I’m gonna kick off my Game of the Year list with a spoiler: every year, when there’s a Final Fantasy XIV expansion, said expansion winds up being my number one. I still want you to pretend to be surprised when you get to the end and see Endwalker. That being said, given the absolute hell year sequel 2021 has been, games did continue to be pretty damn neat, and I found a lot of stories that felt strangely cathartic.
These first few gems are peppy enough, but you may notice my depression only grows stronger as you scroll down. And as hard as some of those top few made me cry this year, I think I really needed that.
10: Pokemon Unite
Pokemon Unite finding its way into every gap of my day was a brief curse and blessing during my 2021 grind. I’ve burnt myself out on MOBAs thanks to years of League of Legends, but Unite delivered all of the Pokemon charm and League competition without the usual flood of someone calling me a homophobic slur. That’s a low bar, but what I’m saying is that the MOBA formula without all chat works really well for me, and I’m even more down because it’s Pokemon.
I love playing this one more casually instead of my old, obsessive rank grinding. I’ll lock Charizard in damn near every time just because I like that big dragon baby, but if someone refuses to fill another role, I’ll swap to another character in a roster of second-bests. I’ve slacked off lately, but Unite is on mobile now, and that’s my weakness. Catch me wide awake and red-eyed at 4 am with my phone on max brightness, waddling around as Charmeleon. There’s not a lot more to this one, but it’s my current pick-up and put-down favorite.
9: New Pokemon Snap
Yes, Pokemon takes two places in the top 10. No, Brilliant Diamond and Shining Pearl aren’t next. I always find that the spinoff games bring me more joy than most of the mainline RPGs, ringing true for both this year’s MOBA and Pokemon Snap sequel. I was worried I wouldn’t like the photography adventure gig nearly as much as an adult with no access to a Blockbuster Kiosk, but I did still dig it. There’s a lot of heart in New Pokemon Snap. Even if I didn’t know half the ‘mons I was snapping! But this one still stuck with me for months. I mentioned there were a lot of tears this year, but Snap at least felt a bit like my favorite comfort food when I needed something light. Now someone, please buy me a Pokemon Snap Station from the ’90s…
8: Dead by Daylight
Okay, so this one is kind of in a weird place for me, but I can’t not put Dead by Daylight on here. It just occupied too much of my time in early 2021. I don’t know how many hours I’ve spent griefing my friends, playing so poorly everyone thinks I’m joking but really I’m just that bad. I still always have fun, though, and playing survivor in a lobby full of loved ones brought me a lot of comfort this year. We’re always a group of drastically mixed skill levels, yet I find Dead by Daylight is often a good time even when I’m getting my ass whooped. I’m the first to get hooked, sure, but I also laughed so hard that I snorted—so who’s the real winner?
Then there’s the weird place part; I don’t know how I feel about the game right now. The whole NFT debacle really got me heated, and I get Behaviour — the studio behind Dead by Daylight — can’t control what their partners choose to do with models they own, but can’t you still determine who you partner with? I don’t know. There seem to be a lot of lovely folks at that studio and I want them to feel supported. I also want to send a message to its higher-ups that’s “don’t partner up with any NFT shit.” Even if you’re detached, don’t be… NFT adjacent. If I see one more Dead by Daylight NFT thing, I’m gonna crawl out of my skin. Whatever. It’s weird. Let’s do better than the Redditor equivalent of an MLM.
7: Genshin Impact
I know it came out in 2020, but I think MiHoYo’s relentless update cycle means I can stick it here every year until it’s dead and I have nothing to show for my purchases. In all seriousness, Genshin Impact has added a ton to the game in 2021, and when I look back on it, it feels like something drastically new. The escalation and Inazuma plot threads have to be some of my favorite stories now, and I’m eager to get back in since Arataki Itto’s banner is out. There are also new systems like the Hangout Events and player housing, the latter of which I am endlessly fascinated by.
Genshin Impact remains a surprise for me, even a year later. I loved its predecessor, Honkai Impact 3rd, but I still didn’t expect to find so much joy in its story and characters, mostly because I had a low-bar set for another gacha game on my radar. Teyvat is a rich, vibrant world that strikes a lot of the same chords I adore about other lengthy RPGs, except this one is delivered to me in more manageable bite-sized patches I don’t feel rushed to complete. Its delivery is honestly far less intimidating than downloading a game I know is about to take me 100+ hours to beat (Hello, Persona 5 Royal), and that’s how Genshin keeps me so hooked. I love it, and I hope it winds up here again in 2022.
6: Shin Megami Tensei V
My dark secret is that I’ve never finished any mainline SMT game. I finally did change that this year with Shin Megami Tensei V. It’s not that I don’t like them; they just never found me at the right moment. And I have played that other series from Atlus (the one that sends everyone into a rage whenever you compare the two).
Anyway, I found myself really smitten with SMTV, even if I did play it on my baby mode or whatever you want to call it. I don’t have time to play anything on hard now, and I’m always picking whatever difficulty you’ve got listed as the easiest setting. Ultimately, that had no impact on how I enjoyed the game, and I sure did feel like a badass controlling Nahobino. Look at that hair, that style; he’s so pretty some of those freaky demon dudes even talked about eating him. If anything, you should just play SMTV just for the battle conversations, demon negotiating is hilarious.
5: Chicory: A Colorful Tale
Here it is, the first game really kicking off those Depressed Girl hours. Chicory launched back in June, and I haven’t stopped thinking about it since; it’s every little reassurance I didn’t know I needed. Instead of following the game’s namesake, you get to be Pizza — or whatever it is you name your cute dog protagonist—and work to save the world in a role your hero gave up before.
Said used-to-be-savior, Chicory, is probably one of my favorite characters from the year. Her inability to go on in the beginning, despite having a world of precious animals depending on her, gets a little too personal for me but in the best ways. Originally, I thought I was getting into a cute coloring book thing. Instead, I wound up with an intense lesson in self-love and sobbing on the couch with my cats all night long. I’m glad I stumbled onto this one, and if I had to pick just one from my list to beg someone to play, it’d be Chicory. Please, please play Chicory. It’s even available on Switch now!
4: Tales of Arise
I really love Tales Of games. Really, really love in the way you spend hundreds of dollars collecting tiny plastic figures of cute anime girls and adorable, pipe-toting dogs. Vesperia, Symphonia, Abyss—those are some of my favorite RPGs. And now that we’ve established that, I’ve gotta tell you, I hated Xillia and Zesteria so much I didn’t start Berseria until Arise was on its way out. Thankfully, I liked that one, too, but Arise? Arise rules, man. It’s full of so many of extremely RPG bullshit moments I adore; the whole thing feels magical in a way that I have desperately missed from the series. The cast also has to be one of my favorites from recent years, and that feels like a big win for a series I grew to resent for almost a decade. Skits between the crew kept me cackling for hours, and I couldn’t make my way through the whole thing as fast as I wanted because I kept searching for more. Anyway, if you want to hear my full ramblings on this one, I did review it.
3: Life is Strange: True Colors
Alright, here begins the top three. This lot is special: I can’t recall any year prior when the medium delivered a cluster of titles like this that I just could not get over. True Colors is one of those. It’s probably my first experience in being so intensely rocked by a story that I had to go take a real break. Not in my tongue-in-cheek “oh, I’m emotionally exhausted now” kinda way, but in the way something stirs such intense feelings that I can’t cope with it all at once. It was hard, but it was good. I needed True Colors, and I wanted to hear what it had to say.
I’m thankful for this one. I knew I’d like it on the basis it was Life is Strange, but I didn’t realize that it would share moments with me that felt deeply personal. Alex Chen is the queer kid I’ve wanted to play since, well, I was a kid. But her story is also about dealing with grief, which is something I’ve thought about all day, every day for a year now. I don’t know how you get unstuck when the world seems to stop, especially in those moments of loss, but what I do know is you can eventually find reasons to drag yourself forward. You find new normals and ways to honor your loved ones when they’re gone. The process is messy, it sucks, and I’m not entirely convinced you ever actually do feel “okay” again, but Alex understood that, and she helped me process. True Colors gave me a little push – a tiny reminder that there’s a world of people out there feeling this. There were times I thought I couldn’t breathe while playing, but I’d do it all again in a heartbeat.
2: NieR Replicant ver.1.22474487139…
I’ve always preferred the story, setting, and cast of this iteration of Nier over Automata, and I’m relieved it finally got the gameplay remaster that world deserves. Kaine has to be one of the most flawed, tragic, and thoughtful characters I’ve ever experienced. While everything about Replicant is great—I said as much in my review — it’s Kaine that really made me fall in love with the game.
She kind of sucks at first, sure, but it’s in the way it hurts. Kaine is abrasive, deeply unlikeable, and hostile at every chance. Her lashing out is a constant attempt to push, but the cast around her insists they pull. She’s traumatized; it permeates through every little thing she does. The way she’s constantly haunted by what she perceives as personal failings delivers a poignant story on trauma and the way it affects us in a fantastical package. Replicant levels with you better than any drama bashing players over the head with metaphors and obnoxious parallels. I can’t think of anything that feels as cathartic as watching Kaine struggle to accept herself, her found family, and her new role in these spaces. Replicant is my number two this year and definitely one that will stay in my overall top ten.
1: Final Fantasy XIV Endwalker
How do I articulate my love for Endwalker? Final Fantasy XIV has been with me for a decade now. I’ve watched it cycle through a failed first launch, take off with A Realm Reborn, and deliver hit after hit with Heavensward, Stormblood, and Shadowbringers. And now? Now, I have this. I have Endwalker. It’s probably my favorite expansion, and I could tell you about why in a post 10 times as long as this article. I’ll spare us all from that. Instead, I’ll just try and sell you with this:
As games exist today, the only place you get a story like Endwalker is through Final Fantasy XIV. That does mean you have to play through hundreds of hours of expansions prior, and should probably read some extra side stories, then watch cutscenes from its defunct 1.0 version. It’s all worth it, though… I don’t know how to convince anyone; I haven’t nailed that formula down outside of using the silly critically acclaimed copypasta. All I can say is that I promise it’s worth it. It’s worth the few hours of fetch quests here and there, it’s worth needlessly long dungeon cutscenes, it’s worth grinding through old raids, and if you do the side bits, those pay off too.
Asking someone to play Final Fantasy XIV is a tall order, and I know that. But I just blitzed my way through an expansion that closed countless plot threads I’ve witnessed spin for years, and there’s something so profoundly satisfying in seeing that all come to a close. I was worried I’d hate it, but here I am, once again in love with this stinkin’ MMO. We aren’t within spoiler timeframes yet, but I’m telling you, Endwalker goes places we didn’t see coming in 2.0. It’s my favorite game, and I expect it’ll always hold this spot.