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

A lot of little guys running around

Games! Oh my god, games. These games rule.

Labyrinth City

10. Labyrinth City: Pierre the Maze Detective

Were you into Where’s Waldo books as a kid? Labyrinth City: Pierre the Maze Detective is like one of those come to life — in fact, it’s an adaptation of a Japanese series of books with a similar premise and visual style. As a game, it translates into a laid-back exploration of elaborate mazes set in fantastical locations, with plenty of secrets and little visual gags to discover. The animation here is gorgeous, making it truly look like a book come to life.

Beast Breaker

9. Beast Breaker

From the creator of the smash hit ThreesBeast Breaker is a turn-based game where you control a little mouse as they take on massive magical creatures. It plays like Breakout crossed with turn-based Monster Hunter, with each turn involving a careful calculation of positioning, damage, and resources. Beast Breaker starts off very simple, but as you unlock more weapons, companions, and tools, you can begin to experiment with different styles of play — from peppering creatures with arrows to careening around with a hammer to build up momentum for a devastating final blow. The worldbuilding here may not be to everyone’s tastes as it’s a little on the cute side, but it’s well-realized and has a neat cast of animal characters. Truly a perfect Switch game, though it’s also on the Epic Store.

Inscryption

8. Inscryption

Sneaking in late on the recommendation of my colleague Steven Strom, Inscryption uses the now-omnipresent roguelike deckbuilder genre to tell a horror story that goes places most players will never see coming. I’m not always impressed by meta elements in video games — I feel like once you’ve seen it done a few times, it loses a little impact — but Inscryption is so carefully put together, and the underlying game is so enjoyable, that it feels like more than your average ARG or creepypasta. As someone who has had to stop myself from playing games like Slay the Spire because they hook too effectively into the addiction center of my brain, Inscryption was a breath of fresh air — a roguelike deckbuilder that not only actually ends, but never lets you get too comfortable in its cycles.

7. Metroid Dread

When Metroid Dread was finally revealed earlier this year, I was worried. I love Fusion, but I was concerned that Nintendo was simply trying to replicate the experience of being chased by Samus’s doppelganger in that game, and thus might portray everybody’s favorite bounty hunter as weak and incapable. Thankfully, those concerns weren’t borne out in the game — which actually plays with the much-detested past depiction of Samus’s interactions with authority in Other M to pull one over on players. Metroid Dread feels great to play, giving Samus a ton of maneuverability but requiring that you use all of it to get through. Yes, the EMMI segments are a little random and irritating, but the instant restarts mean I blew through it in a matter of days. Dread is a fitting end to the Metroid saga (but not the Metroid series), and I’m hopeful that, having now proven they can nail the classic formula, MercurySteam goes in more experimental directions in the future.

Exo One

6. Exo One

Take the reflective exploration of a walking sim and combine it with the exhilarating momentum of a Sonic the Hedgehog game and you get Exo OneIt’s a gorgeous game with an unconventional mode of locomotion, and it takes its basic premises to some interesting places by the time it rolls credits. Of everything on my list, this one is the easiest to knock out in an afternoon, so if the premise at all appeals to you, then check it out — as of this writing, it’s available on Xbox Games Pass.

Streets of Rage 4

5. Streets of Rage 4: Mr. X Nightmare

I didn’t play Streets of Rage 4 last year, but picked it up this fall after hearing good things about the Mr. X. Nightmare DLC. And yeah, it’s great. The endless survival mode distills the essence of a beat-em-up into a streamlined, rhythmic experience that lets you mess around with different builds and pushes your knowledge of each character to the limit. It’s like the Platonic Form of the genre, and I hope the developers implement something similar in their upcoming Ninja Turtles title.

El Shaddai

4. El Shaddai: Ascension of the Metatron

Technically El Shaddai came out ten years ago, but nobody played it back then. Thankfully, it returned on Steam this year, and it’s one of the most gorgeous-looking games I have ever played. The direction here is so bold — I especially admire the use of fixed camera angles, which are increasingly rare in these kinds of games but here allow for some striking, cinematic shots. The action is simple but satisfying, encouraging improvisation and constant movement. And the game blends seamlessly with the narrative, a near-incomprehensible story based on the ancient Hebrew Book of Enoch. Ultimately, it’s about a bare-chested angel in jeans kicking the shit out of monsters in ethereal, impossible spaces, and if that doesn’t appeal to you then I guess we’re just very different people.

SNKRX

3. SNKRX

I still don’t know how to pronounce SNKRX — SnakeRex? Snake Prescription? It doesn’t matter, because this game is so elegantly designed. It takes the drafting structure of so many card-based roguelikes and applies it to a real-time game where the only direct control you have is maneuvering your snake-party left and right as they attempt to defeat waves of enemies. Different types of characters have different kinds of attacks — some fire arrows, some emit repulsing waves, others summon critters to help you out — and they can be combined to create builds that employ diverse strategies. A big part of the fun of SNKRX is trying to beat the game using these different combinations — an all-Curser build that relies on damage over time, for instance, or a party of Merchants that lets you rack up gold to improve your team. In terms of pure gameplay design, SNKRX is the best title I played this year.

Bowser's Fury

2. Bowser’s Fury

Super Mario 3D World is a perfectly fine game, but Bowser’s Fury was the real star of the dual release early this year. It’s the next logical step in the evolution of 3D Mario games, from Mario 64‘s isolated paintings to Odyssey’s vast worlds, and finally to Lake Lapcat, a fully-integrated world where there’s no downtime, no level select, just Mario running around an archipelago where everything is a cat. When I played this back in February I had a goofy smile on my face the whole time — it’s such a great little package that demonstrates what a good handle the 3D Mario team has on the character and genre, and if it represents the future of the series, then I couldn’t be happier.

Honorable Mentions

  • Boomerang X: An acrobatic first-person game with a slick visual style and wonderful movement.
  • Slipways: Like 4X games but want something quicker? That’s Slipways.
  • Toree 1/2: A pair of short but sweet 3D platformers.
  • YngletA musical “platformer without platforms.”
  • Monster Hunter Rise: The wirebug changes the whole Monster Hunter experience, just a shame there was so little post-release support.
  • Path of Sacrifice: A great idea that some indie darling is absolutely going to riff on to huge acclaim in a year or two.
  • Cruis’n Blast: What if literally nothing in the world could stop a car.
  • The Ramp: Got me to buy a skateboard.
  • Griftlands: The now-ubiquitous card game roguelike format built over a fantastic, well-realized sci-fi world.

Wildermyth

1. Wildermyth

If you haven’t played Wildermyth, you’re probably thinking the same thing I did before I checked it out: “This looks like a webcomic about gamers from 2004.” Yes, Wildermyth‘s style takes some getting used to. But everyone I’ve successfully convinced to push past it has discovered a deep, well-written narrative experience that allows you to build out compelling characters and see them through trials and adventures, much in the same way as a traditional tabletop roleplaying game.

The structure is such that a little bit of the magic fades when you play enough that you begin to see repeat encounters, and the combat can get a little stale when you’ve figured out the best ways to approach things, but Wildermyth is still unquestionably the best game I played this year. It’s a game where your guys can run afoul of a witch and get cursed with a crow’s head. It’s a game where one of your guys can get turned into a duck and then have another duck fall in love with him and follow him around everywhere. It’s a game where things that have nothing to do with birds happen.

By the end of Wildermyth‘s five narrative campaigns — each of which is by turns funny, surprising, and dramatic — I had truly come to care about my characters. I’ve started writing fiction about them, that’s how much this game has gotten me invested in these randomly-generated paper doll people. Drawing much more on fairy tales and myth than the now-standard Tolkienesque western fantasy world, Wildermyth feels genuinely unique, and its modular structure means that it should be easy for modders to develop new encounters and campaigns.

If you’re at all interested in interactive narrative, you have to play Wildermyth. Trust me, you’ll get past the aesthetic — and you’ll probably become just as attached to your unlikely little band of heroes as I have to mine.

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