2021 has been a terrible year, but not for games.
With the new consoles starting off so well in terms of their first year releases, it’s a shame that the supply chain has sought to undermine that as much as possible. It looks like 2022 will be an even bigger year with the likes of Gran Turismo 7, Horizon Forbidden West, Starfield, Forspoken, Suicide Squad: Kill The Justice League, and maybe that upgraded version of Cyberpunk 2077 that we’ve been waiting over a year to come out. Even Nintendo has a stacked year coming up with Pokemon Legends: Arceus, Triangle Strategy, Advance Wars 1+2: Re-Boot Camp, Kirby and the Forgotten Land, Mario + Rabbits Sparks of Hope, Splatoon 3, Bayonetta 3, and maybe even The Sequel to The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. Indies also look like they’ll kill it with Tunic, Sifu, OlliOlli World, and a billion others. It’s a shame that I’ll quickly fall behind before January is over.
That said, the ten games below aren’t everything that I enjoyed this year since I had to make some tough cuts to get this list down to 10 from the 15+ that I really enjoyed this year. Tales of Arise and Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy are games I enjoyed, but still have a ways to go before it came time to make this list. Deathloop, Metroid Dread, and Forza Horizon 5 are games I enjoyed a lot up to a certain point, but my desire to go back has lessened greatly after getting enough out of them. There are also other indies I enjoyed a lot like Loop Hero, Unpacking, Kena: Bridge of Spirits, Cyber Shadow, Nuclear Blaze, and Lake that just fell short. There are a couple of Early Access games that have caught my eye like Hardspace: Shipbreaker and PowerWash Simulator with the latter likely being my Game of the Year if it went 1.0 in 2021 because it’s been that damn good and the perfect antidote to the awfulness of 2021. Look out, Games of 2022, PowerWash Simulator is coming for that coveted #1 spot if you’re not at your best.
That said, here are my top 10 games of 2021:
10. Sable – Xbox, PC
Much like last year, games that were about being chill made a big impact on me and Sable has that in spades. It’s a game full of vibes and style that lets you explore its beautiful world at your own pace while your character animates at a low framerate that gives it a look like no other game.
9. Chicory: A Colorful Tale – PS5, PS4, Switch, PC
Chicory seems like a chill game about dealing with mental health issues and painting stuff however you want, but those bosses have no chill. They’re nightmare factories and they fit in really well as a contrast to how the rest of the game works. The game even has great accessibility options so you don’t have to deal with wet noises if that bothers you and even those options are very chill in their design.
8. Moonglow Bay – Xbox, PC
Moonglow Bay is such a fun and weird game that looks like if Stardew Valley was set in a fishing village instead of a farming town, but it’s so much more than that. As you talk to villagers, you fill up your fish compendium with their wild folklore creatures that they’ve just assumed exists as their mind has envisioned, but when you actually catch them you can see how much they exaggerated about these fish. It’s just such a cool, weird fishing RPG that is incredibly Canadian.
7. Death’s Door – PS5, PS4, Xbox, Switch, PC
The first game on this list that isn’t chill at all is Death’s Door, which is an excellent action game that is full of style and great world design to compliment its great Zelda and Soul-ish mix of action mechanics. It’s a tough game, but it isn’t a punishing game that revels in your misery like many others can be. Also, one of its best characters is Pothead, a man whose head has been turned into a pot to become an immortal being against his will.
6. Hitman 3 – PS5, PS4, Xbox, Switch, PC
Hitman 3 as a complete package is easily the best game of the year because having the first two games’ worth of maps with all of the improvements that Hitman 3 has to offer is so damn good that it’s unfair to every other game that came out this year. For its levels alone, Hitman 3 is still an amazing game that pushes the boundaries of what you can expect out of Hitman to have a murder mystery map where you could just kill your target and leave, but you could spend a couple hours in this Knives Out-style home actually looking for clues to solve the mystery. It’s IO Interactive at their best.
5. Axiom Verge 2 – PS4, Switch, PC
Axiom Verge was such a good game that Axiom Verge 2 had some lofty expectations, which it somehow surpassed and was more of an inventive game than I was expecting. Making a Metroid-like that is less focused on combat than most others and make it more focused on a reinvented hacking mechanic so that you can subvert the expectation of constant action for the genre is a bold way for Tom Happ to go for a sequel. Even making the bosses more of an open thing so you’re not locked in a room with them and can find more interesting ways to beat them or avoid them altogether. Not many sequels take the chances that Axiom Verge 2 takes and does it so well.
4. Psychonauts 2 – PS4, Xbox, PC
I always liked Psychonauts, but the various not great ports and other issues undermined the potential for what it could be. Fast forward many years later and Psychonauts 2 is finally out and it nails all of the potential that the original had for a year that is lousy with great 3D platformers. It has the great writing, great style, and great platforming that makes for one of the best platformers to come out of the new Microsoft after they unceremoniously dropped the original game back in the day to put Double Fine in a bad place early on.
3. Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart – PS5
Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart is easily the best game in the series with its sublime action mechanics being honed to a fine point, best in class graphics, and a story that handles two main protagonists very well. Having played through all of the mainline Ratchet & Clank games before Rift Apart’s release, this game is so much a joyous finale of that overarching storyline that sets it up for a bright future for the series after Rift Apart. I’m hoping that Insomniac maybe shirks the titular characters for a bit to make the next game Rivet & Kit.
2. Inscryption – PC
Much like Daniel Mullins’ other games, Inscryption starts off as a weird card-battling roguelite that quickly starts to show its hand that there is more going on than it seems. I won’t spoil anything, but this game has plenty of great puzzle designs, well-placed secrets, and a lot of good world-building to it to make it one of the most striking games of the year that rarely ever leaves my head.
1. Returnal – PS5
After nearly 15 years of making great smaller games, Housemarque has finally gotten the chance to make a big budget game that is just them at the top of their game. Returnal is a big budget roguelite that features all of the sublime action feel that Housemarque is known for with some of the best visuals of this generation and it’s also a great showcase for the DualSense’s haptics and triggers. I wish I were better at this game, but the recent suspend cycle update certainly helps me get one more advantage on these jerk aliens that keep killing me.
That’s it! That’s the list. Good riddance to the dumpster fire that was 2021, though the games and other media were good in spite of everything else. Hopefully 2022 is better, but I’m not expecting much out of it. If you expect disappointment, then you can never really be disappointed.