Back in my Trevor Trove days, I would occasionally play enough games that I could create an entire list of my favorite games that came out it earlier years that I just didn’t get around to until that year. I think I maybe stepped back from doing it a bit because it can be a mouthful of a list name. But I’m bringing it back in a somewhat modified form this year because there were a ton of games from years past that I wanted to celebrate finally getting around to in 2021. Turns out a good chunk of them would have just come from a few franchises though so I (mostly) decided to combine a single entry for each series, rather than, say, four entries on all of the pre-Endwalker Final Fantasy XIV games/expansions. Anyway, here are my top ten “games” that came out in a prior year that I finally played in 2021.
10. Disco Elysium
I tried to play through Disco Elysium for a second time in 2021. It seems so poised to be a game up my alley. Much like when I originally tried to play it a bit in 2019, it just didn’t grab me in the first couple hours so I bounced off of it pretty quickly. But after combining a lot of my later entries, I wanted this list to have a nice round ten count so I decided to include the fact that this came to consoles and give it a place on this list.
9. Super Mario 3D World
My other “I didn’t actually finish this one so I wasn’t originally going to include it” entry, at least I really enjoyed the Super Mario platforming and gameplay of Super Mario 3D World. I probably spent more time with the new Bowser’s Fury game to take part in the conversation of the moment but the 3D World touch-ups from the 3DS handled pretty well on the Switch. I think I mostly just couldn’t be bothered to put a ton of time into my Switch in 2021 after the 600+ hours of Animal Crossing in 2020.
8. Emily is Away / Emily is Away Too
With Emily is Away <3 out this year, I finally sat down with the first two entries in the series after years of dabbling at PAX and discussing them with others like Logan. Kyle Seeley wonderfully taps into the AIM nostalgia in these first two entries. The first one even coincided pretty much directly with my own timeline of the end of high school going into college. But in my own memories, AIM is more closely tied to middle school and those early high school years. Arizona State University was one of the early colleges to get Facebook so I have so many more memories tied to that platform, which got the spotlight in this year’s entry. I also thought I got screwed in my playthrough of Emily Is Away Too by a very questionable interpretation of what I had said but so be it. Both stories excellently capture the feeling of the time and those early text-only flirtations my generation experienced.
Carto was a late 2020 release and I played it early in 2021 so I admittedly didn’t miss it by much. It was an early Game Pass game I checked out after seeing a few others tweet about it online. A clever game where you have the power to place and rotate the game’s tile-based map layout to reorient the world in order to solve puzzles on your quest to reunite with your grandmother. I enjoyed it so much I picked it up on PlayStation as well to get the Platinum for the game.
6. Yakuza Kiwami / Yakuza Kiwami 2 / Yakuza 0
After years of hearing about Yakuza on the periphery of my circles, the combination of Britt Brombacher becoming obsessed with the series at the beginning of the pandemic and the glowing praise that Yakuza: Like a Dragon received in late 2020, I decided to kick off 2021 playing through the early Yakuza games en route to Yakuza: Like a Dragon. I made it through the Kiwami remakes of the first two before deciding to move to the prequel Yakuza 0. With the origins of Kazuma Kiryu and Goro Majima explored, I decided to bypass Yakuza 3-6 for the time being to move on to Ichiban’s story. But I definitely enjoyed enough of these early takes to purchase the rest of them when I’m ready to return to Kamurocho, maybe in 2022.
5. Life is Strange: Before the Storm
After Life is Strange: True Colors, I decided to give a shot to Deck Nine’s earlier Life is Strange story: the prequel featuring an adventure between Chloe Price and Rachel Amber. The characters were great and there were a few wonderful sequences like the tabletop sequences and Tempest, but overall the story didn’t reach the highs of some of the other Life is Strange stories. It definitely left me more excited to revisit the original Life is Strange next year though when the Remaster is released.
4. Return of the Obra Dinn
I remember seeing a lot of people gush about Return of the Obra Dinn a few years back when it first came out but I didn’t really know what it was about until I finally circled around to it early this year. Told over a series of magical still images, you are effectively an insurance adjuster tasked with determining what happened aboard the ill-fated voyage. As someone who loved those word puzzles where you ready a story and have to deduce a few traits for all of the characters, this game felt like that idea turned up to 11 and I really loved going through scenes time and again as I learned new details.
3. Hitman / Hitman 2
With Hitman 3 launching early this year and the game allowing people to play the prior two installments within the same launcher, I decided to give the whole trilogy a go. I tried the first installment a few years back after seeing the fun that Giant Bomb had with the game but it didn’t quite click for me. Second time was a charm though as I put a ton of hours into the entire trilogy in the early months of the year before some of the other big titles started coming out. Level design was wonderful across the board and I ended up really glad I caught the story of the first two games before climbing into Hitman 3.
2. Yakuza: Like a Dragon
A game so good I had to separate it from its franchise brethren earlier up in the list.
The biggest thing that drew me into checking the Yakuza series as a whole was the Yakuza: Like a Dragon praise, framed in part as how well the series made the transition from action brawler to turn-based RPG. And I immediately regretted not having played this in 2020 because it would have been an easy contender for my Game of the Year list last year. The amount of love the series has for its lineage is utterly delightful and the soft-relaunch in this game built around the dual pillars of a brand new protagonist and the JRPG-based gameplay made for such an incredibly fun and often crazy time. The characters were great, the story had a ton of the usual Yakuza twists and turns, there were mini-games galore, and Easter eggs from the three other games in the series I played (and undoubtedly the ones I didn’t) littered throughout. It was the first Yakuza game I 100%/Platinumed and I can’t wait to see where Ichiban’s journey goes next.
1. Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn / Heavensward / Stormblood / Shadowbringers
This was the year of second chances for me. I gave Hitman a second chance at the beginning of the year. I hopped into Fortnite again with a pretty regular frequency this year and with Endwalker set to launch at the end of the year, I hopped back into Final Fantasy XIV Online at the end of May. On and off over the next 6 months, across 300 hours of playtime, I worked my way through A Realm Reborn, Heavensward, Stormblood, and Shadowbringers in time for the Endwalker launch.
I originally gave the game a shot in 2017 when the Stormblood expansion first came out. I enjoyed it quite a bit until the stress I put on myself of playing as a tank (where you are usually expected to know the mechanics of the dungeons) turned me off from the game. This time around, I decided to restart as a DPS Black Mage. When I made it past the dungeon that had led me to walk away originally, I felt great. Then I finished the rest of the A Realm Reborn story, and then every expansion in kind. There were weeks where the only two games I was playing were Fortnite to run my daily challenges and Final Fantasy XIV.
These four entries could have easily taken the top four spots of this list (and played a major role in me just deciding to mostly combine each separate franchise into a single item). As a lifelong Final Fantasy fan, this is another case (like Yakuza) where the developers have such a clear affinity for the series that they fill the game with references to other entries in the series. Final Fantasy VI was my favorite game for a long time until God of War 2018 rolled around. And while it still remains my favorite Final Fantasy, the incredible breadth of Final Fantasy XIV makes an easy case for being the definitive Final Fantasy entry.
(And for the record, I think my ranking is Endwalker > Stormblood > Shadowbringers > Heavensward > A Realm Reborn.)