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Top Ten Video Games of 2021

best-games-2021

Obviously it’s a million miles away from being the most significant impact of the pandemic but COVID-19 did a serious number on the video games industry in 2021.  Last year, most games were far enough along in development that most of the big titles were able to hit their targeted release schedule.  2021 was a whole different story.  The list of games that were supposed to be out this year but were delayed into 2022 include Gran Turismo, God of War: Ragnarok, Horizon Forbidden West, Cyberpunk 2077 for PS5|XSX, Gotham Knights and Hogwarts Legacy.  The list goes on.  A recent IGN article cited as many as sixty major titles having COVID-related delays.

Not only that, COVID-related supply chain issues and ongoing global chip shortages meant that we went a full year without the Playstation 5 or Xbox Series X being available on store shelves.  That’s two straight Christmas holidays where most people that wanted one of the new consoles missed out.  I myself only managed to snag a PS5 by following a Twitter bot account that tracked availability and then driving a 3 hour round trip to the Gold Coast on a weekday to pick it up.  It sucks that this is the kind of thing you need to do just to get your hands on one.

There was also a much rumoured hardware revision to the Nintendo Switch which didn’t eventuate and a lot of industry analysts have since reported that Nintendo’s plans for a “Switch Pro” with a spec bump was scrapped due to the company wanting to avoid the issues currently affecting Sony and Microsoft with getting units out to customers.

Despite all these challenges, the video games industry remains resilient and as popular as ever with people turning to interactive entertainment as a means of getting away from [gestures at everything] all of this.  Whether it’s the amazing ongoing value proposition of Game Pass, the fantastic pipeline of indie games that we were treated to (including three great Australian-made titles) or the breath-taking graphics of next-gen games like Microsoft Flight Simulator and Ratchet and Clank: Rift Apart, there was lots to like about this year.

With that said, here it is, my ten favourite games of 2021.

dreadscene

Metroid Dread

GAME OF THE YEAR

Mercury Steam, Nintendo Switch

I’m not someone who normally engages with hard games.  I’ve never finished a Soulsborne game and I generally stick to Normal difficulty mode.  Metroid Dread doesn’t present the player with the luxury of choosing a difficulty setting.  It’s just hard.  There isn’t a fatality counter but the number of times I died would sit in the hundreds.

Initially I found the difficulty confronting and was close to bouncing off Metroid Dread.  I’m glad I persisted as something eventually clicked.

Once I began to control Samus more effectively, the versatility of her arsenal and the wonderfully satisfying locomotion of her movement and combat shone through.  The presentation of the game environments is very polished and I came to appreciate how skillfully MercurySteam created ZDR in terms of visual cues for where to go next and the litany of hidden treasures that reward exploration and experimentation.

Where the game really shone for me is the incredible boss battles, of which there are several, that represent the game’s biggest challenges.

Fortunately for me, the boss battles pushed me to my absolute limits but never exceeded them.  I began to really enjoy encountering a new boss and initially being overwhelmed by how difficult they were, before methodically learning its patterns of attack and after many, many, many deaths, finally overcoming them.  Its not uncommon to battles bosses that have three or four different stages of attack and its hugely satisfying when you’re finally able to smoothly string together the right combination of parries, jumps and missile attacks and bring them down (often without taking any damage once you’ve worked them out).  The game’s final boss really puts you through the ringer and calls upon the use of most of your arsenal.  Looking at online guides and message boards I can see they represented such an overwhelming threat that there are people who simply opted to walk away from the game unfinished at the final hurdle.  The infamy of this boss battle certainly contributed to my sense of accomplishment when I finally brought them down.

riftapartthumb

Ratchet and Clank: Rift Apart

Insomniac Games, Playstation 5

The most immediately noticeable and striking thing about Rift Apart is the astonishingly high quality production values.  The tired cliché is that the game looks and moves like an interactive Pixar film but for once those comparisons are on the money.  There is a moment when the game’s opening cutscene finishes and you’re looking at an idle character onscreen where you realise holy cow, this is what the actual playable game looks like.

This is exactly the kind of game you would show to curious friends and family who want to see what Sony’s new console is capable of.  It also carries many of the same hallmarks as other recent Insomniac Games such as a generous and accessible difficulty curve and a set of trophy requirements that feel achievable and worth pursuing after the credits roll.

In a year beset with delays, delays, delays, Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart stands out as one of the best big budget games to get people excited about whats to come for this generation of consoles.  It’s an absolute delight.

unpacking-game

Unpacking

Witch Beam, Xbox Series X

In Unpacking, players go on a ‘slice of life’ journey of a young woman from Queensland – and we see it all through the act of unpacking her belongings as she moves into new homes at various stages of her life.  Witch Beam’s website describes this as a ‘zen like’ puzzle game and it exactly that.  There is no high score, no fail state, no pressures at all.  Just the calming and surprisingly enjoyable act of unpacking boxes and decorating rooms, apartments and eventually houses.

There is a puzzle game built into the Unpacking experience.  Although you’re generally given a pretty wide berth on how you might want to lay out your belongings in the bedroom, lounge, bathroom and so on, you can’t just leave a toilet brush on the coffee table or put the dining plates in the shower.  And occasionally, the game will have a very particular idea in mind for where you place your graduation certificate or that photo of your ex.

Although its impressive that such a small studio in this corner of the world has been able to make such big waves with their debut game, at the same time it doesn’t feel surprising at all.  There is so much quality in Unpacking that is immediately apparent and its cleverly observed themes about growing up are universal in their appeal.  It’s one of the feel good stories of the year for the video games industry.  This team deserves every success that comes their way.

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Kena: Bridge of Spirits

Ember Labs, Playstation 5

Ember Labs debut video game Kena: Bridge of Spirits is one of the quiet success stories of 2021.  A first time effort from a video production company turned game dev studio, Kena generally flew under the radar pre-release as a budget-priced unknown quantity from an unproven studio.  Yet it rightfully won plenty of plaudits from critics and fans alike when it launched in September.

For a first time effort, the game mechanics are impressively fully-featured, if not heavily inspired by other action-adventure games of recent years.  Where I give Ember Lab credit is that they do a fantastic job accentuating their positives and they seem very aware of their limitations and they don’t push themselves beyond their scope when it comes to the scale of the world, the length of the game or the complexity of the gameplay and combat.  I think the game has precisely as much depth as it needs to for the length of the journey.  I think its one of the those games that comes out in the first year of a new console when the release calendar isn’t too crowded, that goes on to become a cult classic.

artful-escape

The Artful Escape

Johnny Galvatron, Xbox Series X

The Artful Escape is probably my most screen-shotted game of the year.  I think I stopped and took a picture of the psychedelic madness unfolding on the screen a hundred times.

Published by Annapurna Interactive, The Artful Escape begins with a title credit sequence that wouldn’t look out of place in a Wes Anderson film, with an impressively stacked voice acting cast including Mark Strong, Lena Headey, Jason Schwartzman and Carl Weathers.  The game tells the story of a whimsical young man named Francis Vendetti who lives in Colorado and has been asked to perform the hits of his deceased uncle Johnson Vendetti, a folk music legend, on the 20th anniversary of his record breaking album at a local music festival.

Francis carries the burden of living in his uncle’s considerable shadow and his real passion lies in playing rock music.  The night before the concert he is visited by the alien Zom who tells him he must embark on an intergalactic journey to meet Lightman.

What follows is a mind bending Ziggy Stardust inspired journey through space as Francis discovers his musical soul and travels to such exotic locales as The Cosmic Lung and the Hyperion Wailzone.

The Artful Escape is a wonderfully imaginative work from Melbourne based artist Johnny Galvatron.  It’s a short, sharp three hour trip that you really need to experience.

forgotten-city

The Forgotten City

Modern Storyteller, Xbox Series X

A person wakes up floating on a boat in the Tiber river in Italy, suffering from amnesia.  With no recollection of how they got there, they are rescued by a good samaritan who then sends them into some nearby ruins to find a man who has gone missing.  After travelling through a time portal they arrive at the same location during the days of the Roman empire, where a small group of people have formed their own society.  When meeting the magistrate Sentius, he explains that they are bound by the Golden Rule.  If anyone commits a Biblical act of sin, the Gods will punish the society collectively and everyone is turned to gold and dies.  Attempting to escape the city is considered a sin.  If that wasn’t enough, whenever the golden rule is broken a time loop is enacted and you repeat the day over once more.

The Forbidden City is one of my favourite mystery games I’ve ever played.  It is born out of humble beginnings as a Skyrim mod made by a hobbyist game developer in Melbourne who eventually left his day job as a lawyer to pursue game development full time.  It only took thirty minutes or so after firing up the game that I knew I was experiencing something special.  The setting, the cast of characters and the game’s central conceit are all fascinating to explore.  The Golden Rule seems like it would be a classic black and white binary video game morality system but within moments of learning of it, you can discuss the grey areas and the contradictions inherent in such a law.  In fact thats what most of the game is.  There are small pockets of exploration and even combat but most of The Forgotten City is about developing relationships with the residents of this purgatorial city.  And to that end the cast is diverse, brimming with personality and full of surprises.

This is an impressively structured game with multiple pathways to unlock its secrets and multiple endings that feel meaningfully different and reflective of your choices.  It’s an incredible achievement.

forza-horizon-5

Forza Horizon 5

Turn 10 Studios, Xbox Series X

During the lean first-party software years of the Xbox One, it was Turn Ten studios and the Forza games that were amongst the few exclusive highlights to be enjoyed on the Xbox brand.  In 2021 the Xbox now enjoys a wealth of great exclusive games in their ecosystem but to their credit Turn Ten studios is still the standard bearer.  Forza Horizon 5 is one of the best visual showcases for the Xbox Series X and the series continues to go from strength to strength with its impressive suite of accessible arcade racing thrills on offer.

For this iteration, the game is set in Mexico and Turn 10 really have made the environment the star of the show.  Don’t get me wrong, the actual racing itself with the wide roads and generous driving mechanics are still rock solid, but it’s the incredible backdrops that each race is set against that is the star of the show.

I recently revisited Burnout 3 and it reminded me just how much a) that game still whips ass and b) the Horizon games are a very welcome modern day heir apparent.  Arcade racing fans are spoiled for choice in recent times with the likes of Hot Wheels Unleashed, Need for Speed Hot Pursuit Remastered and Riders Republic but for now the Forza Horizon series is still the king.

bowsers-fury

Super Mario 3D World and Bowser’s Fury

Nintendo EAD, Nintendo Switch

It’s still crazy to me that the screenshot above is from an actual Nintendo developed Mario game and isn’t some online fan art.

In 2021, Nintendo plugged a quiet spot in their release calendar with a welcome re-release of Super Mario 3D World which was previously only available on the Wii U.  It was a pleasure revisiting 3D World and with the added time and perspective, I think we can acknowledge its actually one of the best modern Mario titles that Nintendo have made.  It doesn’t quite hit the heights of Super Mario Odyssey and Super Mario Galaxy 1+2, but as a more conventional adaptation of the classic Mario formula, it has exceptional level design and is a substantial improvement over the New Super Mario games on the Wii and DS.

But the most intriguing proposition in the Switch release of 3D World is the inclusion of experimental, open world game Bowser’s Fury.  Here you can enjoy what feels like a potential 3-4 hour prototype of what a full fledged open world Mario game could be like and honestly, it is pretty great.  A gigantic Godzilla sized Bowser looms over the world and turns up at random, turning the sky dark and stormy before he unleashes a flurry of fireballs in your direction.  The game environment itself delivers on the promise of what an open world Mario would be like.  There are several areas each with platforming challenges that make up what you would expect of a Mario level but this time they are all interconnected and you can travel from one to another without seeing a loading screen.

It’s a fascinating concept that I’m both surprised and delighted Nintendo took a chance on developing.  Only time will tell if this eventually leads to a full blown open world game of its own.

inscryption

Inscryption

Daniel Mullins Games, PC

It shouldn’t really be possible to stand out in the incredibly crowded market of rogue-like deck building PC games.  There are so many of them already and so many held in high regard.  What ideas and concepts are left to even explore?  Enter Daniel Mullins’ Inscryption, a wonderfully atmospheric and ingeniously designed deck-building game that marries a satisfying card combat mechanic with a completely batshit crazy narrative that takes the initial game far off the rails in a way that we haven’t seen since the last level of Portal.

Inscryption has an interesting visual aesthetic that fuses PS1 era low-poly art design with an oppressive horror motif.  Players begin the game in a dark cabin playing cards against the prospector, a crazed man who stays in the shadows so you can only ever really see the whites of his eyes.  The first time you step away from the table you realize that the game also has something of an Escape Room mechanic going on in addition to the cards.  Then it turns out there’s even more going once you hit the game’s incredible third act.

This is one of the strangest and most innovative games of 2021.  Come for the cards.  Stay for the [redacted].  You won’t regret it.

halo-infinite

Halo Infinite

343 Industries, Xbox Series X

Absence makes the heart grow fonder and I think we can all agree that every five years or so, its good to just sit down and play some Halo-ass Halo.  343’s latest game was originally planned to be a launch title for the Series X and although they missed that milestone by a whole year and the game still appears to be substantially unfinished, whats there is still highly enjoyable both in the form of a first-ever open world campaign mode and an excellent multiplayer suite.  And knowing 343 Industry’s history, we can expect to see the missing pieces to eventually arrive in the form of free updates down the line.

The campaign mode is kind of repetitive but the slight tedium of fighting waves of similar battles in the same leafy green environment over and over is diminished by the introduction of the fantastic grappling hook and the ability to tackle each cluster of enemies in different ways thanks to the open world setting.  The real star of the show is the multiplayer mode where 343 have nailed the feel of classic Halo and crucially the online infrastructure has been excellent – it is super fast to find a game in the lobby and the net code has been robust.

The exciting thing is that the foundations have been laid for a great game and now we can look to the roadmap ahead as new multiplayer maps, new graphical modes and new features get added to an already excellent game.  Halo Infite is already pretty good now.  All going to plan it should be unreal in 2022.

 Honourable Mentions

2021 was a fantastic year for playing video games and although I’m traditionally a console player, it wasn’t just the three main platforms from Nintendo, Microsoft and Sony that kept me entertained.

retro-portables

Retro portables

In the last couple of years China have been producing retro portable consoles that are exceptionally well made with an incredible library of emulated software from the Eighties and Nineties.  I currently own two retro portable devices – the Retroid Pocket 2 and the Anbernic 351P – and I sunk a ton of time into them this year revisiting some of my favourite Super Nintendo, Game Boy Advance and Playstation 1 games.  There’s plenty of reasons to be excited about this scene in 2022 too as we are on the cusp of a new wave of retro portable systems capable of emulating games up to the Gamecube and Playstation 2 era.

pc-gaming

Modern PC Gaming

For the first time in over a decade, we have a modern PC in our household.  Personally, I’ve been a lapsed PC gamer for the better part of two decades.  The games I put the most time into when I last played on the PC was the likes of Half-Life 2Civ 2Grim Fandango and Theme Hospital.  Having a new PC that plays modern games and enjoying them on a ultra widescreen monitor is a literal game changer.  Games from a couple of years back like Control and Red Dead Redemption 2 take on a new lease of life when you revisit them in a higher resolution in the 21:9 format.  There’s also never been a better a time to have easy access to a wide library of PC games thanks to Steam sales, Epic Game Store freebies and Game Pass PC.

penny-arcade-system

Multicades

The home arcade scene is another growing market in the video games industry with the likes of Arcade1UP finding enourmous success selling 3/4 scale classic arcade systems.  There has also been a number of amazing multicade/retrocade sellers popping up online building quality arcade cabinets that house a PC emulating a vast library of arcade games.  This year I took the plunge and had my own personalized cab built for me – the PENNY ARCADE.  It’s an absolutely sensational system (designed locally by a small business in Queensland) and I’ve already poured tons of hours into it revisiting classic arcade games of yesteryear as well enjoying some modern, more accessible titles with my daughter.

virtual-pinball

Virtual pinball

Lastly, I picked up a virtual pinball machine this year.  Globally there has been a resurgence of interest in pinball and with the growing number of pinball halls in Brisbane, I’ve got hooked too.  Virtual pinball tables have become an accessible and more affordable way for casual hobbyists like myself to dabble at home.  I went with Arcade1UP’s Marvel themed table which comes loaded with ten unique superhero themed tables.  Thanks to features like the working analogue plunger, lag-free flippers, haptic feedback and accelerometer, it is actually a pretty reasonable facsimile of the real deal.  The cab itself also looks rad with some really great decal artwork.

Best of the Backlog

miles-morales-game

Marvel’s Spider-man: Miles Morales [Playstation 5] – I finally had a chance to play the PS5 launch game Miles Morales from Insomniac and it is gooood.  Like, possibly my favourite super hero video game good.  Better still, it’s only a handful of hours long and set at Christmas time which might make it the first decent quality Christmas video game you could feasibly revisit each year.

Chrono Trigger [Super Nintendo] – not that there was any doubt but I revisited one of my favourite JRPGs of all time and I can confirm it still holds up perfectly.  An absolutely timeless classic.

Judgement [Xbox Series X] – This Yakuza spinoff from Ryu Go Gotaku studios is a brilliant murder-mystery whodunnit.  There is a fantastic ensemble cast that rallies around lawyer-turned-detective Takayuki Nagami as he tries to solve a spate of murders involving low level yakuza members turning up dead with their eyes gouged out.  I look forward to playing the sequel Lost Judgement soon.

Zen Studio’s Marvel pinball tables [Arcade1up] – I played a lot of pinball this year.  Zen Studio’s Marvel tables are imaginatively designed, accessible and a ton of fun to chase high scores on.

Best Platform of the Year

xbox-series-x

It’s kind of nice that the Xbox is prospering again.  The Xbox 360 was my favourite system of its generation but there was a long road to recovery after Microsoft’s disastrous launch of the Xbox One.  Although they’ve been acquiring new studios at a rapid rate for the last three years, its only really in 2021 that the results have finally come to fruition.  This year the Xbox Series X enjoyed a healthy steady stream of exclusive titles – Halo Infinite, Forza, Microsoft Flight Simulator, Psychonauts 2 – while Nintendo and Sony went months at a time without a high profile release.

Personally, although not every Xbox exclusive was a hit for me, it was easily the most valuable system of the year for me thanks to its incredible Game Pass subscription service.  Literally half the games in my top ten – Halo, Forza, Artful Escape, Forbidden City and Unpacking – were games I played on Game Pass without having to pay full price.  The last three games in particular were lesser known titles that I might not have taken the plunge on if I was having to pay full price on another system.

Better yet, the system continues to go from strength to strength and 2022 looks like it could be Microsoft and Game Pass’ biggest year yet.  The games industry is at its best when all three major platform holders are doing well and Microsoft’s Game Pass is a fantastically disruptive service that hopefully jolts Nintendo and Sony into providing more generous offerings for their audience in the future.  Right now their equivalent subscription services (NSO and Playstation+) don’t even remotely compare.

Archives

Top Ten Video Games of 2020
Game of the Year – Yakuza: Like A Dragon (Xbox Series X)
Platform of the Year – Playstation 4

Top Ten Video Games of 2019
Game of the Year – Slay the Spire (Nintendo Switch)
Platform of the Year – Playstation 4

Top Ten Video Games of 2018
Game of the Year – Astro Bot: Rescue Mission (Playstation VR)
Platform of the Year – Playstation 4

Top Ten Video Games of 2017
Game of the Year – Super Mario Odyssey (Nintendo Switch)
Platform of the Year – Nintendo Switch

Top Ten Video Games of 2016
Game of the Year – Stardew Valley (Playstation 4)
Platform of the Year – Playstation 4

Top Ten Video Games of 2015
Game of the Year – The Witcher 3 (Playstation 4)
Platform of the Year – Playstation 4

Top Ten Video Games of 2014
Game of the Year – Mario Kart 8 (Wii U)
Platform of the Year – Wii U

Top Ten Video Games of 2013
Game of the Year – The Last Of Us (Playstation 3)
Platform of the Year – Playstation 3

Top Ten Video Games of 2012
Game of the Year – The Walking Dead (Xbox 360)
Platform of the Year – Xbox 360

Top Ten Video Games of 2011
Game of the Year – Clash of Heroes: Might and Magic (Xbox 360)
Platform of the Year – Xbox 360

Top Ten Video Games of 2010
Game of the Year – Mass Effect 2 (Xbox 360)
Platform of the Year – Xbox 360

Top Ten Video Games of 2009
Game of the Year – Uncharted 2: Amongst Thieves (Playstation 3)
Platform of the Year – Playstation 3

About Edo

Edo currently lives in Australia where he spends his time playing video games and enjoying his wife's cooking.