2021 is going to go down in history books as the year we were essentially forced to accept that things aren’t going back to normal. We saw even more huge titles getting pushed back, a much higher emphasis on digital presentations (for better and for worse), and the total paralysis of the PC hardware market thanks partly to the pandemic creating supply chain issues, and also thanks to the absolute blight of the cryptocurrency market.
But it was also a banner year for incredible games coming from absolutely nowhere, and thanks to my new gig here, I got to spend a lot of my 2021 talking about them. So here’s to taking whatever good you can find!
5. Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy (Eidos-Montréal/Square Enix)
After Square Enix’s previous attempt to utilize the Marvel license, Crystal Dynamics’ Marvel’s Avengers, turned out to be a relatively soulless and cash-grabby waste of everyone’s time, Guardians of the Galaxy had an uphill battle to fight to get any hype going. Last year, its announcement at Square’s E3 presentation involved an exhibition that took up half of their entire timeslot when people were desperately hoping for news on Final Fantasy XVI or the future of Kingdom Hearts.
But, four months later, the game came out and shocked everyone with just how much heart had been poured into it. Eidos-Montreal may not have been able to quite get the game’s engine down (it’s pretty buggy, there are invisible walls everywhere, and the game loading in the world as you turn the camera is very noticeable), but it’s a visual treat with an excellent script and an incredible cast of under-the-radar voice talent. The gameplay focusing on controlling Star-Lord, the team’s leader, while allowing you to utilize your teammates’ abilities through unlockable skills was a blast from beginning to end; the soundtrack full of cheesy 80’s tunes is precisely what you’d want from this property, and the writers understood these characters well enough to craft a new, familiar-but-unique take on this beloved team.
4. Dodgeball Academia (Pocket Trap/Humble Games)
Humble Games had an astounding year, and I was very torn on whether to give this spot to Dodgeball Academia or Unpacking. Still, in the end, Dodgeball Academia‘s absolute mastery of blending its retro inspirations with new-school gameplay twists won out. I don’t think I ever once stopped smiling while playing this game.
Dodgeball Academia is a sincere love letter to both old-school sports and arcade games, and cartoons and anime from the nineties to the present day. Its charmingly-presented story is taken from the grand, superpowered-chosen-one tradition of shounen manga. Its aesthetic draws from the likes of Adventure Time, Regular Show, and Powerpuff Girls. The gameplay is where it sells itself, though, inventing a fast, fun, and addictive version of the classic playground sport that offers a ton of different ways to build and control your characters and an RPG leveling system that gets you excited to watch your squad improve their game.
3. UNSIGHTED (Studio Pixel Punk/Humble Games)
Speaking of Humble Games, a team of just two people created this utterly delightful, Cyberpunk-flavored fusion of Zelda and Dark Souls that captured my heart in its demo and then held it prisoner when I finally got my hands on the full release. UNSIGHTED is a shining example of how an indie title can still feel like (or, in many cases, more) rich and complete than something made for likely a hundred times its budget.
Where in some other titles, a constant ticking clock would feel arbitrary, UNSIGHTED uses the tension of a time limit to ramp up the emotion the player will feel towards its lovable cast as you fight to keep them all alive long enough to complete your mission and save android-kind. The combat is slick and can be approached with a ton of different strategies since all the weapons play differently. The exploration is moody but exciting as your arsenal of tools expands to allow you access to more of the world. Oh, and there’s a queer love story in here too.
2. Resident Evil 8: Village (Capcom)
I’ll be honest, while Village was on my radar this year, it was far from the top of my most-anticipated list. I liked Resident Evil 7 a lot, but typically I end up waiting a long time to play these games. Lucky for me, this one happened to drop down to $20 for the holiday season, and I picked it up and played the whole thing in one weekend, the most challenging part of which was putting it down to go to work.
Taking some of the formulae of 7, leading Ethan Winters through four different haunted house levels with unique themes and styles of horror, Village not only improves on the variety of the terrors faced by players but refines them all to an unsettlingly razor-sharp edge. There were several moments where I needed to turn all the lights back on and put on a YouTube video to try and dissociate myself just long enough to make it past whatever terrifying nightmare was around the corner. However, pairing this with a story that follows up brilliantly on the foundation laid by 7 and continues to shake up the status quo of the series while also introducing an exciting new cast of villains that I already love as much as I did the Bakers got Capcom to let lightning strike twice in the same place.
1. Final Fantasy XIV: Endwalker (Creative Business Unit III/Square Enix)
This one was just an inevitability, honestly. This spot has been Endwalker’s to lose since its announcement, as the finale to a story a decade in the making. Considering that Shadowbringers was my favorite game of 2019, all it had to do was stick the landing. And despite coming at the tail end of Final Fantasy XIV‘s craziest year ever, and despite causing five-digit login queues, and despite its director splitting his attention with the franchise’s next flagship title…
Endwalker stuck the landing in every way I could have asked it to. Not only is it just more of Shadowbringers, it somehow manages to make me cry, out of sadness and joy, in brand-new ways. The fights got even more complex and more nail-biting. The story ramped up more quickly and ended perfectly. It’s the absolute best of Final Fantasy, and my only lasting complaint is that it’s something that I know many fans of the series will never experience because of how long it will take to get to. But hey, I’ll be here for the beginning of something new and the possible inclusion of whatever comes next hitting this list in 2023.
Honorable Mention: Deathloop (Arkane Studios/Microsoft)
Deathloop was the toughest game to cut from my official Top 5, but it deserves to be written about anyway. Arkane Studios delivered a uniquely-told story that allows the player to approach it from basically any angle but also didn’t overstay its welcome like many other open-world titles. It drips with 70’s Americana style (despite the people who made it being from France) mixed with modern-day humor. The gameplay feels totally perfect, especially with the DualSense integration. Most crucially for me, though, is the unambiguous representation on display. While the majority of the cast are some flavor of villainous, many of them (including the two central characters) are people of color, LGBT+, or both, and the game manages to include all of this without having really gone out of its way to advertise it or make it optional to the experience. Well done. This is what actual representation looks like.
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