2021 was an interesting year for games, I felt like there was a long time in-between game releases I was interested in and there weren’t a ton of stand out games competing for game of the year like in prior years. During the downtime I was able to catch up on many of the games I had missed from 2020 like, Hades, Astros Playroom, Final Fantasy 7 Remake, and Doom Eternal, plus I was finally able to play games like Control, Donut County, Night in the Woods, and more. Most notably I became a huge fan of two legacy game franchises this year, Yakuza and Metal Gear Solid. All that said, there were still a lot of great games released this year, especially some with unique and interesting ideas. So without further ado here are my top 10 games of the year, the ones that left the biggest impression on me.
Maquette is a creative puzzle game that ends up being a somewhat MC Escher-esque adventure with a pretty interesting love story. The story is a surprisingly real take on a love story that is well written and well acted. The puzzles are brain breaking sometimes, the soundtrack is fantastic, and the game had me invested in pushing forward to continue the narrative. Without knowing much about the game going in I was pleasantly surprised by all this. Earlier this year before playing Maquette I also played Superliminal, which I think handled it’s similar puzzle solving mechanics in a better way. Ultimately I think that is what held the game back a little for me, but it’s still one of the best games this year.
9. Far Cry 6
I am the guy that keeps playing all of the Far Cry games every time one is released and despite this being a strong entry in the Far Cry series I think I am finally feeling the fatigue. The gameplay is still fantastic and it does add some good quality of life improvements, like the ability to change your loadout in the menu at any time and holster your weapon to avoid combat. Being able to visit populated cities is also a nice addition, although there isn’t really much to do there most of the time. The villain played by Giancarlo Esposito might be one of the best in the series, he is a much more present force throughout the story and a deeper character than the typical unhinged mad man. But, after playing so many games in this series, Far Cry 6 struggles to maintain the level of excitement I felt in prior games and even can feel samey at times. Some of the new additions like the Supremo backpack also fail to really change the gameplay in any meaningful way and I miss having human companions as an option entirely. They also changed it so abilities are tied to the gear you’re wearing instead of being bought through a skill tree, I like this idea in concept since it makes cosmetic items more useful and allows for different loadouts, but I definitely missed just being able to have all the abilities passively active instead of going into the menu to change my gear when needed.
8. Persona 5 Strikers
Persona 5 Strikers is a bizarre game. Being the sequel to Persona 5 and not the more recent Persona 5 Royal, while also being a musou style game rather than the traditional JRPG. That being said I don’t think any of these things end up holding the game back as they really nailed the Persona 5 style, characters, and world. It can be a bit slow in the early hours since they have to catch everyone up on certain events and systems from Persona 5, but since the Phantom Thieves are already assembled as a group it ends up being a pretty fun summer road trip across Japan. The gameplay can be a bit hectic as they included every single element from the Persona 5 battle system, but now it’s all happening in real time rather than the turned-based combat. It is really easy to get overwhelmed in a crowd of shadows/personas then get comboed into being killed from full health. The combat also gets old after a few dungeons as every component is introduced in the first and it only evolves by adding stronger personas with a lot more HP in later dungeons.
7. Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy
After everything that happened with the Avengers game last year I was worried about the Guardians of the Galaxy game seemingly coming in hot out of nowhere. That said, this game ended up being the biggest surprise of the year for me. I really enjoyed my time adventuring through space making Telltale style decisions to flavor my own story and further my relationships with different characters on board the ship. A real strength of the game is it being untethered from anything else, Eidos-Montréal was able to carve out its own distinctive universe while still pulling familiar elements from and even making references to the Guardians comics/movies. There are a ton of great easter eggs for Marvel comics fans that help flesh out the universe, some collectibles are even tied to specific characters unlocking further backstory and conversations with them. Ultimately the writing, characters, world, and story really carry the game, while its biggest downfalls end up being somewhat underbaked combat and many bugs that appeared throughout my two playthroughs.
6. Ratchet and Clank: Rift Apart
Ratchet and Clank was my favorite of the PS2 era platformers and over the years Insomniac Games has perfected everything that makes the series so great. The gameplay is just as fun and frantic as it has ever been. Constantly chasing your next weapon upgrade truly never gets old as all the weapons feel great. The graphics are incredible, from the fur effects on Ratchet and Rivet to all of the crazy particle effects flying around during the frenetic combat sections. Rivet and Kit are welcome additions to the series, hopping between Ratchet and Rivet on their journey across the universe helps keep things fresh even though both characters play basically the same. Being able to open rifts to travel through different universes and having a weapon that tears open rifts pulling items from these different universes are both great additions. Rift Apart is a great showcase of what the PS5 can do and honestly it’s some of the most fun I have had in a game this year.
5. Genesis Noir
Genesis Noir is a really unique and interesting noir detective adventure game that spans time and space. The game puts a big emphasis on impressive visuals and creative puzzles, it also packs in an interesting narrative that is told largely through the visuals and music. This game also probably has my favorite soundtrack from a game this year, I really hope we get a vinyl pressing of it soon. One of my favorite set pieces in the game is when you are making your way around on a subway train, the game breaks into different comic book style panels with interactive tiles to progress the story forward as you travel around. There are a lot of crazier cosmic visuals and puzzles that can be found in the game, especially in its final moments, but that is one that has stuck with me. The game can be a little bit slow at the start, but it really shines in its later chapters, which isn’t too bad as the game is only about three to four hours long depending on your puzzle solving ability.
4. Emily is Away 3
I have been a huge fan of the Emily is Away series going all the way back to the first games release in 2015. All three games in the series have a ton of nostalgia baked in with unique gameplay that involves an evolving narrative based on choices you make in text chat conversations. Being set in 2008-2009 this entry moves away from AIM to an early Facebook-like site called Facenook, for me this setting hits a lot closer to home and this game took me right back to that early social network era. There is such an amazing attention to detail in every aspect of the game from the conversations you have, to peoples profiles, their status updates, and even the links you’re sent to other websites. One of my favorites is Youtoob, a version of YouTube that is also accurate to the era. Receiving links I used to send people and exploring the old version of YouTube just like I used to spend hours doing was a highlight of the game for me. I love pretty much everything about this game, but it being the third entry in the series I felt that some parts of the story didn’t hit as hard for me since I anticipated some elements ahead of time. Even knowing it was probably going to end in heartbreak and sadness, I was still left with those feelings at the end of the game, which shows how strong the narrative is and how well it conveys it.
3. Resident Evil Village
I don’t typically play horror games so I don’t have a long history with the Resident Evil franchise. I have watched friends play a few of the games in the past, then I finally started playing the series when it went first person with Resident Evil 7. After enjoying that so much I have been looking forward to Resident Evil 8 ever since and I can say it was definitely worth the wait. I think the gothic setting of the village was a great choice and a good change up from the setting in RE7. Castle Dimitrescu is definitely a highlight, the escalation of Lady Dimitrescu and her daughters stalking you throughout her castle is intense, it’s a really good blend of the old and new Resident Evil styles. There is another sequence after that that might be my favorite I have ever played in a horror game, it’s basically an escape room that takes everything you have away from you and it only delves further into insanity as you progress, becoming something more like PT than Resident Evil. Everything that is here from the gameplay, the world & enemy design, and even the clever puzzles has kept me wanting to replay this game over and over again.
2. The Artful Escape
Certainly the most colorful game I have played this year, The Artful Escape, is more than just trippy cosmic kaleidoscope visuals. It’s also a charming coming of age tale about leaving your hometown to find yourself amongst the stars. This is one story that actually benefits from being a game, the ability to flavor your adventure with different choices that lightly impact the overall narrative really helps sell the story. Going through a fairly detailed character creator also helps convey the theme of redefining yourself. The game is a little lighter on gameplay with it only having light platforming and some mild rhythm game sections, but I didn’t mind this personally and I think it makes the game/story more accessible. Being able to freely play my guitar whenever and having it interact with elements of the environment as you run by never got old. It should go without saying the soundtrack in this game is also fantastic, it starts out very Bob Dylan folk inspired and transitions into a more Ziggy Stardust-esque space rock.
1. Psychonauts 2
I have been a big fan of Double Fine for a really long time now. Having played most of their games in the past it is so great to see them fully unchained, this is truly some of their best work ever and this game has the best writing this year. It doesn’t beat you over the head with all of its story beats, so much is conveyed through great level design, visuals, and even the enemies you encounter within the levels. I love how they have added enemies based on different feelings and mental health conditions, having enablers shield other enemies as an example. Being able to use your psychic powers in combat and to traverse the world feels great and helps keep things varied. Having different enemies be weak to certain powers encourages frequently rotating through them, which leads to some fun combat sections especially later in the game. It also has some of the most creative level design I have ever played in a game, from a psychedelic Woodstock style festival, to a cooking game show, and even a “it’s a small world” style amusement park ride complete with a gift shop. For being such a fun and funny game the whole way through Psychonauts 2 ends up having a surprisingly deep story with themes that left me thinking long after playing.