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

Bathe in the glory of these choices, that they may send you to the promised land.

Have I been at Fanbyte long enough to do one of these? It was a tumultuous year for me professionally, and that’s extended into the games that I had a chance to play. I went from reviewing most of the biggest games at USgamer to leaning toward hardware and apps at PCMag, before going all-in on Final Fantasy XIV here at Fanbyte.

Whatever. That’s all a personal preamble that you probably don’t care about because you don’t know me. Without further ado, here’s the top 10 games I played this year.

Death Stranding Director’s Cut

I tend to not like Hideo Kojima’s general narrative vibe, but I love delivering shit. This is a great delivery game made better by the additions in Director’s Cut. Honestly, the only problem with this version of the game is it’s currently PS5-only.

Old World

This 4X strategy game comes from Civilization IV lead designer Soren Johnson. In a year with some stronger strategy titles like Age of Empires IV and Humankind, I’m going to give this game the shout-out. It sits somewhere in-between the empire-expanding of Civilization and the dynasty building of Crusader Kings.

I find the strength of Old World is navigating the relationships of the city rulers and nobility, while also building an expansive empire. The real magic is it’s not as complex as Crusader Kings and even sands off some of the rough edges of Civilization. The ability to step back a turn and undo a mistake is one of the best additions ever, to be perfectly honest.

Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart

I’m sure Psychonauts 2 would probably have taken this spot on my list, but I haven’t played Psychonauts 2. Insomniac Games are masters at their craft. It’s such a wonderful title, but there’s also not much to differentiate itself from what came before. Look, this is just a very good, beautiful 3D platformer and action game and I think that’s something that should be applauded.

Chernobylite

In the wake of the cult-classic game Stalker, there have been a few Stalker-likes. These games are nominally first-person shooters with a strong survival aspect to them, generally set after some horrible catastrophe in Russia or Eastern Europe. (Is it still Stalker-inspired if it takes place elsewhere? Roadside Picnic, the novel that inspired the movie Stalker, which inspired the game S.T.A.L.K.E.R., takes place somewhere in North America…)

Chernobylite is a game that sticks closely to that formula, with developer The Farm 51 actually scanning in the real Chernobyl’s Exclusion Zone to create its map. In this sci-fi horror romp, you head into the zone to find out what happened to your fiancé. Inside, you find not just radiation but wild anomalies, time-twisting areas, and mutated creatures. To make your final push into the power plant, you need to scrounge for supplies, fortify your base, and survive. It’s such a fun survival experience that you should pick up if you’re waiting for Stalker 2.

Record of Lodoss War – Deedlit in Wonder Labyrinth

One thing I love about indie games is the way they revisit classic styles of gameplay that larger developers have left behind. Case in point, Deedlit in Wonder Labyrinth is literally just Castlevania: Symphony of the Night. It plays similar, and Deedlit even shares animations with Alucard (like the trail of ghost images behind her as she moves or her quick back-dash). It’s not like Konami is making new Castlevania games and developer Team Ladybug understands how Metroidvanias works. They even added their own mechanics, like Deedlit’s bow and hovering capabilities. If you’re hungry for this style of game, it’s one of the best you can find.

Pathfinder: Wrath of the Righteous

This is an RPG that I feel has slipped through the cracks a bit. Larian Studios, the folks behind the exquisite Divinity: Original Sin 2, are currently working on Baldur’s Gate 3. The early access title is shaping up to be something great, but for fans of the original Baldur’s Gate or Baldur’s Gate 2, it feels like a different game.

If that’s a problem you have with Baldur’s Gate 3, Pathfinder: Wrath of the Righteous is the game for you. It’s based on the Pathfinder pen-and-paper game, which itself is a modified version of this revised 3rd Edition Dungeons & Dragons ruleset. It’s also the sequel to the underrated Pathfinder: Kingmaker and developer Owlcat Games has learned a lot in the intervening years. What you get here is a lengthy RPG experience with a host of companions, 25 classes, and a grand world to explore, all presented in the familiar overhead style of the old Infinity Engine games. If that calls to you, this is the game you need to pick up during the Steam Winter sale.

Super Mario 3D World + Bowser’s Fury

I’m a big fan of open-world games. I love being presented with a vast expanse to explore with few guardrails to protect me. I even vibe with the slow, methodical “take out X bases” gameplay of some of the standard-bearers of the genre.

I’m not a huge fan of Super Mario 3D World. I didn’t like the original because it was too slow; I prefer the faster Mario titles like Super Mario Galaxy. They sped it up for the re-release, but that only slightly fixes my issues. However, Bowser’s Fury is an interesting experiment they’ve tacked onto the game. It’s clearly Nintendo trying out an open-world Mario game, as a fusion of what came before and a more modern style of game. It’s such a fun playground and the ever-present looming threat of Bowser keeps you focused. Bowser’s Fury is an add-on that begs to be a full-fledged Mario game in its own right.

Forza Horizon 5's Guanajuato
Guanajuato is a colorful city with tight, narrow streets.

Forza Horizon 5

Likewise, Playground Games isn’t reinventing itself with Forza Horizon 5. This entire series came fully-formed with its first entry and has only built upon that foundation since then. The fifth entry wins over the last with a much better locale, Mexico, which lends it such a bright, vibrant vibe compared to the more subdued United Kingdom of Forza Horizon 4. It’s the best racing game ever and if you have Xbox Game Pass, it’s included. Go play it.

FFXIV Paladin Zenos
Now you’re almost ready to tank Zenos!

Final Fantasy XIV: Endwalker

Look, I’m getting this out of the way. I’m here at Fanbyte primarily to cover all things FFXIV. Since its relaunch in 2013 as A Realm Reborn, the MMO has gone from strength to strength. The team behind it at Square Enix knows exactly what it’s good at and delivers on it consistently. Amazing dungeon encounters for players of all levels, a host of glamour so you can dress up your characters the way you want, and an excellent story that puts it on top of the list of the best Final Fantasy games of all time.

The Endwalker expansion is no different and it’s a wonderful coda to the story that’s been told since A Realm Reborn. You can’t get into the game now because of issues, but once you can, you should take a gander at what Square Enix has built here.

Hitman 3

Agent 47 returns in the final entry in the World of Assassination trilogy. Hitman 3 is the culmination of everything IO Interactive has done with Hitman: Season One and Hitman 2, offering you so many ways to disguise yourself and have hilarious fun murdering a target. Sabotage a man’s parachute so he voluntarily jumps off the world’s tallest building to his doom, use an exploding golf ball to keep your target from reaching par, or simply let someone’s beloved family member kill them instead. In a year where everything continued to go wrong, there are exceedingly few pure joys like murdering horrible rich folks in the weirdest, most comedic way possible. That’s what Hitman 3 brings to the table.

Hitman has always been a dark comedy and Hitman 3 not only ups the ante, but you can play all the Hitman and Hitman 2 levels inside of this game. Now if IO interactive would remaster some of the old Hitman: Blood Money levels for this game, that’d be the perfect crime. ”

The Best of the Not Games

Look, I’m using my space to shout out the great non-games stuff I enjoyed this year as well. You can’t stop me, especially since you’re already down here.

Manga: Kaiju No. 8

Kafka Hibino is a janitor. Well, he’s a janitor that cleans up after kaiju attacks, so it’s slightly more glamorous. Regardless: Kafka is a 30-year old washout, who wanted to become a member of the Japanese Defense Force, but has absolutely no aptitude for it. His childhood friend Mina Ashiro is sadly the best of the best. That all changes when Kafka comes in contact with an odd object while cleaning up a kaiju corpse. The result turns him into a Kaiju himself. Now he has to navigate a world where he needs to fight Kaiju, while also not being killed by his best friend and the rest of the Defense Force.

Movies: Space Sweepers

I admit, I didn’t watch the Netflix adaptation of Cowboy Bebop because it didn’t look like it was for me. (I also didn’t have much in the way of ire for it, because… it’s an adaptation. It’s fine. It doesn’t hurt the original.) If you were looking for something a bit closer to the Cowboy Bebop anime though, why not take a look at Space Sweepers? This Korean sci-fi film is also available on Netflix, telling the story of a junk-hauling ship that finds a seven-year-old girl inside its latest haul. Unfortunately for them, she’s a humanoid robot that very powerful people are looking for.

It’s a fun vision of the future with some great characters and visuals, which moves along at a brisk pace. And what’s more Bebop than a crew of stylish ne’er-do-wells just trying to get by in a harsh future?

Television/Anime: Horimiya

Kyoko Hori is a popular, upbeat high school student who only lets her anger and more relaxed side show at home. Izumi Miyamura is a quiet, gloomy glasses-wearing student who is actually a bit of a wild boy in his off-hours with hidden piercings and tattoos. When the pair find out their respective secrets, shenanigans ensue.

Horimiya works because it’s not just about the premise or a will-they-won’t-they romance. The pair actually become a couple pretty quickly and then it’s about their lives as high school kids and the lives of their fellow classmates. Horimiya is a funny show, but also very warm and realistic at the same time. It’s just an absolutely lovely romantic comedy.

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