Trevor Starkey’s Top 20 Games of 2021

It’s been a busy couple of months so actually sitting down to finish this write-up fell to the backburner a lot, but I wanted to sneak it in here just before March or else I felt like I’d just never bother with it. 2021 was a great year to revisit a lot of old games, as I’ve already written about, but it had a great dose of new to enjoy as well so here are my favorite games of 2021.

20. Halo Infinite

I just don’t think Halo is my kind of shooter. Hopping into the campaign on Normal, I found myself repeatedly frustrated by dying in firefights where I was overwhelmed by too many enemies. I don’t know how the game will ultimately be rebalanced when co-op is available but it definitely feels like it’s already designed for at least two people to be playing so a friend can revive you when Master Chief ragdolls like an idiot. The grapple hook feels great for traversal and there’s a definite polish to the game that I appreciate, but it just hasn’t clicked with me and I don’t know that it will.

19. Operation: Tango

I really enjoyed my time with Operation: Tango and the only reason it doesn’t rank higher is because Logan and I never circled back around to finish it. The co-op spy/hacker mashup that felt like Keep Talking and Nobody Explodes was a ton of fun as we had to describe what we were seeing and try to use our different perspectives to solve the puzzles set before us. A wonderful surprise from this year’s PlayStation Plus offerings that serves as a wonderful co-op follow-up to our time with It Takes Two.

18. Chicory: A Colorful Tale

I loved the story of Chicory, where you inherit the power to bring color to the world and travel around a Legend of Zelda-esque world map, gaining new patterns to fill in each coloring book-style screen with whatever you want. That gameplay is coupled with a wonderful story about facing self-doubt, imposter syndrome, and the journey to accept that you are enough. I found myself very quickly weary of the “boss fights” though, which I would best liken to Shapes & Beats-style challenges where you would have to move your character to avoid harmful obstacles on the screen with one hand, while trying to attack with your brush in the other. It probably would have felt better on PC with a mouse and keyboard, but I had a bear of a time with it on controller and many of these sequences lasted about 2-3 times longer than I would have liked, even after used the game’s gracious accessibility options to make myself completely invincible just to get through them. If I had enjoyed the actual gameplay more, this would have easily moved up my list.

17. Loop Hero

What I played of Loop Hero, I really enjoyed. A novel take on the rogue-like genre where your hero is actually auto-battling through the world and you the player are more in control of what types of obstacles they will face using a card-deck type of system to slowly build out the encounters of each loop. I made it through the first couple of bosses before reaching the point where I could feel myself hitting a wall in terms of forward progression so other games ended up pulling me away but I totally understand why a ton of people were buzzing about this game back when it launched early in the year.

16. Maquette

I knew going into Maquette that there was going to be some enjoyable puzzles dealing with perspective shifts. Grabbing a small key and dropping it in a little model diorama, only to see a much larger version of that key appear outside the canopy you’re standing and create a bridge for you to cross was a cool way of showing how the world of Maquette would play out through the puzzles. What I wasn’t expecting was the series of vignettes that would tell a lovely little bittersweet story of the rise and fall of a relationship that would be reflected by the vibrancy of the puzzles. Those extra details helped earn the game a spot on my overall list.

15. Boyfriend Dungeon

Boyfriend Dungeon was such a clever idea that I feel like I saw at PAX events almost as long as I’ve been attending them. Finally getting to dive into the dating sim/dungeon crawler mash-up was a delight and I effectively blazed through the entire game in an overnight session of playing because I just couldn’t put it down. The combat with each of the different weapons felt fun and getting to know each of the weapons in their more physical forms revealed some brilliant characters and deft writing. The game also did a really incredible job of making me loath the story’s “villain” (though I can also easily see why many were also put off by the narrative choices made). I don’t typically dabble in the dating sim genre but the gameplay hook of this one sold me on the premise and I had a great time. And bonus points for hitting that sweet spot in terms of the length of the story never feeling like it was at risk of overstaying its welcome.

14. Kena: Bridge of Spirits

Kena: Bridget of Spirits was a wonderful debut for the team at Ember Lab, featuring beautiful animation and art direction and what felt like a Miyazaki-like story (admittedly I’m not the most well-versed on Studio Ghibli’s output but it matched how people have described those films). Customizing the little Rot companions with a wide array of collectable hats was charming. I also enjoyed how the bow’s new abilities added a different dynamic to some of the platforming and puzzles throughout the game, but I would have liked sharper combat overall. As it was, the hack-and-slash action felt a bit sluggish and could get very brutal very quickly, almost in spite of the more family-friendly look of the game. As with many first outings like this one, I’ll be very interested to see what lessons and improvements the studio carries forward into a future game, either in this series or elsewhere.

13. TOEM

TOEM was a delightful little indie that scratched my “Bugsnax” itch in 2021 (in the sense that I enjoyed going around the world and taking pictures of things, Pokemon Snap-style, not in the sense that it took some really dark turns later on in the story). The team at Something We Made infused the game with a ton of fun little hand-drawn characters along with all of their pets as little Easter eggs. Falling in the camp of those smaller games that are really only a few hours to complete and 100%, TOEM was a great, relaxing way to spend an afternoon in between larger adventures.

12. Final Fantasy VII Remake: INTERGrade

Final Fantasy VII Remake was my game of the year for 2020 so it won’t take much for me to revisit it. The upgrade to PlayStation 5 probably would have been enough so the fact that we also got some DLC to introduce Wutai’s own Yuffie into the saga, with the bulk of the action set around the time Cloud is galavanting with Aerith in Wall Market, was just an awesome bonus. It served as a great introduction to her character and continues to flesh out aspects of the original game with more of what’s going on in Shinra and Midgar. And just like the base game, it features another end credits scene that continues to leave me excited for where this version of the story goes from here. The next installment can’t come soon enough for me.

11. Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy

Partly because I’d been burned by Marvel’s Avengers and partly because a lot of the pre-launch marketing didn’t really wow me, Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy was low on my list of priorities in 2021. But when people gave it the “we’re surprised the game and story is as good as it is” seal of okay-ness, I figured I could pick it up on a Black Friday sale and check the game out. The cast/team dynamic is probably the game’s best feature and getting to bond the team together over the course of the game felt rewarding and satisfying. I also loved the absolute commitment to the weirder cosmic elements of the game/Marvel universe. The Telltale-esque “choose your own narrative” elements didn’t feel TOO impactful save a few key choices but they were a fun enough way to color your story. And the overall narrative featured a surprisingly heartfelt story about grief that’s well worthy of some of the Narrative awards it received. Probably the biggest element that prevented it from making my top ten was that I thought the combat felt repetitive overall and I didn’t think there was a lot of depth there beyond trying to shoot enemies with the right elemental weapon (if you even have it yet) or just spam your teams’ special attacks. Also, the random nature of the soundtrack in the game’s team huddle mechanic didn’t really work for me. The huddles already didn’t really feel particularly rewarding so walking away from one just to have a song like “Never Gonna Give You Up” playing didn’t really add excitement to the fight.

10. Emily is Away <3

Unsurprisingly our overall Game of the Year, I ended up being the coolest among the rest of the site on Emily is Away <3 when everything else had come and gone. It’s absolutely a great evolution of the prior AIM-based games as Kyle Seeley took the franchise into the Facebook era, though. Whereas earlier entries were about the chase of a relationship, this one was more about actually being in the thing. Admittedly, one of the elements that might have kept the game from climbing higher in my rankings were that my ending struck a bit of a nerve as it hit a little too close to home for comfort on a past relationship but overall, I thought the story provided a much better sense of closure than the previous entries.

9. The Artful Escape

Ever since first playing The Artful Escape at PAX East 2020, I was excited for the game’s beautiful visuals and soundtrack. Finally getting to play the full adventure, those elements held up and the game also had some added flourishes in its performances from Carl Weathers and Jason Schwartzman, among others. The story of self-discovery and self-expression playing out among the cosmos was a delight, even if the gameplay never amounted to much more than moving right, occasionally jumping, and a few Simon Says-type musical sequences.

8. It Takes Two

It Takes Two is not a family game, despite what The Game Awards would like you to believe. Its story centers around a pair of just absolute shit parents who are about to get divorced and you spend most of the game saying “yeah, they absolutely should because they are terrible for each other.” But setting that element to one side (along with its pacing issues and unearned late game narrative turns), the actual co-operative gameplay was consistently fun and switching up the gameplay every chapter made for a wonderful time. .

7. Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart

As someone who still doesn’t have a significant connection to the Ratchet & Clank series (prior to Rift Apart, I’d only played the 2016 reboot), this game was still a ton of fun. With superb visuals, a great story and wonderful performances from the core cast, the game was an excellent showcase for the PlayStation 5. Throw in the series’ typically excellent third-person shooter gameplay, and it was an easy inclusion on this list.

6. Forza Horizon 5

Forza Horizon 5 is the only game within my personal top ten that does not also have a spot on the overall site’s top ten, which I mostly chalk up to only Frank and myself having Xbox consoles and Frank just not getting around to it. That aside, Forza Horizon 5 was easily the most beautiful game I played last year with Playground Games’ incredible version of the Mexican landscapes feeling intimately familiar as an Arizona native just next door. I’m still by and large not a racing game guy but the Horizon series makes wandering around the landscape performing wild stunts or progressing through mini-story campaigns just as fun as the regular races so I loved putting a ton of time into this one. Absolutely the pinnacle of this type of game and, after having played through pretty much every race in the game, I can’t wait to see what they bring to the table with the eventual expansions.

5. Deathloop

Deathloop was probably my most anticipated game of 2021 once Horizon Forbidden West got bumped to 2022. As a huge fan of Arkane’s work on the Dishonored series, I knew Deathloop was going to be a good one. And while I ultimately still had a great time with the game, the fact that it was so easy to just put down and walk away from after finishing it left a weird taste in my mouth. So much of what I love about the Dishonored series was exploring different approaches and ways to play: stealthy versus guns-blazing and lethal versus non-lethal. With Deathloop removing the non-lethal approach, I found myself slightly underwhelmed with the game’s arsenal of tools, weapons, and abilities. There was still a lot of fun to be had but no real reason for me to experiment once I found a gameplay style that worked for me.

4. Psychonauts 2

On the flip side, I had virtually no expectations for Psychonauts 2, having only ever played the opening of the game for a Let’s Play earlier in the year. But since it was on Game Pass, I decided to give it a shot and was blown away by the great story, wonderful cast of characters, and smart themes. Double Fine also executed on some great level design here, with the levels mattering as much to the emotional resonance of the story as they did to the gameplay of the experience. I didn’t always like the control scheme of having 4 specials attached to the shoulder buttons and constantly having to swap with the skills in reserves but that was a minor grievance in the grand scheme of an excellent game.

3. Hitman 3

For me, 2021 included a healthy amount of giving games a second chance, starting with the Hitman trilogy at the beginning of the year. Much like Arkane has established themselves as masters of level design and sandbox environments in the first-person space, so to have IO Interactive in the third-person space with this series. Each level is filled with wonderful level design and incredible replay value. Dartmoor Manor was a standout murder mystery adventure, and the immediate follow-up Berlin level, takes away all of your usual resources and leaves you on your own. The continued support all year long with featured contracts and the 7 Deadly Sins-inspired take on the levels made this one of my favorites all throughout the year..

2. Life is Strange: True Colors

Easily my favorite standalone game of 2021, the latest entry in the Life is Strange series also immediately became my favorite entry in the series, thanks in part to standout performances from Erika Mori, Han Soto, and Katy Bentz as Alex Chen, Gabe Chen, and Steph Gingrich, respectively. The town of Haven Springs is incredibly rich and full of great characters to engage with and Alex’s story, why absolutely featuring tragedy like others in the series, never feels wholly consumed by it. When the game was first revealed, I was in the “wait so her superpower is empathy?” camp of not expecting a lot, but it turns out not only was a game centered around empathy just what I needed in 2021, but the way Deck Nine used that ability to provide a deeper insight into the cast of characters was masterful all throughout the narrative. I’m still annoyed that nobody else from the site ever got around to the game, despite singing its praises constantly for the latter part of the year.

1. Final Fantasy XIV Endwalker

After a long run of being disappointed in Final Fantasy, it is so bizarre to have Final Fantasy as my game of the year in back-to-back years. And sure, it is entirely possible that Endwalker is coasting on the good will of having also played A Realm Reborn, Heavensward, Stormblood, and Shadowbringers over the span of 6 months in 2021. But Endwalker was a wonderfully rich culmination of the story of the Scions of the Seventh Dawn told over all of those expansions. So many characters across the series got to have incredible beats and moments as this occasionally felt like the Avengers: Endgame of Final Fantasy XIV. And as someone who was first introduced to Final Fantasy through Final Fantasy IV on the Super Nintendo, the amount of Final Fantasy IV love in this expansion was right up my alley (and admittedly a large selling point that helped bring me back into the game to give it a second chance). I can’t wait to see where the game goes from here and after investing 350-ish hours into it, I’m definitely locked in to see what’s next.

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