Game of the Year, Period, 2021: Wildermyth
The reason Wildermyth is my game of the year is pretty simple: it does nothing I don’t like. It’s beautifully balanced. Tonally, it’s the perfect fantasy adventure game — the stakes feel high, but not stressfully so. Sad things happen, and they feel sad, but the game isn’t trying to make you cry. It’s fun and has a sense of humor, but isn’t weighed down by quippy dialogue or a twee sensibility.
Wildermyth is “a character-driven, procedurally-generated tactical RPG,” which basically means that you start out with a bunch of bland-looking guys (you can change skin color, hair color and style, and pick from a selection of faces) and guide them through a campaign defending fantasy villages from lizard people, creaky bone robots, underground cult creeps, messed up forest animals and cosmic bugs. There are also character-enriching side quests and events along the way. As you progress, your crew finds powerful accessories, cool spiritual weapons, materials to upgrade their gear, and sometimes entities to make pacts with, turning them from little nobodies into the kind of crow-headed, storm-channeling, expert warrior heroes that befit a badass fantasy setting.
The monsters and foes that you’ll fight against are cool-looking, fresh and intriguing, while the country villages you have to protect are comfortingly familiar. The characters’ growth and relationships are seamlessly weaved into the (very satisfying) tactical combat, with mechanics allowing close friends to defend each other, or rivals to try to outdo each other. Characters who die in combat (and they will!) can choose to take an enemy down with them as they die, grant a buff to the remaining party as their final act, or fall back and survive, nonetheless permanently changed by the severity of their wound.
As the campaign goes on, your characters age and eventually retire, passing on their knowledge to a newer party member. You can bring back old characters as legacy recruits or create new ones from scratch, giving future parties different feels. The variations in character builds can often mean that even repeating the same campaign can feel completely different with a new party.
The result is richly fulfilling gameplay that makes me curious to go back again and again. As I play more Wildermyth and see events repeated, rather than feeling like I’m going back over ground I’ve already covered, I feel like a regular returning to my favorite restaurant and ordering at random, content in the knowledge that I like everything on the menu.
Mobile Game of the Year: Rhythm Hive
I wrote about Rhythm Hive earlier in the year. As the game continues to grow and expand, I become more convinced that it’s the best officially licensed pop group mobile game out there. Even with the introductions of leaderboards, pop-up challenges, and daily/weekly/monthly quests, Rhythm Hive is able to maintain the chill fun it had at launch solely by having full songs available to play from the moment you finish the tutorial.
As Fanbyte’s resident ARMY, I can also attest that Rhythm Hive speaks to the true heart of a BTS fan. Songs I desperately wanted them to add (“Pied Piper” and “Airplane Pt. 2”) have been added, while songs I was desperate to stop hearing (“Permission to Dance.” It’s just that one. I can’t stand that song) are mercifully excluded from the app. Since June, I have finally gotten my perfect hits on “Paradise,” but “Dope” on SuperHard 5x continues to elude me.
I appreciate the challenge. I’m not mad. I swear. Don’t believe me? Okay, give me a second. I’ll show you what it’s like when I get mad.
Big Release Game That I Mostly Loved But Couldn’t Beat of the Year: Shin Megami Tensei V
When it comes to atmosphere, Shin Megami Tensei V is unmatched in 2021. Mostly taking place in a wasteland of what was once Tokyo, Shin Megami Tensei V has an appropriately urban density of items, enemies, NPCs and sidequests. Vending machines are full of human junk that you can sell. Adorable little guys scattered around the map called Miman will tell you bits and pieces about human life in Tokyo— they’re charming and cute while also maintaining real poignance. (It’s unclear if they were once humans themselves or if they’ve absorbed human memories of the city.) The soundtrack is exceptionally good, with killer boss battle themes, moody ambient loops, and melancholy darkwave bangers that would make Clan of Xymox nod their heads in approval.
My colleague Steven Strom called Shin Megami Tensei V unforgiving, which may be true if you play on hard. I played on normal, saved frequently, and was conscientious with my skill building and demon fusion. The difficulty was enough of a challenge to keep me engaged yet easy enough for me to still have fun progressing through it. The boss fights were fun, the world was interesting to navigate, and the demon fusion system is a proven recipe for good brain chemicals.
For the first two thirds of the game, Shin Megami Tensei V was my primary game of the year contender, and I had no doubts I would beat it in time to write this list. 60 hours into my playthrough, Shin Megami Tensei V showed me the meaning of “unforgiving” when it decided to throw a long, tedious, unskippable platformer puzzle at me. The puzzle manages to be both easy to figure out and extremely difficult to execute correctly. It was patched to be easier (because everyone hates it), but I can’t get past it even with the patch. (I’m the only person I know who has had this much of a problem with it, probably because I’m the only person I know who refuses to play platformers.)
So why is a game that caused me this much grief still on my GOTY list? I really liked it a lot before that stupid puzzle. I’d probably continue liking it a lot if I was able to get past that stupid puzzle. Which will never happen, so when you beat the game, think of me, okay?
Game That’s Actually from 2014 But Got Really Good Updates This Year of the Year: The Sims 4
Seven years after release, The Sims 4 finally feels like a complete game. There’s maybe no better illustration of how than looking at September’s refresh to the Spa Day game pack. Spa Day was one of the first DLCs released for The Sims 4 — promising big with the introduction of the wellness skill, tools for relaxation, and athleisure to outfit your Sims for Instagrammable hikes up digital canyons. In practice, however, Spa Day offered very little to the overall game experience besides having your Sims start to randomly do yoga if you’d left a mat hanging around.
The DLC’s September 2021 update brought Spa Day to life, incorporating the wellness skill into the broader systems of aspirations, as well as adding long-desired features like manicures. Now, you can have truly insufferable wellness-obsessed Sims with aspirations like “Zen Guru” and “Self-Care Specialist” trying to make everyone drink detox tea. And they can have cool nails!
The whole game feels that way now — things that felt hollow and try-hard at launch have now been fleshed out by updates and DLCs to give Sims richer personalities and more complex worlds. Earlier packs like Vampires and Parenthood have done a lot of heavy lifting, but 2021’s Cottage Living expansion is the MVP as far as I’m concerned. It didn’t just teach me about the hot aesthetic trend of ‘cottagecore,’ — it also has the most satisfying in-game gardening since The Sims 3, with animal interactions leagues more engaging than anything a Sims pets expansion has ever managed. Finally, it (along with January’s Paranormal Stuff pack) rounds out the aesthetic options The Sims 4 provides to feel, for the first time, visually eclectic and rich without having to rely heavily on fan-made custom content.
After my vampire cottagecore adventure, I started a 100 Babies Challenge on stream. I got about halfway through it off-stream, so I logged some pretty serious time. That’s why I can confidently say: The Sims 4 rules.
Game I Tried to Play Even Though I Know for a Fact I Can’t Play First-Person Games Without Feeling Sick of the Year: Mundaun
I wanted to play Mundaun since I read our review of it back in March. I mean, pencil-drawn folk horror inspired by German expressionist cinema? This is exactly my kind of thing. The only thing standing in my way? First-person games give me motion sickness. NEVERTHELESS, I PERSISTED.
I made it through the first night, and wow, that is one beautiful game. The pencil texture gives the whole thing a wonderfully dreamy, intimate quality. I’ve always loved penciled, sketchy art for this reason. Seeing each skritch and scratch gives the art a real sense of subjectivity, which Mundaun embraces wholeheartedly, using mechanics like a handwritten/drawn journal to keep track of your progress. It’s also legitimately scary (those straw guys… I’m making a D: face). The dreamy sketchiness of the art combines with the story (a young man trying to discover the supernatural causes behind his grandfather’s death in a small mountain town) and an eerie soundtrack to create a wonderfully creepy atmosphere.
Mundaun is maybe the most visually arresting “my shit” kind of game I have ever seen… except for the fact that it’s first-person and gave me a horrible headache as a result, so I had to stop playing and lie down. Maybe Mundaun is the game that makes me investigate an actual remedy for this first-person motion sickness that’s plagued me since I was a kid. I really want to finish playing it.
- Dramatical Murder (Game That I Didn’t Play This Year But It’s One of My All-Time Favorites From When I Played An Unofficial Translation And Now It’s Out In English For Real This Year of the Year)
- Slipways (Game to Chill and Play for Hours While I Rewatch All of On Cinema of the Year)
- Arknights (Ongoing Mobile Game About A Very Sick Paramilitary of Catgirls of the Year)
- The Great Ace Attorney Chronicles (Game I Played One Chapter of and Then Went, “Wait, this game is HOW long!? I’ll play this when I’m on vacation I guess” of the Year)
- Monster Hunter Rise (Game I Really Really Enjoyed Combat In But I Don’t Like Multiplayer, So I Fell Off Even Though It Was So Satisfying to Learn Those Weapons of the Year)
- Dyson Sphere Program (Game That I Wanted to Keep Playing Forever to the Point Where It Became A Problem So I Had to Uninstall It of the Year)
- Super Star SM (The Only Game This Year That Featured Song of the Year “Advice” by Taemin and Also I Was On A Leaderboard At One Point of the Year)