Please, no objections
Well, then. 2021 is over. A series of 365 days that decided, “what if we did 2020, again?” It was the remaster we did not need. But all that said, in spite of the continued effects of the pandemic and other nonsense, it was a good year too—one with good times, fun stories, and a smattering of new games to call my favorites of the year.
When I ran down the list of what I’ve played last year, I realized how all over the place it’s been. There weren’t a ton of tentpole games like there have been in recent years. Maybe Halo Infinite, but Xbox’s heavy hitter launched a little late in the year for me to feel like I know where I’m at with it. I got to dive back into the Mass Effect series with the Legendary Edition, an honorable mention for this list; I didn’t include it because it was my umpteenth time playing through the whole thing, but I’m glad those games have a unified home now.
2021 was another year of stellar indies. 2021 was a year of surprises, even in the AAA space. 2021 was the year of revivals, group plays, and long, late-night visual novel reading binges. Heck, by the end of it, I was even into Final Fantasy XIV. Never say never.
It was also the first year of my words finding a home here at Destructoid, and I just want to take a brief moment to thank all of y’all. If you’ve been hanging around in the comments, reading our work, and supporting the cool stories, interviews, reviews, and silly blogs we did here in 2021, thanks a ton!
Well, let’s get this going? Here are some of my favorite games from the year 2021, in no particular order except the final one.
Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy
Holy flark, I did not see this one coming. I had admittedly written off Guardians of the Galaxy after the launch of Marvel’s Avengers, and the Guardians aren’t exactly my usual cup of tea when it comes to Marvel content anyways. Something about its Mass Effect Andromeda-ness appealed to me though, and after hearing enough people shower surprised praise on it, I gave it a shot.
What a pleasant, surprisingly heartfelt, and genuinely funny game. Honestly, Guardians of the Galaxy could still use a tune-up on the combat side. But the massive appeal of Eidos Montreal’s Marvel journey is its writing and its characters. They got me to genuinely care about Drax, Gamora, and Rocket, with some genuinely fantastic writing at times. And all the barks! It was a good year for combat barks. Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy was the surprise I did not expect this year.
Nier Replicant ver.1.22474487139…
After Nier Automata put the Nier series on my radar, I was very, very eager to see what its predecessor was like. And Nier Replicant did not disappoint. Though maybe a little bit more tedious than Automata, the modernizations of this year’s Replicant remaster went a long way toward making an old game very fun to play through again and again.
It was also great to see additional ties made to Automata with some added content. Both games serve as halves of a whole, to me; Replicant can gut-punch you about something, then hit you again in Automata, or vice versa. I’m curious to see what’s next for Yoko Taro and the crew behind these games, and especially eager to see how the heck Nier plays out inside a critically acclaimed MMORPG. But Replicant felt like I was tying off a loose end of gaming, mining the depths of sadness and despair as I went.
The Forgotten City / Inscryption
This one’s a two-parter, and I’ll explain why: earlier this year, I wrote about my newfound joy in playing games with a group over Discord. Since I was young, I’ve always enjoyed the many-people, one-controller way of playing certain games. It doesn’t work for everything, but it can make some experiences really click.
In the driver’s seat portion of this entry, The Forgotten City was a wonder to pick apart. In a year of time loop games offering all kinds of approaches to mystery and narrative, The Forgotten City stands above the pack. It’s such a concise, contained loop that still finds so much space to work in. It waxes on and on about philosophy and history, with so much detail and care put into framing the story at hand within the world at large. And the reveals are still just incredible.
On the flip-side, Inscryption is the game I still haven’t played myself, but have back-seated through multiple friends. It’s a refreshing take on the deck-building genre popularized by games like Slay the Spire and Monster Train. But it’s also not just a good deck-builder; it’s a good mystery, a good adventure, a good puzzle game, and oh so much more. I’ve been a fan of developer Daniel Mullins for a few years now, and it’s been great to see him get so much recognition for the kinds of games he does oh-so-well.
Before Your Eyes
Honestly, I feel like I got this take out best a little while ago. Before Your Eyes is simply the one game from this year that I think everyone, and I mean everyone, should play.
In the time it takes to watch a modern movie, Before Your Eyes takes you through a life, one blink at a time. The way that developer GoodbyeWorld Games uses the blinking mechanic is so simple at first and becomes so clever as the story goes on. It’s really an experience that I think anyone and everyone should try at least once. Get a webcam, hook it up, and experience one of the most genuinely moving games of the year.
Sometimes a game shows up and it is exactly what you needed, despite being something you’d never think to ask for in the first place. Dungeon Encounters feels experimental. It feels fresh and new. It’s like getting to see the results of an internal game jam, only it’s coming from the minds behind some of Final Fantasy‘s best.
The minimalist approach can seem sparse at first, but it really lets you fill in the spaces as you go. The deeper into the dungeon you go, the less it feels like a barren, unfinished game world, and the more it feels like a dive into a virtual tabletop. Its battle system is so brilliant and twists on itself in interesting ways. And the way systems and menus intertwine creates such a compelling experience of building and managing not just a party, but a whole company of adventurers. Everyone remembers their first Petrified journeyer, or when they discovered how to recruit more members.
I truly hope Dungeon Encounters is a sign of more to come from Square Enix. More offbeat, interesting games like this from big publishers, please!
Life is Strange: True Colors
I’ve fallen a bit behind on Life is Strange. I loved the first season but never got around to the others. I think by the time Life is Strange 2 was releasing, I was burned out on the episodic model. One of the smartest things Life is Strange: True Colors does is keep the episodic structure, but deliver them all at once. You know, like what streaming services used to do.
The other smartest thing it does is introduce Alex Chen, the heart and soul of True Colors. Between the incredible voice acting and really spot-on motion capture, Alex just feels like a relatable, endearing protagonist that carries the weight of the small-town mystery so well. Deck Nine really found a winner in the small-town story of True Colors, and it’s giving me hope that more adventure games from the episodic era can keep it going into the future.
Going into 2021, Gnosia was already on my radar. Its announcement at a winter Nintendo Indie World showcase was so exciting because I’d heard whispers about this game from a small studio in Japan that was making the rounds, one of the last Vita exclusives making its mark and now finally coming to Switch. And to me, Gnosia did not disappoint.
Gnosia is what I loved about old Flash dating sims, mixed with modern rogue-lite narrative ideas. It’s another looping game, only this one has you getting stronger run over run, able to sway debates, and discern impostors at a glance. And all the while, you get smarter too, learning more about these characters. Who they are, their preferred method of verbal warfare, and what they’re hiding about the predicament you’re all in.
If I had to pick the most overlooked game of the year, it’s Gnosia. It’s also decidedly not going to be everyone’s cup of tea; I have a feeling this is one from 2021 that will have video essays made about it years from now. It’s as much a game to analyze and dive deep into as it is to play in the moment. But it really did so many things that took me absolutely by surprise. And what a true ending, too. Gnosia is the little indie you shouldn’t overlook.
Speaking of small indie projects that up-ended my world, Wildermyth is both a game I can’t yell about enough and a game I’m excited to see keep growing. Its melding of XCOM-like tactics and D&D narrative, with a hint of overworld management, might seem a bit dense. But it all works in conjunction to make a tabletop campaign come to life before your eyes, with procedurally generated engines driving the story behind it.
Wildermyth is, to put it bluntly, an engine for building myths and legends. Every campaign is a new story, and a new opportunity to see a humble farmer called to greatness. And then turned into a part-crow wizard with a penchant for archery. Or a stealthy huntress able to set enemies ablaze with her hands. Or a warrior, warm and cheerful among friends, slowly fading away thanks to the stone that pierced her heart. These are all stories that Wildermyth served to me on a silver platter.
The team at Worldwalker Games LLC has been doing a good job at updating Wildermyth too, adding new events and options. And it has Steam Workshop support, where the modding scene is only growing. This game has a lot of potential to become even more in the years to come, and I can’t wait to see it happen.
Tales of Arise
This was the revival the Tales series needed. Tales of Arise isn’t just a show of force for Bandai Namco, putting in a significant budget and graphical upgrade compared to previous entries. But it scales up without losing its soul in the process.
Characters still loudly declare DEMON FANG and call out long incantations in the heat of battle, a symphony of special moves and responses. The story is grand and moving, yet there are still so many wonderful skits to uncover. Cooking is still here! And the cast is a genuine all-timer lineup of Tales party members.
Tales of Arise ultimately falls prey to some of the series’ known shortcomings too. Its last act sags a good deal, and there are still odd spikes in levels and one very annoying recurring villain. But despite the falters, some of my favorite moments this year were seeing the animations for Boost Strikes over and over. The Boost moves felt like the glue for Tales of Arise, bringing the party together and really making fights feel like an all-out brawl. The horizon is very, very bright for the Tales series, and that’s a good feeling.
The Backlog of Shame, 2021 Edition: Chicory: A Colorful Tale, Lost Judgement, Unsighted, Shin Megami Tensei V, Death’s Door
The Honorable Mentions, 2021 Edition: Mass Effect: Legendary Edition, Dyson Sphere Program, Scarlet Nexus, Loop Hero, New Pokémon Snap, Operation: Tango
And my favorite game of the year goes to…
The Great Ace Attorney Chronicles
When I finished the final case in The Great Ace Attorney Chronicles, I knew two things. One, I needed a moment to just breathe and take it all in. And two, there was no way this game wouldn’t be on my end-of-the-year list.
I’ve been a fan of Phoenix Wright for a while, from the original trilogy up through the newer games. And as much as I love Phoenix, Apollo, Athena, and the crew, Great Ace Attorney is a breath of fresh air. No high-tech mechanisms or spirit channeling—the focus is solely on some basic forensics and deductions. And oh, the deductions. Herlock Sholmes and Ryunosuke Naruhodo doing the dance of deduction is such a treat.
The Great Ace Attorney Chronicles benefits greatly from being two games packed into one. And where I can see how fans wouldn’t like the cliffhanger and obviously unanswered threads of the first game leading into the second, as a duo they are nigh-unstoppable. The Great Ace Attorney Chronicles is a ten-case powerhouse that weaves threads and stories throughout its entire run, building up to huge showdowns in court with honor, reputation, legacy, and even lives on the line.
This is the game I’d hand to anyone looking to get into the Ace Attorney series. It’s a lengthy one, but so, so worth your time. And there’s no doubt it’s my favorite game I’ve played this year.