. But nobody dies in the course of Sumire's story. Probably. Instead, you play as Sumire, a young girl whose beloved grandmother has just passed away and whose parents are in the midst of splitting up. And, well, a lot of other things aren't exactly going well for her either. But she wakes up to find a magic space flower has chosen today to visit her, and it promises that she can see her grandmother again if she has One Perfect Day and faces her troubles head-on.
The two hour experience that follows somehow manages to cram in more heavy themes and heartfelt experiences than many games manage in ten times as long, and more impressively, it does it while giving each one the time and respect they deserve. This is not a saccharine story that falsely promises all your problems can be resolved with the blind power of friendly words, nor does it even prescribe a particular approach to anything Sumire does. You can be a proper jerk if that's how you want to play.
Sumire is a game about doing and saying what you need to while you still have the chance. You might not always get what you hoped for, but at least you tried and won't have the regret of never taking your shot. It's a visually stunning experience that is equally beautiful in its story, Coming from a studio I'd never even heard of before, it would have been both my game and surprise of the year if not for...
1. Before Your Eyes (GoodbyeWorld Games/Skybound Games, PC)
Thematically, Before Your Eyes isn't a radical departure from the last few games on this list. You've died, unfortunately, and now you're on a boat with the Ferryman, who is responsible for telling the story of your life to the being responsible for judgement. "You" tell him that story through flashbacks to all the most important moments. It's a slight variation on the theme of the dead coming to terms with death, because this is the story of life as the dead choose to tell it. "You" won't ever speak, but the player can come to understand "your" perspective through what is or isn't shown.
But if the story is a minor variation on ideas that are already well-tread, the gameplay is truly like nothing else out there. You literally play it with your eyes. It uses facial recognition to tell if you've blinked and, when you do, it jumps to the next scene. The really important stuff you need to understand the plot almost always happens with a few seconds, but you'll have to strain a bit to keep your eyes open long enough to reach to end of some scenes, and sometimes you'll blink accidentally, causing a time jump in an actual blink of an eye. This is, as you can easily guess, a very emotional story, and the effects it may or may not have on your eyes will only make it more challenging to stay focused as you're most invested in the story.
It's very rare to play a game that's so unlike anything before it. It's even rarer for that game to nail its ideas on the first try, and rarer still for that game to come from a new developer. Before Your Eyes shouldn't work for all of those reasons, nevermind that it's gameplay concept sounds like something a random word generator spit out. Play with your eyes? Who would actually make a game like that.
Well, GoodbyeWorld Games did the impossible, I guess. Despite, or maybe because of, all the challenges in the way of this design, Before Your Eyes works. It's the best game of the year.
Other Awards: Best Story, Biggest Surprise, Most Innovative