Top 10 Games of 2021

2021 was a crap year all things considered. COVID is still wreaking havoc around the world today and continues to disrupt the lives of so many people. Those two sentences are literally the same way I started last year’s GOTY list, so I’m keeping them lol. That being said, this year was phenomenal for games and a testament to the hard work and dedication of every game studio out there in their drive to deliver fun and engaging entertainment experiences. I wanted to play through as many games as I could before making my list, but alas, couldn’t quite get to everything I wanted to. Still, I played a lot and enjoyed a lot. Which one towered above them all? It’s something I never expected.

Here are my Top 10 Games of 2021!

10. Kena: Bridge of Spirits

Put into context, Kena: Bridge of Spirits is a pretty remarkable undertaking. A small team creating their very first title was able to put together a very cute, clever, and stunningly beautiful game. Its overall design reminded me of PS2 platformers back in the day but in a good way. The soundtrack was impeccable and a perfect fit for the world. Combat was actually surprisingly deep, requiring some decently sharp reflexes, dodges, and parries especially on higher difficulties. One thing that deserves utmost praise is its presentation. Art direction, audio/visual effects and animations are absolutely top notch, and while the plot itself isn’t anything to write home about, the charming characters made up for it.

9. Hitman III

Hitman remains one of the most recognizable stealth franchises today, and for great reason: it’s still damn good. Hitman III is IO Interactive’s best designed, most polished and well rounded game yet. Every level is jam packed with detail, interactive objects, approaches, and so many different ways to send targets six feet under that I genuinely found myself replaying missions just to try them all out. I mean getting a target to stand under a wine press for a photo shoot only to have…ehem, “malfunction” and crush them to bits never gets old. Mechanics are extra smooth, the soundtrack is as potent and powerful as ever, and it’s definitely one of the best looking games this year. Easily makes the list.

8. Deathloop

Arkane Studios is one of the best studios in the business, so it’s not to my surprise that I enjoyed the heck out of Deathloop. From its confidence in art style to the exceptionally well acted and written characters, there is little not to love here. Let me say that I’m not the biggest fan of ‘roguelites’, though there’s been a few exceptions (Hades most recently). Even though I’m not sure I could categorize Deathloop as such, I have to say that I loved coming to grips with what’s going on (there’s a bit of an initial learning curve), upgrading new weapons and powers, learning each area like the back of my hand, and executing tasks to further reach my goals towards to the end.

Deathloop feels great to play, and I’d also be remiss not to mention just how incredible Cole and Julianna’s performances are. Each character is so well written and dialogue delivery so real and natural that I found myself constantly laughing and sitting in silence for moments at a time, falling more in love with these characters with every passing hour. Even though the AI eventually became somewhat of a breeze and the game’s ending was one of the most abrupt I’ve seen, my overall experience was positive.

7. Halo Infinite

Halo Infinite had a lot of expectations to live up to. Through a complete engine overhaul to development hurdles and an ongoing pandemic, signs were pointing to a messy launch before a much needed delay came in to give it the extra time it needed. I think that was the best decision Microsoft could have made. That showed in Infinite’s exceptional gameplay. Like I said on social media, Halo Infinite is one of the best first person shooters I’ve personally played in the gameplay department. Guns feel great to shoot, movement and environmental navigation are a breeze, and the grapple shot is the best addition to the series in a very long time.

I enjoyed exploring Zeta Halo and stumbling upon enemy outposts or targets in the open world and deciding on my manner of approach, finding audio logs that delivered backstory, or just seeing what fun I could get up to. The soundtrack is one of the best in the franchise, and the cleaner art direction (compared to Halo 4 and 5) was a welcome change. What let me down personally was a shocking lack of environmental variety. No snow, no deserts, no jungles, nothing in space, no weather changes…it was all surprisingly absent from a series that thrived on it in the past and at least a part of the reason for my love of Halo. It also ditched characters from 4 and 5 that I expected to show up. Where’s Lasky? Where’s Arbiter? Where’s Osiris and Blue teams? I almost couldn’t believe that outside of some audio logs, they’re nowhere to be found. Alas, while these aspects kept it from placing higher on my list, I still had a great time and I’m looking forward to where the IP goes next.

6. Life is Strange: True Colors

I’ve always been a big, big fan of the graphic adventure genre. When I say graphic adventure, I mean those games that aren’t mechanically demanding yet deliver immersive experiences with interesting characters and stories and feature decisions to make on the fly to push the narrative forward. Games like Until Dawn, Heavy Rain/Detroit: Become Human, Telltale Games’ catalogue and of course, the Life is Strange series.

True Colors continues that love for me – the original is one of my favorite games from last gen. True Colors delivered an emotionally captivating cast of characters and story that kept me engaged the whole way through. I have to applaud all the writers, casting directors and actors who put together such a wonderful game. Alex Chen is one of the most realistic characters I’ve played as to date and one I very much empathize with and understand. I constantly found myself in awe of just how natural conversations and animations were to the point that I was genuinely taken aback. It all comes across that well. Kudos to Deck Nine for an incredible time.

5. Little Nightmares II

I seldom saw this on most people’s GOTY lists this time, but I just had to include it. Let me start by saying that I’m not even the biggest sidescrolling fan, at least not in the traditional sense. But there are games that come along like Limbo, Inside, and yes, Little Nightmares, that scratch just the perfect Shinobi itch. I adored the first Little Nightmares, including its disturbingly beautiful visuals, haunting soundtrack, and all-out wild plot and ideas. I didn’t really know how the genius minds at Tarsier might be able to top it, but wow did they do just that.

This sequel tells the story leading up to the original, where Six finds herself aboard the Maw. It’s sheer brilliance. Every level is gorgeous to look at, enemies are as creative as ever, some puzzles can be head-scratchers but not overly so, and the last hour of the game is a thrill ride that needs to be experienced rather than explain. I can not praise this game highly enough. If you’re into those games I mentioned above, this is an absolute must-play.

4. Resident Evil Village

I came back around to the Resident Evil series after a falling-out-of-love stint post Resident Evil 6. Let’s be honest, the less we go into that, the better. Capcom brought me back in slowly with both Revelations 1 and 2, then went full throttle with back to back hits in Resident Evil 7 and Resident Evil 2 and 3 Remakes. The IP found its way back into my good graces, and with Village, it’s still going real strong. Resident Evil Village is an excellent refinement of the formula Capcom delivered in 7. Good level variety, fluid controls, tense action, a wonderful cast of enigmatic and larger than life characters like Lady Dimitrescu and The Duke, memorable boss battles and some truly frightening encounters (looking at you House Beneviento!) all combine to make this one of my favorite games in the series yet. Keep it up Capcom.

3. Guardians of the Galaxy

I’ll be honest, I never expected to include Guardians of the Galaxy on my list – at least, not *this* high on it. I’m not even that big of a fan of the characters to begin with. My only exposure to them is through the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and while I do adore the Guardians movies, I wouldn’t say that I’m enamored with them. So with that said, I can’t believe that I utterly fell in love with this game. It doesn’t do anything out of the ordinary. It’s a single-player, linear third person action adventure that sees you follow the Guardians on a journey to right some wrongs and hey, save the universe along the way. Heck the combat itself, one of the main staples of the genre is, to me, serviceable.

It’s everything else that all comes together to create something special. Every single one of the Guardians has a powerfully poignant backstory that you want to take in. It has some of my favorite writing of any game launched this year – hell, over the last several years. There’s so many unique lines for any given situation that my mind boggled at the amount of work it took to implement it all. It’s the interaction between characters, their expressions, their desires, their ‘humanity’ and realistic depictions of love, joy, anger and loss that come together to form something I implore everyone to experience at least once. Eidos Montreal, I’m sorry for ever doubting you. Rock on, kings.

2. Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart

Let’s get one thing out of the way, Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart is the best looking video game I’ve ever played. I mean it. There’s SO MUCH DETAIL in every single inch of its world that I’ll just say the thing: it feels like a playable Pixar movie ok lol. The lighting, the ray-tracing, the geometric density in every scene, the character models, the texture work, the animations…it’s all the absolute best work I’ve seen. Of course, games aren’t based just around their graphics. There’s so much heart and soul put into every level, cutscene and gameplay encounter that I couldn’t help but smile at every turn. Weapons are still as zany and creative as they’ve always been in the series, which means a whole slew of ways to approach every fight. The rift mechanic is stunning to watch unfold in motion, with some levels instantly changing and reshaping massive amounts of geometry in a split second.

And while I love Ratchet, Rivet is a hoot and probably the best thing to happen to the series since its inception. She’s fun, she’s confident, and she’s more than happy to kick anyone’s ass to save her friends. Every single thing in this game feels refined and polished to the point of perfection and I’m so glad I got to experience it.

1. Returnal

If you’ve read this far and you’ve followed me on social media, you probably expected this one. Let me tell you though, if you’d told me a hard-as-nails roguelike would be my favorite game of the year, I’d have told you you’re goddamn crazy lol. Like I said a bit above, I’m generally not a fan of this type of game design. I don’t usually like going through levels, gathering resources and weapons, fighting super powerful enemies, dying, and then restarting to progress further. As a father of three who works full time, I just don’t have the patience or the *time* for it.

But what can I even say…Housemarque took all of that and wrapped it up in a package that was genuinely palatable and even likable to my tastes. It’s a combination of many things that added up to push it over that roguelike hurdle for me. Tight third-person shooting, and disturbing yet beautiful Gieger-esque science fiction aesthetic, a genuinely intriguing narrative that I sought to understand, some of the best bosses in any game, a stunning soundtrack, and incredible visuals punctuated with fantastic destruction physics. I loved exploring the different biomes and unraveling more and more of that alien world in each run. There were moments of doubt for sure. The Derelict Citadel and Fractured Wastes (biomes 3 and 5 respectively) kick my ASS hard. There are enemies in the game that can drive you up a wall (*shakes fist at drones*), but stick with it and persevere, and you’re rewarded with a sense of accomplishment you get every day in a game.

I felt like a god by the end, and that’s not something I get to say every day playing video games as I continue to age! I can’t praise Housemarque enough for being able to mesh their love and passion for arcade within a AAA framework.

Returnal is my Game of the Year for 2021.

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