Trust me, there are other games I play besides Final Fantasy XIV. Still, I’m predictable as hell, but I know what I like. Life isn’t all catgirls and bunny boys, crystals and aether, or calamity and Primals — though many of my favorite games share similar themes.
I think for the past four or five years, my best-of-the-year lists have always had a Persona game in there somewhere, something in the Yakuza lineage, something Final Fantasy-related, and a number of JRPG-adjacent things. This year ain’t no different. I was feasting.
Right now, FFXIV: Endwalker dominates my time for both fun and work given its December release date, coming right at the tail end of the year. It’s undoubtedly my favorite thing this year. It’s also an important milestone for FFXIV and a sort of life event as someone who loves everything about that world. FFXIV quite literally changed my life in more ways than one. You can find me talking about FFXIV any day of the week, however, so I figured I’d speak on the other things that have shaped my year.
From some legit highest of highs (hosting the official E3 2021 live show) to the truly lowest of lows (multiple health crises), 2021 was wild. And I can bookmark where I was and how I felt throughout the year based on the games that captured my attention the most. So, I’ll talk a little bit about them. Here are my top 10 games of 2021 that aren’t FFXIV: Endwalker!
10. NEO: The World Ends With You
It’s a unique feeling to find something special in a game that’s fine, decent, or just good. NEO: The World Ends With You fits right into that mold. There’s a lot I admire about NEO: TWEWY, like its youthful attitude, slick character designs, and distinct personality. I love that after 14 years we got more of a cult classic. And I love that, in both its infectious soundtrack and chaotic combat system, the game is willing to throw convention out the window.
That being said, NEO: TWEWY gets bogged down in a convoluted narrative delivery that’s also limited by its barebones presentation. Cool characters and a strong brand of style can only do so much in this case. The degree to which it relies on the original game is so damn cool for us who still have love for it, but it sometimes overshadows NEO: TWEWY’s own merits. (And please, someone tell me who’s responsible for turning Beat into cringe. I just want to talk…)
Despite all this, I look back on NEO: TWEWY and am glad it exists. It’s also the last game I reviewed at GameSpot before I left to join Fanbyte, so it holds a lil extra sentimental value — especially for a story that asks the question: What good is a place you love without the people who matter most? NEO: TWEWY is a cool-ass game and it still brings the heat.
9. Halo Infinite
Halo Infinite is great because it makes me feel young again. As I get older, I find it harder to capture the magic of having dumb fun in a competitive multiplayer shooter without coming away frustrated or feeling like I’m wasting my time. Well, I mean, the progression system really puts that notion to the test… I’ve played so much damn multiplayer that it’s like the campaign is nothing but a value add — and I’m very much enjoying it in the early hours, open-world conventions be damned.
There’s a specific muscle memory and language to Halo that’s so distinct and ingrained in us who have played these games over the last two decades. Halo Infinite just has it. It’s the same Halo we’ve always loved playing, yet it recaptures the magic like an all-new experience. That’s a dope feeling. Oh, and I love playing with my coworker and friend Nicholas Grayson because they are toxic and I’m a hacker. It’s great! And it’s true, watch the tape! Catch us pulling up to the combination Pizza Hut and Taco Bell in a Scorpion tank because Halo Infinite brings the heat.
8. Scarlet Nexus
I had plenty of reasons to clown on Scarlet Nexus, specifically from a storytelling perspective. But goddamn does this game have something special in its combat system. Gameplay is the star of the show here. You kinda get the impression that it’s going for Platinum-esque stylish action, but Scarlet Nexus gradually creates an identity all its own as you build up a wild arsenal of psychokinetic abilities and learn how to string them together. Then you get party members who provide support and alter your abilities. The environment often factors into your toolset; I think this is the only game where you can hop on top of a bus (without people inside), drive it with your mind, and blow that shit up on a gang of monsters. I shit you not, there are actually-fun QTE mechanics, too (I generally enjoy violently sandwiching enemies with two vending machines).
I really hope Bandai Namco follows up on Scarlet Nexus in some way. Finally, one of the publisher’s games does something much better than most. They’ve pumped out games with an anime veneer to cater to a certain crowd (me) for a long time, but most of them have come out aggressively okay. So, I’m happy to say Scarlet Nexus brings the heat.
7. Hitman 3
Agent 47 is a shining example of using white privilege for the greater good. Here’s a bald white man who can pass as anyone without a single person in a crowd batting an eye (unless he does something stupid like strangle an innocent bystander). And he does so to rid the world of evil rich people.
I have a long history with stealth-action games and the Hitman series specifically. The tension of navigating a hostile space, jumping from one disguise to another, and overcoming a comedy of errors to pull off the most ridiculous and miraculous assassinations — it’s a unique thrill. The formula established with the 2016 Hitman reboot gave a platform to the franchise’s style of bullshit, and I just keep wanting more, like Hitman 3 provides. It’s a series of sandboxes with multiple variables running like clockwork. Disrupting them with all your tools and antics is just brilliant.
Hitman 3 has a roster of its own great levels, like a fancy Argentinian vineyard (where you can crush a target with a grape compressor) and the rain-soaked streets of Chongqing (where you can trick a rich tech nerd into frying his brain). Its set of challenges and Escalation missions, along with the permutations of assassinations, makes Hitman worth playing over and over again. Hitman 3 brings the heat.
6. Lost Judgment
Games in the Yakuza lineage pretty much come out every year. Yet to this day, they do not miss. RGG Studio are masters in storytelling and creating captivating personalities for their characters. They always leverage earnest melodrama and absurdist humor in ways that only they can pull off. Having experienced the full pantheon of Yakuza games, I’m stunned at how interconnected they all are. Not to mention how, time and again, each game makes cities of Japan as much a character as anyone in its cast.
That being said, Lost Judgment might be the hardest RGG game to come around on. It’s ambitious in its storytelling but I’m not sure it was equipped to make its themes come together in the end. It still ranking high on my best of 2021 list speaks to how strong the Yakuzaverse has become.
Lost Judgment is bold in its focus on high school bullying; it isn’t shy about explicitly showing the horrors involved. It’s brutal and honest, and that deserves to be commended. However, it kind of fumbles its message about justice and institutions, even if it makes salient points about law enforcement along the way. On the flipside, playing as Takayuki Yagami (who’s great at being the dead serious detective) makes its robust roster of silly minigames funny as hell and fun as hell. Being a club advisor at the very school you’re investigating is just the right kind of RGG bullshit I love. (You should read my Lost Judgment review, it also brings the heat.)
Honorable mentions that also bring the heat and would probably make my list if I spent enough time with them: Tales of Arise, Psychonauts 2, Forza Horizon 5, Melty Blood: Type Lumina, Guilty Gear Strive, The Forgotten City
5. Shin Megami Tensei V
Dawg, Shin Megami Tensei V fucking owns. If you caught me live on the E3 2021 stage (light flex) sweaty and losing my shit at the SMTV news from the show, you’d know. And it’s a great feeling to see it live up to the hype. I just love a good game that gives me Persona vibes…
Although SMT spawned what became Persona and both share the same gameplay DNA, SMT has a strong identity of its own. SMTV is a prime example with its dark and brooding atmosphere, theological multiverse, and badass attitude. Storytelling takes a backseat, but the imaginative apocalypse and decision to talk less and fight more is integral to its personality.
This is top-tier turn-based JRPG stuff with punishing fights that test your mastery of the tried-and-true SMT combat system. You get caught slippin’ and ya done, son. Combined with a fire ass metal / hardcore / electronic soundtrack and some sick, sick demon designs, Atlus has a major W I can see all the way from here.
It’s slow in its opening hours and you can see some of the limitations of adhering to the SMTs of yore. But my main takeaway as a big SMT fan is that I love seeing a new series entry as a major console release and have it take on modern sensibilities without losing its way, faults and all. Attacking and dethroning god multiple times in one game rarely gets better than this. SMTV undoubtedly brings the heat. (Nuwa, please call me.)
4. Deltarune Chapter 2
There’s something about the Undertale / Deltarune universe that breaks me down into an emotional mess. In short bursts, Toby Fox captures such a genuine mix of comedy, horror, joy, and introspection with cryptic storytelling and an unmistakable charm. Especially under the guise of retro-style RPGs, they contain almost everything I can possibly love about video games. You can imagine how I felt with the surprise announcement and release of Deltarune Chapter 2 this year.
Chapter 2 speaks to how Deltarune will be a multi-part, long-term project full of plot twists and revelations. It still exists in the Undertale framework, but it takes an ambitious direction that could pay off in ways other series can’t. First off, when you boot it up, the main menu is laid out for SEVEN WHOLE ASS CHAPTERS of Deltarune. Like, damn. Chapter 2 also sets a new tone, both making Chapter 1’s purpose clearer while still prompting as many new questions as answers.
Toby Fox has a team on this one, and you can see the result of this in the heightened production values. Your first impression of Cyber City is a vivid skyline, the battle scenery evolves throughout the game, and its combat system cleverly shifts to fit enemy personalities. Its writing and use of pixel art alone express so much. And like all of my favorite games, Undertale included, Deltarune is also a story told through music with leitmotifs, melodies to match the emotion, and impressive instrumentation atop the chiptune foundation. (Shouts out to Lena Raine who helped on the soundtrack!)
As if I had any doubt that Deltarune Chapter 2 would bring the heat.
3. Chicory: A Colorful Tale
Chicory: A Colorful Tale is beautiful in more ways than one. Constantly controlling a paintbrush to color in the world around you is such a smart design philosophy. It’s your all-in-one tool to solve the clever puzzles along the way, but it quite literally influences how you perceive your surroundings. Everyone’s world in Chicory is going to look different based on the colors you use to leisurely paint the environment (if you bother doing so at all). It lets you set a mood. Think of it like if a classic Zelda game was a coloring book and a lot less treacherous.
But Chicory is much more than that. It’s a game that speaks to us about aspirations and supposed dreams — and how becoming what you always wanted to be isn’t always fulfilling, at least not on its own. The path to achieving your goals can be self-destructive. You’ll struggle with imposter syndrome or doubt your ability to do the thing people say you’re good at. Ambition and success aren’t always enough to sustain us. That can take a toll on our mental health if we’re not careful.
Despite the hardships, Chicory is like a cozy blanket. The comforting sights and sounds invite us to be vulnerable. The lovely, catchy soundtrack embodies this (shouts out to Lena Raine, again). Chicory tells us we can come to terms with the fact that we won’t make everyone happy, and also not to base our self-worth on others’ perceptions. It also understands that it’s easier said than done. I will literally play Chicory instead of going to therapy, and for that, Chicory brings the heat.
2. Persona 5 Strikers
I’m still shook by Persona 5 Strikers. While it’s very much a spinoff for the Phantom Thieves to go on summer vacation, in many ways, it’s also a proper sequel to Persona 5.
Developed by Koei Tecmo and Omega Force, in conjunction with Atlus, Strikers’s initial impression was that of a Dynasty Warriors-style action RPG with Persona elements in the mix. But it’s a hell of a lot more than that. Strikers plays like a sensible evolution of the SMT/Persona turn-based combat system, adapting the core principles that make their gameplay stand out while seamlessly weaving them into fast, frenetic, and satisfying action. Sometimes it feels like a more accurate representation of what fighting as a Phantom Thief would be like.
Persona 5 Strikers doesn’t necessarily have the same emotional highs of the original game, but it doesn’t have to. Being with this crew again and kicking ass in a fashion only they can pull off would have been enough for me. Yet we get a great newcomer in Zenkichi who provides an adult perspective and a necessary lens to view the failings of law enforcement. And then we get downtime between dungeons, which make for wonderful moments of respite across a number of Japan’s iconic destinations. We’ve been through so much together; we deserve to enjoy life even as we fight another evil using alternate dimensions to prey on society.
Persona 5’s style has an unmistakable attitude, and Strikers further elevates it. That’s also a testament the soundtrack, which features some fast, punk-metal renditions of Persona 5’s best songs and all-new Strikers-exclusive tracks. These all fit perfectly into the pantheon of Persona’s iconic tunes. I won’t sleep on the incredible, groovy title screen theme song and the comforting track for our trip to Okinawa. If there was one game this year that defined bringing the heat, it’s Persona 5 Strikers.
1. NieR Replicant
Sometimes I find it hard to think about and reflect on NieR (whether it be Automata or Replicant). Even as these games go for the big philosophical statements about the human condition, it’s the intimate character moments paired with effortlessly evocative soundtracks that absolutely wreck me. And that’s what NieR Replicant does best.
As I think more about life, death, and whatever the hell it is I’m doing here, games like NieR Replicant provide a sobering lens to view tragedy and trauma. From the strength we exhibit to confront and overcome those things to the mistakes we often make in doing so, NieR Replicant’s story and characterizations represent our humanity in ways few games can.
Although it features significant overhauls from its original 2010 release, NieR Replicant is very much a faithful remake, for better and for worse. The combat system and visuals have been rightfully modernized. New, important story chapters bring on crucial perspectives. It’s structured the same, however, flaws and all. But in the repetitive nature of seeing the full picture with its multiple “endings,” NieR Replicant lets its story come full circle unlike anything else in games.
Both Kainé and Emil, who couldn’t be any more different in their attitudes, are characters I’ll never forget for the bonds they form and strength they exhibit to come to terms with their trauma. They also represent complicated relationships with their own bodies with genuinely heartfelt and heartbreaking stories. In this game’s best moments, they’re both shining examples of NieR‘s ability to build powerful, yet imperfect personalities. And I swear I can’t listen to their theme songs without breaking down in tears.
If NieR Automata was about finding humanity in a world devoid of it, NieR Replicant is about desperately clinging onto whatever humanity you have left and sometimes failing to do so. And if Yoko Taro didn’t mean to make NieR sad, I’d say he failed miserably and helped create something unforgettable that hit different in the year of our lord 2021. Thus, NieR Replicant certainly brings the heat.