“All the games are being delayed” they said. “There’ll be fewer big games to enjoy” they said. And whilst it’s true that a cursory glance at the releases coming up in 2022 does make many fans salivate, that certainly hasn’t made 2021 a barren year. Far from it. There have been plenty of incredibly good games to sink your teeth into this year.
For me personally, I’ve enjoyed quite a mixture of experiences. And ultimately 2021 has surprised me. There are a couple of games on this list I knew would be there back in January, but mostly it’s filled with titles that have caught me a bit off guard. There are franchises or genres I’ve not experienced until this year. As well as a few titles which have been far better than I could have hoped them to be. And then there are the unknown quantities which have delighted me too.
And so for me, 2021 has been about gaming joy and discovery, and I can’t really ask for much more than that. So here are those games, my best of the year. Enjoy!
Knockout City: On the face of it looks like another street sports game, but its simple yet superb design, gameplay variety, and accessible learning curve make this a great game to play with mates and is really different from everything else out there.
Super Mario 3D World & Bowser’s Fury: Take what is already a great multiplayer Mario platformer. Add online multiplayer functionality. And then add a unique experience in Bowser’s Fury that manages to feel fresh but grounded in Mario’s 3D roots and you’re on to a winner.
Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart: An absolutely stunning-looking game showcasing the PS5 grunt. Sprinkle over some good platforming, shooting, level design, and overall fun and you’ve got a really enjoyable package.
Control: Ultimate Edition: Bringing together the main Control experience and the DLC is one thing, but next-gen hardware frees Control’s frame rate issues and allows it to blossom into the awesome mind-bending experience that Remedy intended.
NieR Replicant: I’ve wanted to scratch the NieR itch ever since Automata blew me away. Replicant brings a fresh experience to us in the West, that’s full of great characters, action, and a twisting story that leaves you guessing until the end.
Who’d want the job of a Crow eh? Working all day reaping souls with not even a moment’s thanks from your boss upstairs. Good thing then that things properly kick off when someone steals your next assignment. Things unravel and require you to go on a glorious isometric adventure. With smooth fluid movement attached to decent combat, set in a charming, if slightly disturbing world, Death’s Door really is a bit of a gem. It looks and sounds nice too and offers just enough of a challenge to keep you engaged without ever feeling unfair. It’s not the longest game, but there’s plenty to do whilst you’re playing, and proof that good things do indeed come in small packages.
I’ve never dared step foot into an MMO before and if you’d told me that not only would 2021 would be the year that I did, but also that it’d make my top 10 I’d have laughed in your face. But New World sucked me in, sucked me in good. And despite my fifty hours or so with the game, had I not forced myself to play other games as the year came to a close, I’d have happily surrendered many more. The world always feels full and alive, with plenty to see and do, be that simple grinding or wandering off to complete a quest. It’s also an incredibly zen game where you just exist in your own bubble or with friends and enjoy the time together. The next quest or milestone is always achievable and pretty much everything you do contributes to something making the draw to keep going even greater. Well played Amazon, well played.
It’s hardly surprising coming from Arkane Studios, but Deathloop oozes class. The overt orange and black aesthetic, and intentional musical tones are only drowned out thematically by the superb main characters of Colt and Julianna. Their interactions always land and add a layer of entertainment to a title that already refuses to take itself too seriously. Deathloop manages to nail its loop mechanic by making repetition different and interesting. And it also has the bravado to offer you the option of solving Deathloop’s mystery in any order you wish, which keeps things fresh and unique to the player. Throw in a tactical element with varied weaponry, loadouts, and Slabs with crazy fun abilities to humourously torture the denizens of Blackreef, and you’ll find yourself smiling loop after loop.
Not for the last time on this list, I find myself coming to a series for the first time. I hadn’t played the original Psychonauts game, but I was still intrigued to see how a sequel to a fifteen-year-old game would land. The answer is: incredibly well. Psychonauts 2 offers a bit of everything, there’s decent platforming, upgrade trees, collectibles, a hint of Metroidvania. But all that revolves around a story that was quite interesting even for me as a newcomer and characters that despite looking ridiculous, keep you engaged. It also deals with facets of mental health, emotions, and respect in a really sensible way, without ever letting its zany style stop or clash with it. It’s a delicate balance that somehow sticks the landing, creating an enjoyable, endearing experience. Well worth the 15-year wait!
Scarlet Nexus is one of those games that when you try to explain it to someone you’d be met with weird looks, and people shuffling away from you quite quickly. Set in a pseudo-futuristic world where the entire civilisation revolves around people’s brains is weird enough. Then there are the enemies known as Others, which are a hideous amalgamation of the natural and the synthetic. But it’s so fun to play, as the combat feels incredibly satisfying. The combination of traditional melee attacks, with psychokinesis, means you’re always surveying the landscape for bits and pieces to launch at enemies, comboing up for more damage. And when you land a powerful special attack courtesy of a QTE, you feel like a badass.
It’s Devil May Cry type endorphins when it lands, and the great thing is Scarlet Nexus knows how to build it up over time. You’ll keep unlocking more combo or ways to tackle foes as you progress, giving you more options to take down these weird-looking enemies. It’s incredibly cathartic and hugely rewarding. Well worth anyone’s time who’s not yet jumped into this one.
Yes it’s not Monster Hunter World 2. Yes it launched without a satisfying single-player ending. But Monster Hunter Rise was such an enjoyable experience for me this year, I just couldn’t put it down for weeks. True enough a lot of the core gameplay remains the same – which is fine by me – but the new additions to this title in the franchise were a lot of fun. The Wirebug, once I got to grips with it, helped me out of the pinch of battle, and became a mainstay for general traversal. And the environments themselves suddenly opened up in more ways than ever as you went off hunting for long-lost treasures, almost forgetting your behemoth prey for a moment.
But, perhaps unsurprisingly, it’s the hunting of monsters where Monster Hunter Rise really shines. Taking down new and familiar creatures either alone or with a group of mates, continues to be as fun as ever. New ways to use weapons and combo them keeps things fresh, and the feeling of success after 45 minutes of chipping away when that Monster finally falls is glorious. I await the Sunbreak expansion with baited breath.
A game that no one knew existed until May this year, ends up careering its way towards the top of the list. Metroid Dread from Mercury Steam who after cutting their teeth in the franchise with Samus Returns, are back with a whole new entry in the franchise. And it’s clear they’re hitting their stride in this area. They clearly understand what makes a brilliant 2D Metroid experience: superb movement and dexterity, fluid, well-designed, interconnected levels, and combat that feels responsive and satisfying. All present and correct in Metroid Dread, but the experience goes beyond that.
The EMMI sections provide the titular Dread to perfection as you try to escape these relentless foes before ultimately finding the weaponry to take them down. It offers superb light and shade from relaxed exploration to frenetic scampering through the specific zones. And a special mention to the detail Mercury Steam put in this game, from different situational effects that remind you of Breath of the Wild to the additional scenes added in for those speedrunners who sequence break the game. It’s a superb package and gets everyone playing and talking about Metroid again, which can only be a good thing.
Put down those pitchforks people, and just embrace the fact I’ve never played a Forza Horizon game before. Yes I know I missed 4 which was set in the UK, and that was great. But here I am, a Horizon virgin, losing my plates with Forza Horizon 5. And wow, what an experience it has been. In many ways for me, Mexico feels like the perfect setting for a Horizon game. The carnival party atmosphere and aesthetic that oozes throughout is perfectly synonymous with what Forza Horizon 5 is all about. It’s a game that just wants you to enjoy yourself, to have unashamed fun, no matter what that looks like. If you want to race into the night, you can do that, if you fancy scouting the area for hidden boards and barns, then you go right ahead. Even if you just want to experience every single road in the game, Horizon 5 lets you and rewards you for your effort.
Everything is so seamless and, frankly, allowed. There are no rules on how to play, when or what. You find your own fun, and options are literally around every turn. The car variety is superb, giving you plenty of options to mess around in, and you may have noticed but it’s bloody beautiful to look at too. Mexico is an awesome sandbox playground to explore with intense variety and diversity from lush jungles areas, to mountains, sand dunes or city streets. It’s been my go-to “chill out” game when I just want to relax and enjoy myself this year. So whilst this is my first Forza Horizon game, if they make more, it certainly won’t be my last.
It’s difficult to know where to start with It Takes Two, really. A co-op-only experience created by a team led by the sometimes Marmite Josef Fares could be enough to have some people tuning out. But what they’d be missing out on is one of the most enjoyable experiences of the year. It’s a compendium of superb individual moments that end up delighting and resonating with you long after they’re over. The attention to detail here is frankly staggering, often bordering on the unnecessary. Hazelight Studios demonstrate not only a high level of competency with It Takes Two, but a level of understanding and awareness of what games can and should be.
Seemingly traditional or predictable mechanics like a hammer and nail provide the perfect case study as two why this game is so special. It starts with just hammering switches and nailing platforms in place. Then it’s about using the hammer to swing on nails that are shot in the wall, as extra platforms. It culminates in a boss battle using all these mechanics and more. Oh and obviously Mae can also hammer Cody into the floor, for no other reason than it’s funny. In many ways, it’s reminiscent of Super Mario Odyssey in what it does, but for me, It Takes Two “out-Odyssey’s” Odyssey, in that it takes unique ideas, but their multi-functional execution makes them more wonderful than ideas in Mario’s epic.
And It Takes Two keeps doing this throughout its entire runtime. It’s chock-full of special, memorable moments that delight you. It’s got wacky random minigames or ways to randomly kill each other. There’s even a section where you can construct a photo scene just to see the polaroid outcome and nothing else. That and the myriad gaming references and homages throughout and the subtle humour in the writing and character interactions, it truly is a treat. It’s a game that you can’t help but enjoy and appreciate for all that’s inside it. A game for gamers made by gamers that just brings joy to everyone who plays it.
It was a tough, close fight between Tales of Arise and It Takes Two for the top spot, but for me, Arise just edges it. The Tales series for me has been one of mild disappointment over the years. Not because they’ve been bad games, but because entries in the series have failed to live up to my first foray into the franchise, Tales of Symphonia on the GameCube. I thought at that point I’d found a new series I’d fall in love with. I consumed so much of Symphonia, the characters, the lore, the world, even the original video animation, and I loved everything about it. Nothing has come close since, and in all honesty, I wasn’t expecting Tales of Arise to buck that trend, but I was so pleasantly surprised.
What elevates Tales of Arise is that it excels in so many areas. The combat is the first area to mention in that it feels so fluid, satisfying, and a real upgrade from what has come before in Tales games. What starts as a simple, ground and aerial combo mechanic, quickly becomes about identifying enemy weaknesses, and building separate meters to unleash powerful solo or coop attacks. All of which in the roaring heat of battle (supplemented by superb rousing music) are so satisfying to land, before you quickly, and seamlessly divert your attention to the next unlucky foe. In many ways, it’s reminiscent of Scarlet Nexus in its combat, but the way you can tailor and combine your experience across six unique characters makes Tales of Arise just that little bit more satisfying.
The world is interesting and diverse, as is the lore of the warring Dahnans and Renans, and the 300-year history that has led to the here and now. The main characters themselves though, and their arcs, interactions, and main story beats, are where I really fell in love with this game. Shionne, and her isolated past, unable to physically feel human companionship, or Alphen with his unique abilities, unable to help those around him he cares about most. Even Dohalim, born with a silver spoon in his mouth, fights with a dark past, and an overbearing burden of responsibility that doesn’t even end when the credits roll. It’s a cast that really feels like they grow together, in an organic way. But also it’s refreshing that whilst there are payoffs, the end is not just a happy ever after. Reminiscent of Tolkien’s “Scouring of the Shire”, there’s a realisation here that long-fought wars and differences aren’t resolved the instant the big bad is defeated, and it’s nice to see a game approach the realism of this head-on.
It’s an experience that I enjoyed from start to finish. My GOTY. The Tales series is back to its best, and this fan couldn’t be happier.