Another year down, another huge pile of games to sift through and try to, somehow, put into order. Quite unlike me, I’ve spent hours and hours tweaking and changing my GOTY list this year. Usually I find it’s locked in pretty early, but 2021 has been hugely tumultuous for me. And not just in terms of games and gaming, either.
As I’ve bounced from pillar to post professionally and personally, games have, as ever, been my anchor point. But that’s half the problem: I’ve thrown myself into so many this year that even now I worry I’ve forgotten something. I’ve also stepped outside of my comfort zone more than once with games I never thought I’d play, some of which have made it onto this very list. Still, as they say in certain circles, variety is the spice of life. Read on for my personal top ten of 2021, with a few honourable mentions to kick us off.
Kena: Bridge of Spirits was a game I always knew I was gfoing to love. The initial reveal won me over, and that it had more than a whiff of GameCube classic Beyond Good & Evil about the aesthetic was enough to catch my eye. Playing it, I found myself smiling more than I did at most other games this year. It has its down moments, sure, but on the whole it’s a beautiful, heart-warming adventure.
F.I.S.T: Forged in Shadow Torch has a very silly title. It also has a very silly premise: a hard-as-nails rabbit revolutionary taking on an army of cybernetically enhanced dobermans with a giant mechanical fist. I mean, what? Thing is, though, it works. One of the year’s best Metroidvanias (and there have been a lot, including an actual Metroid game), it surprised me with just how likeable it turned out to be.
NEO: The World Ends With You is one of those games I was talking about that took me outside of my usual comfort zone. I rarely touch JRPGs these days – I often find I don’t really have the time to invest in their stories, and so I tend to avoid them. NEO: The World Ends With You just caught my attention. I can’t even remember why, but I’m glad it did. It’s one of the most effortlessly enjoyable games of the year
Humankind surprised me a little. I went in expecting another civilisation sim with a fancy gimmick and came out having thoroughly enjoyed my time with it. It’s not as deep as, say Age of Empires 4, but in a year that has seen a considerable amount of similar releases, it stands out due to a unique mechanic that lets you blend multiple civilisations together without concern for historical accuracy. A solid, addicitve title.
Tales of Arise almost made my top ten. Almost. Having never played a Tales game before I wasn’t as bowled over by the improvements it made to an established formula, but I did begin to fully invest in its world and characters. Even without the superb dynamic between main characters Alphen and Shionne, I still would have gone head over heels for it’s incredibly fluid and exhilarating combat.
10. Far Cry 6
Despite my predictions to the contrary, at least one Ubisoft game makes it onto my list every year. And for the sheer sense of fun and shenanigans, Far Cry 6 has managed it in 2021. We can mumble and grumble all we want about “familiar formulas”, but the fact is it still works. Just. While the whole concept might be ready for an overhaul, I still had a tremendous amount of fun tearing it up in Far Cry 6. The story itself treads ground we’ve trodden before, for sure, but the amount of things to see, steal, destroy and discover in Ubisoft’s sandbox is impressive nonetheless.
This one had my attention from the word “go”. A sci-fi looter shooter in an apocalyptic world filled with monsters and mayhem and space magic? Sign me up. While People Can Fly didn’t get everything right, they introduced us to their universe in the right way. As Outriders slowly makes the transition we always knew it would and becomes more of a live service game, I’m only getting more and more excited for its future. Despite playing the story through 3 times on 3 different platforms, I’m still digging the endgame and that sweet gameplay loop of killin’ and lootin’.
I’ve heard this called a “pefect game” and it’s hard to argue with that label. I rarely play driving games, but it had me hooked just from its bombastic, OTT intro. Not being a fan of the genre, I maybe don’t give it the props others have and will – but the argument that there’s very little it could have done bigger or better is a hard one to turn aside. The sheer wealth of cars, events, and secrets, coupled with a gorgeous, sprawling open world filled with things to do is a powerful draw, even for non racing afficianados.
I will admit to knowing and caring very little about the Guardians of the Galaxy until James Gunn’s 2014 movie put them on the map, and intreoduced them to the MCU in spectacular fashion. My first impressions of the gameplay reveal for Square Enix and Eidos Montreal’s new game were a little off though. I had the same feeling as when I first saw Marvel’s Avengers revealed with all those strange, strange faces and voices. But for some reason, it seems to matter less in GOTG. The strong personalities of the characters and the exceptionally good story are enough to throw those concerns right out the window, while its mix of exploration, fun and unblievably good music are enough to silence any other issues I might have with its admittedly uneven technical performance.
For the longest time, this one sat at the top of my list. I went into it with no prior knowledge of the previous game, almost expecting a weirdly-niche spin-off that would turn me immediately cold. I was very, very wrong. Wings of Ruin is absoutely packed with heart and charm. It is quintessentially Monster Hunter, while also out performing Pokemon in the monster-collecting stakes. And the combat, too, which is an exceptional twist on standard turn-based JRPG dust-ups. Very nearly 2021’s most charming game, even if they do insist on calling a 15-foot-tall armour-plated killing machine a “monstie”.
Moving into the second half of my list, I’m reminded just how many games have used the time-loop mechanic this year in one way or another. And I’m hard-pushed to many at all that did it better than Deathloop. More than that, though, this is Arkane at their finest, using skills they honed developing the Dishonored games to create a brand new world packed to the eyeballs with detail and personality. From the incredible aesthetic and soundtrack to the stellar writing, it’s an incredible adventure that sees protagonist Cole and his fast talking nemesis Julianna do battle across an island caught in a constant timeloop that sees them living out the same chaotic conflict day-in and day-out. It’s a mesmerising, unique experience.
Having come into this series with the advent of Monster Hunter World, I’m still considered a noob. A couple of thousand hours invested in this franchise is but a drop in the ocean to die-hard veterans. And yet, it says something that World, and by extension Rise, were the games that finally got their hooks into me. I sometimes wish Rise wasn’t developed as a Nintendo Switch exclusive. Seeing what was done with World in terms of graphics and performance is still a little awe-inspiring, and RIse feels almost held back by its hardware. And yet, it’s still dizzyingly fun to play, alone or with friends, and I can’t wait for the upcoming expansion in 2022.
I’m not the most skilled gamer out there. Anyone who knows me will tell you that. But I do have perseverance. I do have staying power. It’s how I made it through all the Souls games, through Bloodborne, through countless pretenders. I love a challenging roguelike with a solid central premise as much as the next slightly self-hating masochist. But this year’s Returnal had me genuinely on the fence about whether to just jack it in over and over again. I’m not saying it’s the hardest game ever; it’s not. But success is largely dependant on getting the right loadout and knowing what to do with it.
I found Returnal tough, yes, but something about its world and protagonist, the understated story and its compelling mystery, kept me going. I need to know why Selene was on that planet, why she was foreced to keep reliving death after death. And I was hooked, on the fluid, almost flawless movement and combat, and the stunning environments and enemy design. A true triumph for Housemarque and one of the PS5’s genuine must-have titles.
I have a confession to make here: part of me actually believed this might not be that good. After that initial reveal left me a little cold, I struggled to feel the hype. Despite being a Halo fan since the launch of Combat: Evolved all those years ago, I wasn’t overly enamoured by Halo 5: Guardians and thought this might be the game to finally lose me. Boy howdy, was I wrong. Jumping into the multiplayer beta blew the cobwebs right off. As I tore around in Ghosts and Warthogs and slammed sticky grenades onto the face sof my friends and enemies, I felt like I’d come home.
And when I finally got to play the campaign, I fell completely and utterly in love. The open world is amazing – vast and yet busy, not just an endless checklist of things to find but a broken paradise filled with stuff to see and explore. The story, too, is epic, bringing the Chief back in spectacular fashion but also, crucially, giving him much more to actually do. 343 Studios have hit the reset button with this one, and it’s so, so good to be back.
1. It Takes Two
As we’ve said several times in several ways, this is a game that has no right to exist, let alone to be this good. I didn’t even bother with it at first, so convinced was I that it just wasn’t my bag. But hearing my colleagues at God is a Geek tell me repeatedly what I was missing, I finally gave it a run in time for the annual GOTY deliberations and holy shit – it’s phenomenal. This is a game that I shouldn’t like: a colourful, cutesy platformer with a backstory that could easily have been saccharine sweet. A game about living dolls navigating fantastical versions of real-world environments like bedrooms and gardens. How could this possibly end up being my favourite game of 2021?
It’s simple really. It has more heart, charm, and pure unadulterated love than anything I’ve ever played. And I don’t mean the love of the characters; I mean love for videogames. LIke Astro’s Playroom, It Takes Two feels like a love letter to the medium. Josef Fares and Hazelight didn’t set out to make just one game. They set out to make all the games they’d ever wanted to make in one go. It’s something that shouldn’t possibly work, a mish-mashed hodge-podge of titles and styles and genres that nerve stops delivering new experiences, new mechanics, new feelings. I played it through with my daughter in just four sittings and have never laughed or shouted as much through a co-op game. If its cliche or hyperbolic to refer to a game as magical, I’m sorry that I’m not sorry to say that It Takes Two is exactly that: pure, unbridled, video game magic.