2021 Year-in-Review: Dom’s Top 10 Games of the Year

I’ve arrived at the very final post of 2021 Year-in-Review, and really the entire year for the website. It’s time to crown Game of the Year!

This piece marks a bittersweet moment. Looking back on a challenging, stressful 12 months, I’m impressed by any game development team and publishing outfit that was able to release games in 2021. Collaborating remotely, balancing work and life, juggling responsibilities and still making awesome games is an incredible feat.

Now’s the time to celebrate my favorite titles, the best of the best. And I must say, it was a unique one. Certain years, like films made specifically for award season, there are clear “best of” list entries. Not 2021. Variety and diverse quality defined gaming this past year, between triple-A surprises and fantastic indies, to where it was impossible to predict at the beginning where I’d be at the end.

Despite what some might say, I think last year was an incredible year for gaming. The breadth of experiences, glorious and saddening, is clearly reflected in the ranks of my top games. Here are the ten best games I played in 2021, then a quick set of excellent honorable mentions.

10. Monster Hunter Rise (Capcom)

Platforms: Nintendo Switch, PC.

Capcom’s bespoke Nintendo Switch entry in the storied Monster Hunter franchise reminds me of predecessor Monster Hunter World in the best ways while simplifying certain areas for a more specific audience. The third-person action-crafting game is an amalgamation of console and handheld tendencies for Monster Hunter, sparked by a new ability that tremendously expands traversal, which benefits its cooperative gameplay and remains rewarding over dozens if not hundreds of hours.

9. Halo Infinite (343 Industries, Xbox Game Studios)

Platforms: Xbox Series X|S, Xbox One, PC.

After a year delay, the latest and arguably most important Halo entry since Halo: Combat Evolved twenty years ago nails its core gameplay within a bold move towards an open area structure, its campaign blending traditional corridor sequences with encounters that encourage experimentation. It overcomes a predictable storyline because it’s so fun to play as Master Chief, who I can’t imagine now without his signature grappling hook. I haven’t delved much into multiplayer, which I hear is fantastic, yet it’s still missing cooperative campaign and user generated content features which dings its ranking.

8. Ratchet & Clank Rift Apart (Insomniac Games, Sony Interactive Entertainment)
Platforms: PlayStation 5

The Ratchet & Clank series is pure gameplay joy mixed with high quality visual flair, and Rift Apart continues this traditional amidst an expanded cast of characters and gorgeous environment design. The latest generation of consoles lets famed developer Insomniac dazzle players with fast loading times, snappy mechanics and quick grappling plus its narrative is charming with Rivet and Kit joining Ratchet and his robo-buddy Clank adventuring across multiple timelines. It doesn’t push boundaries; it’s just plain old interactive fun.

7. Life is Strange: True Colors (Deck Nine, Square Enix)

Platforms: PlayStation 5, PlayStation 4, Xbox Series X|S, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, PC, Stadia.

One of the year’s best titles is also my favorite in the Life is Strange franchise, which now spans three mainline stories and select spin-offs. It’s carried by main character Alex Chen, an empath dealing with both her own and others’ traumas, plus creative writing, outstanding dialogue and consequential player choice. The fictional Haven Springs is a stunning setting, the backdrop to an effective character drama. Chapter 3 is the best single sequence of 2021, a few hours of pure bliss as the game briefly turns into a fantastical, turn-based role-playing adventure.

6. Lost Judgment (Ryu Ga Gotoku Studio, Sega)

Platforms: PlayStation 5, PlayStation 4, Xbox Series X|S, Xbox One.

Another sequel makes my top games list as Lost Judgment refines the detective mystery, martial arts fighting, hilarious character personalities and wacky side content the original did so well. It adds skateboarding, climbing and a detective doggo named Ranpo plus parallel questlines in solving a high-profile murder while investigating bullying at a local high school. The developers behind Yakuza expertly balance humor with gravity as Yagami’s path now spans two Japanese cities, and their vision coalesces into a thrilling experience as I wrote in my full review.

5. Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy (Eidos Montreal, Square Enix)

Platforms: PlayStation 5, PlayStation 4, Xbox Series X|S, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, PC.

Rounding out the Top 5 is the most startling Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy, a spectacular adaptation underpinned by an affecting story, infectious chatter, beautiful visuals and delicate character moments when least expected. Starlord and team band together, fall apart and reunite in a game with exquisite writing and quick decision-making. Combat combines team management and third-person shooting, starting slow then ramping up with new abilities as squad relationships deepen. It drags at times in the third act yet ultimately reveals a narrative with themes of self-doubt, responsibility and redemption.

4. Psychonauts 2 (Double Fine Productions, Xbox Game Studios)

Platforms: PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5 (Backwards Compatible), Xbox Series X|S, Xbox One, Xbox Game Pass (Cloud, Console & PC), PC.

Back in August I raved about the genius of Psychonauts 2, the follow-up to the cult classic launched way back in 2005. This action platformer is so much more than its genre convention, an artistic delight with thought-provoking themes, exceptional environmental artwork and an improved mechanical identity. Tim Schafer and Double Fine are best-in-class at establishing tone, incorporating references and focusing on finer details that bring an aesthetic to life. Each level is hand-crafted, from a psychedelic festival to hospital casino, resulting in a bizarre yet comical experience through the psyche that certainly has a mind of its own. Oh, and the year’s best song in Jack Black’s epic “Cosmic I/Smell the Universe.”

3. Forza Horizon 5 (Playground Games, Xbox Game Studios)

Platforms: Xbox Series X|S, Xbox One, Xbox Game Pass (Cloud, Console & PC), PC.

The Forza Horizon franchise isn’t about racing. It’s about driving. The thrill of an open road, the roar of an engine and view of a brilliant sunset just over the.. well, horizon. The fifth entry is set in Mexico and has perfected its formula, more an open world exploration game with events than anything else. The trick behind its excellence is a constant reward loop. Its accessibility features make for smooth steering mechanics which can lean towards arcade or simulation. Collectibles, races, stunt opportunities and campaign stories dot the landscape, offering plenty to do in one of the most beautiful games I’ve ever played. There’s multiplayer, seasonal goals and even a dedicated battle royale mode. Last year, Forza Horizon 5 raced to the top of my favorite driving games of all time.

2. Inscryption (Daniel Mullins Games, Devolver Digital)

Platforms: PC.

It’s wholly inaccurate to call Inscryption solely a deck-building card game. It’s part psychological horror, part escape room and all instant narrative classic with a phenomenal card game as its primary player interaction. It’s the type of multi-layered experience that can’t be described without spoiling its later acts, because it’s so much more than what it initially presents. There’s a meta-story, referential themes, individual character arcs and consistent moments that utterly floored me. Jaw-dropping. Awe-inspiring. Daniel Mullins subverts every expectation and had me hooked on a card game that mainly uses sacrifice to strengthen a deck, a theme paralleled in its later puzzles. The early cabin area is tough, and its second act is probably too long, however I have minimal complaints about this monumental indie masterpiece.

1. The Forgotten City (Modern Storyteller, Dear Villager)

Platforms: PlayStation 5, PlayStation 4, Xbox Series X|S, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch (Cloud), PC.

And finally, my Game of the Year is: The Forgotten City. A most delightful surprise in a year filled with great games.

If you’ve visited the site or chatted on social media, you’ve seen me tell everyone and anyone who would listen about this masterclass of game design and storytelling prowess that originated as a Skyrim mod. I wrote an unscored review around launch. Now that I’m scoring my critiques, The Forgotten City would easily earn a 9.5 out of 10.

Its setting: an underground Roman city. Its rule: if even a single person sins, everyone dies. The playable character is dropped into this ancient setting, summoned there to figure out who will commit the deed that leads to the city’s demise. It’s a first-person game less about combat, though there is light action mainly via a magical bow, and all about character dialogue, investigating leads and making impossible choices. There’s also the time loop element, resetting the world each time the player fails to uncover its mysteries.

What makes it stand out in the year of time loop games is a deft approach to repetition. Rather than requiring the player to conduct the same interviews and persuasions each run, it has a helpful character named Galerius that assists in carrying out various duties. Each action has a reaction as the player tries to close the loop to create a time paradox, zipping them back to modern times.

Of course, there’s a broader mystery about why someone from present day is suddenly ripped through time to solve this dilemma. Clearly not everything is as it seems. Most character arcs are well-written, especially that of Naevia in a forbidden palace and the lonesome Livia who knows the city’s secret, and its themes center on morality, philosophy, mythology and societal conventions of right versus wrong.

While animations can be janky and it should have more flexible options, The Forgotten City wins this award on the strength of its fantastic writing and revelations around societal conventions of right versus wrong, with multiple endings that reflect what the player considers in each scenario. I can’t recommend it enough. I hope it stands the test of time as one of the single best stories in all of gaming.

Top Five Honorable Mentions (Alphabetical Order):

Chicory: A Colorful Tale (Greg Lobanov, Finji)

Platforms: PlayStation 5, PlayStation 4, Nintendo Switch, PC, Mac.

Death’s Door (Acid Nerve, Devolver Digital)

Platforms: PlayStation 5, PlayStation 4, Xbox Series X|S, Xbox One, PC.

Deathloop (Arkane Studios, Bethesda Softworks)

Platforms: PlayStation 5, PC.

Metroid Dread (Mercury Steam, Nintendo)

Platforms: Nintendo Switch.

Returnal (Housemarque, Sony Interactive Entertainment)

Platforms: PlayStation 5.

And that’s the last of 2021! Switch back over to the megapost for everything Year-in-Review.

Thank you very much to everyone for visiting and chatting this past year.

2021 saw the single best month of visitors for Working Casual (that was August 2021) and this month is already the highest average per day ever for the website. Be safe in the coming year, and look forward to many more posts and coverage of gaming, technology and media soon!

Sources: Company Websites, Press Kits, Twitter & Investor Relations.

Disclaimer: Code was provided by the publisher for Psychonauts 2.

-Dom

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