I played an awful lot of games in 2021. A lot of them were games I had been meaning to get to for literal decades (like, say, Devil May Cry 2) and some of those games were downright awful or disappointing (like, say, Devil May Cry 2). But the year, which was fairly terrible by most measurable standards, was also full of fantastic titles that served as excellent distractions on an otherwise cursed year.
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10. Dodgeball Academia
I loved Pokémon in my youth, but that love didn’t transfer into my adulthood. Its overly simplistic battle mechanics bored me and Game Freak’s inability to grow up with me forced me to put down Sword within two hours. It could have been Shield. I honestly couldn’t have cared less.
Strangely, it took a game about dodgeball to get me to realize what I wanted in a Pokémon game. Dodgeball Academia‘s real-time combat was constantly engaging because it required timing and reflexes as well as a light amount of the gear and party-related RPG busywork that happens before the match. It was never mindless or too easy and is something Pokémon would benefit from, as it would sit alongside the catching mechanic that’s already pretty addictive; two compelling but tonally different systems. Dodgeball Academia is good in its own right for its silly tone and simple but deep gameplay, but it also filled a void that had been empty (for the most part) since my childhood.
Inscryption is one of those games that I didn’t think I’d like because it seemed like one of those oddball games like Frog Fractions that I could only appreciate from afar. But once I started it, I didn’t want to stop. The card-based system was easy to understand yet deep enough to want to master and that sort of gameplay hook is essential for getting some people to stick with and get to the weird stuff.
Because the weird stuff in Inscryption is the biggest draw. The way it breaks the fourth wall and collapses in on itself is fascinating and gets weirder the more you dig. There’s a commitment to the bit here and I can’t help but love it, even if the gameplay teeters into unfair territory in the final act. I just had to see the credits and I’m glad I did.
8. Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart
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I’ve gotten the platinum trophy in every single Ratchet game on every PlayStation console — even the many ports — and would have gotten them on the PS2 multiple times over had trophies existed back then. It’s one of the series I hold nearest to my heart so I was looking forward to a new generation of Ratchet.
Whether or not Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart hit that high bar is hard to nail down. On one hand, the dimension swapping and stunning visuals were what I’d expect for such a powerful console. On the other hand, it sure was a Ratchet & Clank game and almost identical to some of the earliest entries.
It’s a killer formula that’s still fun even if it isn’t new. There’s just something about shooting goofy guns and leveling up in a lovely platformer that just works on a primal level. I wanted Insomniac to go a little deeper on this one, take bigger risks, and finally, for the love of Quark, make good on the grander Lombax story it has been stringing out since 2007. But the studio played it a little safe here, which still resulted in one of the better games of the year because of its timeless foundation and visual spectacle.
7. Hitman 3
IO just needed to make more Hitman to satisfy me. The second title only made some small tweaks here and there to the first game so just some minor variation of that would have been fine. Hitman 3 is more Hitman 2, but is more confident and takes some risks that make it the best of the trilogy.
There are three maps that flip around the game’s mechanics while the other two provide more straightforward Hitman, which was a great balance of old and new. Old is, of course, relative, since playing Hitman doesn’t get old because of the ridiculous amount of freedom players have to cause chaos. IO went out gracefully with Hitman 3 and is a game I’ll pop into every now and again for a long time to unlock challenges and murder chumps in the stupidest way possible.
6. Resident Evil Village
Almost every game has problems with bloat as it seems like publishers only care about the dollars-to-hours ratio, as if time wasted doing mindless tasks is more important than a tighter experience. Resident Evil Village did not waste any of my time and I can’t commend it enough for that. It’s a rollercoaster that rushes you from bit to bit and that pacing kept me playing long into the night. Well, that rang true up until the section with the baby which is one of the most horrifying and well-executed horror sequences I’ve ever seen. Every level has some unique horror-based hook and that level of variety and quality is only possible when the fat is sliced away, which is ironic for a game that weirdly likes to revel in the obesity of its shopkeeper.
5. It Takes Two
Co-op games are rarely fun for me. I have to force myself to play cooperative titles because it usually just feels like it’s paving over mediocre game design or causing me to miss the story. It Takes Two is one of those rare games that couldn’t be played any other kind of way and proved its worth as a co-op game to me.
Giving each player different abilities so they’d actually have to communicate was brilliant and what I want out of a cooperative game. Being able to play with my girlfriend was also fulfilling as it found a way to be challenging to both of us, despite our drastic differences in skill. It also never stopped amazing me with its brilliantly imaginative stages that provided a constant array of new mechanics and unique scenarios. That sort of multilayered design is incredibly difficult to nail and Hazelight did a remarkable job in striking that balance. Also, it had one of the most brutal sequences this side of Mortal Kombat and still won best family game. Go figure.
4. Guardians of the Galaxy
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I came out of my preview demo of Guardians of the Galaxy hopeful, but a little anxious as I wasn’t sure if it would truly come together in the end. It felt like it was primed to be initially promising yet ultimately disappointing. However, the final game floored me as its story and characters were far deeper and funnier than I had anticipated, stunning for a studio known for its gravelly protagonist and a dark cyberpunk world. I didn’t ask for this but somehow Eidos-Montreal still crafted a tale that expertly bounced between silly and serious with great jokes that had me chuckling and serious moments that were unexpectedly heartwarming.
The gameplay needed some tweaking as the default settings are way too easy, but the combat was also thrilling as combining abilities was strategic enough. A sequel could iron out these small kinks and expand upon what was done here as it is a good foundation. Even though its gameplay was decent enough and its unique alien worlds made for pretty vistas, Guardians of the Galaxy‘s story and cast grabbed me the most and is why I hold it in such high regard, showing the power of a strong narrative and character work.
3. Metroid Dread
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I woke up every morning to play about an hour or two of Metroid Dread before starting my day, which was infinitely better than scrolling on Twitter. It was the perfect way to wake up my brain because Dread is a challenging experience that forced me to pay attention. It doesn’t explicitly spell out where to go but intelligently signposts the path forward through small clues and cleverly blocked passages. I prefer when games hint at where to go over letting players wander aimlessly or putting objective markers on everything. It strikes that middle ground, which is something more games should do. h
The game is beautifully designed like this from top to bottom. Combat is tough but never unfair and ensures that you can’t just walk through it. Bosses are also punishing but require that you learn patterns to come out victorious. Story beats are spread far apart yet contain some truly earned surprises. Samus is satisfying to control from the jump (which is rare for search action platformers) and only builds from there as powers come in at the perfect pace. Even Samus herself is at her most badass, dodging shots and blasting her own with an amount of style she’s never come close to achieving before. The E.M.M.I. robots are also an amazing addition that flips the power dynamic before flipping it back once you find the super beam weapon. Hiding and outrunning these death bots is tense and then being able to destroy them is a rewarding loop each and every time.
Almost every bit of this game seems designed to exactly fit my specific tastes and sensibilities. I love being pushed to learn a game’s systems through thoughtful design and that seems to be at the very core of Metroid Dread. It’s not some new reinvention of the Metroidvania genre, but it’s one of the most polished ones in it.
2. The Forgotten City
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It took me around six hours to completely finish The Forgotten City. Once I started it, I could not put it down. I had to see how it wrapped up its mystery at all costs. But that was only the initial hook because the game makes the journey there compelling in its own right, too. The twists and turns come at a steady pace, each of which was earned and genuinely surprising.
They also don’t come randomly or lose sight of the finale, which seems poised to be disappointing, given the weight of its intriguing premise. But it stuck the landing as it challenged me to think in a way games don’t often do and provided convincing answers and explanations for almost every idea it brings up. Some have criticized it for being like a high school philosophy textbook, but some of its charm and accessibility would probably be diminished if it had been exponentially more complicated. Modern Storyteller’s Nick Pearce quit his decade-long legal career for this game and given its quality, it seems like he made the right choice.
Reviewing games is a unique and isolating experience as you are figuring out everything in a vacuum before The Discourse™ has taken over. Most of the time, it’s fine or moderately enjoyable to be able to form your own opinions free of outside input in that pre-launch window.
But then there are games like Returnal where the feeling of being in the dark enhanced the experience. I had no idea what to expect, which helped me align more closely with Selene’s weird journey into the abyss. This meant I was constantly being surprised and having revelations that others may have spoiled online.
The story had surprises for me, but it also surprised me in general with its quality. I thought there would be no way a studio that had only written arcade narratives barely worthy of a G.I. Joe cartoon would write something more than that in Returnal. But Housemarque obliterated those low expectations and created one of the most interesting stories of the year. It gave me enough to get the general gist of the plot and enough to theorize but didn’t spoon-feed me every bit to where I could paint the full picture. This presentation allowed me to come up with my own idea of what happened, which would often clash with the equally valid theories I’d see online from friends and strangers. Being able to support that wide of a berth of ideas without giving away everything is a masterstroke in this type of storytelling and working for it made it that much more satisfying to come up with my conclusion.
Working to figure out the story matched how I had to work to excel in the gameplay. Truthfully, I didn’t find it as blisteringly difficult as some, but it was still a hard game that tested me. Although Housemarque’s impeccable controls meant it was never truly frustrating as my deaths were always my fault. Nailing that is key to the “one more run” mentality that the best types of these games have. The bullet hell core, something Housemarque knows well, also forced me to keep moving in order to live and experience the game at its best since playing passively is both boring and deadly. Returnal is a game that challenged me mentally and physically and always provided some sort of internal and external reward for the work. It was endlessly gratifying and easily my favorite game of 2021.