Best of 2021: Top 15 Games

You can try to tell me 2021 was a bad year for good videogames. Tell that to my backlog. Look it in the eyes and tell it.

Don’t get me wrong: 2021 definitely was, without a shadow of a doubt, a slow-starting year for videogames; maybe even the slowest since I started writing these lists. It was also a bit light on Playstation exclusives thanks to development delays. But this was also the first full year of a brand-new console generation out in the wild; the year League of Legends finally began to make good on its promise to expand into other genres (and a Netflix show too); the year Apple Arcade finally drew some attention from core gaming audiences with a suite of nostalgic releases and the exclusive new Mistwalker RPG Fantasian; the year the whole Pokemon Unite thing happened; the year Microsoft’s XCloud mobile streaming service expanded to PC, Xbox consoles themselves – and Australia.

There was real, exciting movement in the games industry throughout 2021, and the big games – eventually – followed suit. When they did arrive they were continuously scoring over 80 on review aggregate sites, leaving September in particular packed with games lining up to try and distract from one another. More than half of this list’s games come from the release window starting late August and going through October – and only one from traditional powerhouse November. A weird year indeed.

But a good one: I always set a five-hour playtime minimum for a game to qualify for this list, yet I’ve actually finished 12 out of the 15 games on this 2021 list (and two out of the remaining three are JRPGs). Any of my friends will tell you that’s a sky-high conversion rate for me. Quarantines will do that, but so will great videogames. It’s hard to believe I had no room this year for Hitman III, Scarlet Nexus, Returnal, Mario Party Superstars, Monster Hunter Rise, Monster Hunter Stories 2 or Deathloop – into which I put a combined 60+ hours, and all of which I enjoyed. I’ve never actually been in that kind of a position before.

If you don’t see a 2021 game on this page, I didn’t play it enough to qualify. Parentheses indicate on what platform(s) I played each game.

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VR BEST OF 2021 DISCLAIMER

This list represents my opinion only. I am not asserting any kind of superiority or self-importance by presenting it as I have. My opinion is not fact. To agree with me 100% is beyond unlikely. Respectful disagreement is most welcome.

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15. New Pokemon Snap (NS)

Over the two decades since the original Pokemon Snap came out, the idea of a sequel has naturally been thrown around all kinds of Pokemon fan circles; what most nostalgia-seeped memories tend to forget, however (mine included), is just how short the original game was. Pretty much accidentally designed for the repeatable game rental market, you could see all the game’s content in an afternoon if you knew what you were doing. Knowing this Bandai Namco concocted the clever New Pokemon Snap, which is not only the sequel we’ve been asking for, but the significantly more substantial sequel we didn’t know we wanted.

Carrying many more areas stuffed with randomly-shifting occurences, stacked with secrets, and teeming with Pokemon hiding four different scoring poses each, the completionist player has a ton to do in New Pokemon Snap – even before the chunky free content update released months after launch. The week of near-day-long sessions I played with my siblings passing the controller around was an absolute blast.

14. Shin Megami Tensei V (NS)

As a “JRPG guy” without the time or attention span for the truly unforgiving genre entries these days, the entire mainline Shin Megami Tensei series has mostly passed me by. That finally changed with the long-awaited open-world-ish fifth entry, a truly ambitious shift for both the series and Nintendo – who slapped their publishing label on the game and gave it their main first-party slot right in the middle of November (knowing Pokemon was coming out the following week to clean house, sure, but it was still a big deal).

SMT V may not care all that much about its story or supporting human characters, but it stands as a shining testament to the merits of a rock-solid battle system using a crisp UI – especially when paired with deep team customisation mechanics built to last. Boasting a stunning main character design and truly rewarding nook-and-cranny exploration, this is a game I suspect I’ll be playing for a long time yet.

13. Bravely Default II (NS)

Speaking of JRPGs with great battle systems, the last big franchise to successfully revitalise the turn-based formula returned triumphantly in 2021 with a meaty, continent-spanning adventure worth spending 71 hours on (that was my count, anyway). Almost completely disconnected from the last two Bravely games, Bravely Default II is densely packed with enough tasty pieces of interlocking lore to launch another new sub-franchise, and this series’ penchant for meta-twists is alive and well here.

Though its chibified art style is polarising and it can’t quite match the tightly-woven impact of the first game’s story, there are no mind-numbingly repetitious segments in sight and the soundtrack is straight fire. The new and reimagined character classes alike are superb, and the entire game can be played using a shrewdly-optimised one-handed control scheme for optimal grinding efficiency. On the Switch Lite this game absolutely sings.

12. Kena: Bridge of Spirits (PS5)

Breaking the Switch streak we have the impossibly beautiful world of Kena: Bridge of Spirits, the French-made indie project with Pixar animation ambitions, Playstation-exclusive marketing backing, and a strange obsession with killing its players – again and again. Yes, despite its genuine claim to the title of 2021’s cutest game – what with its rotund, bug-eyed collectible creature assistants the Rot (all of which can be equipped with adorable hats) – Kena is the game on this list I will look back on with the most frustration – and relief.

Tough-skinned bosses with little regard for following attack or defense patterns can really hold up the experience in the second half, even on the game’s standard difficulty; but the way this game looks and feels to play (the HDR implementation in some of the caves is jaw-dropping, and that Dualsense bow feedback is dreamlike) ensured I pushed through to the end. The possibility of a more evenly-tuned sequel is beyond exciting.

11. Back 4 Blood (XSX)

Having entirely missed the boat on the Left 4 Dead hype back in the day, I may overvalue its spiritual successor when all is said and done; but I still had an absolute ball playing through the campaign with three friends over the course of a month (at least on the recommended starting difficulty – we all found that next step up absolutely huge in practice).

The deck system takes some getting used to, as you have to unlearn the last five years of what a card draw means in terms of conventional game mechanics; after that it becomes a fantastic reason to dive in for just one more level, as you tweak your deck for endless offensive or defensive combat possibilities while betting against the game’s procedural elements being tough enough to take you down. Optimising combinations of native character bonuses in co-op is addictive, as is the sensation of scraping through a tough fight as a team, covered in battle scars. After the flop that was Evolve, I’m so glad I finally got a taste of Turtle Rock Studios at their best this year.

10. Eastward (NS)

Chucklefish’s latest “Triple I” indie publishing release had quite a marketing budget by similar games’ standards, and the experience at the end of it all did not disappoint. A tremendously ambitious fence swing from tiny Shanghai studio Pixpil, Eastward has more ideas than it knows what to do with at times; but the title’s simply stunning 2D animation work, atmospheric lighting, rewarding cooking system, Zelda-like gameplay loop and top-tier wordbuilding will likely raise the bar for what a project of this scale can truly achieve in the future.

Eastward isn’t afraid to take time setting up its characters, seal off some of its chapters like episodic Cowboy Bebop-style jaunts, or leave its emotional payoffs for late in the story; but any fan of the likes of CrossCode or Cosmic Star Heroine who’s been looking for the next SNES-era RPG unafraid to put its story first, this is your next game. I mean for crying out loud, it features a full 8-bit Dragon Quest-like JRPG playable within itself!

9. Resident Evil Village (XSX)

Unmistakably big, brash and bursting at the seams with macabre things it wants to show you, Resident Evil Village is a gothic buffet with a gleeful buzz about it. The crunchy combat feeds a meaningfully expressive weapon upgrade system that tantalises the completionist to return for another ride on the merry-go-round. The game is consistently fun to play in a way its much scarier predecessor Resident Evil 7: Biohazard wasn’t quite able to achieve (although depending on your disposition and history with the genre, there will still be moments to make your blood curdle).

Village also invites a new era of memorably larger-than-life Capcom characters to a table that already sits some of gaming’s most iconic; it knows when to harken back to Resident Evil’s long, occasionally burdensome history and when to let the new cast take centre stage; when to smack you in the face with difficulty and when to sit back and let your mind do the work; I simply cannot wait to see what the next chapter of its story holds.

8. Tales of Arise (XSX)

Getting me to play a Tales game by myself was something I never thought Bandai Namco would be able to do – when that news about the lack of co-op dropped, so did my excitement. But I simply have never played a JRPG that looks as good as Arise does overall: a stylistic streak this striking is often forced to do the heavy lifting for an undercooked graphical presentation with Japanese games of this calibre, but the years of delays have borne fruit in the form of real technical muscle to back up that stunning art, and several moments are jaw-dropping as a result.

The opening dozen hours of the narrative I found absolutely electric, utilising tired ingredients to forge a magical central relationship that feels worth investing in, and the story settles into a nice rhythm after that. The combat is the crown jewel, however, serving up six distinct characters with wildly different playstyles that each require your full attention to master. The storied Tales franchise has taken a real step up for the first time in a long while.

7. Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy (XSX)

On reflection, I really should’ve known this game would be good: Eidos Montreal was responsible for my favourite entry in the modern Tomb Raider trilogy. Sure, its debut trailer at that Square Enix E3 show left a lot to be desired, and Square’s recent partnership with Marvel has been rocky, but the pedigree was there. I couldn’t have known it would be quite this good, however; their looks and vocal performances may be heavily inspired by the MCU films, but after spending a dozen hours with this version of the Guardians, they might be my new favourite iterations of the characters.

Drawing from a much wider breadth of comic book source material while sprinkling a hint of Eidos spice, this quintet gives you plenty of opportunities to get to know them with fun dialogue choices, optional lore-rich heart-to-hearts and story-critical explorations of their emotional scars. The game also looks phenomenal, and as for the leadership-based combat system, which I’ve heard described multiple times as JRPG-like? Well you’ll hear no complaints from me.

6. Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart (PS5)

Despite having very little history with the storied Ratchet & Clank series, I’ve seemingly been unable to talk about Rift Apart all year without breaking into sweeping superlatives. There isn’t a better-looking game on the PS5 in my humble opinion, but Insomniac hasn’t just delivered yet another Playstation exclusive to melt eyeballs and instill jealousy; the California superstars have taken everything that makes the new console unique and taken off sprinting into the horizon, daring anyone else to catch up.

The way the Dualsense controller responds to actions like picking up collectables is – for now at least – really cool, and the feeling of the skating motion is even better; the game’s use of 3D audio to enhance the soundscape is wonderful, but the controller speaker is a worthy alternative (especially in conjunction with the Pixelizer). Rift Apart even has the first 4K 40FPS mode I’ve seen in a console game – specifically made for 120Hz televisions. But the star of the show is easily – say it with me now – the PS5’s lightning-quick SSD, which enables dizzying environmental changes at the drop of a hat. If you’re lucky enough to own a Playstation 5 and haven’t given this game a look, I don’t know what to tell you.

5. Metroid Dread (NS)

The top five this year is the most competitive I’ve had since 2015: I’ve already rearranged it three times this week. But this order feels just about right, I think. For now.

Returning after a 19-year absence to reclaim its throne atop the action game subgenre to which it lends its name, the Metroid franchise finally brought a brand-new 2D game to the Nintendo stable in 2021. Metroid Dread at last makes good on almost two decades of hints and teases as to its very existence – and does so with style. Returning unabashedly to the mould of Super Metroid on its surface – complete with the return of the Speed Booster and its devious collectable-related trick jumps – continuously-improving developer Mercury Steam throws some devious modern game design tricks in to minimise the opportunities for players to get lost and keep the game’s amazing sense of momentum going.

Then there are the EMMI robots, which move so relentlessly and sound so terrifying that I don’t know how long it’ll be until I stop having a Pavlovian response to that hollow chirp. There’s some cool series lore payoff along for the ride too, Samus has never controlled better, and Dread looks stunning on the portable Switch screen (particularly the OLED model, which conspicuously launched day-and-date alongside it). Welcome back.

4. It Takes Two (XSX)

One of my favourite games of all time is Conker’s Bad Fur Day, because the way it executes so many tonal handbrake turns within a dozen hours is frankly staggering. I’d never seen any platformer successfully imitate its structure since – until I played Hazelight’s It Takes Two. The same tireless momentum carries all the way through this astonishing co-op 3D platformer; each time you think you’ve seen every setting a game like this could possibly present, it throws two more at you. I played the whole thing with my brother and not once did a co-op design choice feel lazily implemented.

Every new partnership gimmick serves up unique interactions and triumphant moments: One second you’re throwing nails for your partner to latch onto with the claw of a hammer; the next you’re flying a biplane while she Chun-Li-kicks an evil squirrel; then you’re playing with magnetic polarity via the kind of masterful puzzle escalation usually only seen in Nintendo games. Whether you’re skating through Bioshock on Ice, doing a Star Wars-esque bombing run astride a giant robot bird or enacting Attack on Dryad, the art direction is fantastic. Only a story that falters in its first half just to set up an emotionally manipulative, genuinely hard-to-play segment prevents this gem from challenging the top of the list.

3. Life is Strange: True Colors (XSX)

How do you give plaudits to a game that you’re pretty sure helped you understand yourself more? Or illustrated to your dumb nerd brain the benefits of journaling? Or made you rediscover Kings of Leon? Easy – you point out everything that Life is Strange: True Colors does better than its series predecessors. Which is everything. A truly massive step up in visual fidelity – especially lighting and facial animations – lays the foundation for a script that sounds like it was written by actual human beings, bringing to life a cast of characters tied to real, lived-in places within a constantly-changing town setting.

The chapter design, which truly rewards you for investing in the optional plights of every townsperson, works alongside a soundtrack that might just make you buy into the personal self-discovery journey of 2021’s best new videogame protagonist, Alex Chen the accidentally super-powered empath – and if you do, good luck in the final chapter. At points throughout True Colors I was shocked, winded, thrilled, and moved, sure; but I was also never bored – and that’s probably why it’s my new favourite choice-based narrative game of all time. That new Switch port is apparently phenomenal too, just saying…

2. Psychonauts 2 (XSS)

Wow. Who knew the unlikely sequel to a cult classic PS2-era 3D platformer – which was in development for so long after its announcement that it became an accidental advertisement for the pitfalls of crowdfunding – would not only see the light of day but end 2021 as one of the best-reviewed games of the year, nominated for the top prize at the Game Awards to boot (Was it robbed? Discuss). Well, now we have no choice to believe our eyes, because Psychonauts 2 is the second exceptional entry in the long-ignored 3D platformer genre to grace us in the last twelve months.

Calling it the most visually imaginative game of the year when I was just talking about It Takes Two might be a tight call, but I’ll make it anyway. While I’m at it, this is also the funniest game of the year, despite the sensitive and clever ways it deals with a wide range of heavy subject matter. The platforming is challenging when it needs to be, the game isn’t afraid to be generous with collectables, and every gigantic boss is great fun to conquer. Shaking out like a playable Saturday morning cartoon for adults, Psychonauts 2 is an ultra rare treat worth savouring.

1. Halo Infinite (XSX/XSS/PC)

No matter what angle I take to look at this situation, it’s hard to believe.

There hasn’t been a Halo game I haven’t eagerly anticipated in over a dozen years, but Halo Infinite is the first release in the flagship Xbox series for which I was excited to play both the campaign and multiplayer portions. I spent almost two years slowly catching up on the series to prepare for the former, and somehow, the game at the end of all that anticipation is actually good. What a world! A delectable open combat sandwich with a mixture of fresh and classic flavours held together by stretches of good old linear level design at the beginning, mid-point and finale of the mystery-steeped story, Infinite takes the “open” feeling of the first Halo’s iconic second and fourth levels and flings open the doors of the sandbox, with the fantastic new Grappleshot given to the Master Chief as the key. And the Chief is unmistakably the centre of this story, with almost every cutscene panning the camera through and around him as he is forced to contend with his past, bouncing off two fantastic new characters in the Pilot and the Weapon (who is played wonderfully by the triple-duty Jen Taylor).

But then there’s the multiplayer, and how very sweet it is. Refocusing on the combat dance at the heart of every great Halo PvP mode, Infinite’s first-ever free-to-play iteration welcomes in newcomers and gives new information to veterans like a dream. There isn’t a millimetre of wasted space on the redesigned UI, and every bit of colour pop is meaningfully engineered to draw the eye. With an intelligent tagging system, chatty automatic callouts from your teammates, and an ingenious customisable AI core that makes you feel more like you’re playing as a Spartan than ever, this is multiplayer design with its heart and brain in the right places. Right now there isn’t a single weapon in the array I openly dislike using, nor a mode I don’t want to play. Nearly every match delivers highlights. The janky unlock progression from the “beta” has already made big strides, and already mode selection has expanded. This really does feel like just the beginning; there is still so much more to be added to the game. If Halo Infinite gets a treatment half as good as Gears 5 has since its launch, I’ll be playing this one for years to come.

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Honorable Mentions

–The Medium (XSX)

I rearranged, refreshed and re-thought this list so many times trying to keep this game on the main list, but it was just too competitive. The Medium is one of the most unique technical showcases in gaming right now, frequently presenting a split-screen simultaneous view of a bleak spirit world inspired by Polish artist Zdzislaw Beksinski and an even bleaker real world hiding some confronting past human actions. The central mystery may be slow to unravel at first, but Troy Baker’s haunting performance as nightmare creature The Maw is deeply chilling, and after the twist halfway through the game firmly cements itself as Bloober Team’s most gripping and impressive work to date.

–Outriders (XSX/XSS)

This might be the first time I’ve written this GOTY list and had to put a game with this many invested hours into the honorable mentions section. It feels like I played Outriders for a solid month or more after it came out (essentially alone on the release calendar), even occasionally daydreaming about character builds while I was unable to play. The open playstyle customisation systems and solid cover mechanics are so much fun – but the game just got a bit too monotonous and grindy near the end when other games were starting to come out, and the story didn’t exactly keep me invested.

–Forza Horizon 5 (XSX)

Though it’s essentially building on all the spectacular series additions brought about in Forza Horizon 4 – which took me and many other non-racing-fans by surprise in 2018 – this one is a properly gorgeous next-gen showcase that brings enough style, polish and sheer content to lift the series to the level of internet attention it has always deserved. So yes, what I’m basically saying is it’s the Persona 5 of driving games.

–WarioWare: Get it Together (NS)

Another game released inside that September window, and a return to form for a fabulous series that’s been away for too long. The idea to make the traditional WarioWare game-makers playable avatars with different one-button skills is genius, especially in co-op, and the new microgames bring that manic quality that makes or breaks this series. There’s more replayability than usual too, with a new character customisation system and a suite of standalone multiplayer games built on cool one-off concepts.

–Knockout City (XSX)

Before Halo Infinite’s late arrival, this was easily the multiplayer game I had the most fun with in 2021. Deceptively simple but packing enough possible move variations to encourage spectacular, often hilarious clutch plays – many of which I witnessed firsthand and some I even pulled off myself – this brilliant stroke of dodgeball-based competitive design took quite a few nights off the board this year. Roller Champions just got lapped.

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