It’s the end of the year. And that means it’s time for everyone to pull out their magnifying glasses and try and get their bearings on what happened this year through a retrospective.
I’m not going to do that because 2021 was a tiring, exhausting mess that blended into the previous year, and you don’t need some stranger on the internet telling you what a good job you did getting through it; you can tell yourself that.
So instead, I’m here to talk about video games. It’s been a year, there’s a ton of new releases, and here are my top five games of 2021.
5. Bravely Default 2
Remember this game? Like many others that came out in the first quarter of the year, it will be left forgotten on many people’s games of the year lists in favor of, likely, Shin Megami Tensei V. But I will not forget because this game was great.
Playing as Insert Name Here, or Seth, you embark on a quest with some compatriots you quickly meet to recover the four crystals of the elements before the forces of evil do, y’know they take over the world or whatever. It’s not a big deal here, the characters and narrative are fun, but the big point is the stellar job-based combat.
You pick from your standard final fantasy jobs as you learn to mix and match your movesets to create optimal strategies for slaughtering your foes. While not as creative (or interesting) as its predecessor Bravely Second, it made many original jobs, such as black mage and white mage, actually worth using. You don’t need complicated classes or unique ideas when you can make what is familiar territory interesting. Complete with some excellent character and class designs, and you’ve got yourself an enjoyable classic JRPG with a low entry point but a lot of depth.
4. Shin Megami Tensei V
So anyway, Shin Megami Tensei V came out this year and if you ever wanted to play an oppressive but immensely satisfying RPG, then now is as good a time as any.
Ok, so let’s dial back a bit. Shin Megami Tensei V is the latest in a nearly 30-year-old series of modern fantasy RPGs in which the world is destroyed, or about to be, and you run atop its remains trying to survive. All the while, every other thing that remains, be it demons, humans, or the environment itself, is trying to kill you too.
So, of course, this one, Shin Megami Tensei V, is no different. Tokyo is destroyed, God is dead, and you run across its corpse fighting off the demons who want control over its remains. To do so, you’ll engage in brutal turn-based combat in which one misstep can mean your doom- truly, Dark Souls is the Shin Megami Tensei of Action RPGs.
V is much more focused on its exploration, battle system, and visual presentation when compared to many others that focus on narrative, but it makes up for a lot of that with sheer atmosphere. The world feels dead, but the gods and deities you meet feel much more like they exist naturally in this world. It’s a spiritual successor to the cult classic Shin Megami Tensei III: Nocturne that improves upon it in every regard.
It turns out you don’t need a strong narrative to be compelled to sink 100 hours into a JRPG; who knew? Huh, that means I’ve played more Shin Megami Tensei V this year than Bravely Default II…..
3. Christmas Tina: The Ephemeral Views of Winter
The name for this title is a little non-indicative because it takes place over a little more than just winter, and the name doesn’t even make a lick of sense until the mid-point of the story, but Christmas Tina: The Ephemeral Views of Winter is a visual novel from 2021 you don’t want to miss.
This title tells the story of two youths from very different backgrounds who came to the densely populated Tokyo in 1988. Jing, a Chinese boy, has come because he failed his university entrance exams and wants to save money to try again.
Kanna, a Japanese countryside girl with a leg injury, needs to make money to send home to pay for her younger sister’s heart surgery. They both end up acquiring a real estate prospecting job, in which they are paid a very small wage to stay at an old run-down train station. It’d be a cinch to get supplies to live there with lots of people, but there is a catch.
Jing doesn’t know any Japanese, and Kanna doesn’t know any Chinese.
An entire plot hinging on poor communication sounds very messy, but Christmas Tina really makes it work. It’s a very carefully constructed narrative, with its time period, supporting cast, characterization, and motivations contributing to a story that unfolds, leaving no stone unturned.
And this isn’t even getting into the absolutely stellar presentation. By pinpointing when to use layers, crops, transparency, pans, and minimal animation, Christmas Tina is dynamic to the point of a fully animated title. It makes for one of the most immersive visual novel experiences. Period. I highly recommend checking it out should you get the chance.
2. NEO: The World Ends With You
They released a sequel to one of my favorite games of all time, The World Ends With You. Entitled NEO: The World Ends With You for some reason (honestly, that kind of makes it feel like a remake), this game would be the best RPG of the year by a solid margin if there weren’t one more RPG on this list.
Huh, a lot of really good JRPGs came out this year.
This sequel, like the first, stars a group of kids stuck in the ‘Reaper’s Game,’ a game in which you wander the Tokyo prefecture of Shibuya, rendered in one of the coolest aesthetics in video game history, solving puzzles and fighting supernatural monsters to complete missions to earn a new chance at life.
Unlike the first game’s setup, though, you’re going head to head in teams with the terrifying caveat of; even if all the missions are completed, if you come in last, you’ll be erased from existence. So you better keep ‘The Wicked Twisters’ out of last place, you hear?
The cast of NEO: The World Ends With You is a group of teenagers who I love and cherish. They’re trying to make sense of the baffling scenario they’ve been placed in while also being teenagers still working through their issues.
The most effective way of working through the most pertinent issue of ‘come in last and be erased from existence’ is mastering the game’s battle system. Controlling a whole squad of people during an action RPG sounds like a daunting task from both a gameplay and creator viewpoint, but NEO makes it as simple as buttering toast. It’s a frenetic and flashy system that is incredibly enjoyable at every point of the game.
And of course, NEO continues the fantastic traits of the original game’s oh-so-fun gambit pileup, making for one of the better narratives in fiction this year, and holds an absolute banger soundtrack. So be right back, playing Breaking Free again before I go onto the next entry.
1. The Caligula Effect 2
The original The World Ends With You was a formative game for me, and it struck right at home as a high schooler. NEO, following its same path, didn’t resonate in the same way with me now, older and allegedly wiser. But then there was a game that really resonated with me now, The Caligula Effect 2. A simple JRPG about many people busting out of the matrix is what hit the top place on my games of 2021 list.
Escape your Regret, Redo to Forget
This matrix, a digital world called Redo, is run by a virtuadoll akin to a Vocaloid, Regret, who takes the souls of those with regrets who hear her songs and brings them to an illusion that they can live without them.
And then your illusory life is shattered when it gets interrupted by another virtuadoll, X (pronounced Key), that is using you as a soul jar, reawakening your sealed memories of reality, forcing you into action. You amass a team of others who have awoken and face your fears, confronting the musicians who run this world under Regret to find an escape.
Combat is in real-time but allows you to string together and plan your moves, feeling like an editing timeline. It’s a solid system, with lots of fun to be had and ties into the songs being composed by each musician (in real life, by popular Vocaloid artists like [email protected]). But once you beat a musician, you can steal their song and repurpose them with an X cover that fits a teammate.
Your teammates are the best, they’re characters who are intrinsically tied to subcultures that don’t get a lot of airtime, and they’re essentially all adults. They have adult problems and fears and issues, and you get them, much more so than just your generic high school cast. This title resonated with me, and I enjoy every character immensely.
Yeah, I actually have a game of the year; wow.
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