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2021 Gaming Roundup – Top 50 Most Notable Games of the Year

Welcome to the Geeky Brummie End of Year Roundup!

It’s that time of year again where we look back over the games that defined the past year. Unlike other year-end lists, this is not a list of “the best” but instead, the most notable games. The games that gained critical and commercial success, got people talking and stuck in people’s minds all the way through the year.

The way this list works is I gather data from Metacritic, Google Trends and various end-of-year awards lists to collect the games that defined the year into a single list for you to peruse and see what you might have missed. The order is decided on an average of all this data, so don’t blame for me, blame everywhere I got my data from.

In order for a game to count for this list, it must be a brand new game that launched in the UK this year. Remakes, ports, expansions and other titles that have technically existed in previous years are not eligible. So sorry, there is no Mass Effect Legendary Edition, Bowser’s Fury or Nier Replicant on this list, although they did all show up heavily on end-of-year lists, so feel free to pretend they’re there if you’re not as strict as me.

The exception to this rule is Early Access titles, which I decide entirely on how talked about they were. This year contains a game that emerged from Early Access and a game that’s still in Early Access, but both were widely talked about this year, and so I felt they each deserved a place.

So as we enter a new year, let’s look back at the games that defined the last one. Here are the top 50 most notable games of 2021.

50. Solar Ash

Annapurna Interactive, Heart Machine | PC (via Epic), PlayStation | December

Solar Ash is what happens when you throw Journey, Jet Set Radio and Shadow of the Colossus into a blender and then release whatever the end result is. You play as Rei, a girl setting out to save her dying world by skating around and defeating giant monsters called Anomalies.

Much of the game consists of platforming challenges, some of which turn into battles against giants, where the platforming mechanics are used to climb and reach weak points. All set in a gorgeously strange world full of broken buildings, veiny corruption and an encroaching black hole.

Solar Ash is a fascinating looking game. It’s a game that aims to provide a flowy, dreamlike experience as you solve its hidden mysteries. And while it came out quite late in the year and missed out on a lot of end-of-year accolades as a result, it’s still got more than enough attention to warrant sneaking into its place on the most notable list.

49. Boyfriend Dungeon

Kitfox Games | PC (via Steam/Epic/MS Store/itch.io), Switch, Xbox | August

There’s something pleasing about games with gloriously weird premises. Boyfriend Dungeon is one of those games – it’s a dungeon crawler where you can date your weapons. Yes, really.

Part hack and slash dungeon game, part visual novel, Boyfriend Dungeon caught a lot of attention earlier this year with its unashamedly bonkers concept that saw your abilities in the dungeon improve the more you romance the human forms of your sword or dagger. Offering a wide range of options for those of different sexualities and preferences, Boyfriend Dungeon delivered on its concept with more sincerity than it probably deserved, but it worked.

It did get the wrong kind of attention at one point, with concerns that the game promoted or forgave abusive relationships, although this didn’t stop it from turning up on some more esoteric end-of-year lists. A weird one, and very niche, but fun if you’re into this sort of silliness.

48. Genesis Noir

Fellow Traveller, Feral Cat Den | PC (via Steam/Epic/GOG/MS Store), Switch, Xbox One| March

Genesis Noir is a strange game to describe. The developers themselves call it a “jazz odyssey” and my attempt to play the game through Game Pass was met with confusion, but let’s try and detail what exactly it is.

Genesis Noir is an interactive art piece, one that hops from scenario to scenario without much obvious rhyme or reason. You are ostensibly a noir detective, complete with trenchcoat and fedora, but the way everything plays out is surreal and full of cosmic imagery that floats ethereally around you.

It certainly has its fans though. It’s a game that leaves you wondering what on earth happened while intriguing you further with its stark art style. If you fancy an experience where everything flows over you and leaves you thinking afterwards, then Genesis Noir is the game for you.

47. The Dark Pictures Anthology: House of Ashes

Bandai Namco, Supermassive Games | PC (via Steam), PlayStation, Xbox | October

The Dark Pictures Anthology has often been a mixed bag, often disappointing fans of Until Dawn, the game that served as its precursor. But the third entry, House of Ashes, has done a lot to win people back over.

Following the same formula as Man of Medan and Little Hope, House of Ashes is an interactive horror movie. You flick between different potentially doomed characters (one of whom is singer and High School Musical actress Ashley Tisdale) and you decide who lives and dies. Or more likely do your best to keep everyone alive only to find a choice from two hours ago doomed your character without realising.

Where House of Ashes excels where previous games hadn’t was in bringing back the same sense of menace Until Dawn presented, and its highly charged setting helps with this. Set during the Iraq War, an attempt to uncover chemical weapons leads to a bunch of US military personnel (and one Iraqi) facing off against violent Pazuzus in an underground cave network. The darkness plays a major part in the horror, often requiring the player to use a flashlight to navigate and seek out horrors in the dark, while the military setting gave the cast some unique dynamics to work with, making it the best in the series so far.

House of Ashes may not completely live up to Until Dawn, but it’s certainly heading back in that direction.

46. The Great Ace Attorney Chronicles

Capcom | PC (via Steam), PlayStation 4, Switch | July

The latest titles in Capcom’s beloved lawyer-based visual novel series hit Western shores earlier this year when two Japanese-exclusive 3DS titles got spruced up and collected together in a Switch compilation which now got a worldwide release.

Unlike past titles in the series, it’s no longer a contemporary tale of justice, and instead takes us back to the Victorian era, even going as far as setting the courtroom action in London for full Victorian vibes. Sherlock Holmes even shows up, but due to some weird copyright shenanigans, he has to be called Herlock Sholmes instead.

And it’s more excellent Ace Attorneying, full of deception, deduction and a little bit of silliness. It’s good to see the series back once more. And who could have any objection to that?

45. NEO: The World Ends with You

Square Enix, h.a.n.d. | PC (via Epic), PlayStation 4, Switch | July

The World Ends With You is a cult classic DS title, one beloved by JRPG fans everywhere for its stylish visuals, unique combat and complex story. It’s also never had a sequel, until now at least.

One of many superb JRPGs released this year, NEO TWEWY brings everything that made the original great into stark HD at last. It retains the stunning visuals as a bunch of trendy teens in Shibuya take on a sinister game of survival, while combat remains as complex and enjoyable as ever.

If you were a fan of the original, this is the sequel you were waiting for. Although sadly Square Enix’s poor marketing has led to it underselling.

44. No More Heroes 3

Marvelous, Grasshopper Manufacture | Switch | August

Speaking of long-awaited sequels, No More Heroes finally got a proper third entry, after the misstep that was the bizarre Travis Strikes Again a couple of years ago.

The adventures of Travis Touchdown were always a strange time, with Suda51’s notably weird style peeking through at every turn. And the third game is no exception, with Travis now taking on a series of aliens instead of hitmen. Because the only way to keep things escalating is through enemies from space, I guess.

A beloved new entry, No More Heroes 3 is one of the year’s more bonkers games, but it’s not exactly unexpected from Suda51 at this point.

43. Overboard!

Inkle | PC (via Steam/GOG/itch.io), Switch | June

Overboard is a murder mystery with a twist – you know who did it straight away, because it’s you. The goal here isn’t to solve the murder but to convince everyone that you didn’t do it.

You are a wealthy debutante in the 1930s, and your husband has “accidentally” slipped off the boat. As a full investigation ramps up , you must do everything in your power to put everyone off the scent, through any means necessary. Bribery, coercion and even additional murder are not off the table in your quest to get off the boat scot-free at the other end of the journey.

A single playthrough of Overboard is possible in less than an hour, but that’s because the game is all about experimentation through multiple replays. Try out different choices and try to find the perfect route to getting away with murder. It’s a compelling crime narrative designed to keep you, and hopefully everyone else, guessing.

42. Hot Wheels Unleashed

Milestone | PC (via Steam/Epic), PlayStation, Switch, Xbox | September

Hot Wheels racing games have always had a bit of an identity crisis, often trying to be cool racers on fantasy tracks and usually ending feeling kind of middling and pointless. Hot Wheels Unleashed fixes this problem by getting to the heart of what Hot Wheels toys are all about – racing them around your living room.

So Hot Wheels has been given the Micro Machines treatment – here’s an arcade racer where the cars are very explicitly toys, with the scenery all being appropriately sized rooms of a standard family home. Of course, the tracks are built mainly with the stark orange track sets you can buy for the tiny cars, but they duck and weave through table legs and shelves like the tiny toys they are.

And it’s a solid arcade racer that’s brought about a lot of joy this year. It’s exactly what you’d expect when looking for a game in this genre, but with the setting and the track editor, it brings a sense of nostalgia with it, taking its players right back to their childhood playtime.

41. The Artful Escape

Annapurna Interactive, Beethoven & Dinosaur | PC (via Steam/MS Store), Xbox | September

The Artful Escape is a game whose title says exactly what you can expect. More art piece than game, The Artful Escape has you playing as a young man lost in the shadow of his famous folk singer uncle, trying to carve out his own identity and fame.

The game is essentially a side-scroller platformer, but it’s a forgiving one that simply dusts you off when you miss a jump and occasionally asks you to do some rhythm game action. It’s simplistic, but this is because the gameplay exists to facilitate its story. A story all about identity and standing on your own two feet, and ultimately reaching your dreams.

Visually, it’s one of the most unique and inventive art styles of the year. Drawing heavily from a certain brand of sci-fi infused glam rock of the 1970s, The Artful Escape is basically what the inside of David Bowie’s head probably looked like most of the time. Which is as glorious as you’d imagine.

The Artful Escape is not destined for mass appeal, but it certainly stands out. Much like its protagonist, I guess.

40. The Medium

Bloober Team | PC (via Steam/Epic/GOG/MS Store), PlayStation 5, Xbox Series X/S | January (PC, XB), September (PS)

The Medium has had an interesting response, and it was a debate whether or not it should make the list. But ultimately, personal bias played a factor and my own enjoyment of the game allowed me to place it here.

Set in Poland in the 90s, The Medium is a horror game that’s more about the monsters of the real world than it is about fictional abominations (although the game does still star one, voiced inexplicably by Troy Baker). You play as Marianne, a woman with the ability to see in both our world and the world of the dead, and her journey through an old, dilapidated resort in search for a man who can explain her powers.

The most intriguing aspects of The Medium are also things that caused such a divide amongst gamers. It takes so much inspiration from Silent Hill that Akira Yamaoka helped compose the soundtrack, while in reality it plays more like a point and click adventure than a Silent Hill. And its big gimmick is a split world feature, where you can see both the worlds of the living and the dead simultaneously in split-screen, which looks impressive but can absolutely tank performance when the rooms get too big and detailed.

But despite its flaws and its messy story that borders on being exploitative, there’s something truly fascinating about The Medium. Its world and concept, the atmosphere of the oppressive communist buildings, and its genuinely horrific monster design all make for a game that’s worth experiencing for yourself.

39. Bravely Default II

Square Enix, Claytechworks | PC (via Steam), Switch | February (NS), September (PC)

Bravely Default II is the followup to Square Enix’s beloved retro RPG that feels like a classic Final Fantasy spinoff but ultimately isn’t. And it’s another JRPG that’s made 2021 a great year for fans of the genre.

But it’s not a simple throwback, despite its chibi characters and classic storytelling style. It’s a game full of modern elements that elevate to an essential level. Its titular battle system, which offers the ability to save or advance turns, provides a risk-reward system that also effectively speeds up battles against generic mooks in the overworld. Its visuals, while simple, are stunning and hugely polished up from the 3DS original.

Bravely Default II isn’t a revolutionary JRPG, but it is one that takes all the elements of the genre and refines them into one of the more enjoyable RPG experiences of the year.

38. Lost Judgment

Sega, Ryu Ga Gotoku Studio | PlayStation, Xbox | September

Ryu Ga Gotoku Studio make one game over and over, but it’s a game that’s so consistently good it’s impossible to be upset about it. Lost Judgment is the sequel to Judgment, itself a spinoff of the Yakuza franchise, and the only real difference between them is which side of the law you’re on.

In Lost Judgment you once again play as Detective Yagami as he investigates an impossible crime in Yokohama. You have to delve into the criminal underworld and find all the clues you need to bring justice once again. The sequel follows much of the same formula as the first game – stealth, tailing and crime scene analysis are core mechanics here, alongside the franchise’s trademark street brawling.

But added to this are the more fun elements you can rely on RGG to provide, like how Yagami’s primary mode of transport is now a skateboard, and yes, you can do sweet tricks. There’s a whole arc of high school drama somehow despite Yagami being a fully grown adult. You can have a dog sidekick, because of course.

Lost Judgment somehow manages to ramp up the darkness of its main storyline and the silliness of its side content in a way that only RGG can pull off well. And while it’s looking unlikely we’ll ever see another entry in this side series thanks to disputes around likenesses, this is still worth jumping into while we still have it.

37. Splitgate

1047 Games | PC (via Steam), PlayStation, Xbox | August

This Halo-aping shooter didn’t quite grab much of an audience in its Early Access state for the past two years, but a complete release, along with console launches, have seen the game’s popularity explode this year.

If you’ve ever played Halo multiplayer, there is a lot to love in this game, as Xbox’s franchise has been a clear influence here, even down to players wearing big, bulky power armour as standard. Where it differs quite significantly, however, is in its portal mechanics, similar to, well, Portal.

And that gives what would otherwise be a fairly generic shooter a massive tactical shift. Because you and your opponents can shift from place to place with ease, and you can be shot from someone rooms away if they’ve got the portal setup for it, you have to act a lot more tactically.

Splitgate is a quirky take on old school FPS multiplayer, and it’s worth a try if you’re looking for something a bit different in the genre.

36. Humankind

Sega, Amplitude | PC (via Steam/Epic/MS Store) | August

Civilization has long been the series you turn to when you’re looking for a history-spanning 4X strategy game, and it seems like no one has been all that willing to take it on at its own game. Until now.

Humankind is the latest title from the Endless studio Amplitude, and it is, quite simply, Civilization. You’re a glorious leader taking your people from primitive tribespeople with crude spears to high-tech space explorers, while battling for supremacy with other leaders trying to do the same.

But there are differences throughout. For a start, the map is built out of territories, and setting up a city or settlement claims the entire territory, as opposed to Civ’s creeping city territory system. Progression is also built on an objective system that encourages you to play in specific ways, pushing your society to be more agrarian or militaristic, which adds a bunch of strategy as you decide in each era which direction you’d prefer to go.

It’s an interesting take on the formula that shakes up a lot of what Civ has stuck to, and while it is kind of glitchy in many ways, it’s still a really fun time and worth checking out if you’re a fan of 2K’s series.

35. New Pokémon Snap

Nintendo, Bandai Namco | Switch | April

2021 is seemingly the year of long-awaiting sequels, as here’s a sequel to the beloved N64 Pokémon photography game. It took 22 years and 4 generations of Nintendo consoles, but here we are, a new Pokémon Snap.

And it’s so good to see it back. The gameplay remains unchanged – you sit in a craft that travels on rails through various natural settings populated by Pokémon, and you have to take pictures of them. You get a few tools to help with this, including a melody maker that wakes up Pokémon and encourages them to dance, or fruit you can throw to bonk them or encourage them to eat.

And it’s a lot of fun, and with roughly 5 million Pokémon added to the franchise in the last 20+ years, the sheer number of creatures to take photos of has ballooned, and the amount of photos you have to take has also increased, adding even more challenge and puzzles to the gameplay. And it’s a chill experience that’s wonderful to have back.

34. Knockout City

EA Originals, Velan Studios | PC (via Steam/Epic/Origin), PlayStation, Switch, Xbox | May

Knockout City looked like a game that was destined for failure. A slightly weird announcement trailer and a slightly too in-your-face art style made it look a tiny bit desperate. And yet, it seems to have found its audience and thrived, providing the world with a superb dodgeball battle game that stands out as a unique multiplayer experience.

It helps that its core gameplay is fun, testing your skills as you try and catch balls thrown at you and get those all-important hits in yourself. It’s also got a ton of good social features, including the ability to build crews with your friends, cross-play across all systems and a fun rooftop hangout to mess around in before games.

Knockout City was a delightful surprise for anyone looking for something a little different to play with friends this year.

33. Scarlet Nexus

Bandai Namco | PC (via Steam/MS Store), PlayStation, Xbox | June

Bandai Namco are an interesting company, one that publish a wide range of titles. But one thing they always seem to excel at is overblown anime nonsense, whether it’s stuff literally based on anime properties, or their own IPs such as Tales or God Eater (and its secret Soulslike spinoff, Code Vein, which I played for the first time this year and loved). And here’s their latest foray into that style, Scarlet Nexus.

Set in an alternate future where ESP is real, and mutants are creeping into the world to feed on human brains. What follows is a bizarre mixture of Astral Chain’s setting and flashy combat and Control’s “lob anything in sight at a nearby enemy” abilities. No really, I played the demo of this earlier in the year and both of those games were lodged in my brain the entire time. And that’s not a bad thing.

Scarlet Nexus is a fun action RPG that leans heavily into expected anime tropes, but remains a fun time throughout. If you want something flashy with meaty combat and a complex sci-fi story, this is the game for you.

32. Back 4 Blood

Warner Bros, Turtle Rock Studios | PC (via Steam/Epic/MS Store), PlayStation, Xbox | October

You know how Valve won’t make third games in their franchises and therefore there will never be a Left 4 Dead 3? Well good news! Back 4 Blood is Left 4 Dead 3 in all but name. Right down to the people making it.

If you’ve ever played Left 4 Dead, then you’ll know exactly what to expect with this. It’s a co-op shooter, where you and three friends take on hordes of zombies of varying types and see how long you can survive. The names of the zombie types have changed, but their basic functions have not. But it’s not just a simple reskin. Back 4 Blood brings more than enough ideas of its own, expanding its ideas into new gruesome shapes. Shapes that try and kill you. Usually massive ones.

It’s not the greatest game in the world, however. There’s a lot of weird jank to the whole experience, and it wears it flaws obviously on its sleeve. And yet the general opinion seems to be that the game is a lot of fun despite all of that.

Back 4 Blood is not an original idea, but for anyone looking to bring back the joy of taking on the hordes with their friends, it’s ideal.

31. Chivalry II

Tripwire Interactive, Torn Banner Studios | PC (via Epic), PlayStation, Xbox| June

On the surface, Chivalry II appears to be a deep, complex strategy game about managing troops in a large-scale war, and you’d assume that was the appeal for its players. But then you ask the players why they’re there, and they’ll tell you it’s all about the joy of lopping people’s legs off.

In Chivalry II, you are assigned a role within a vast army and you have to complete your objectives. These objectives can range from manning catapults to charging gates to shooting arrows. That’s the game in theory, at least. In practice, it’s a brutal hack n slash with a complex melee system that allows you to remove limbs and then carry your opponent’s severed head gloriously to the gates of his command post. Where you’ll probably be shot down by arrows, but it’s the principle that counts.

Chivalry II is over-the-top brutal medieval warfare with 40-64 players, and while it might be a highly flawed game, it is one that’s brought people a lot of fun this year.

30. Guilty Gear Strive

Arc System Works | PC (via Steam), PlayStation | June

For fighting game fans, Guilty Gear Strive was a godsend this year. The latest in one of the more hardcore franchises in the genre, GGS nevertheless tried to make fighting games that little bit more accessible, with tutorials, robust ranking systems and a reduction in the reliance on long, complex combos to win.

But even within that, it made great efforts to maintain the series’ trademark depth, so veteran players wouldn’t feel cheated. Essentially it’s made a great effort to be easier to pick up than fighting games usually are, but equally hard to master on top of that.

But there are also numerous other strides the game has made towards improving the genre. Released at a time where online tournaments were the only way to play, GGS developed a strong netcode that allows players from around the world to play each other without awkward delays. It’s so effective that players are calling on other fighting game developers to learn from it.

Guilty Gear Strive is also just a flashy, fun fighting game that any lover of the genre should enjoy.

29. Persona 5 Strikers

Atlus, Koei Tecmo, Omega Force | PC (via Steam), PlayStation 4, Switch | February (UK release)

Omega Force have a formula and they stick to it. And what’s more, they’re increasingly applying that formula to every other Japanese franchise. Not content with turning The Legend of Zelda, Gundam and One Piece into Dynasty Warriors games, their latest effort was slapping that formula into Atlus’ hit JRPG Persona 5.

Persona 5 Strikers is a spin-off and sequel in one, following in the Persona franchise’s history of hopping into alternate genres for follow-ups (so far mostly dancing and fighting). And this is one shift that makes some degree of sense, as it takes the flashy battles of Persona 5 and turns them into full-scale brawls full of faceless hordes, all still exhibiting the same flashy visuals as the original game.

And the end result is fantastic, bringing together the best of both franchises in an addictive, colourful explosion of action. It’s a game that has won over critics and fans alike and shown Atlus they can continue to slap Persona characters into even more genres and get away with it. Persona 5 Karting when?

28. Sable

Raw Fury, Shedworks | PC (via Steam/Epic/GOG/MS Store), Xbox | September

Open world games are a tricky game to get right, especially for an indie studio. It especially gets difficult when trying to balance the free-roaming exploration aspects with a linear story. Which is perhaps why Shedworks, the developers of Sable, decided to completely ignore the concept of telling a linear story.

Sable is a true open world game. Set in a vast desert world, you play as Sable, a young girl heading out on a rite of passage. Her goal is simply to discover herself, to seek out roles in society that would best suit her, and find her place in the world. What that means is entirely up to the player.

From its open concept to its Moebius-inspired art style, Sable is a fascinating little game that has managed to successfully carve its own place in the world, just like its protagonist.

27. Before Your Eyes

Skybound Games, GoodbyeWorld Games | PC (via Steam/Epic/GOG/itch.io) | April

Regardless of anything else – popularity, review scores, sales – Before Your Eyes deserves to be on any list of notable games for one reason alone: its unique control scheme.

The game tells the story of a life well-lived, flashing back through memories as the protagonist sails through the afterlife. As they reminisce, moments in time disappear in the blink of an eye. And I mean that quite literally, as progress through the game is built entirely on blinking. Not an in-game mechanic where your character’s eyes can close, but literal blinking. As in, your own human eyes control the entire game.

Using your webcam, Before Your Eyes tracks your eye movement through your entire playthrough. Every time you blink, the scene changes, and you’ll never know whether you’ll jump a few seconds forward in time, or skip entire days and weeks to reach the next significant memory. And no matter how much you might try to hold onto serene moments in the protagonist’s life, you simply can’t. You have to blink sometime, after all, just like how time will inevitably roll on for all of us regardless.

While certainly not for everyone, Before Your Eyes is such an ingenious use of interactivity in video game storytelling that to not include it here would do a disservice to it.

26. Kena: Bridge of Spirits

Ember Lab | PC (via Epic), PlayStation | September

Kena is easily one of the most charming games of the year. Putting you in control of the titular Kena, a spirit guide, you set out on a quest to heal a cursed village in order to reach a mountain shrine of great significance to you. And aiding you in that task are little forest creatures known as Rot.

And friends, I need you to know this. The Rot are offensively cute, to the point where I feel it should be illegal. Constantly following you around like lost puppies, staring up at you with their massive eyes, perpetual derpy smiles and chubby round bodies, I dare you to not fall in love with these little buddies.

They are also useful, making up a large part of the gameplay, as Kena can call them to her aid at any time, whether that’s adding to her abilities in battle, getting them to move things around like they’re Pikmin or Voltroning them into a weird goopy dragon. You can also give them hats, just in case they weren’t cute enough.

But aside from the cute, Kena also boasts some superb animation, exposing this debut developer’s past life as a work-for-hire animation studio. Every character moves with such expression, and Kena herself stands tall as a stylish and borderline iconic character. The game feels like an interactive Pixar movie, and for that alone I recommend you play it.

It also offers up a surprising amount of difficulty, with the game’s bosses not messing around when it comes to potentially flattening you into the dirt. The difficulty spikes can be a little wonky, which I argue is the game’s biggest flaw, but on the whole, Kena: Bridge of Spirits is a stellar first effort, and I look forward to whatever Ember Lab turn to next.

25. Chicory: A Colorful Tale

Finji, Greg Lobanov and friends | PC (via Steam/Epic/itch.io), PlayStation, Switch | June (PC, PS), December (NS)

Chicory is a sweet, wholesome little game about painting. You play a small dog who you name after your favourite food and set out with a magic brush to bring colour back to the world.

Think of 2D Zelda, only one of the protagonist’s main abilities is to pull out a brush and colour in the world. And by that I mean you colour it in, as the world is a gigantic colouring book waiting for your particular flourish to bring it to life.

As you’d expect, this is a game about art. About what art means to you specifically. There is no right or wrong way to colour this world in, and instead the game encourages you to experiment and be creative. If you want to smear a single colour across everything, go nuts. Wanna throw in some doodles? You’ve got it. The world is quite literally your canvas.

But the game goes further than this, telling a story about the mental health of artists, and raising concerns about the desire to push too far for your craft. It’s a game that questions imposter syndrome and the need to compare our work to that of others. And it’s a game that encourages you even when you feel you’re not good enough.

A surprise indie darling, Chicory: A Colorful Tale is a gentle and welcoming game full of joy.

24. The Forgotten City

Dear Villagers, Modern Storyteller | PC (via Steam/Epic/GOG/MS Store), PlayStation, Switch (via cloud), Xbox | July (PC, PS, XB), September (NS)

In 2015, a Skyrim mod appeared on Nexus that shocked many. It wasn’t someone replacing every dragon with Thomas the Tank Engine, nor was it a mod increasing the breast size of every woman in the world. No, this mod went above and beyond.

It completely stripped away the conventions of Skyrim and created its own unique experience. A whole new adventure, with original characters, an original storyline and elements of a unique world outside of The Elder Scrolls. It was so impressive that a year after its initial release, it won an award from the Australian Writers Guild.

So it perhaps isn’t surprising that the developer of this mod decided to take it further, stripping out of Skyrim and turning it into a game in its own right. And that game is The Forgotten City.

Set in an ancient Roman city cursed to see the deaths of its citizens should anyone sin, The Forgotten City tasks you with unravelling the city’s mysteries and free the people from the curse. Less about violence and aggression, this is more of a mystery game, where talking to NPCs and uncovering clues will lead you to victory. And with time endlessly looping, there are opportunities to exploit this to learn even more.

The Forgotten City is an astounding passion project that deserves all the recognition it gets. The fact that someone who was not originally a developer can produce a mod so good it becomes its own game is brilliant work.

23. Wildermyth

Worldwalker Games | PC (via Steam/itch.io) | June

One of the big problems with tabletop RPGs is that they require you to gather a group of people in a room together for several hours. And if anyone has attempted this with any group of adults, they know the struggle this creates. Is there a way to get the joy of a TTRPG as a solo experience? Not really, but Wildermyth is the closest we’ve gotten so far.

Built primarily around pre-built campaigns, the game uses procedural generation and randomisation to shake things up in the closest the genre has gotten to replicating a human games master improvising on the fly. Using character traits, party composition and items as a way to generate story beats and events along the path to your ultimate goal, evolving each campaign into something more personal.

Wildermyth builds every bit of its presentation out of storytelling, with the game’s art style consisting of paper cut-outs like it’s a pop-up book or, more likely, a cheap tabletop setup for a group that can’t afford figures. The character design isn’t likely to be to everyone’s tastes, but the care and attention given to evoking this amateur storytelling style is commendable.

It’s ambitious, especially from a small team, and stands a real chance of being a hugely influential game within the genre.

22. Little Nightmares II

Bandai Namco, Tarsier Studios | PC (via Steam/GOG), PlayStation, Switch, Xbox | February

The original Little Nightmares was a superb piece of work, blending a weird Tim Burton-esque art style with an ambiguous storyline about a little girl trapped and hungry on a large cruise ship full of people who want her dead.

The sequel, released early this year, adds to the universe without ever answering any of the first game’s questions. Instead, it enhances the dread of the series, makes the world feel even more oppressive and hostile to the small children who inhabit it, and finds new ways to keep the player uncomfortable.

A lot of the game is similar to the original game – it’s a cinematic platformer where you have to evade capture from gigantic enemies that will grab and eat you on sight. But there are a few twists on the formula to keep it fresh, from a school full of porcelain-headed children that often crowd you and require smashing with a giant hammer, to a hospital ward full of terrifying mannequins that move in darkness that set off my anxiety in the worst way possible.

Little Nightmares 2 is a glorious follow-up to an already great original, and it was so good to see the franchise return this year.

21. Shin Megami Tensei V

Atlus | Switch | November

In a bizarre twist of fate, the Shin Megami Tensei series is often seen as a footnote to the Persona series, despite the latter being a spin-off of the former. So the success of the latest title, Shin Megami Tensei V, is hopefully one that lets the parent series finally take the spotlight for itself.

SMTV brings together all the usual aspects of the series – a dual world, demons you can collect like Pokémon, an unflinching sense of style in both art direction and music, and a story full of deep symbolism and dark themes. But it also refines them, making the story less convoluted, the battles more intense and the visuals even more stunning. And despite its acronym, there’s no Ant and/or Dec in sight.

Whether you’re completely new to the series, or an avid fan, SMTV is more than worth your time. Another stellar JRPG in a year already full of them.

20. Life is Strange: True Colors

Square Enix, Deck Nine | PC (via Steam/MS Store), PlayStation, Switch, Xbox | September

Life is Strange is a series aimed at a specific niche of people who like interactive narratives and are also cool with the relationship dramas of young people. It’s got a formula and it sticks to it.

And for True Colors, the latest entry and the first mainline entry not made by original studio Dontnod, this formula continues to be entertaining. The newest title places you in the scuffed boots of Alex Chen, a young woman with the power to feel what everyone else is feeling. While this power sounds less exciting than the previous time travel and telekinesis, in practice it’s just really specific telepathy, and naturally Alex uses it to make friends in her new home of Haven Springs, Colorado.

And it’s one of my favourite games of the year. Alex is a likeable protagonist living in a town that most of the Life is Strange audience (ie. indie hipsters, ie. me) would want to live in. The new power opens up a ton of new ways to interact with the people around you, delving into their psyches and flushing out the problems within. It’s a lot like Psychonauts, if Raz was 10 years older and listened to glum indie rock.

The story is one of injustice and grief and dealing with emotions, and that’s all stuff I’m into, so I had a great time delving back into the drama and interpersonal relationships of people 10 years younger than me. Also you get to romance a cool nerdy rock chick, so what’s not to love?

19. Loop Hero

Devolver Digital, Four Quarters | PC (via Steam/Epic/GOG), Switch | March (PC), December (NS)

Loop Hero is a fascinating game for the simple fact that it takes three overdone genres in the indie space – roguelikes, deck builders and idle clickers – and it manages to turn the combination into something fresh and unique.

Loop Hero is a game where you take charge of a hero walking around a loop. The game is largely automated, like an idle clicker, but there are a ton of parameters you can adjust as the game progresses. This is done through the placement of cards, which can be used to adjust the terrain and affect spawn rates and other factors of the world. Each loop offers you the chance to rest and save your equipment, or to push for another loop to get better rewards at greater risk of death.

It’s a bizarre little game that takes all these elements that have been done countless times elsewhere and turns it all into something unique to itself. Loop Hero had strategy fans raving earlier this year, and it certainly stands out as one of the year’s standout indie darlings.

18. Unpacking

Humble Games, Witch Beam | PC (via Steam/GOG/MS Store), Switch, Xbox | November

Unpacking is such a simple premise for a game that I’m surprised it’s never been done before. As the title suggests, this is a game about unpacking. The entire gameplay loop involves taking items out of boxes and placing them on shelves, into wardrobes and under the kitchen sink. There are no car chases, no gunfights, you don’t even have any real characters. Just you, the boxes and some rooms. For several hours.

And it’s a lot more compelling than you’d expect. The simplicity of its gameplay and the incredibly chilled out soundtrack make for a relaxing experience. There’s an almost zen-like feeling to arranging these items where they need to go. It feels almost exactly the opposite to real unpacking in that respect. There’s also something super satisfying about the way every item has its own unique sound effects depending on the surface it’s interacting with. It’s an astounding level of detail for such a small game.

But what surprised me about Unpacking and made it a personal favourite this year was just how much I cared about the protagonist and her life, and how much the story resonated with me. Yes, that’s right, there’s a story, and it’s told entirely through a sequence of houses and the items being put into them. We never see a single human character, but we learn so much about our protagonist along the way. And also learn to hate the first boyfriend she moves in with. That guy’s the worst.

Unpacking evokes a ton of emotions entirely through inanimate objects. And that’s rad.

17. Age of Empires IV

Xbox Game Studios, Relic Entertainment | PC (via Steam/MS Store) | October

Age of Empires IV is the first new entry in Microsoft’s beloved RTS franchise since 2005, where the series has instead relied on remasters and expansions in the intervening years to stay in the public eye. But IV is not an expansion, it’s a brand new game, and one that builds on the legacy of the second game, ie. the fan favourite.

Age of Empires IV is your typical RTS. You build a base, you churn out some fighty men, and then you throw the fighty men at your rival’s fighty men. It’s a standard formula that’s worked for years, and has not been changed here. What has changed is the sense of scale (now much vaster than what AoE3 could achieve) and the level of historical bombast.

In between large-scale battles, the game teaches you all about the history of the era as you go, presenting everything you’re doing as something of great historical importance. It gives everything a sense of intense gravitas that elevates the experience.

In other words, the perfect game to live out your warlord fantasies without getting the UN involved.

16. Valheim

Coffee Stain, Iron Gate | PC (via Steam) | February (Early Access)

Valheim is an Early Access game made by six people that exploded onto Steam in a way you don’t expect a game fitting that description to do.

At its core, Valheim is a survival game with Vikings in it. You go around doing Viking things – building longboats, building longhouses, occasionally building things without long in the name, and colonising the lands. It’s an open sandbox where you and your friends can craft and brew mead before going out pillaging for a laugh.

But it goes beyond just a crafting and building game, you also have to be aware of threats in the world, and go out to take them down. It’s a vast game full of surprises and adventure, and the internet seemingly fell instantly in love with it as soon as it dropped, shifting a million copies in a week and overwhelming its tiny team.

Valheim deserves recognition not just for being a good game, but also because of its ability to show how a game made on a shoestring budget that isn’t even technically finished yet can still become one of the standout hits of the year. And that’s commendable.

15. Tales of Arise

Bandai Namco | PC (via Steam), PlayStation, Xbox | September

Of the many JRPGs being praised by fans of the genre extensively this year, Tales of Arise stands high above them all. Being part of the legendary Tales series, it largely follows in the same tradition as previous games, and the story is illustrative of how standard it is. There’s an amnesiac hero travelling the world gathering party members of varying skillsets to take on an evil emperor. So far, so standard.

But while Tales of Arise isn’t doing anything new, it sets out instead to expand on the typical tropes. So much praise has been lavished on Tales of Arise for its flashy and exciting combat, which takes the combo strings of character action games like Bayonetta and blends them with typical RPG mechanics. It’s fast-paced, it’s over the top and it’s exciting. Story scenes follow suit, often flashy and full of the expected glorious anime ridiculousness.

Tales of Arise doesn’t do much that’s innovative for the genre. But what it does do is deliver all the typical RPG tropes with such finesse that anyone can jump in and have a good time, regardless of their prior experience with the genre.

14. Inscryption

Devolver Digital, Daniel Mullins Games | PC (via Steam/Epic/GOG) | October

Deck building games are alarmingly common in the indie space these days, with the likes of Hearthstone and Magic the Gathering inspiring many to create their own card-based battle games.

So it’s no surprise that with the sheer amount of games in this genre, we now have a subversion too. Inscryption is a card battler that adds an extra layer of horror and despair just to mess with what the player expects.

The premise is this – you’re sitting at a table with a mysterious stranger who insists you play a special card game with them. Your hand is full of animals, and in order to play some of them, you must sacrifice cards on the table. And then you realise you can get up from the table and walk around the room, adding a bizarre layer of escape room intrigue to things.

To say more would spoil a lot of what comes next, but what I can say is that it expands on this concept quite a bit more than you’d expect, with more than a touch of fourth wall breaking and gameplay shifts along the way.

One of the more unexpected titles of the year, without a doubt.

13. Death’s Door

Devolver Digital, Acid Nerve | PC (via Steam/Epic/GOG), PlayStation, Switch, Xbox | July (PC, XB), November (PS, NS)

The year’s indie darling of choice, Death’s Door is a delightful little game about a tiny grim reaper raven.

It’s an isometric exploration game that clearly blends elements of classic Legend of Zelda dungeons with the interconnected world and harsh battles of Dark Souls, and still manages to carve out a strong identity of its own. An identity full of great humour that manages to take a setting and premise around themes of death and make it surprisingly light-hearted.

It won over critics and audiences alike upon release as it blended fun fast-paced combat, a fascinating world to explore and writing full of humour and quirky characterisation. I also played through this and thoroughly enjoyed what it had to offer. I recommend you give it a try.

12. Monster Hunter Rise

Capcom | Switch | March

The latest in Capcom’s beloved series about squaring off against dragons and then using their skin as armour to fight more dragons continues the series tradition of being excellent.

A Switch exclusive after the series skipped Nintendo systems with the last major instalment (2018’s Monster Hunter World), Rise brings back much of what made the series so successful in the first place, with a few additions to the formula.

The title indicates the biggest change, with verticality at the heart of everything the game does, providing the player with a grappling hook to traverse the more mountainous regions of the game’s open world. They also added dog companions, so naturally everyone’s gone nuts for that too.

These changes benefited the game, as it’s proven to be a critical and commercial success, and shows that this is a series unwilling to be taken down any time soon.

Especially as it wasn’t the only Monster Hunter game this year, and if Rise isn’t enough for you, there is also the second game in the Stories spin-off series, in case you wanted your Monster Hunter to be more like Pokémon.

11. Halo Infinite

Xbox Game Studios, 343 Industries | PC (via Steam/MS Store), Xbox | November (multiplayer), December (campaign)

Halo is Microsoft’s flagship franchise, a series that celebrated its 20th anniversary this year alongside the console it helped launch – the OG Xbox. But recent instalments, particularly those not developed by the original team at Bungie, have often left fans cold, leaving the series feeling like it was just hanging around for the sake of it.

And this is where Halo Infinite comes in. A soft reboot attempting to bring in the best aspects of the past few games and combine them with everything that made fans love the original trilogy. And from all accounts, they have largely succeeded. Gripes with the multiplayer’s aggressive monetisation notwithstanding at least.

Building on the Halo saga’s vast amount of lore to deliver a story that attempts to course correct some of the flaws of past campaigns, along with new mechanics such as the Grappleshot, Halo Infinite is a return to form for the series and one that fans should be happy to jump into.

10. Guardians of the Galaxy

Square Enix, Eidos Montreal | PC (via Steam/Epic), PlayStation, Switch (via cloud), Xbox | October

It’s the comeback story of the year. After last year’s disastrous Avengers game, everyone instantly wrote off Guardians of the Galaxy as more of the same. Coming from the same publisher and Crystal Dynamics’ sister developer Eidos Montreal, the expectations were low.

And then it released and was…much better than Avengers? No, it was actually a great game? Well that’s a surprise.

That’s right, Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy is one of the year’s more enjoyable AAA titles, with a great sense of humour and fast-paced action all tied together with one of the biggest entertainment properties on the planet.

Of course, I’m not its target audience as I find most Marvel media obnoxious in its overbearing ubiquity these days, but I’m glad the fans got a reversal for the mess from last year. Well done!

9. It Takes Two

EA Originals, Hazelight Studios | PC (via Steam/Origin), PlayStation, Xbox | March

Hazelight have built a reputation for themselves as the experts of co-op games. Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons and A Way Out already garnered a ton of critical praise, but their latest game, It Takes Two, appears to be their best work to date.

An emotional story focused on a dysfunctional couple and the rift it’s caused with their daughter, they are placed into hand-made dolls and made to complete a bunch of tasks by a talking relationship therapy book. What follows is a complex and varied set of co-op minigames and adventures that hop genres to an absurd degree, and not once does it fail to stick the landing.

It Takes Two is one of the best co-op experiences of the year, and has stuck around to continued critical success throughout the whole year, including a surprise Game of the Year win at The Game Awards.

8. Returnal

PlayStation Studios, Housemarque | PlayStation 5 | April

Returnal was a game that knew its niche and stuck to it (for better or worse). Placing you in the shoes of an astronaut named Selene, you navigate an alien landscape full of danger and ever-shifting locations while caught in a time loop that revives you when you die. Buried within this world are strange places that hint at Selene’s past back on Earth, and her journey leads her to uncover the mysteries of this bizarre world.

A high-budget roguelike with the support of Sony, this is the game that launched another million hot takes about difficulty in games and landed straight into the top spot of some people’s Game of the Year lists.

It was also one of the big PS5 exclusives for the year, in a year filled with very few of them, and that is a big part of why it caught so much attention. And that attention turned into Housemarque becoming another PlayStation first-party studio.

A game that’s not for everyone, but if you’re its audience, then you’re likely more than satisfied with it, and absolutely one of the year’s more standout titles.

7. Hitman 3

IO Interactive | PC (via Epic), PlayStation, Switch (via Cloud), Xbox | January

The revived Hitman trilogy has been a joy since its initial appearance back in 2016. Across both Hitman and Hitman 2, the series formula was refined significantly from its clunky beginnings, providing not only a solid set of base levels full of creative assassination methods, but also a wealth of additional content.

Hitman 3 is the ultimate realisation of what IO set out to do with those previous games, bringing together everything that the trilogy had set out and ramping up the story with more intrigue. A range of new locations added to this, with a murder mystery in Cornwall, a cat-and-mouse game in a Berlin nightclub and impossible sky vistas in Dubai among the many theatres of assassination the game provides.

It’s a superb end to a critically acclaimed trilogy.

6. Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart

PlayStation Studios, Insomniac | PlayStation 5 | June

In a year that saw the presence of next-gen consoles and not a lot that looked particularly “next-gen”, Sony studio Insomniac were determined to make sure the PS5 had a game that showcased what the console could do. That game was the latest Ratchet & Clank, a game built heavily around the PS5’s fast SSD to showcase its dimension-hopping storyline.

But it’s not just the loading that’s fast, as Ratchet’s movement has been sped up too, thanks to Insomniac’s experimentation in Sunset Overdrive and Spider-Man. More grappling mechanics, a wall run and a super satisfying dash move all make Ratchet’s moveset a joy to control. And that’s before we get to the weapons, which continue to be as ludicrous as always.

But beyond that, the franchise’s trademark writing quality is back on display here, with new character Rivet bringing a lot of charm to the table, and the side characters bring more than enough chuckles to keep you entertained.

Rift Apart is more than just a technical showcase for the PS5, it’s also a gorgeous and endlessly enjoyable space romp.

5. Metroid Dread

Nintendo, MercurySteam | Switch | October

While Metroid has seen some releases in the last decade, they’ve rarely been what fans have been looking for. After the disastrous Other M, which painted protagonist Samus Aran as kind of feeble and weak-willed, and the unwanted 3DS shooter Federation Force, the series was crying out for a traditional entry again. And aside from Samus Returns, a remake of 1991’s Metroid II, the series hasn’t seen a standard game for a while.

Which is why Dread is such a welcome. Originally conceived at Nintendo back in 2005, this has gained mythical status amongst the dedicated fans, so naturally its announcement at E3 this year caused a great deal of excitement.

And that excitement wasn’t unwarranted. Metroid Dread is a critical success, bringing the series back to its former glory, and gaining much more commercial success as a result. Much of the praise has been directed at its titular atmosphere, thanks to the new E.M.M.I. enemies that can’t be killed or reasoned with, and will stalk Samus relentlessly through their patrol zones. It’s tense and it’s spooky, and this combined with a polished and refined version of the franchise’s genre-defining conventions make for one of the best pure gameplay experiences of the year.

If you love Metroid, you want to be playing this.

4. Forza Horizon 5

Xbox Game Studios, Playground Games | PC (via Steam/MS Store), Xbox | November

Forza Horizon is the car series for people who don’t like cars. This is largely down to the fact that it’s less about cool cars and more about cool stuff you can do with cars. So instead of meticulously recreated circuit racing and endless pondering over transmission ratios or whatever, Forza Horizon is a series where you collect cool cars and drive them around an open sandbox map as part of a glorious festival of racing excess.

And the latest entry, Forza Horizon 5, is glorious anarchic car nonsense that I have been playing daily since the game’s release.

The game opens with you being chucked out of a plane multiple times like some kind of Fast and the Furious knockoff. Later you race a train. Then you explore ruins in an offroad vehicle and turn a VW Beetle into a speed machine. Then you tear up an abandoned airfield. And that’s before we get to the luchadores and the monster trucks.

Look, Forza Horizon 5 is not just the greatest racing game of the year, it is my personal favourite game of the year, full stop. It’s a loud, brash holiday to Mexico where you kick dirt clouds around ancient Aztec temples for fun. And you won’t get your visa revoked in the process. Amazing stuff.

In fact, it saddens me that I can’t make this number one. But there are a couple of other games that nabbed attention and accolades to a slightly higher degree than this game. But for me, this is absolutely my Game of the Year.

3. Psychonauts 2

Xbox Game Studios, Double Fine | PC (via Steam/GOG/MS Store), PlayStation 4, Xbox | August

Psychonauts was a superb game back in 2005. A quirky 3D platformer from the creator of LucasArts classics like Grim Fandango and Full Throttle, it placed you in the shoes of a young boy at a summer camp for psychics, training up to be an agent while also tackling some nefarious shenanigans involving brains.

It was a beloved game that cried out for more, and now, 16 years later, Psychonauts 2 is a reality, and it’s amazing. It takes every aspect of the originals that made it great to begin with and enhanced practically everything. The writing is still sharp and witty as before, but now the gameplay feels less clunky and a level as messy as the Meat Circus is nowhere to be seen.

It’s also surprisingly mindful of its representation of mental illness and psychology and encourages those affected by issues to seek professional help where they can. As a mental health advocate, I adore that this goofy cartoon game worked to ensure that level of care. It was almost my personal Game of the Year before I got distracted by throwing cars off mountains. But it too was not the most notable game of the year.

2. Resident Evil Village

Capcom | PC (via Steam), PlayStation, Xbox | May

It’s pretty clear that the success of Resident Evil 7 means that the series is very much wedded to its first-person horror direction for the foreseeable future. And the success of this year’s Village, also known as RE8, seems set to cement that.

It’s a game that offers up the perfect blend of genuinely tense and unpleasant horror while simultaneously bringing a particular brand of camp that the Resident Evil series revels in. While one portion of the game was compared favourably to the now-mythical P.T. thanks to its dark corridors, lack of weapons and generally unpleasant presentation, another portion of the game sent the internet into a frenzy over a tall vampire lady that showed that perhaps we’d all been stuck indoors for too long.

That frenzy alone made Resident Evil Village notable for this year, but it’s also just a really good horror game too? Perfect.

1. Deathloop

Bethesda, Arkane Studios | PC (via Steam/Epic), PlayStation 5 | September

In a year full of time loop games, Deathloop was the big budget contender looming over them all. Casting you as Colt Vahn, an assassin trapped on an island locked in a time loop. Using a number of weapons and powers, Colt must track down eight targets and take them all out in a single loop or be doomed to start all over again.

And since this is a game from the same studio that brought us Dishonored, you can expect more of the free-form level design, experimentation and crazy powers that made that game so beloved. And of course, this too became just as beloved, garnering high review scores, award nominations and a lot of attention online.

It’s got a whole load of retro 60s style, Arkane’s specific gameplay style and the ability to jump into a friend’s game and ruin their day as Colt’s nemesis Julianna. What’s not to love?

And that was 2021! I’ll be back next week to present the games you should be looking forward to in 2022. For now though, happy new year everybody!

 

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