My Game of the Year lists are usually full of fun references, bits, and dumb stories about why some of these games made it to certain points in my list. This year’s will be less of that, and more just small blurbs about why I found these games particularly special. I don’t think there’s a single game on my list that doesn’t stand on its own, but I’m looking forward to telling you why they left a mark on me enough to make it on my list. Even if I broke some of my normal rules to make it happen.
10. Loop Hero
I LOVE the premise of this game, and loved it even more in its execution. The evolution of how the game reveals more and more to you, as you put yourself through the loops of encounters with dangerous foes and creatures of myth and legend, all the while slowly gathering the resources you’ll need to try and rebuild a semblance of society. The greater mystery beyond the first boss, the secrets behind the void, and your ability to have not only survived the destruction of all things and your mysterious ability to build your camp, are still a mystery as of writing this. But it’s clear the journey of the loops is what Loop Hero is about. You’ll grow and gain treasures and equipment, unlock new classes, and make the hardest decisions of when you’ll end a loop, or risk it all for another go around.
9. Guilty Gear Strive
There is not another fighting game franchise I have loved over the last eighteen years of my life more than Guilty Gear. A kismet happenstance at a Blockbuster Video almost twenty years ago led me down a rabbit hole that has been a deep study of lore ranging from video games, to novels, to manga, to audio dramas. Give me any amount of time and I can break down the story of Guilty Gear on just about any level. But as the series went into hiatus, and sat on the shelf, I maintained a hope and devotion that the cult classic from darling Arc System Works would make a return. I never could have anticipated it to be a MOBA style action game. The selling point for me, however, was the story serving as a direct sequel, and introducing more lore and story we’d received in six years. Due to poor sales, it would be the only one we’d get for another seven years.
Xrd Sign and its subsequent Revelator sequels seemed to rejuvenate the series as it returned to its fighting game roots. And the story continued to reveal more and more leading to a conflict I’d been waiting to see the end of ever since I was a fourteen year old boy. The conflict between “That Man” and the protagonist Sol Badguy. When Striver announced it was coming out, and knowing how Revelator 2 had ended, I knew we were going to finally reach this boiling point. This conclusion to the true central conflict of the entire Guilty Gear saga that began ever since the reveal of the existence of “That Man” back in 1998 in the game’s first iteration on the PlayStation.
And boy did it. In the absolute worst way it possibly could have. In the last chapter of the story mode, the entire mythos and conflict that had been built over more than twenty years concluded in what was the smallest whisper of a fart in the wind, emotionally deflating me more than any product of media had my entire life. And anyone who listened to our Summer of Star Wars episode on Attack of the Clones should know how badly you have to fail to reach that point.
The rest of the game outside of the story is an absolute masterclass in going into your game’s complex mechanics: completely reworking them to make it even easier to get into it for new players and creating a brand new set of challenges and difficulty for longtime or hardcore Fight Game Community players. Heralded as a revival of the franchise with a brilliant netcode being a lifesaver in the modern Pandemic era, it truly is a masterpiece and a way of showing that as far as the game itself, in addition to its music, is concerned, Ishiwatari-san hasn’t lost his incredible touch. This alone gets it on my GOTY list, but its place on the list should tell you how badly it blew it in the story department. And I don’t care if you don’t think fighting game stories matter. I do.
8. Scarlet Nexus
Scarlet Nexus is proof that Bandai Namco can not only make a great and stylish game, it can create a brilliant combat system that sets it apart from just about every other game that came out in 2021. The world it builds is a post-apocalyptic cyberpunk-fueled journey chock full of sci-fi conspiracy-laden plots of societal manipulation mixed with a war of attrition with creatures that can be described as urban-inspired absurdist expressionism sculptures that are trying to murder you.
But its glaring weakness is a divided narrative that necessitates two playthroughs to have a full grasp on the story, albeit between two very likable protagonists and their posse of allies. Replaying through most of the same areas is more than a bit tedious, and considering the dynamic between the two protagonists, it would have been a better narrative running in parallel throughout a single playthrough rather than splitting it up the way Scarlet Nexus does. This, combined with some odd leaps in logic in some places, causes some really weird moments in the narrative that leave you scratching your head on how they could have missed such obvious moments to give clarity or exposition.
Overall a terrific game, but its faults can be a bit much, considering the number of other incredible titles that were released last year.
It’s incredibly difficult to capture the spirit of a game like Dungeons and Dragons. There are more than enough games that either outright lift the game’s mechanics, or are at least deeply inspired by them. But in the past few years, only a couple of titles come to mind in how they capture that feeling of watching a tabletop story play out in front of you.
Wildermyth captures that spirit beautifully. Minimalist in its design, using purposefully designed cut out models like from tabletop games you can find in a game store. Its simplicity is charming and its focus on strategic decisions reminds me quite a bit of 4th Edition of Dungeons and Dragons. Its storytelling is perhaps its weakest point, as it presents generic tabletop storytelling cliches, but it at least does so in a way that feels dynamic and fun. Its choices and characters can feel a bit stilted and generic, but it finds redemption in its randomly generated sections. By keeping the game’s systems and set up simple, Worldwalker Games delivers a stunning entry that strongly separates itself and a replayability with its multiple adventure modules, legacy character options, and easy to grasp – and incredibly enjoyable – combat encounters.
With a highly modular approach, and numerous downloadable content so soon after release, and incredible replayability, and a consistent release of new content and updates, Wildermyth is an incredible debut for Worldwalker Games, and a sign to keep your eyes on them.
6. Hitman 3
Just about any other year, I would place Hitman 3 higher on my list, maybe even the GOTY with the way I embraced the series in 2021. But with the kind of year I had, and the way the later games impacted me, it got pushed out of the Top 5. This is a game I would be happy to go back to and rethink my entire list because of how great it is. It’s that kind of game, the kind that is based purely on the logic of how a great game is a great game, the 1 + 1 = 2 of games. From its masterful use of stealth, discovery, and butterfly effect-esque cause and effect embedded in its systems, to a strikingly interesting conclusion to the trilogy’s storyline, the control and feel of Agent 47 has never been better, and the challenges never as intricate in their design and the multiple ways to resolve them.
Hitman 3 is a masterclass in level design and mechanics, and to top it all off, it’s fun as hell. From the wild and hilarious of skulking through the shadows and ledges just to lurch the statue of a bird into someone’s head so they’ll fall off a balcony to their death, to something as cold and precise as slipping into a soundproof emotional support room to tie a quick garrote as smooth as you tie laces on a shoe. Smoothly slipping out before anyone knows they’re dead. Add in the fact that it launched as a platform to play previous entries and what feels like an infinite library of custom levels and challenges, and Hitman 3 proves it is the best place to start your journey and shows why there may be no greater assassin than Agent 47.
5. Boyfriend Dungeon
Full disclosure, I need to put up front here that I was an early backer of Boyfriend Dungeon. Now that that is out of the way, I need to give you some insight. If you haven’t listened to our GOTY podcast you will have missed much of my reasoning that I will be omitting here. Consider it Podcast exclusive content. For a summary, I’m queer. But I didn’t come out until I was 30, which was five months before the Pandemic of COVID-19. So opportunities to experience and become involved with the LGBTQA+ community in any sort of physical or offline capacity have been lacking. And that includes dating.
Boyfriend Dungeon was something of a vicarious experience for me, putting myself in the shoes of a younger version of myself, as I got to explore queer romance experiences in a game where I wasn’t playing it from an established queer character, but from my own. Engaging in relationships and friendships with a bright and dangerous group of characters was its own joy alongside a fun rougelite dungeon runner.
The story it tells of hurt and healing is something I really enjoyed, and although some elements of that story became controversial, I was sad when my time in Verona Beach came to an end.
4. Tales of Arise
For my second entry into the Tales franchise, I wasn’t sure what to expect. Perhaps the high fantasy aspects of Tales of Berseria, combined with a personal and emotional storytelling that weaved a narrative of vengeance, grief, loss, and determination. With characters that stood out like Rokurou or Eizen, who had their own reasons for standing alongside the anti-hero Velvet outside of the traditional heroic storytelling in most Japanese role playing games. What I got in Tales of Arise truly took me by surprise.
Concepts like “freedom” and “justice” are thrown around quite a lot in RPG’s, especially in the Japanese sub-genre. These are best applied to young characters gaining knowledge and feeling their ideals clashing with the reality of the world they live in. Tales of Arise does something very different in that approach, almost too earnest for a savvy career RPG player like myself to buy into immediately. But in truly earnest moments, it catches you off guard. The pursuit of characters having a real tangible goal moving hand in hand with their journey to understand their own moral and philosophical beliefs and hypocrites, helps you grow attached to them. It makes you want to root for them as they struggle to accomplish their goals.
While these characters are engaging, and the through line of the game builds with drive and motivation, there comes a point, roughly ten hours or so before the game’s ending, where just after a massive breakthrough for one of the game’s central protagonists occur, the narrative puts a massively out of place conflict between the two main characters. What’s strange about it is that it is literally the issue that was resolved in this prior breakthrough. I audibly said, “Wait, didn’t we just do this?” and the game doesn’t even give recognition to it. All of a sudden after a momentous breakthrough, character development, and monumental boss fight, it apparently meant NOTHING. The whiplash of that was enough to make me pretty upset, but then the narrative said it’d been like this for a month of in-game time and I lost it. A forced, contrived nature felt so artificially placed that I just couldn’t deal with it and decided to stop playing. I loved the time I spent with it, but after really enjoying and engaging with a narrative that felt believable even at its worst moments, this was just too much.
The thing that makes this so frustrating is how the relationship between Alphen and Shionne blossoms over the course of the game. How they go from individuals taking advantage of one another to achieve their goals, and into the partnership they develop. It contrasts with other relationships and romances in most games, as there is no big, wide-eyed moment when one character falls for another, but rather as they grow and develop as a pair. How they stay by each other’s side, and not just in a single grand singular moment, but through the small and quiet ones. It’s a journey of two people discovering they have more to offer, and can be more than they thought they could, by just being with another person. And this isn’t just how things are between Alphen and Shionne, but how this approach helps characters build a relationship as a team, letting the story not be about the destination, or the journey along the way. But rather its about the people who make it with us. Despite my harsh criticisms, this central theme, and an awesome as all hell battle system, are enough to come out over the games lower on my list.
I LOVED Deathloop on just about every level. The story and narrative that you discover in the various loops, the characters that made up the island’s leaders, and even some of their underlings, the fun and cool powers, and speciality weapons. You can’t give me the embodiment of every eight year old who claims by stacking one pistol in front of the other that it’s now somehow more powerful, and then make it a thing and it NOT be the coolest thing. This game is filled with those, “This is the coolest thing” moments that just never feel like they are going to stop. And really, up until the credits roll, they don’t.
Now take this with a grain of salt, as I’ve been pounding the Arkane Studios drum since Dishonored debuted a decade ago. But the characters of the Visionaries, their motifs and themes, and the way the world can change based on prior actions in the loop, all to be reset at the stroke of midnight, all allow for you to engage in a number of approachable ways that allows for engagement in experimentation. This leads to dozens and maybe even hundreds of runs as you leap into discovering the different parts of loops and how they can affect one another based on just the natural order of events, or how Colt can influence them. All in search of the perfect run which, even when you’ve done everything right, can still be thwarted by the sudden appearance of Juliana, who plays a terrific foil or serves as an alternative playable character in the multiplayer mode, allowing you to invade someone else’s game.. It creates a game that trades in a powerful and driving narrative Arkane is known for, focusing on the fun and adrenaline pumping excitement that comes with embracing the chaos of an Arkane property.
2. Emily is Away <3
My most anticipated game of the year ended up being not just one of my favorite games of all time, but where a lot of my creative focus was for the beginning of the year. It was a game that I dedicated time to making a Let’s Play series for, and it was terrific to explore this game with an audience. And to top it off, to have Kyle Seeley on a special spoilercast was possibly the best way to top off the project we at That Nerdy Site spent so much of our early 2021 investing time into. So it’s no wonder that it ended up on our lists, and it narrowly was beaten out for number 1 on mine.
To say I have a deep love for this series is nothing short of an understatement. When the first Emily is Away crossed my desktop computer, I felt engaged in something of a time machine. Somehow Kyle had expertly transported me back to my teen years using AOL Instant Messenger. I was so enthralled with the idea of being able to find the good ending, I at one point charted every possible decision out, and my conclusion was understanding the only way to get a happy ending was not to play. Emily is Away Too felt groundbreaking, bringing in a custom set of interfaces for modern websites like YouTube that gave them the appearance of the way YouTube had looked like back in the game’s time period, which felt critical to the game’s ability to make you feel and believe that Emily and Evelyn weren’t just separate people, they were real.
Kyle Seeley is the first developer I’ve known to use the parasocial phenomenon and incorporate it into a game at the level I observed in Emily is Away <3. A core cast of four characters, Matt, Emily, Evelyn, and Kelly make up your core group in your senior year of high school. The game takes place in 2008 and, as someone who graduated in 2008, I couldn’t believe how much the original Facebook had changed. And despite being an adult man in my 30’s, I was immediately transported back to my 18 year old self. There isn’t a game series that can make you feel nostalgia for a time and people that aren’t real like this one. Kyle masterfully weaves a narrative about trust, loyalty, love, and loss. It’s a masterpiece.
1. Final Fantasy XIV: Endwalker
Ah yes, remember when I said I was breaking some rules? This is why. Previously, I have been adamant that no Game of the Year list would be fair if I included my favorite ongoing game’s most recent expansion. But after playing through Endwalker, I just have to say this: I don’t care. The conclusion to Final Fantasy XIV’s Ascian saga is one of the greatest stories ever told, in an intricate tapestry that only an MMO could possibly provide the bandwidth for. Hundreds of hours of storytelling led to singular moments that bored its way into my emotional core, set its claws in, and never let go.
Even as a solo player for most of my journey, I never felt alone. Between the characters of the story and my fellow players, the world of Eorzea has felt lived in for almost every step of the way. Even if most of my communication with the community is often limited to a “o/” or “Hey”, or maybe some complex macro that said hello in the shape of a tonberry and cactuar dancing the macarena, it never feels shallow or without warmth or heart.. While the journey may oftentimes feel like it’s “my” story, there is a wonderful feeling of knowing others have walked where I have walked, and felt the things I have felt. I can’t help watching someone’s reactions on YouTube to major story moments. I love seeing friends share glamors, outfits, congratulatory celebrations of clearing a difficult encounter, and more. Seeing a player with an Ultimate version of a weapon feels like I can’t help but nod in acknowledgement, knowing they’ve accomplished something I probably never will be able to.
Even after playing Final Fantasy XIV for what is coming up on six years, there are still new things I’m discovering, and finding enjoyment in. I’ve scraped enough Gil to put myself into the lottery for a house in the upcoming Ishgar district. I’m looking forward to future raid content, and even though my anti-social online tendencies will likely keep me from doing so, I can’t help but want to engage in the Savage version of the raids, some of the most complex content the game has to offer.
And all of this is just a plethora of cherries sitting on top of what is without a doubt in my mind, the greatest Final Fantasy story of all time, but also now my favorite game of all time. I’m so sorry, Tetris Effect, but Final Fantasy XIV gave me bunny boys, a grimdark scythe-wielding edgelord, and Mobile Sage Gundam classes.
With all this and more, my Game of the Year for 2021 is Final Fantasy XIV: Endwalker. May you ever walk in the light of the crystal, my fellow Warriors of Light.