The Fancies 2021: John Warren’s Top 10 Games of the Year

Mario didn't even star in the best platformer of 2021!

In a year I promised myself I’d play more Final Fantasy XIV to prepare for Endwalker, I ended up playing everything besides the best MMO on the market today. It’s not that XIV isn’t great, nor that I don’t want to see it to its magnificent conclusion. It’s more that 2021 was quietly a banger of a year for games. I found myself playing a wider variety of stuff than I did the year before and wound up falling in love with a few indies. That’s kind of rare for me. Still, I must admit I didn’t finish a lot of games. I’m still me, after all. That said, there are 10games I liked to loved this year and found it fairly easy to rank them, so let’s go!

death's door

Honorable Mentions

Death’s Door

I have a feeling this would’ve cracked my top 10 if I got more time with it, but I’ve moved it directly into my “ughghghghgh I’ll get to it in 2022” pile. But Death’s Door makes a really fabulous first impression. Simple but rewarding combat, fun exploration, and you get to play as a cute crow? That’s my favorite bird!

Eastward

I grew up sans attachment to Earthbound, a game I didn’t play until my late 20s. I’m still not spellbound by the game that heavily inspired Eastward or its game within a game, but I liked what I played of Eastward a whole lot. Is it because they put a cooking mechanic and the shrine finder mechanic from Breath of the Wild in a lush 2D environment? Who’s to say. I am, of course, a sucker for a protagonist that uses a frying pan as a weapon.

Mass Effect Legendary Edition

I don’t normally get this fussy with my year-end lists, but I just couldn’t bring myself to put the Mass Effect remasters on my top 10. Though the trilogy remains a real high point in my gaming life, I do declare that this series hasn’t aged as gracefully as I told myself it did. Even with the fresh coat of paint. What a blast it still is, though, to create your Shepard and assemble a crew. It’s the best sci-fi epic in the medium and it was a delight to revisit this year.

Loop Hero

If I had to award a “most likely to sneak into my top ten of 2022” category, it would go to Loop Hero. Now that is has life on Nintendo Switch, I’m sure I’ll pour even more hours into this deceptively complex game during holiday and early year travels in the coming weeks. Loop Hero shares more DNA with games like Cookie Clicker than I think most people talk about, which might be why I love it so much.

Tales of Arise

It’s THE BIG RPG of 2021 and it’s pretty darn good. It missed my list because I just can’t shake the feeling that the battle system (a version of the tried-and-true Tales action system we’ve seen for years) is just Not For Me. And that’s okay! But it’s a system that you have to spend 50-80 hours with, and I really need to love it in that case.

metroid dread

10. Metroid Dread

Metroid Dread delivered a furious and frantic version of Nintendo’s least understood hero in what canonically should be the last entry in the Metroid series. I loved the recontextualization of the Chozo, the sense of (don’t say it don’t say it) dread the relentless EMMI robots give the moment-to-moment action, and how amazing it felt to run and shoot in the latest 2D adventure. What interested me most in Metroid Dread, however, was not what the game showed us. It was the questions raised about where Samus goes from here. How does this series evolve now that this chapter is complete? Where does Metroid Prime 4 fit?

sable

9. Sable

2021’s best Breath of the Wild-like was also 2021’s best-sounding game. Sable’s soundtrack from rock band Japanese Breakfast is breathtaking and suggests a deep working relationship between musician and game developer because everything fits so perfectly. Sable also looks incredible and gives its desert mystery and light and potential. If the survival and combat of Breath of the Wild stresses you out but you love exploring, please pick up Sable and give it a try. I grew quite attached to the protagonist and the desert’s inhabitants by the time credits rolled.

forza horizon 5

8. Forza Horizon 5

Forza Horizon 4 was the first game ever reviewed right here on Fanbyte.com. I wrote that review. I concluded that “Playground has done an excellent job in this year’s open-world entry, creating a memorable experience I’ll return to many times. At least until the studio inevitably offers another brilliant sandbox to motor through.” And yeah! That stands! Maybe Playground needs to tweak the formula a little next time around, but this year’s jaunt through Mexico is brilliant — mixing the loud coziness the series is known for with a drastically different setting than 2018’s English countryside. I may take a break and run a few races now, actually.

disco elysium

7. Disco Elysium: The Final Cut

Okay so Mass Effect remasters didn’t make the list but Disco Elysium: The Final Cut did? I can explain. The Final Cut does something transformative to the original formula; it voices everything. This definitive version of one of 2019’s best games added even more exquisite voice acting to an already astonishing game, turning it into one of the best bedtime novels you’ll ever play. The other thing about Disco Elysium is that it gets better with age. Conversations between Harry and Kim have stuck with me long after their last echoes bounced off the crumbled brick walls of Revachol and I frequently think about returning to that world. A timeless classic made even better this year.

bowser's fury

6. Super Mario 3D World + Bowser’s Fury

I think Super Mario 3D World is kinda boring! Yeah! [finger guns]

I swear someone at Nintendo agrees because that’s the only explanation I have that they’d tack on such a fun little outing for our favorite plumber in the form of Bowser’s Fury. It’s such an odd little experiment for the Mario team that suggests a possible shift in design philosophy I wouldn’t mind seeing in a bigger game sometime soon. Still, I’m happy to have this little thing! This cat-filled, open-world romp that doesn’t overstay its welcome. And hey, if you’re one of the many who thinks 3D World rules, then that’s icing on the cake.

guardians of the galaxy

5. Guardians of the Galaxy

The Most Shocking Surprise of 2021 is also my number five Game of the Year, Guardians of the Galaxy. When this game was revealed, I thought “oh it’s a half-baked Marvel thing with Avengers energy but five times the shitty banter.” I assumed I’d never engage with this game as long as I had a pulse. While the banter is a little much for my taste, the game we got was a super fun action-comedy with some of the best games writing to come out of a major studio in… well, ages. It’s everything Avengers could’ve been if they hadn’t decided to stuff it full of live service crap.

streets of rage 4

4. Streets of Rage 4 Mr. X Nightmare

Streets of Rage 4 is one of the games alongside Risk of Rain 2 (which also got some new content this year) that I’ll fire up when I get a spare half hour or so. Dotemu and company completely floored me with their interpretation of the old Sega brawler and made me fall in love all over again with their Mr. X Nightmare DLC from earlier this year. Not only did the expansion add playable characters to the mix, but it added a survival mode which plays like supercharged roguelite version of the game’s main story mode. Between every stage you can choose a power-up like electrifying your weapon attacks or disabling health pickups in lieu of gaining HP by hitting your opponents. The challenge really ramps up after the first ten or so levels and it’s an excellent way to learn the finer details of Streets of Rage 4‘s simple yet deep combat design.

Psychonauts 2 Increase Health

3. Psychonauts 2

It is extremely cool that Double Fine’s Psychonauts 2 exists at all. The first game occupies that rare intersection of well-liked and underplayed which makes it an unlikely candidate for such a late sequel, but here we are! And what a sequel! It’s better than the original in every way; using Microsoft’s budget powers to polish the platformer enough to compete with the big players in the space. Though the levels are just a tad overstuffed with collectibles (I thought we had moved past Banjo-Kazooie collectible design density but alas), the level design itself is exquisite. Much of the voice talent from the original Psychonauts returned for the sequel, but Jack Black’s performance in particular was special.

halo infinite

2. Halo Infinite

I have a confession to make. Until about a week ago, Halo Infinite was my number one game of 2021. It lost the top spot really through no fault of its own, but rather the unicorn-like qualities of the eventual winner. How I feel about Halo Infinite still stands, though. It’s the most fun I’ve had playing a video game in years. The multiplayer mode sends me back to the best parts of on-campus LAN parties in college and mixes that nostalgia with the delight of being able to share a nearly perfect competitive experience with my current crop of friends and coworkers. I love the maps, the feel of the guns, the gadgets at your disposal — heck, I even love the cosmetics system. I’ve only put a few hours into the campaign mode, but it makes an interesting first impression. The elaborate, grand interior design of older Halo games greets you at the door, but soon you’re led to something much more similar to a Far Cry game, for better or worse. So far, it’s for the better. Come on, they give you a grappling hook!

Wildermyth on PC

1. Wildermyth

Worldwalker Games is an indie outfit consisting (among other collaborators) of a programmer, his artist wife, and his writer brother. Now, if you asked me to make a game with my wife and best friend (I’m an only child), I’d tell you it couldn’t be done. But Nate Austin and crew have built one helluva debut for their studio in Wildermyth — a campaign strategy roleplaying game with procedurally-generated story beats. The closeness among the core team of Worldwalker is clearly a strength when you feel the warmth rising from the yarns being spun out of Wildermyth.

In my first hour, one of my adventurers, a headstrong warrior, wandered into a forest alone after she noticed a creature staring at her from a distance. As she approached, the creature showed itself to be a mermaid living in the lakes of this forest. At first, the mermaid was flighty and detached. When pressed to choose how to engage, I had my warrior meet that aloofness with curiosity. My curiosity was met with playfulness. Her playfulness was met with flirting. My flirting was met with mocking. Her mocking was met with sincere interest in her world. My interest was met with a marriage proposal… And within that first hour my warrior was married to a mermaid and making promises to return to the forest once her adventuring days were over.

These seeds are all over Wildermyth. No one player’s experience is exactly the same, but undoubtedly those seeds turn into flowering, beautiful trees. Wildermyth is a lovely, expertly crafted game I’ll be playing well into next year and thinking about for years to come.

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