2021, for me, was not a great year for games.
In 2020, I gave my top five as follows, with the following rationale:
To be totally transparent, all five of those games would probably serve as the best game of 2021 were they released a year later than their actual date. Cyberpunk 2077, as well, was significantly better than a plurality of games that I played this year.
All of that being said, 2021’s slate of titles did shimmer with some incredible moments. The best way to describe my Top 5 is that they each were able to capture the spirit of their genres exceptionally on-the-nose. That’s really all I want - a game that executes on its main premise and concept to perfection. These five came relatively close.
Before going into too much depth for them, I want to address a few titles not on this list, including some that were not released in 2021 but I played for the first time this year and warrant some conversation:
Far Cry 6 - Talked about it here, this game just wasn’t up to par. Too many samey missions and missed opportunities with storytelling. Ubisoft needs to rethink how they approach open world games, and based on recent job descriptions I’m not optimistic about their future.
Outer Wilds - I wanted to like this game so much - and despite my experience with it I definitely came away with some positives - but the game didn’t click with me the way I expected. After fully exploring my first hidden location and dying too many times to count when trying to explore other planets, I opted to drop it. I understand why so many swear by this game. It just isn’t for me, and that’s fine.
Nier Automata - I started playing this game toward the end of the pandemic and was enraptured. The storytelling here is atmospheric and it feels like a truly iterative experience. I got the first two endings and then, somewhere during my third playthrough, the grind began to get to me and I opted to move on to other titles. I still enjoyed it, but it doesn’t quite make the cut.
Inscryption - The first part of Inscryption absolutely whips. The card game is fun and endlessly iterative, the storytelling is phenomenal, and the presentation, most crucially, is on-point. I would play a game that was just the first segment of Inscryption (and, to be frank, I think it may be developed in short order). All that being said, though, the first part of Inscryption ends, and I found the art direction of the later parts of the game a bit more uninspired. The ending also left me cold. While the overlying story of the entire tale is brilliantly conceived and executed, the whole feels weaker than the sum of its parts. I still highly recommend the title (and if JUST the initial card game gets released I will be playing it as if it’s Gwent or Hearthstone), but it just misses my top five.
Psychonauts 2 - This just misses the list. Parts of this game were absolutely fantastic (the cooking section, the queer representation, the twist at the end), but I feel like it got a little repetitive at a certain point and a lot of the plot lines felt convoluted. This arguably is tied for my fifth favorite game this year with the actual recipient. I highly recommend it - please play this game.
The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild - The only reason BOTW isn’t making my list is so I can talk about other titles that actually came out this year in a bit more depth, but I absolutely adored the game. The early atmosphere is well done, the massive world is fun to explore (this is open world done right, take note Ubisoft) and every single environment feels unique. Peak enjoyment of this game for me was the first section of the game with Prince Sidon in Lanaryu. My one critique is that after how sprawling and involved that initial mission was, the other key components felt a bit more tedious and less involved. They were boxes on a checklist vs. truly iterative adventure experiences. All of that being said, gun to my head, BOTW was probably my fourth favorite game that I played this year and I cannot wait for the sequel. I just need some time to talk about these top five - and pretty much everything for BOTW has already been said.
Now, let’s get to the top five. There will be (almost) no spoilers present.
No 5. NEO: The World Ends with You
The World Ends With You was the coolest shit in the early 2010s. You just had to be there.
The story was, by JRPG standards, simple: Neku Sakuraba, a selfish teen with spiky hair and a spikier attitude, gets sucked into an alternate version of Shibuya where similar misanthropes must compete in The Reaper’s Game, a contest where they put their lives on the line to try and find their way back home. TWEWY was a cult hit for its distinct sense of style, fun characters, and incredible music. I, personally, was a massive fan.
So, when NEO: TWEWY came out, my expectations were high - and it met them with aplomb. NEO: TWEWY is a mess, but it’s a hot mess.
The story follows Rindo Kanade and his buddy Tosei “Fret” Furusawa as they collect companions and aim to win the dangerous Reapers’ Game. Kanade initially starts off similar to Neku, a shut-in who’s unable to convey how he feels about other people properly, but he grows over time, becoming a relatable, if slightly generic protagonist. Fret is a personal favorite and highlight of the early game, as he and Rindo have legitimate chemistry and act as friends really should.
The characters of NEO: TWEWY are, overall, really good. I personally cared way more about these folks than any of the Persona 5 group (yes, even Yusuke and Ryuji.) There’s something fresh and shiny about them - even the reapers. Over the course of the game, new characters join and leave your party seemingly at will. They feel real - we all have friends who, for whatever reason, come and go in our lives. I’d kill for a Persona 5 style game with these characters. Please, Japanese gods, please do this.
The combat in NEO: TWEWY is sick, too. It takes some time to get used to the system (every character has a pin assigned to a button, you press the buttons to attack, and the buttons have recharge times which lends itself to strategic sequencing) but once you find a rhythm with the right buttons and timings, it feels almost musical in its vibe.
Speaking of music, the soundtrack for TWEWY is great. It, along with the style, make the game feel incredibly fresh. Characters can wear custom outfits that are thematic and differentiated, from Tigre Punks to Cony x Cony to the iconic Black Honey Chili Cookie and beyond. Restaurants, additionally, offer varied menus and your friends all have differing tastes. Again - it feels like a group of friends hanging out, trying to save the world. NEO: TWEWY is the platonic ideal of a “band of friends” hero’s journey.
Unfortunately, there are many issues with the story and presentation writ large that make this game almost unplayable at times. SO much of the journey is based on journeying from text screen to text screen that this game might be classified as a visual novel rather than something truly interactive. Some of the motivations of the antagonists are laughably convoluted, and there is a sense of repetition that sinks in with certain grinding sequences. The way that Fret is treated as a character also takes a major dip for me mid-game. It’s saved at the end by a, to be honest, pretty cool turn of events, but making him a one-dimensional character pining after an unattainable woman was a bad choice for me. Fret is the liveliest character in NEO: TWEWY and they neutered him by giving him boring motivations. As someone who was invested in his arc, that was disappointing.
All of this being said, though, NEO: TWEWY also has some of the most holy shit anime badass moments and plot twists of any game I’ve ever played, and when I beat it I had to exhale and felt the urge to smoke a cigarette. The end of this game is rapturous and epic. It feels like a fitting homage to the previous story without being too bogged down in TWEWY lore.
No 4. Guardians of the Galaxy
Guardians of the Galaxy is what Mass Effect 3 should have been. Alternatively, it is a good version of a David Cage game.
Lively shipmates? Check. Solid combat? Check. A really tight story that hits emotional highs while also not feeling overwrought? Check. It really is a great game.
The natural growth in relationships between the characters, along with the organicness of the dialogue, is what sells the entire story. Drax and Gamora, for instance, start at each other’s throats. Over time, their affection builds, eventually culminating in a lovely friendship. Rocket is, honestly, one of the more annoying characters in the game, but moments where his bravery and earnestness shine through round off his character well. Protagonist Starlord is almost superior to the Chris Pratt movie version. Groot is Groot.
The game is so incredibly polished that it’s impressive. There are multiple scenes within the title that were reminiscent of the Scarecrow missions in Arkham Asylum - moments where it was the player’s job to break the game in order to bend it to their will. While the main story is simple to follow, there are little twists and tweaks that served to surprise throughout the game. This really was the purest distillation of “what if a Marvel movie, but interactive?”
Technically, GOTG might have been the best game I played this year. The only reason it’s not higher on this list is because, to be frank, it’s kind of forgettable. I played it once and do not feel compelled to restart that journey OR listen to any of the music. It’s well worth a purchase, though.
Now, let’s discuss what I’m REALLY here to talk about.
No 3. The Ace Attorney Chronicles
Halfway through The Ace Attorney Chronicles, I had mixed feelings.
The Phoenix Wright formula is tried and true - tutorial first case, surprising death second case, culmination of skills over time, etcetera. However, the first half of the game (which, it should be noted, is actually two titles in one, and therefore ten cases long), felt a bit boring and overwrought to me. I wasn’t feeling the same level of engagement I normally get out of donning my Defense Attorney’s badge and yelling “Objection” constantly.
Then, Case 5 happened - and the rest of the game was absolutely incredible.
AAC follows Ryunosuke Naruhodo (Aside: Naruhodo means “I understand” in Japanese, we love our puns here), a normal college student who gets accused of a murder he did not commit. In his first trial, his best friend, starlet Kazuma Asogi, helps him navigate the treachery of the courtroom to prove his innocence. Over time, Naruhodo gets thrown into the profession of the law, helping to solve an international conspiracy that takes him across the pond to jolly old England. He also meets Herlock Sholmes, who is a sassy, endearing idiot, and Barok von Zieks, a vampiric prosecutor who gets incredibly emotive toward the end of the game and likes to drink wine and slam his boot on the table during Objections.
This is the best cast of characters in any Ace Attorney game, no doubt. Susato Mikotoba, your judicial assistant, is incredibly helpful throughout all of your endeavors. The jury system, which seems to be anything but random, means that some of your favorite characters will show up over-and-over again, and it will be up to you to convince them to come to your side - this is a great innovation on the tried and true model and should be kept for future games. The detective, Tobias Grayson, has actual agency of his own and may attempt to deceive you throughout your investigations. Gina Lestrade is a good girl. So is Iris. Deducing with the afermentioned Holmes is SO much better than the previous investigation system — it’s quicker and fluid and feels like a tango. It’s just a fantastic cast that marries well with the new gameplay mechanics. I love them all.
The music of Ace Attorney games is always great, but this is the best soundtrack of any Ace Attorney game. Specifically, the leitmotifs for one character are still playing on my Spotify within every one of his tracks. The graphics translate well to Switch, providing these characters with a depth of motion that was impossible on handhelds.
Really, other than some slow parts of the first half of the game, the only “watchout” for AAC is some of the “historically accurate” language used to disparage Ryunosuke and Susato when they’re in England. The word “Nipponese” is used a lot. It’s a bit saucy for those who can’t stomach it. I personally didn’t mind since I understand the intent - to set up the racists for their eventual downfall. And boy, do they fall. The end of this game cannot be spoiled but the last few cases are fantastic and things wrap up incredibly satisfyingly.
Out of all the games I bought this year, AAC is the one I felt was most worth my money.
Now, let’s talk about the top two games I played this year. Both of them were free. Sometimes, the best things in life really can come at no cost.
No 2. Deltarune: Chapter 2
Undertale has a special place in my heart. Deltarune Chapter 2 came REAL close to evoking that same feeling.
Deltarune Chapter 1 was released on Halloween a few years ago and was an intriguing spin on the Undertale model. You were saddled with Susie, the lesbian dinosaur who by default wanted to smash all of her competition, and Ralsei, the acronymically-named soft boy who has big mage energy. Explicitly, you are NOT yourself - you are Kris, a denizen of this world who gets dragged into a dark alternate reality after activating a portal in school. The game is short and sweet, albeit a little underwhelming. I didn’t love the main antagonist or Lancer. I forgot about it soon after finishing it, despite an interesting twist at the end.
Deltarune Chapter 2, however, feels like a great build on what came before. The battles are iterative and interesting. The antagonist, Queen, speaks like a N33T and is wonderfully insecure and yet overly sure of herself at the same time. She’s also a true gamer…oh wait.
New characters like Berdly and Noelle color the story in fascinating ways. Berdly blusters confidence but falters when the chips are down. Noelle is your pawn to manipulate but also has a sad story of her own - and god damn it Susie PLEASE make a move on her already. The new monsters you fight are awesome - especially Spamton. It’s a short game, but it’s perfectly put together. Zero notes. You can play it for free. Get it now. Please. It’s worth it. I don’t want to spoil it but the story is great. Just play it - play ALL the Undertale/Deltarune games.
Toby Fox is a visionary and knows exactly what he’s doing. He came real close to getting my game of the year. However, the shortness of the title and the excitement of what’s next prevented it from nabbing my top spot.
For that, we need to go to the Eldiw Region.
No 1. Pokemon Xenoverse
Pokemon Xenoverse is the best Pokemon game released in the past 10 years - and it wasn’t even made by Game Freak. It’s also free to play.
There are some questions about the ethics of fangames, but Pokemon Xenoverse feels so polished and well put together that I’d honestly be fine throwing down $50 to support it. It’s THAT good.
The cycle of Pokemon games is pretty typical - you expect a ton, you get something substandard, eat it up like the little piggy you are, and then wait for the next update to come where you’re sure to be disappointed. I know I’ve been stuck in that cycle for ages. So, when I heard about Xenoverse, I was intrigued. As a Mac user, I was disappointed that the game was not released for my platform.
I literally downloaded Bootcamp SPECIFICALLY to play Xenoverse. And it was worth the lost space on my laptop (you can use Porting Kit to play directly on Mac as well).
Pokemon Xenoverse takes place in the aforementioned Eldiw Region. Your father is kidnapped by a mysterious organization. It is up to you and your Pokemon friends to figure out the mystery surrounding him and travel all around, meeting entertaining characters and battling ferocious Pokemon all the while. Xenoverse has around 100 new Pokemon to catch, including unique “X Pokemon” from an alternate reality that have different typings than normal. These Pokemon also have multiple health bars, making the catching process more difficult. All the new Pokemon are awesome. Some of my favorites are below.
The towns and gyms in this game are also incredibly fun and challenging. Each gym has a unique trial that actually forces you to think and battle through various puzzles and traps. Some of the gyms even have AR elements - my personal favorite one is the Sound-type gym (new Pokemon type) run by a rapper with an actual Instagram account wherein there are hints to the upcoming battles you’ll face and how to navigate the gym. There’s also an awesome Día de los Muertos inspired Ghost-type town which has some of my favorite side characters and encounters in the game.
The story, overall, is stronger than typical-Pokemon lore. The enemy team has good motivations, there are some interesting twists, and it isn’t as edgy as some fangames or romhacks can be (looking at you, Insurgence/Reborn/Rejuvenation.) I caught on to some of the twists early on but the new encounters and overall presentation made me want to play through to the end. It’s certainly better than Sword/Shield and X/Y - I think Sun/Moon is a little underrated from a story perspective and this probably sits around that level.
I’d be remiss in not pointing out that there is one section in the game with a “tribal” community that definitely ensures no one would mistake this for an American-made game (it’s Italian). It’s definitely a little yikes-y. I was able to look past it, as it’s a fairly small part of the whole, but if you’re sensitive to tribal imagery, it may be worth skipping this title.
Additionally, as I was playing a Windows version on my Mac, there was the occasional glitch. My personal favorite one was for the final gym battle (which was awesome), my game would freeze if I didn’t beat it within a certain time limit. I actually turned this into a personal challenge for myself (and succeeded), so it didn’t bother me too much, but hopefully this can be fixed in later patches.
Pokemon Xenoverse is the platonic ideal of what a normal, turn-based iteration of this series can be in the future. I’m pleasantly surprised that it is still fully accessible. While it is, you should all play it. You won’t regret it.
So…the best two games of the year were free. I’m not entirely sure what that means but I can draw at least a couple of takeaways from this realization:
Independent developers are doing incredible work right now, better than ever before, simply for the love of gaming. That’s awesome to see.
Big publishers weren’t able to finish their large single-player IPs during CoVid. I’m looking forward to see if they’ll bounce back next year.
Earnest dialogue, good character development, and stylish presentation can 100% carry a game. That’s all I’m asking for.
I look forward to seeing what is released in 2022 - in the meantime, though, download those three games and treat yourselves. Because, sometimes, the best things in life are free.