I think 2021 will be remembered as a quiet year for games. There were few blockbuster titles that blew us away, and the majority of the gaming public is still waiting to experience next-gen with supply chain issues making it almost impossible to acquire an Xbox Series X or Playstation 5. Even with this lull, this gave smaller experiences a chance to shine, and an opportunity for many of us to be surprised by titles that would have never gotten a chance in a busier year. Here are some of my top picks from 2021.
10. Pokemon Shining Pearl
Pokemon Diamond and Pearl was my introduction to the Pokemon series and while they aren’t perfect games I do look back on them fondly. With the new remakes, very little changed structurally with this game aside from a fresh coat of paint and chibi art style. Its inclusion on this list stems from playing through it with my girlfriend. The revamped underground was a welcome addition, with pokemon that are actually somewhat challenging to fight, which was a breath of fresh air compared to how braindead easy the Pokemon series has become. I would have liked if they hadn’t done away with the base building components from the first game, but as a whole it was a fun experience. This one is more on my list for the memories than being something that is a must play if you’ve already experienced the originals.
Wildermyth is probably the most overlooked game of this year, which may be partially due to its barebones presentation and art style. Give it a chance though, and this game really shines both as a tile based strategy game and emergent storyteller. There is nothing resembling cinematic presentation here, but the procedurally generated story moments make coming back to Wildermyth just as fun as your first campaign. Even outside of the narrative moments, Wildermyth is a pretty good tactics game. This game would be perfect for mobile or Switch, and I hope more audiences get to experience this one as it was definitely slept on. Read my review
8. Tales of Arise
I love me a good JRPG and Tales was what I spent most of my time this fall and winter playing. I’ve never played any other games in the Tales series, but I can see why this is one of the biggest RPGs in Japan. The combat was a blast to play, even though the boss battles have outrageously high HP pools and there are suspect at best microtransactions at play. It’s not perfect, but I can’t deny the amount of hours I put into exploring the world and smacking enemies around with the blazing sword. While this game probably won’t convert any holdouts of the JRPG genre, it's a solid choice for anyone looking for a time sink over the winter months.
7. It Takes Two
It Takes Two is probably the most innovative platformer I’ve played in years, and the bevy of ways it mixes up its formula from moment to moment is remarkable. In one sequence, you are fighting flying squirrels on a biplane made of dirty underpants, the next you are gunning down evil garden creatures as a sentinant cactus that shoots spikes, and shortly after you will find yourself playing a Diablo clone fighting chess pieces come to life. Not every one of these dynamically changing sequences hits 100% but the sheer ambition behind this game is incredibly impressive. Unfortunately, the story just flat out sucks, and there’ a lot of it. Still, even with it’s narrative mishaps this is still a co-op game worth playing and one of the most creative titles of the year. Read my review
6. Persona 5 Strikers
Persona 5 Strikers at first glance seems like a inconsequential spin off, but upon playing this I realized this is pretty much a full fledged sequel to Persona 5, which happens to be one of my favorite games of all time. There are a few differences, gone is the turn based combat and in is action based combat similar to Final Fantasy VII Remake. You can still summon Personas and trigger abilities and spells, so while the gameplay isn’t exactly the same, it’s a more natural fit than I would have expected. The only thing keeping me from placing this higher on the list (or even number 1), is the lack of the confidant system from the first game. There are some good character moments which provide nice closure to some of your favorite characters from Persona 5, but the system is still sorely missed. Regardless, Strikers is a must play for any Persona fan and one of my surprises this year.
5. Halo Infinite
A late addition to this list, Halo Infinite became a massive time sink over holiday break. There are some issues with the open world that I have that might become more apparent with some more time played, but its position on this list really just comes down to how much fun it was to play. I’ve checked out a bit when it comes to the story of Halo, and Infinite doesn’t do much to dramatically alter the franchise, and there are certainly problems with the level design in the campaign, but I blew through the single player just because of how enjoyable it was to be the Master Chief and wreak havoc. The multiplayer is just good old fashioned Halo, and I see myself putting a ton of hours into this one in 2022. Halo Infinite is proof that as long as you get the most important element of your game right, it's easy to excuse a lot of the small stuff.
4. Resident Evil Village
Resident Evil Village is a theme park full of horror tropes and I love it for that. It may not be the scariest game in the world (aside from a certain chase sequence) but it kept me entertained from beginning to end gunning down throughs of vampires, werewolves, and whatever spooky foes Capcom was ready to through at me. Even through Village is sometimes just big, dumb fun, there’s nothing wrong with that and I don’t think it has any aspirationsof being something it’s not. Fighting 12 foot vampire ladies or solving creepy doll puzzles in a haunted mansion are some of my most memorable moments from this year and Village kept these coming in no short supply.
3. Marvel's Guardians of the Galaxy
I really couldn't care less about the Marvel universe, and I had no expectations that this would be anything more than a decent third person action game. What we got was probably the biggest surprise of the year. The dialog is constant, yet somehow hardly ever grating. The environments are some of the most beautiful in any AAA game in recent memory. The story is actually more interesting than most of the Marvel stuff you can see in theaters. Some might find it strange playing with lookalikes of the Marvel movies, but each character is charming in their own right and I think will win over even hesitant longtime fans. After Marvel’s Avengers really soured some people on licensed adaptations of that universe, Guardians of the Galaxy was the perfect follow up to show us a licensed adaptation done right. Read my review
I’ve been a fan of deckbuilding games for some time, but Griftlands is the only one that made me give a damn about anything other than the cards themselves. In Griftlands, you control one of three characters looking to make your way in the universe, and any of their interactions in the world, whether it be a negotiation in the marketplace, an attempt to intimate a rival into submission, or a good old fashioned fistfight is decided through playing cards from either of your negotiation or combat decks. Managing two decks might seem overwhelming at first, but after a couple of runs I got a good enough handle on the mechanics to see each character’s story to its end. It’s impressive that the narrative is so seamlessly weaved into a card game. While I would have liked to see a little more variety in terms of card synergy here, Griftlands is still a standout in the deckbuilder roguelike genre, even among stiff competition.Read my review
Sable feels decidedly unpolished. The frame rate stutters, your hoverbike struggles to locate you when it’s summoned, and overall there’s a layer of jank that permeates everything beyond the most basic of movements. There’s really nothing in the way in combat or challenge. And despite all of this Sable is my game of the year, because it delivers the highest highs of any game on this list. Aside from Breath of the Wild, which this game takes hearty inspiration from, I don’t think I’ve played a game that nails exploration like Sable does. Though certainly not a long game, I was shocked that every time I sat down to play there was something new for me to explore, whether it be ancient technology from a lost civilization, a boneyard of extinct, monstrous creatures or an oasis city cast in the middle of a sprawling desert, with tons to do and explore within. The art style is unlike anything I’ve seen out of any recent game, and elevates the already great time you will have traversing the vast desert on your hoverbike. I hope work is being done to smooth out the jank, because underneath the flaws there is a hidden gem of a game that I hope more can experience. Yet even still, I had enough fun during my time with Sable for me to confidently say this was my favorite gaming experience of 2021.
Honorable mention to Little Nightmares 2 and Forza Horizon 5, two games that I enjoyed but just didn’t get a chance to play as much as I would have liked to warrant their inclusion on this list. What is your game of the year? What on my list do you agree with, or what do you think sucks about it? Let me know below and thanks for reading.