Writing up a “Top X Games Of X Year” list is always a slog, but all the ups and downs of 2021—both personal and global—made it even harder. Frankly, there were points over the last 12 months where the last thing I wanted to do was sit down and play a video game.
My list is a mixture of AAA games and indie games, new games and even a few older games that I wasn’t in a position to gush about anywhere other than Twitter when they first came out. The brief moments of escapism I wrung out of them this year were that much more meaningful with everything being the way it is.
Here’s to a better 2022.
The tense hours I spent with Mundaun were some of my fondest gaming moments of the year. Its unique setting and (quite literally) hand-drawn aesthetics set it apart from other genre fare, but the game’s folk horror sensibilities are what kept me coming back for more.
Whether it was getting directions from a severed goat head or fending off mask-wearing beekeepers with only the smoke from a small pipe, the moment-to-moment thrills and scares Mundaun provides make it not only one of the best games of 2021 but one of my favorite horror games of all time.
Forget the tactical espionage of Metal Gear Solid. Death Stranding, with its compelling gameplay loop and poignant story about human connection, is the game that finally turned me into a simpering little Hideo Kojima fanboy. Look out, Geoff Keighley, there’s a new Stan in town.
As outlandish as Death Stranding may appear on the surface—I won’t fault anyone for washing their hands of the whole thing after seeing that Kojima and his team named a character Die-Hardman—there’s a very emotional experience at its core. Sure, you fight giant ghost monsters with gold masks every now and then, but it’s the quiet moments in between the action set pieces where Death Stranding truly shines.
I spent almost 80 hours playing this year’s Death Stranding: Director’s Cut before hitting the credits and it still felt too short. Give me more, Kojima. I need it.
I rarely find video games humorous, even those that are otherwise solid. They often try way too hard or devolve into an overreliance on Joss Whedon-isms to truly tickle my funny bone. So when I say Disco Elysium made me laugh harder and more often than any game I’ve ever played, you can be guaranteed that actually means something.
Originally released on PC two years ago before arriving on consoles last March, Disco Elysium was the best game of 2019 and came pretty damn close to grabbing top honors in 2021 as well. It’s filled to the brim with whip-smart dialogue, incredible voice acting and characterization, and an engaging storyline that’s overtly political without taking itself too seriously.
I’ve never been much of an MMO person, but Final Fantasy XIV sank its fangs into me this year and never let go. That said, I can’t really pinpoint why.
Maybe it’s because Final Fantasy XIV gave me a way to feel like I was part of a community while everyone was stuck in the house. Maybe it’s because Final Fantasy XIV lets someone like me, with deep-seated social anxiety, interact with people on my own terms. Maybe it’s because, unlike most of its genre contemporaries, Final Fantasy XIV feels more like a wonderfully structured single-player game that provides you with occasional moments of cooperative multiplayer.
Whatever the case may be, I’m hooked. I just got back from the moon in Endwalker and I can’t wait to see how the story wraps up. If you need me, I’ll be saying a ritual prayer for every boss before kicking their asses with some of my part-time buddies.
I wrote a really big review for No More Heroes 3 back in August and I’m not about to do a bunch more work relitigating this wonderfully absurd game with the holidays right around the corner.
Here’s some of what I said about No More Heroes 3 previously if you missed out:
Fortunately, the barbed wire-wrapped heart of pure joy at No More Heroes 3’s core eclipses most of these issues, especially if you’re a longtime fan of the studio’s work or at least open to the more unique experiences they provide.
[No More Heroes 3 is] full to bursting with all the creativity one would expect from a Grasshopper Manufacture project thanks to the passion Suda and his team so obviously have for making games, which shines through in every second of this absurd adventure. And while not perfect on the technical front, tight combat and aesthetic flourishes make it one of the most engrossing and self-assured releases of the last decade.
More than establishing a core meaning or truth to cut through the absurdity of reality, No More Heroes 3 is all about imparting a feeling. Those emotions, by design, will be different for everyone who takes the Jodorowsky-like pill Grasshopper has manufactured into the form of a video game.
I’m gonna be super up-front and say that I don’t really remember everything that happens in Critters for Sale. I vaguely recall running into Michael Jackson and Death Grips frontman MC Ride, but other than that, it’s the game’s unsettling 1-bit visuals that really won me over (and, as you may have already noticed, inspired my own media choices throughout this blog).
Critters for Sale is akin to an old-school adventure game, with five distinct yet tangentially connected stories concerning, as solo developer Sonoshee puts it, “time travel, black magic, and immortality.” And despite my recollection skills not being up to snuff, it left enough of an impression on me that it was the first game I thought of when I first began envisioning this game of the year list.
Do yourself a favor and grab Critters for Sale blindly off my (admittedly poor) recommendation alone and immerse yourself in this all-too-brief Lynchian fever dream.
No game since The Binding of Isaac and its multiple expansions has really scratched my roguelike itch (don’t worry, there’s a cream for that) quite like Returnal.
A mix of Housemarque’s trademark bullet hell gameplay design and the cloying, existential dread of movies like Annihilation and (believe it or not) Groundhog Day, Returnal is a game that will at times have you discarding your controller in frustration only to immediately snatch it back up for one more run. It’s dangerously obsession-forming like that.
All that said, I still haven’t managed to reach the conclusion of this frenetic, mindfuck-filled adventure. Maybe it’s because I’m afraid of Returnal ending and not because I’m very bad at it? Sure, we’ll go with that.
I can see the comments now.
“But Ian, Elden Ring isn’t even out yet?! How can a pre-release network test be one of your favorite games of the year?”
Well, my friends, Elden Ring—or at least the small glimpse From Software gave us back in November—was just that good.
Elden Ring is “just” open-world Dark Souls, yes, but it’s an open world with a sense of purpose. Every square inch of the fraction of the game world we were given played host to a scenario or encounter that felt just as purposefully designed as any Bloodborne or Sekiro set piece. The Lands Between are not just a series of battles separated by empty fields, a trope the open-world genre relies on far too much these days, but a vibrant, organic quilt that feels truly alive in ways games rarely do.
It may be a little clichéd to say so, but I’m well and truly scared of what Elden Ring will do to my free time when it launches next year. It’s one of those games. And I can hardly wait.
Again, I already wrote about Resident Evil Village when it launched earlier this year. Why aren’t you reading my reviews? I thought we had something special.
Here’s a brief snippet of my thoughts from May:
Resident Evil Village feels like Capcom’s attempt at remaking Resident Evil 4 without actually remaking Resident Evil 4.
Despite a lack of real scares and an over-reliance on action over horror in its third act, Village is everything I wanted out of a new Resident Evil game. Combat is hefty and brutal, the monsters are unforgiving and relentless, and the set pieces are compelling enough to make up for some inconsistent pacing and difficulty.
Moment to moment, Resident Evil Village consistently surprised me with its dips and turns, the way that first trip through Resident Evil 4 did.
And a little bit on my favorite section of the game:
[E]ven after two playthroughs, House Beneviento remains my personal high point in Resident Evil Village, one that fully realizes the franchise’s turn to a first-person perspective and provides an overwhelming amount of atmosphere that I wish the developers had the good sense to maintain throughout the rest of the game.
In short: Lady Dimitrescu may have been a huge part of Resident Evil Village’s marketing, but everything involving Donna Beneviento and her creepy mansion are the real draw. Sorry, horny gamers.
My slight (and apparently pretty controversial) issues with heroine Samus Aran’s characterization aside, Metroid Dread is the return to form the series has needed for a long time.
Metroid Dread at once feels both old-school and modern, providing us with a return to the franchise’s 2D roots thanks to the wizards at MercurySteam while also pushing Samus’ story forward in interesting, universe-shifting ways. I don’t know what awaits the bounty hunter in Metroid Prime 4 (which, if I have my lore right, should be another prequel) but it’s never been a better time to be a Metroid fan.
Please make Samus Aran part of your regular development cycle, Nintendo. I don’t know if I can go through another Metroid dry spell, even if it results in a game as fantastic as Dread.
And, finally, here are a bunch of games that either barely missed this list or I didn’t spend enough time with to feel comfortable including officially:
Abaddon: Princess of the Decay, Bravely Default 2, Cruelty Squad, Death’s Door, Godzilla Battle Line, Halo Infinite, Hitman 3, Monster Hunter Rise, Nickelodeon All-Star Brawl, Picross S6, Picross S Genesis & Master System Edition, Pokémon Unite, Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart, Record of Lodoss War: Deedlit in Wonder Labyrinth, Shin Megami Tensei V, Super Mario 3D World + Bowser’s Fury, Tres-Bashers, The Well.
See you next year.