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

2020 Year-in-Review: Dom’s Top 10 Games of the Year

It’s here! The final post of Year-in-Review. Then we can finally, officially and thankfully say goodbye to 2020.

Good riddance, for the most part. Except for gaming. Last year welcomed among the best and most memorable of the waning console generation, while Nintendo kept consistent in its first party output as did indie teams on a variety of platforms.

In my opinion, plenty of great titles were contenders for the list overall and top spot. Quality across the whole industry, which is even more incredible given that a global pandemic hit in many major markets before the first quarter ended.

Props to all the teams that released games in 2020, and especially to those that made this prestigious list. Here we have my Top 10 Games of the Year and five Honorable Mentions. Enjoy!

10. Spiritfarer (Thunder Lotus Games)

Platforms: PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, Google Stadia, PC, Linux, Mac.

Sales: Between 200K and 500K owners on SteamSpy. No official figures from the publisher.

What starts as a cozy 2D management simulator featuring anthropomorphic spirits ends as one of the most powerful gaming experiences touching on the temporary nature of humanity, getting the most of our relationships and the journey towards life-after-death. Spiritfarer is a true gem. While it overstays its welcome a bit because of the sheer amount of management mechanics and goals needed to shepherd each character to the afterlife, helping them confront their mortality amid a gorgeous painterly, pastel aesthetic makes for a plethora of memorable personal narratives and individual moments. Just don’t forget to bring the tissues.

9. Cyberpunk 2077 (CD Projekt RED)

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

Sales: 13 million units sold within 10 days. (I’d imagine many since, even with returns.)

It would take more than one graph during year-end awards to fully analyze Cyberpunk, a first-person, action role-playing game with a launch that was equal parts super anticipated and completely botched. It makes the list because of an intriguing narrative around the future of consciousness and humans melding with machine, rich character relationships, exceptional weapon designs and depth of skill customization. Unfortunately, it’s not ranked any higher because of a myriad of bugs, performance hiccups, silly AI, stability issues and a world that breaks apart at the seams when delving deeper than the surface level. It’s totally worth a play after all these years of waiting, notably for RPG or hacking enthusiasts, though was clearly rushed and won’t be a truly good game until maybe six months of patches and a next generation update at least.

8. Astro’s Playroom (Japan Studio/Asobi Team, Sony Interactive Entertainment)

Platforms: PlayStation 5.

Sales: It’s a pack-in game with the console, so we’ll know when Sony reports them. Could be upwards of 3.4 million units in four weeks, unofficially.

Astro’s Playroom is quite simply the biggest and most joyful surprise out of all the games I played in 2020. It comes pre-installed on every PS5, and is so much more than a tutorial on the new DualSense controller’s functionality. Asobi Team crafted a smooth, capable 3D platformer that’s a complete love letter to everything PlayStation, fit with clever collectibles, stages and characters all centered on the brand and its nostalgia. There’s a wild amount of Easter eggs and secrets to find, nooks and crannies to explore and even speed-running levels to test one’s prowess against friends. It’s essential playing for the PlayStation 5, and should be the first game everyone old and young tries on their shiny new consoles. Guaranteed fun and memories all in one.

7. Paper Mario: The Origami King (Intelligent Systems, Nintendo)

Platforms: Nintendo Switch.

Sales: Fastest-selling game in the franchise at 2.82 million units during its first quarter, outpacing Super Paper Mario (2007).

My goodness, what an unexpected, pleasantly amazing game. Paper: Mario: The Origami King is the first release on Switch for the divisive Paper Mario series, which has undergone somewhat of an identity crisis before. And happy to report this one is way better than the critics say. It’s really an homage to everything in the Mario universe, creatively wrapped in a charming adventure game with heavy puzzle and exploration elements. Characters are quirky and excellent, in particular a Bob-omb named Bobby, environments are artfully designed and dialogue is genuinely and consistently hilarious. While its combat is a tad simplistic, boss fights are an epic clash of rapid riddles and movement tech plus the game sneaks in heartbreaking subject matter behind the cheerful appearance. Believe me, it’s anything but thin!

6. Final Fantasy 7 Remake (Square Enix)

Platforms: PlayStation 4.

Sales: Over 5 million units shipped + downloaded digitally.

Personally, I lack any sort of attachment to the Final Fantasy history. Which means I came into Final Fantasy 7 Remake as a first-timer, all knowledge second-hand thru the years and expectations set by modern standards. Happy to say, I wasn’t disappointed. It’s an excellent modern action role-playing game, with a combination of active and time-stop combat options plus a great party system with a variety of customization. Where it really shines is its characters and world-building, bringing its Midgard realm to life. I was enthralled to learn about the likes Cloud, Tifa, Barret and Aerith, personalities so woven into the fabric of gaming history, then to explore areas that make up the famed in-game universe. Enemy encounters range from focused to monumental, it’s totally worth doing side missions and set pieces are incredible, such as the Honeybee Inn. While its story is convoluted for a newcomer, I’m now invested to where I’m eager to play future iterations.

5. Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla (Ubisoft Montreal, Ubisoft Entertainment)

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

Sales: Fastest-selling title in the series. So above 3.5 million units in a week as it beat the former record holder, 2012’s Assassin’s Creed III.

I’m one of those lonely, long-time Assassin’s Creed fans that adores its modern direction whereby the stealth-action series deliberately leans into RPG elements in vast worlds inspired by historical settings. Valhalla places players in Norway and England during the 870s AD, amidst the rise of Viking plundering. It’s one of the most beautiful and well-realized open worlds ever. Playing as Eivor, the player must build up a settlement in Britain by gaining allies in the fight against the country’s shady rulers. It encourages exploration and lightly guides players towards areas and stories. Its main narratives center on forming alliances, the Hidden Ones (it’s the Assassin’s) taking out The Order of the Ancients (and The Templars) alongside a robust settlement building setup. Then its best parts are world events and collectibles. There are only a handful of traditional side quests here, a major one venturing into Norse mythology is a must-see, instead opting for a more emergent design of scattering waypoints across the landscape. Many funny, plenty rewarding and some just plain gut-wrenching. And while it’s probably too long of a game overall, almost all of it is worth seeing.

4. Ghost of Tsushima (Sucker Punch Productions, Sony Interactive Entertainment)

Platforms: PlayStation 4.

Sales: Quickest-selling first party original game on the platform at 5 million units at last count.

As I wrote extensively in my review, Ghost of Tsushima is breathtaking. Even if its inspirations are obvious. Set in feudal Japan, the third-person action game takes place in a gorgeous open world and follows Jin Sakai as the last samurai on his island fighting against the Mongolian invasion. It’s a brilliantly vibrant locale carefully crafted by Sucker Punch, providing a stunning backdrop for Jin’s vengeance. There’s the traditional conflict, fighting back against a stubborn Mongolian warlord, yet the underlying theme revolves around the struggle to maintain one’s honor against the reality of needing new tactics like stealth and trickery to wage war as the underdog. Its cast of characters is notable, featuring a father figure lord, cunning thief, former samurai great and a matriarch to a fallen house, with deep individual quest lines a la Mass Effect. Combat is visceral, a word overused in gaming yet one that happens to apply here, with a cornerstone of intense duels and gory sword battles. Movement and traversal is smooth. Bonus points as the only game on the list with a grappling hook! Despite too many mundane collectibles and repetitive side content, Ghost of Tsushima is a cut above most competitors.

3. Ori and the Will of the Wisps (Moon Studios, Xbox Game Studios/Iam8bit)

Platforms: Xbox Series X|S, Xbox Series X, Nintendo Switch, PC.

Sales: 2.8 million players, which isn’t equivalent to sales yet it’s all that the studio has shared.

I’ve said it before in my review, I’ll write it briefly again: Ori and the Will of the Wisps sets the bar for what a sequel should be, as it both continues the narrative of its predecessor plus improves on the already solid underlying mechanics and overall structure. The artful 2D platforming series made by Moon Studios should already be considered a modern classic, as Will of the Wisps introduces new combat abilities, features a slotting ability system, maintains the same traversal momentum and even has a hub world area that can be built out as a home base. Complete with fun characters, side quests and a true emotional payoff, Will of the Wisps deserves to be celebrated for all of its accomplishments.

2. The Last of Us Part II (Naughty Dog, Sony Interactive Entertainment)

Platforms: PlayStation 4.

Sales: Fastset-selling PS4 exclusive at 4 million units in a weekend back in June. Though, no official word since then.

It was an excellent year for Sony exclusives as the PlayStation 4 cycle came to a close. The best of those was Naughty Dog’s latest narrative survival horror masterpiece The Last of Us Part II, which I reviewed in June and reaches the second spot in these illustrious rankings. The original game is heralded as one of the best stories ever told in gaming. Its follow-up continues that tradition by following well-known characters like Joel, Ellie and Tommy plus new ones like Dina, Jesse, Abby, Owen, Yara and Lev, expertly leveraging flashbacks to tie both games together and provide the foundation for the events depicted here. It’s relentlessly brutal and sparingly beautiful. A story of violence and humanity and the often futile goal of vengeance. Mechanics are familiar, third person stealth and combat impactful as ever. New enemy and friendly factions expand the scope of Part II, as it’s the narrative and relationships within the cold-hearted future of Seattle that drives the experience.

Naughty Dog’s work here with accessibility is especially noteworthy, setting a standard for the amount of options it allows in various categories like hard-of-hearing, colorblind and general control mapping. One disappointing part of development is the rumors of long-hours, crunch culture and a difficult setting for employees. I want to celebrate the team’s work, especially on exceptionally detailed character models, environment design and incorporating some of the best acting in games to date. Yet I can’t ignore decisions by management, and desperately hope it improves if true. While the final act drags and there are select pacing problems, The Last of Us Part II is the fruit of this intense labor, an instant triumph in game design and narrative mastery.

1. Hades (Supergiant Games)

Platforms: Nintendo Switch, PC, Mac.

Sales: Achieved 1 million unit milestone within three days of launch, accounting for 700K copies sold during Early Access.

Believe me, I never saw this coming. I first picked up Hades around October, and at first bounced off the isometric roguelike action game. There’s a barrier to entry up front, it’s difficult and frustrating, especially when dying in the middle of what seemed like a great run, having to reset back to the halls of Hades to start anew. When I game it another try late in the year, it clicked and slowly became a standout, important gaming experience.

Thing is, Hades handles progression like no other run-based game in history. Its story of Zagreus, the ruler of the Underworld’s son, trying to escape his home world, seemingly climb Mount Olympus and figure out revelations of his past. Supergiant’s magnum opus slowly reveals its true genius over time as the player improves and learns more about its world, story and characters. It’s a common backdrop, ancient mythology with gods and Olympians, yet it’s a wholly unique take complete with amazing dialogue and a bespoke story suited solely for gaming as a medium.

Its hack-and-slash combat is snappy and responsive, crunchy and severe, as Zagreus ascends through realms of Tartatus, Asphodel and Elysium towards the surface. Tough enemies and bosses present a strategic challenge, even after facing them countless times. Gifts or boons from the likes of the major deities of Greek mythology like Zeus, Poseidon and Aphrodite make each run unique, providing combinations of skills that create builds of varying effectiveness. And after beating the final fight for the first time, it’s nowhere near over. Supergiant sets up a “heat” system where the player decides on adjustments to the challenge, like new boss mechanics or number of foes, earning bounties along the way to seeing the story thru to credits and an epic epilogue.

It came to the point where failure didn’t hurt anymore, because this led to interactions with core characters in the House of Hades like the God of the Dead himself Hades, Achilles, Nyx, Medusa and of course, being able to pet Cerberus whenever you want. It’s fully voice-acted, with a staggering amount of dialogue. In my at least 50 hours with the game, I don’t think I heard a repeat line. The team’s excellent writing and plot development made discussions among characters as memorable as the action itself. Plus, there are accessibility features such as God Mode for those players that would like the focus to be on story.

Hades is my Game of the Year that shouldn’t have been, based on my taste and history. I rarely play run-based games or “dungeon crawlers” because losing progress makes it feel like time wasted. This here is the opposite, almost rewarding death where it recognizes the player’s efforts by filling in the narrative after failed attempts. This particular structure made succeeding that much more satisfying, while following along with what ends up being a grounded story of family and finding one’s legacy.

Top Five Honorable Mentions (Alphabetical):

Animal Crossing: New Horizons (Nintendo)

Platforms: Nintendo Switch

Sales: Second top-selling Switch game ever at 26 million copies. And that’s as of September. It’s a lot more after the holiday season.

Immortals Fenyx Rising (Ubisoft Quebec, Ubisoft Entertainment)

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

Sales: Unknown for now.

Kentucky Route Zero (Cardboard Computer, Annapurna Interactive)

Platforms: PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, PC, Linux, Mac.

Sales: Between 200K and 500K owners on SteamSpy. No official figures from the publisher.

Marvel’s Spider-Man: Miles Morales (Insomniac Games, Sony Interactive Entertainment)

Platforms: PlayStation 5, PlayStation 4.

Sales: Unknown for now. Should be quite impressive.

Nioh 2 (Team Ninja, Koei Tecmo/Sony Interactive Entertainment)

Platforms: PlayStation 4.

Sales: At least 1.2 million copies shipped + downloaded as of October.

And with that, thus concludes my 2020 Year-in-Review! Thank you *so* much to everyone who stopped by to read this coverage or throughout the year. It was a historic one for Working Casual, with both views and visitors nearly doubling since 2019. I’m honored that so many people would take the time to read my site or chat with me about the topics I love.

What were your favorite games? Biggest surprises? Double back to the megathread for all coverage of this year’s awards, then feel free to drop a comment here or on social media on your reactions. Have a great new year!

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

Disclaimer: Codes were provided by publishers for Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla, Immortals Fenyx Rising and Ori and the Will of the Wisps.

-Dom