Another year, another landslide of problems to try and escape in the world of video games. I won’t go too deep on just how hard 2021 has been. I edited most of our end-of-year pieces by my coworkers. They already did a much better job of encompassing the struggles we each and individually faced over the past 12 months than I’m going to manage by riding their coattails. Instead, I’m trying my best to look to the future. Not because a fresh number actually changes anything, but because I’m someone who doesn’t really see any alternative to putting one foot in front of the other, day after day. Not until things do change, or I put out the next thing — my next article or short story or podcast or video — that does the changing. At least for someone. At least a little bit. That’s all I asked of these games, too. These are the ones that did something for me (be it sparking an idea in my brain, letting me forget my troubles, bringing me closer to friends, or pushing me towards ideas I know I can execute better in my own art). Enjoy!
Guardians of the Galaxy
Huh. I know for a fact that I’m not alone when I say this game was not what I expected. When Guardians of the Galaxy was first unveiled, I tried to play optimistic. My coworkers practically laughed it off the virtual E3 stage while I looked for silver linings. In truth, though, I was just being nice. That first unveiling of the game looked godawful. The final product is very much like that initial presentation. Context makes all the difference in this case, though. The incessant quipping between its star characters takes on a different light when post-mission dialogue explores how much each character is just covering up their insecurities. The script does its damnedest to make each character feel fragile, self-isolating, and desperately in need of their friends to tell them they’re worth a damn. Just like most of us.
Dialogue choices also allow you to shape your perception of Peter Quill (the sole playable protagonist among the Disney team). I personally chose any option that made him a bit more mature — pulling back from the loudmouth hyper-douche penned in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Guardians of the Galaxy slowly but surely (and with much more attention than a two-hour film could provide) validated that choice, as it forces Star-Lord to simply be there for other, grieving people in order to save the cosmos.
Oh, it’s also a very pretty game. Besides with its plot, the Guardians of the Galaxy also pushes the MCU aesthetic aside with wacky, wonderful color all over the place. It treats the psychedelic palettes and writing quirks popularized by Jack Kirby (and Silver Age comics in general) with a thousandfold more respect than the increasingly dead, empty planes of the MCU.
I really respect the hell out of Griftlands. Despite much greater success with Don’t Starve Together and Oxygen Not Included, developer Klei Entertainment took another interesting stab at the roguelike genre. This one uses a two-deck system: one for physical combat and one for trading verbal barbs. It’s often up to you to decide which tactic is more profitable (i.e. less dangerous). The result is a fun little weave of turn-based “Star Wars smuggler with the numbers filed off” simulator that’s not quite like its many, many peers in the genre.
Griftlands further splits itself across three characters’ campaigns — all of which have tremendously different mechanics to juggle and a gentle curve of progression. It’s a comfy blanket with a bit of sarcastic grime. All of which makes for a nicely addictive little ride, if not the most memorable one. Like many Klei games (cough Invisible, Inc. cough) I’d love to see these ideas enhanced in a sequel.
Monster Hunter Rise
I want to like Monster Hunter Rise more than I do. Take that into consideration now that you see it’s still on my Game of the Year list. It’s a testament to just how impeccable mainline Monster Hunter games are at this point that, despite falling off the game painfully hard, it’s still a personal favorite. It is not, however, Monster Hunter World: a prime contender for my absolute favorite game of all time. This one instead introduces high-flying fun in the form of the Wirebug (which is so natural and integral to the cycle of hunter-on-monster violence that I can no longer imagine playing future games without it). The game has received what feels like very light post-release support, coming after the nosebleed highs of MHW, but what’s there was still some of the best fun I’ve had all year.
Inscryption follows in the footsteps of other metatextual horror games (e.g. Doki Doki Literature Club, IMSCARED, the uncle who works for nintendo). Many of these tracks were left by developer Daniel Mullins himself, who also produced Pony Island and The Hex. Inscryption is several games within a game, and often tries to reflect on how we play and think about fiction in general. In that way it’s… not actually that novel. I’ve been playing games in a post-Frog Fractions and Undertale world long enough to expect, or at least recognize, the unexpected. Though I still respect it when done properly. Every “meta” game is someone’s first and they only make an impression when they’re at least a little well-executed.
Inscryption is very well-executed. It’s not just an interesting wrapper for an ARG played out over Discord and Reddit; it’s a damn fine deckbuilding roguelike in a year choked with deckbuilding roguelikes (see above). It’s fourth wall breaking allows it to add an extra layer of “breaking” the game that most in the genre simply won’t allow. Half my fun, in fact, was in finding ways to tear apart any veneer of balance Inscryption laid out. All of which ends in a pretty touching, visually impressive finale. Inscryption is made from many parts but doesn’t just rely on being better than their sum. It makes sure each piece is worth the ride.
Subnautica: Below Zero
This largely combat-free survival game improves on its predecessor (which remains near and dear to my heart) in some pretty key ways. Below Zero has a much deeper narrative, for one. The original’s silent protagonist is replaced with a talkative do-gooder trying to uncover the truth behind her sister’s untimely death. Said sibling just so happened to perish on Planet 4546B, the mostly-ocean world from the first game. There’s a bit more land-based exploration and base-building (mostly dodging giant ice worms on glaciers). But the undersea loop remains intact. You gather resources, build increasingly unique vehicles, and dive ever deeper to uncover new secrets submerged on the planet.
Speaking characters lend Below Zero a lot more heart as you learn to exist on and probe 4546B. My only problem with it, like the first game, is that the story-driven fight to survive eventually ends… The leapfrogging loop of (largely) nonviolent discovery, research, and traversal is unlike most games in the genre. And I have yet to find something that fills the aching empty in my heart left after beating a Subnautica game.
The fact that Hitman, Hitman 2, Hitman 3, and each game’s suite of DLC all exist in a single, mostly smooth package isn’t just an achievement. Sometimes it feels like sorcery. Yet it… works! Shockingly well, too, once you get past the byzantine process of buying all the content. I’m acknowledging that total package — a trilogy of GOTY contenders from each year they came out — as much as Hitman 3 specifically. They’re beautiful, hilarious stealth games with seemingly endless combinations of justifiable murder to enjoy. Now they’re all together in one place.
Metroid Dread literally oozes quiet, confident personality with both its persevering central character and the developers’ gratuitous technical showboating. The camera whips around or stays put depending on which option better expresses “Look what I can do!” Basically, Samus is cool as hell. The game knows it and makes you feel it. Dread is mostly the same sort of 2D Metroid action-exploration you know and possibly love at this point; it’s also the slickest version of that formula we’ve yet seen. Seamlessly swapping between powers, dashes, parries, and swipes at seemingly insurmountable bosses sells the ultra-competent bounty hunter fantasy better than ever. The game only really hits its highest notes at the very end. That’s when it lays down the bumpers, showing enough confidence in the player to use every sci-fi tool with laser precision to tackle some real bastard bosses. Up to that point, though, it’s still a thoroughly enjoyable game of discovery.
Final Fantasy XIV: Endwalker
I haven’t beaten Endwalker, the latest and some say greatest FFXIV expansion, just yet. Torturously long server queues saw to that. But I love what I’ve played so far. More than that, FFXIV itself has been a massively important part of my life this year — a port of call during times thick and thin, light and dark. I spent more time this year exploring the frankly comical amount of side content the MMO has to offer than ever before. I mastered crafting and gathering, Relic weapons, Skysteel tools, and a piano rhythm game that serves as the climax of a post-war restoration storyline. It’s been a… wild ride. More than that, it’s also brought me closer to several of my coworkers who also absolutely adore the game. It follows in the tradition of Monster Hunter and Destiny as something that’s important to me because of the people I play with, not just the fun I have with it.
Great Ace Attorney Chronicles
Capcom was clever to shift Ace Attorney away from its modern-day roots. Mostly set in 1800s England, this is a single, major plot told across two games — with more deeply interconnected characters and events than the one-off trials of Phoenix Wright & Co. It makes the game(s) a unique starting point and a tonal reset. Great Ace Attorney is tremendously dramatic and over-the-top. Just not in the same way as its predecessors. Its cast squashes and stretches with cartoonish emotion, putting various personalities first and foremost. Especially before common sense. But there’s still a serious charge of empathy beneath the skin. The heroes care for each other and battle to the death over against the ultimately horrible circumstances their companions face. Even if those characters are also named “Herlock Sholmes.” It’s silly, satisfying drama that builds to a better crescendo than basically any other visual novel-adjacent series I know.
There’s little I can write about Wildermyth (which is my headcanon overall Fanbyte Game of the Year 2021) that I haven’t already said out loud. It joins Hades (our 2020 GOTY) as the latest “game I begged everyone on staff to play for weeks until they finally did and the loved it.” I didn’t have to fight too hard, though. Not when my good friends LB and merritt picked up the game early enough to also evangelize for it, as well. The magic hasn’t worn off since. Not even as I’ve run dozens more botched and successful campaigns over the year — alone and with friends.
It’s a tactics game. It’s a storytelling engine. In other words, it’s two of my greatest loves in video games blended together with stellar writing and a jaw-dropping readiness to turn the narratives you create on their head. A side quest might transform your favorite archer into an infinitely burning warrior with starshine for hair, betrothed to a mermaid waiting for her lover to retire to the woods one day. You might choose to let one hero permanently perish purely for the sake of roleplaying — which Wildermyth makes feel so narratively correct that you don’t even mind losing a valuable soldier forever.
Do you know how hard that is? For a game to be so characterful, warm, funny, compelling, and dramatic all at the same time that the player will happily work against their own best interests? Wildermyth doesn’t just manage it once, either. It recreates the experience over and over again in a variety of unique storylines and randomly generated conflicts. So much so that my characters, dead and retired and saved into legendary status to appear in future campaigns, stick with me as much as any bespoke creation from Mass Effect, or Life is Strange, or any other lauded plot in the medium. Wildermyth, too, will stay with me for a long time to come.
- Honorable Mention – Ruined King (a.k.a. The Most Bugs I Endured Just to Get Through What’s Otherwise a Shockingly Good Game)
- Honorable Mention – Disco Elysium: The Final Cut (a.k.a. The Game I Want to Replay All the Fucking Time Even Though I Almost Never Replay Games)
- Honorable Mention – XCOM 2: Long War of the Chosen (a.k.a. 2021’s Most Comprehensive Overhaul Mod for One of My Favorite Games Ever)
- Honorable Mention – Fights in Tight Spaces (a.k.a. I Can Only Put So Many Roguelike Deckbuilders on This List and This One Didn’t Quite Make the Cut)
- Honorable Mention – Beast Breaker (a.k.a. Game I Love but Goddamn It’s Kinda Too Long and the Grind in the Final Third is Just a Little Too Much Right Now)
- Honorable Mention – Shin Megami Tensei V (a.k.a. That Great Turn-Based JRPG I Love That’s Still Very Similar to the Other Games in the Series I’ve Played and Love Before)