Sweet! We made it to the end. I’m glad we got through this.
The year 2021 started off rough for me. My cat Joemama, one of my best friends in the world, passed away suddenly in January. I’ve dealt with death before, but only as a child, tangentially saying goodbye to relatives I never really had a chance to bond with. With Joemama leaving this plane of existence I felt a huge chunk of who I was disappear as well. His passing forced me to reevaluate my life: What actually matters to me? Why do I keep going? What’s the point of caring about anything if it all returns to nothing? I sat with those bleak-ass questions for months and months. I was mad at the world and myself, and I didn’t even know why.
One night I started thinking about how my silly, plant-chewing, always-meowing, smile-inducing pal moved through the world. He approached everything with an endless and electrifying curiosity, and he never wanted to see any soul sad. I’ve been actively trying to cultivate that humble explorer energy throughout 2021. As we retire this year, I’m so grateful for this outlook switch-up. This newfound inquisitiveness has made me way more excited about the little things in this world, and it’s completely bled into how I think about games as well.
This year was full of some absolute hits. Let’s take a hike through 2021’s best digital landmarks!
I got a PlayStation 5 very late. My friend Abby recommended I pick up the Demon’s Souls remake, one of the console’s few exclusives, and at checkout I thought I was purchasing a self-torture simulator. But Demon’s Souls makes fighting your demons so overwhelmingly fun it’s disgusting. Each run is a very challenging, collaborative adventure with pals. Every single boss in Demon’s Souls oozes charming idiosyncrasies; from the feral Old Hero’s colossal might to the Storm King’s aerial antics, their quirks are enduring. I can’t express how much I love that the big bads feel more like puzzles to ponder rather than battles to conquer. Demon’s Souls is an offbeat test of strategic patience trapped under an edgy paint job that scares off potential players with the “Get Good” rhetoric that festers in some members of the community.
I played through Demon’s Souls in one week. It then got me to play Dark Souls: Remastered with some pals, check out the rest of the trilogy, and eventually marathon all of Bloodborne in a weekend. It’s so fascinating to observe how these games play off each other; they all augment the same formula into vastly different reflections, creating odd, admirable worlds and offbeat combat philosophies. You have the rapid speed of Bloodborne’s Rally mechanic, a feral risk/reward system that rewards more aggressive players, which heavily varies from Demon’s Souls’ puzzle-y, Avant Garde boss battles, and swinging around duels with Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice, with its grappling and posture systems. In 2021 I caught the Souls bug and I’m staying sick – Elden Ring where you at?
Castlevania: Symphony of the Night
Let’s talk about vampires for a second. Legendary creatures. Immortal, dripped-out freaks who are eternally chilling in the coolest castles. It’s a lifestyle we all strive for, but only the chosen few (like Symphony of the Night‘s Alucard) have a chance to live it. It’s tragic when you think about it.
I don’t know if you can tell, but I’m heavy into vampires now. That’s mostly because this year I’ve been spending time trying to understand what the hell a “Metroidvania” actually is, which is a funny quest for me because it’s one of the genres I play the most. I’ve clocked so many hours into over-exploring games like Dead Cells, The Messenger, and Cave Story, and I wanted to check out the titles that laid the groundwork for Metroidvania games. So I started with the “vania” part, and it whips (pun intended).
Castlevania: Symphony of the Night came out almost 25 years ago, and I can happily tell you that it is a timeless haunted safari tour that I never want to leave. Each of the castle’s areas cause you double take at the instant aesthetic switches, and acknowledge the deeply quirky inhabitants that roam its halls. That soundtrack, too, is full to the brim of ambience defining tracks like Marble Gallery, which sounds like it was made by a band of fun-loving skeletons, and the high intensity Blood Relations, a track that swiftly shoots out synth notes like a hot-wired sprinkler.
Playing through this vampire adventure is a blast, and it has been honestly eye opening to see how influential Symphony of the Night‘s key design choices have been, and still are with such a wide swath of titles. I already picked up the Castlevania Advance Collection and met my dude Soma Cruz, who is very cool, and I can’t wait to continue these undead escapades.
Squid Game is some of the best television of this year. Period. It’s the blueprint, and Crab Game is a free, online multiplayer game that tries to emulate Squid Game‘s grit, while also making it really silly. Built out of the survival game Muck, Crab Game is a blatant ripoff that I’ve been enjoying. It’s an all-around solid, easy to access game that leads to lawless game nights with large groups of friends. I love games that have the ability to bring people together, those memorable multiplayer nights are ones to remember. If you try out Crab Game, don’t trust anyone. You literally can’t.
Death Stranding: Director’s Cut
I’ve written a few essays on why I love the wacky walking simulator that is Death Stranding, so I’m putting Director’s Cut on here because it still goes hard. This new version cleans up a lot of its issues, and the weight feels squeaky clean on those Dualsense adaptive triggers. Not much else to say here. It looks like we are all going to be inside even more than before, so you should go play Death Stranding if you haven’t yet.
Before anyone says anything, I know. You see the words “Cyberpunk 2077″ on my game of the year list and you want to have an argument with me. The only thing is: I don’t care.
I actually loved the launch of Cyberpunk 2077. It was messy and imperfect; the most anticipated game in years dropped with more bugs than an anthill. An almost unplayable adventure on some consoles, and I still played the whole thing. Chronicling the glitches with friends was a hilarious time: Sometimes cars wouldn’t load in for five minutes, leaving you with a blurry, blocky, driveable void. For a few missions, my character morphed inside of two others, so there was a pair of eyes, a couple noses and a mouth and a half just sitting on my screen, at a ghastly angle. And the most beautiful one of all was when all trees would be visible at all times. No matter where you were inside or outside, it was tree time.
I started playing Cyberpunk 2077 like I was watching a car crash and burn. But (about 24 hours in), against all odds, it landed, extinguishing most of its fire, and drove off, somehow leaving me surprised and decently satisfied. At a certain point, way too many hours deep, Night City sheds its corny, irreverent, and frankly annoying style. The city becomes a parody of itself, and the charm of its characters finally starts to emerge. Reaching those parts is like witnessing a garden grow out of sand. One of my favorite arcs is dealing with Panam and the mess in the badlands, it’s genuinely an energetic time full of high tech low lifes, drama, and shootouts. But again, this narrative work is so far into Cyberpunk 2077 that I can’t wholeheartedly recommend it to anyone else.
After playing too much of it, I know there is something special in the centre of Cyberpunk 2077, but there are just way too many roadblocks to get to those fleeting moments of solace.
10. Guilty Gear Strive
I was so drawn to Guilty Gear -Strive-‘s flashy visual identity that I immediately put my name down to review it after I saw its trailer. I also accidentally watched 90 minutes of Strive‘s story (with my controller in hand, itching to fight), without realizing it is a standalone animation that doesn’t have any gameplay. Not my best gaming moment of the year, but what a cool game!
I haven’t seen this many of my friends hop into a fighter since Super Smash Bros. Ultimate back in 2018. From the beta, homies were packing into those glitchy online lobbies to tussle it out for glory. It’s always heartwarming to watch a fighting game community form, and I’m still seeing motley crews form around Strive both online and in real life.
After hundreds of matches, I’ve found my true main: Ky Kiske. I think he’s an electric sword prince, but I have no idea. I just know that heaven sent down his moveset to click specifically with the quirky way my brain works, and I am so thankful for that. Guilty Gear -Strive- makes me confident in my ability to play the 2D fighters I thought were too galaxy brain for me; the secret is practicing, and actually taking the 30 minutes to understand the tutorial! If you see me launch Strive on Steam, just know someone is catching hands (hopefully it’s not me).
9. Death’s Door
Acid Nerve’s Death’s Door is a succinct action RPG that wears its Ghibli inspirations on its sleeve. If you don’t have much time to dedicate to games, but you still want to adventure through a world of puzzles and danger, you should pick up Death’s Door. I wrote our review at launch; its nimble sword fighting quickly becomes an exciting challenge for anyone who loves pushing their coordination to the limit with barbarous battles.
Death’s Door is full of quaint fantasy tales and sharp writing that keeps you invested from start to finish. I kept bugging this old witch and she just flat out called me “a little shit” to my face… It was messed up. It also features a character named Pothead, a warrior who has a pot for a head. Those little things help contrast with the darker, grim reaping side of the job.
Death’s Door‘s isometric action has shades of Hades, but it tailors its own identity through stylized characters and its impassioned symphony of a soundtrack. You have to test your strength by chaining hits and rolls together with magic and bombs; fights get grievous halfway through your journey, and if you aren’t prepared you will quickly perish. Death’s Door‘s final moments deliver some genuine closure, and they have me sitting in anticipation for Acid Nerve’s next title.
8. Halo Infinite
When I was in early high school, I only listened to video game music and song parodies, and I would play this Halo parody like five times a day. Halo Infinite has already transported me back in time where I am perpetually bumping that track (post-ironically), staying up way too late to play Halo with my friends, and listening to all of the series’ soundtracks — back-to-back-to-back. I kinda love this new (old) era for me.
343 Industries’ decision to shadow drop Halo Infinite‘s multiplayer, and make it a free, segmented portion from its campaign was beyond wise: it fueled the game’s already substantial success. Reports have revealed that the development team faced a plethora of issues resulting in delays and memes, but fortunately the final product is some real good 2021 Halo. All hail the grappling hook, I would never have imagined how well it works in Master Chief’s hands, but it’s the perfect gadget to add some much-needed quickness to the blocky, grumpy soldier.
While the main narrative didn’t do it for me, I cannot stop playing multiplayer. Even when I’m getting rocked by a team training for a clan meetup, I’m having a carefree time. There’s only one game where you can throw a plasma blueberry at a foe, grappling hook out the room, and hear the fireworks behind you. Halo is back, tell your friends.
7. Life is Strange: True Colors
I have such an attachment to the first Life is Strange game because it opened my eyes to narrative adventure games, a genre I eat up like popcorn, and it also helped me understand a lot more about my own identity. It was so fun to play a game about a bi teen in an art school, while being a bi teen in an art school, and I’ve loved the series ever since. Each iteration tells a viscerally personal story, and skillfully ties emotions to the supernatural with its decision-based gameplay. Life is Strange: True Colors arrives and aces the series’ gut punching plot points, emotional powers, and perfectly awkward dialogue. It rocks.
In a world that is so cynical and snarky, Life is Strange is assured in its quirky nature. Life is Strange: True Colours is a cocktail of acoustic indie, emo tumblr, and art school vibes. Its commitment to evoke that feeling is what attracts me to the series; it knows what it is.
The writers purposefully make Alex Chen fumble on her words sometimes — or make a bad joke that nobody laughs at. She’s not supposed to be cool! That’s okay! The fact that she isn’t hip, and knows it, gives her a magnetic quality I don’t see in many protagonists. True Colors is an emotional rollercoaster I highly recommend (a case you can hear me plead in our official spoilercast as well).
When I was growing up, I played microgames (primarily WarioWare) with my friends all the time. They’re always simple, straightforward challenges that jolt out chaotic bolts of joy to everyone on the couch. I’ve had a microgame shaped hole in my life for a few years now. When I saw SPOOKWARE‘s demo in the Dread X Collection 3 horror pack, it was obvious this game would be a banger. Fast forward to the launch of SPOOKWARE: Episode 1 this year, and boy, it’s amazing to play a microgame renaissance piece with a lively, horror narrative.
SPOOKWARE has the best soundtrack I’ve listened to all year; composer Viktor Kraus cooked up that chiptune-pop bossa nova with extra care in the studio, each track playing off of another’s melody and drum patterns. That self-referential quality makes the short OST extra saturated, its bright jingles ring through the mind for days.
It takes around six hours to play through SPOOKWARE, and it never overstays its welcome. Its microgames are made for specific parts of its plot, they arrive during key moments and make them noteworthy. My only wish is that they add in some multiplayer so I can face off my friends in this (not that spooky) skeleton land.
5. Teamfight Tactics
During November, through a series of calculated multimedia drops, League of Legends punched its fist through my heart to reignite a MOBA fire that’s lain dormant. I finally started paying attention to Worlds, the professional League championship, and got way too invested in the final match when Edward Gaming just sauced on their opponents with such a calm, synchronized swag. Arcane also released its first season on Netflix, a solid standalone animation that has pleasantly surprised League fans and haters alike. That show turned me, one of the most jaded players on earth, into a very loud cheerleader for the expansive lore and thoughtful narratives that Riot Games is making right now. I channeled all that excitement into a goal: to learn how to play the League of Legends auto-chess game, Teamfight Tactics, and climb the ranks until I hit Platinum rank.
There’s something about competitive modes that activates this primordial bug in my brain: I want to win and mount that very shiny, very arbitrary medal on my profile. But, as Miley Cyrus once said, “Ain’t about how fast I get there. Ain’t about what’s waiting on the other side. It’s the climb.” Deep down I crave that journey up an unknown mountain of mechanics and tactics; to me, there is literally nothing in gaming that is as gratifying as learning the most optimal micro-adjustments until they’re second nature — a process that makes for picturesque victories.
It isn’t all glamour though; the losses truly sting in a way that other games don’t. Unlike a regular League match where two teams face off against each other, TFT has eight players each battle to see who has the best board. It’s possible to get eighth — the doomed last place where your rank takes a huge hit. A loss like that will have you yearning, putting a hand on the window as you wonder what went wrong. A loss like that is a supervillain origin story. A loss like that will have you download an audiobook and take a retrospective walk around the ravine at dusk. It is not fun to see all your progress slip down the mountain like Sisyphus, but it is part of the climb, a process I’m eternally bound to.
After 11 days of comparing compositions, developing go-to strategies, and listening to advice from my all-knowing friends, I’m proud to say I climbed from Bronze to Platinum rank. Sharing advice and tactics is an incredibly underrated aspect of Teamfight Tactics, and it makes the multiplayer way less toxic than the radioactive fields of League or Valorant. I’m very glad that I took the time to play this excellent, esoteric card/chess game, it’s the perfect pick up and play game for when I’m bored, chilling on the couch. Who could ask for any more than that?
My frustration with all these fun feelings about Riot Games products is that people have come forward with stories and class action lawsuits about alleged sexual harassment, gender discrimination, and other unprofessional behavior that sounds engrained in Riot Games’ workplace culture. Even so far as the state of California accusing Riot of obscuring their workers on whether or not they’re allowed to talk about workplace violations. These issues have been happening at Riot for years, and they keep getting swept away and overshadowed by releases like Arcane or Worlds 2021, or The Ruined King: A League of Legends Story. I still play and follow League of Legends lore and Runeterra because the development teams make some top-notch characters, worlds, and mechanics, but it is beyond obvious that there needs to be tangible change so that those teams are working under suitable conditions.
Pixpil’s Eastward is a pixelated paradise that I have been waiting forever to play. It finally dropped this year, and I reviewed it! It is such a spectacle. Its soundtrack by Joel Corelitz is a sonic postcard to gaming’s past, playing with melodies and instruments that paradoxically sound familiar and fresh. I still listen to it on the regular, and it is inches behind SPOOKWARE for video game OST of the year.
Sam and John’s quest through their dilapidated world is compellingly sentimental. Yet a lot of people missed out on it due to the rush of other indie releases in September. It’s also 30+ hours long, and I get it. Eastward could easily shed a chapter. For the most part, though, its length works well as a showcase for its ever-changing narrative, nostalgia-core soundtrack, and colorful visuals.
You can explore Eastward over months; a lazy Sunday morning, roll over in bed and play on your Switch type game. It’s a stacked cake of an RPG: so sweet, and there are so many layers to it. I kinda wish I didn’t plow through Eastward for review; I’d much prefer playing through it at a slower pace, talking to more NPCs, or getting lost inside Earth Born, the classic RPG that lives within Eastward. I will be patiently waiting for a sequel, or whatever next project Pixpil develops. I’ll definitely revisit Eastward in a year or so, too, and restart that road trip from the beginning.
3. Metroid Dread
In 2021 I learned that Samus is one of the coolest video game characters of all time, and that Metroid games are my favorite kind of ability boosted scavenger hunt. As part of my Metroidvania analysis I had to hit the Metroid part, since I’ve only known Samus from her Super Smash Bros. appearances.
I tried out Super Metroid, and folks, wow. Why do some of these oldies still go ridiculously hard for no reason? This game came out four years before I was alive, and I’m so surprised that its minimal pixels and atmospheric soundtrack still manage to pull me directly into the hazardous biomes of planet Zebes.
Metroid Dread excels at the 2D Metroid style, it pulls that format into a new generation; garnishing it with a thriller flare to cement itself as a quintessential must-play. There’s a reason why Dread’s structure and pacing is almost identical to Super Metroid–-the formula works! It turns out running around and getting superpowers on an alien planet is always fun.
Super Metroid had me stressing for a bit, specifically one section where I had to crawl through a random invisible wall (one that my X-Ray vision couldn’t even see), a bit of an unbelievable task to expect of players. Dread cleans up a lot of the old school unnecessary ambiguity that’s baked into Metroid by having easily accessible objectives, markers, and map systems.
If you only know Samus in passing, Dread is the perfect introduction to the coveted space bounty hunter lifestyle. I just wish it had better music, I don’t remember a single song from that whole game.
2. Disco Elysium Final Cut
The first time I tried to play Disco Elysium in 2019, I got so bored I turned it off a couple hours in. It didn’t hook me; that’s mostly due to my attention issues. When there is too much text and exposition on the screen at once I get overwhelmed. When I heard that Disco Elysium – The Final Cut would be fully voice acted, I decided to pick it up again… and damn. It finally got me.
Disco Elysium is a masterclass in crafting a rigorously thought-out digital narrative, while simultaneously allowing a vast, open field of player choice. It’s easy to get lost in Martinaise, but you’re always finding yourself along the way.
The way Disco Elysium personifies skills and adds a million voice-acted lines to every mental and physical expression you possess is so smart. That additional audio has made it so effortless for me to follow the plot, and better explore the inconsistencies of Revachol’s mysteries. It’s a really personal RPG, and anyone who plays can build a completely different Harry, with his own sense of values, self, and style. Although at the end of the day he is always the same loveable fuck-up who wreaks havoc in the Whirling-in-Rags lobby.
I rarely ever call things perfect, or hand out 10/10’s, but I can’t find anything wrong with Disco Elysium. It accomplishes everything it wants to, makes the player think heavily, and rewards that curiosity. Very few games move me like Disco Elysium does, it is a medium defining work of digital art.
Every once in a while, there comes a game that makes you remember what fascinated you about games in the first place. An inquisitive title appears and tells stories utilizing the far reaches of what the format can hold; it’s brimming with so many haunting, brilliant ideas that it brings a smile to your face just thinking of playing it again.
That’s Inscryption, folks. It’s this year’s sleeper hit. The true game of the year.
Daniel Mullin Games’ Inscryption claws through the frightening monotonicity of 2021, and screams for metamorphosis. Just like a strange larva, each chapter of this eerie card game is constantly evolving. Complacency is its enemy, and it won’t stop fighting. Every chance Inscryption gets it flips the stakes, jumps genres, and jumbles your motivations. It starts off unsuspecting, but it quickly tells an ingenious transmedia narrative that leaves a deep imprint.
I don’t even like card games, but I love this one.
By Inscryption‘s halfway point the game becomes a multi-headed demon of a tactics title, completely squashing my expectations of a simple card builder. I was able to keep up because of how uncomplicated each instruction and additional rule was; there are a ton of tiny rules that build up into an endgame that only looks intimidating if you weren’t paying attention during the explanations.
I’m not at my PC right now, but Daniel Mullins recently released Kaycee’s Mod, a beta that fleshes out the initial card game into an endless roguelike and I can’t wait to play (even if it snuffs out some of the main narrative).
^This is a sentence I never would have typed in 2020. Something shifted. I’m becoming a card person… This is literally proof that 2021 is a twisted year.
A few people have asked me if Inscryption is scary: no, not really. It’s packaged in a ghostly way, but never tries to get a scream out of you. Inscryption constantly emits a very ominous energy, and its world class sound design traps you inside that creaking, cramped cabin. The card sounds, ding noise, and teeth hitting a pan are perfect (and creepy) ASMR; when you’re in the groove with your deck, they are somehow the most pleasing sounds to hear.
Man, it is hard writing about this game without spoiling it. I won’t mince words: Know that if you only play one video game this year, play Inscryption.