Game of the Year 2021

2021 is coming to a close, so it’s a good time to reflect on some of the best games of the year. I’ve really enjoyed this year in games. We’ve had plenty of delays, with some big games moving into 2022 due to Covid and other things, but 2021 has been full of great games, and today I’m going to run down some of the best.

Let’s dive in with my top ten games of the year for 2021.

10 Monster Hunter Rise

At number 10 I have Monster Hunter Rise, the first Monster Hunter properly developed for Nintendo Switch, and it was the game I played the most on Switch this year.

Monster Hunter Rise is the latest addition to the Monster Hunter family, which exploded in popularity since the release of Monster Hunter World back in 2018. Monster Hunter fans would protest saying this was a hugely popular franchise long before World and Iceborn were even thought of, but Monster Hunter World took it to new levels in the West. Monster Hunter Rise does a great job as a follow-up and now has the added bonus of being able to play it on the go, on the sofa or in bed on Nintendo Switch.

There are loads of monsters to fight, 14 weapons to learn, palamutes to train and a village to save… there’s potential in here for many, many hours lost in hunts. One big drawback of Monster Hunter games in the past is new players’ ability to get into the games. There are so many systems, characters, terminology to learn that it all can be a little overwhelming. The Monster battles aren’t a walk in the park either and sometimes you can be banging your head against a brick wall trying to defeat a monster for 50 minutes, only to fall on your final life and have to do it all over again. Monster Hunter Rise does a good job of adding plenty of quality-of-life updates, and although the game isn’t quite as stunning as Monster Hunter World, it’s still a very good-looking game.

The package of improvements here in Rise can’t be understated in terms of how they affect gameplay – speed being the main impact. Getting into and out of battle, using the fantastic new wirebug to jump into battle, and then mount monsters to use them as weapons, all adds up to a much more fun experience. I’ve not spent as much time as I would have liked with Monster Hunter World and other games in the franchise, however, Monster Hunter Rise feels instantly better, more satisfying, and fun. There are still hurdles to overcome for newcomers like understanding the nuance of the weapons, learning about armor and crafting plus overcoming the difficulty of the hunts themselves. Capcom appears to have lowered the barriers to entry earlier in the game to get you into the action, then there’s enough detail to keep you around and then hook you to come back for more.

Looking back at 2021, Monster Hunter Rise was my most played game in terms of hours on Nintendo Switch, and I’m looking forward to their expansion in 2022.

9 Inscryption

At number 9 I have Inscryption. Inscryption is full of surprises, and things keep getting weirder as you play. At the heart of the game is a card game with animals on them, each animal has points, defense, and other attributes and it’s your job to inflict enough damage on your opponent before they do the same to you. Lose more than twice, and you’ll get strangled.

The card game itself is fairly simple, but also very tactical. You have a couple of cards in your hand when you start, and you have to place them down at a cost of blood or bones. To place down better cards you will likely have to sacrifice weaker cards, but this cost brings greater attacking benefits, and ultimately you want to inflict enough damage on your opponent. For each attack damage point, a small weight will be placed on the scales, and it’s your job to tip the scales entirely in your favor and take down your opponent.

Inscryption is a surprising game, with twists and turns not only in the plot but also in the gameplay and mechanics. Things start out as a simple creepy card game but buckle up as things get super strange. It’s one of a number of stands out indie hits in 2021, and definitely something you should seek out to play before the end of the year as I have a feeling this is going to be on a few games of the year lists in the next few weeks.

8 Forza Horizon 5

At number 8 it’s Forza Horizon 5. I dabbled in 4, but 5 really blew me away this year and further cemented the value of Xbox Game Pass.

If you are new to the Forza Horizon series then you have plenty of game modes to get your teeth into. Forza Horizon has so much content (maybe too much content?), but a good place to start is the Festival Playlist. Here’s what you’ll place as your created character, where you’ll collect cars, explore the map, take on different races and challenges plus the great co-op Trial. There are seasonal championships and weekly challenges too to keep you coming back time after time. Each week a different car is in focus, plus you have more casual challenges and other online features too.

Mexico always makes for a great setting. The map is large, with varied biomes. The weather can change throughout the seasons as in the previous iterations for Forza Horizon, making for hazardous driving conditions. There’s some really bombastic stuff going on here as your car gets dropped into a volcano, followed by massive ramped jumps… it’s pretty spectacular stuff. All the while the music does a great job of keeping the pace and excitement up, combined with the fast-paced racing action. As well as the beautiful scenery, the game does a reasonable job of telling a story through its Mexican characters. Sometimes it does feel like one massive ad for the country of Mexico, but when it looks and sounds this good, I think I’m sold. Given it’s Mexico, then the weather isn’t quite as wild as it is here in the UK, thankfully the sun is out much more often making the driving conditions much better.

Forza Horizon 5 is one of the most accomplished and entertaining driving games I’ve ever played. This is the open-world racing game that you could quite easily sink hundreds of hours into, and you could easily play this game to the end of the year and still not be bored with it. The graphics and performance are fantastic and the pumping music combined with the pace of the racing keeps your heart pumping throughout the play sessions. It’s not the massive leap forward that Forizon Horizon 4 was, but it’s probably the best racing game out there right now. Plus it’s on Xbox Game Pass, so there are no excuses not to play.

7 Pyschonauts 2

At 7 it’s Pyschonauts 2. I didn’t play the first one, but it was easy to jump right into number 2. We pick things up a day after the story from Rhombus of Ruin, with Razputin Aquato arriving at The Motherlobe, the headquarters of the special Spy organization known as The Psychonauts. Raz thinks he’s made it, only to find he’s simply an intern. Given his new title, he’s got a whole lot more to learn before he becomes a fully-fledged Psychonaut, and he has to start at the bottom, in the mailroom. Things quickly escalate as you jump from environment to environment whether you are inside someone’s head or outside The Motherlobe exploring the wooded areas nearby.

The highlight for me in the game is when you dive into people’s brains and personalities. This is where the environment design, writing, and gameplay mechanics really shine and allow Doublefine to flex its game developer skills. You don’t go diving into every brain or everyone you meet, only the major characters who seem to be especially troubled, and early on this means a few of the Psychonauts themselves. These environments reflect the personalities of the characters themselves. For example, the first mind we jump into is that of a Dentist character and therefore the world is filled with teeth, gums, and other areas. Be wary of this level too because if you are scared of going to the dentist this isn’t going to make you feel any better about the experience. The levels are very creative, and the platforming really comes alive.

Psychonauts 2 is an excellent demonstration of writing, gameplay, and level design that all come together very well in this package. This is a great demonstration of what Microsoft has bought in Doublefine, a company that delivers very high-standard video games that helps to bolster the library for Xbox Game Pass. I was surprised at the game. I went in with fairly low expectations and was blown away at every turn. I shouldn’t be surprised though really, given Day of the Tentacle is one of my favorite games of all time. This latest effort from Tim Schafer and team is well worth playing. Given it’s on Game Pass I am sure many of you have access to it, but I would go out of your way to play this sequel to Psychonauts, even if you have played the original. Perhaps especially if you haven’t played the original… it’s a delightful game that will entertain you with its story and gameplay in equal measures.

6 Before Your Eyes

At 6 it’s Before Your Eyes, it’s the game that really got me this year, tugging away on my heartstrings. Before Your Eyes is a narrative adventure with a difference, instead of using the mouse or a controller, you blink to control the game. The mechanic is more than just a novelty in a powerful narrative game that will take you on a rollercoaster of emotions. Much of the game is a lean-back style and watch the narrative play out, however, when you blink time will jump forward. Maybe it’ll be a day or a week or even years forward.

The game requires a webcam to be set up to register the blinks, but this is easy to do and works surprisingly well. If playing with the webcam doesn’t sound like it’s for you, then there’s good news because it can be played with traditional input methods like a mouse and keyboard. Before Your Eyes is a really well-put-together game that innovates in its controls and tells a very touching, personal story throughout the narrative. It’s not too long, it’s a very memorable experience and a unique little gem that’s worth checking out.

5 Death’s Door

At 5 it’s Death’s Door. Death’s Door is an isometric Zelda-like with elements of the Souls genre, plus there are plenty of secrets to discover too. It’s come out of the blocks at a furious pace, and it’s definitely something you should check out on PC or Xbox.

You play as a small Crow in Death’s Door, working for the Reaper Commission by harvesting the souls of the living. Unfortunately, you’ve been sent on a task to collect a particular Soul, and then it’s stolen from you. You are led into the Undying Realm on a hunt to retrieve the stolen Soul and reach Death’s Door. To unlock the famous Death’s Door you’ll need three powerful Souls, and therein starts the adventure.

The boss fights in Death’s door are a lot of fun and often play with the scale of our tiny crow friend. For example, in the first hour or so you’ll face off against a massive boss protecting the end of one puzzle area. Attacks are fairly slow and methodical at first, and you have to run in there and get a timely thwack in, before retreating quickly to jump out of the way of impending attacks from the Giant. Lasers then stream from the huge beast’s eyes, and you have to simply run out of the way of its death stare. As you progress through the game the bosses get harder and incrementally more inventive than the last. It’s not quite Dark Souls, but it’s no walk in the park either.

Death’s Door is a great package. The controls are tight, the gameplay is fun and varied plus the game looks & sounds great too. The puzzles work very well and strike a good balance of difficulty, the only real drawback of the game is the incentive to go back and play it again due to the lack of variety of loot. Otherwise, this is something you should play. Normally I’d say this was a perfect Switch game, but not I guess we can say this one will work great on the Steam Deck.

4 Returnal

There’s a decent mix of genres in Returnal. One minute you are exploring and platforming, the next minute you’re in a bullet-hell style battle with an enemy with tentacles thrashing about threatening instant death. There’s the infinite loop of the rogue-lite genre, which many more will be familiar with since Hades broke through in 2020. Returnal has layers and you have to dig pretty deep and work hard with your skill and time to find out everything that this game has to offer.

Returnal is a rogue-lite by design, as when you die you are sent back to the very start of the game and then the world reconfigures itself in front of you. You’ll get to keep a few select items when you die, but on the main, you lose everything and start from scratch. It’s not for the faint-hearted that’s for sure. As well as the rogue-lite elements, it’s also a Metroidvania where you have to explore a map and find power-ups after defeating bosses to help you get to new areas of the map. There’s a little more than a dash of Metroid in here, as well as the genre description with a female protagonist inside a spacesuit wielding an array of weapons. It’s almost what you would have got if From Software got their hands on a Nintendo IP, which is meant as a massive compliment to Housemarque.

Returnal is probably at its most challenging during the combat sequences. It’s hard to pin down, it feels new, but it’s a combination of bullet-hell and 3rd person shooters. Selene has rapid movement, and it feels good to run, jump and dash. You’re going to need all these skills plus precision reflexes to last more than a few minutes in the world of Returnal. Together with Selene’s skills, there’s an array of weapons from sidearms, to alien weapons like Carbines, Shotguns, and much more. All can be fired by aiming with the left trigger and firing with the right, but the adaptive triggers come into play with the alternate firing mode by partially holding down the left trigger. This can be a little tricky, to begin with, but becomes second nature quite quickly. The array of guns are impressive, as are the secondary fire modes that often fire off projectiles, lightning, or miniature bombs to kill whatever monster with huge tentacles happens to be in your way at the time.

Returnal is an endurance test of a video game. In the early hours, you are in discovery mode, learning about the planet, the monsters, the attack patterns, and staring in wonder at most things in the game. As time goes on the game becomes more and more punishing and it’ll take a particular type of player to want to jump back in time and time again. If you like this style of game, or if any of the above sounds like it’s for you then I would fully recommend Returnal. It’s truly a next-generation game and shows off the wide array that the PS5 can do. I like that Sony is investing in this type of game – it’s tough, it’s different and it’ll make you laugh with delight and cry with loss. I don’t know if I am that type of player to want to jump back in time and time again, but I’m impressed with what Housemarque has produced and if you have access to a PlayStation 5 then I’d recommend checking it out.

3 It Takes Two

At 3 I have It Takes Two. This is a co-op game where you play as the soon-to-be-divorced pairing of Cody and May. Much like the plot of an 80s Disney movie, they have been turned into toys, and they have to reach their daughter to figure out how to turn back into humans.

There are so many ideas in here and they come at you with a frantic pace. One minute you’ll be chasing around spark plugs with legs and fighting a giant hoover, then next you’ll be fighting a squirrel. The game manages to switch between gameplay styles from platformer, puzzler, sometimes beat ’em up, and dungeon crawler, all very seamlessly and with confidence and ease. The different gameplay styles don’t feel crowbarred in, it feels organic and well placed, but aware of making the player’s time more entertaining.

The core gameplay mechanics feel great too. Cody and May have the basics, they can jump, double jump, dash, and duck. They are responsive and the movements are funny in themselves too, for example when you hold down the left stick and run fast, somehow even that is entertaining too. As well as the basics, the characters have abilities that change from level to level. Cody and May’s abilities complement one another too, often working in tandem so you can navigate the environments or battles enemies. The game eases you in with a simple tutorial, then slowly ramps up the difficulty.

It Takes Two is an ambitious co-op puzzle platformer that’s so well executed, it makes you sit up and take notice regarding what Hazelight Studios are doing. Here they have crafted a wonderful game in terms of gameplay and constantly changing and evolving mechanics, without it feeling forced or complicated. It’s a touching story and a highly memorable game, and if you haven’t played it then you really should. I’d recommend playing with a loved one, be that a partner, kid or parent, it’ll be a great experience you can look back on together.

2 Halo Infinite

At 2 it’s Halo Infinite. Both the multiplayer and campaign are very good fun, and one of the best surprises of the year was the early release of the multiplayer mode, after the successful test flights. Since there has been a backlash due to the lack of multiplayer modes, however, 343 are working hard to push new modes out, like they have done this week.

Halo Infinite’s campaign manages to navigate the legacy of great Halo games while pushing the series forward introducing the open world. It has a strong opening third, albeit a little stodgy in the middle, building up to a great finish. 343 had to make a few trade-offs with the introduction of the open-world, which includes less tailored classic campaign moments, plus co-op isn’t there at the start, however, this is balanced out by the sheer amount of freedom that Halo Infinite offers. It’s a solid entry to the series, although I wouldn’t put it right at the top.

Halo Infinite does well with offering you a sense of freedom in your gameplay, which has been lacking since the Bungie era of Halo games. Given the open nature of Zeta Halo, you have much less of the scripted corridor battles, and they are replaced with skirmishes out there in the wild. One aspect of Halo Infinite I have enjoyed when compared to something like Destiny 2, rather than have a single or loadout of guns and keep using them, I do like the need to finish up enemies and pick up their weapons to use against other enemies. This means I don’t get too attached to my shotgun, or BR, I am having to use the full array of weapons in the game, and this offers variety and the sense that you have to use anything and everything to survive. If I had the choice I probably wouldn’t use the Carbine, but seeing as my AR ran out of bullets, I am going to have to.

It was always going to be a tall order for 343 to create a winner with Halo Infinite. The game was delayed by a year, missing the Xbox Series X launch, although they shipped in the Halo Infinite branded boxes, all the same, demonstrating how close of a decision this was. I think it was a good decision because we have a polished, high-quality Halo game. Its unfortunate co-op is missing from the launch line-up and apparently, we’re not going to be seeing that until next May at the very earliest. When you put the two parts together with the campaign and multiplayer, Halo Infinite offers up a great package that speaks to the hardcore Halo fans as well as invites in a whole new audience through its free-to-play tier. 343 have a Halo game they can be proud of.

1 Metroid Dread

Number 1 is Metroid Dread. This is the direct sequel to Metroid Fusion and the 5th Metroid games as part of the 2D series. This is Nintendo at their very best, adding the AAA gloss onto a tried and tested Metroidvania formula, which all adds up to a very enjoyable game. It’s a 2D game, but there are 3D cutscenes and Samus just looks and acts so damn cool in the game, it’s hard not to be impressed at every turn. The detail of the environments, Samus’ animations, the movement speed and variety of weapons, abilities, and enemies to battle, plus the hard-as-nails boss battles (which feels very un-Nintendo at times).

The setting for the game is the planet ZDR. Samus has been sent to the planet to investigate the return of a familiar species in the X Parasite, however, it quickly transpires she’s been led there into a trap, and Samus is trapped way below the surface and your objective is to make your way back to your ship.

One of the biggest features of the game is the EMMI robots. EMMIs are sectioned off into their own zones on the map, and there are seven of them dotted throughout the game, and each one gets harder and harder as you progress. The only way to kill an EMMI is to blast it in the face with the Omega Cannon, a power you receive from defeating a miniboss. First, you have to melt off the outer plating, then once that’s gone it’s a quick blast to the face and they are dead. This is much easier said than done, and some of them are particularly difficult. Saying that these are some of my favorite encounters in Metroid Dread, especially when you use the cloaking device. The EMMIs come very close like stalking killer predators, and you have to hold your breath and wait it out, hoping your cloaking device doesn’t fail you at the wrong moment.

Samus’ movement speed is something to behold in this game and perhaps takes inspiration from other games in the genre like Ori and Hollow Knight, which are great examples of fast and fluid movement. That’s where legacy Metroid games fall down a little compared to the speed of today’s games, but here in Dread Samus almost glides across the screen with pure speed. She also has a very satisfying slide move, which you’ll need to get a hang of to get away from the EMMIs.

Overall, Metroid Dread has delivered on the promise of what a 2D Metroid could be. This is by far the best outing for Samus in 20 years, and in my book comes close to what Nintendo has achieved with Super Metroid. I thoroughly enjoyed my playthrough, but for it to be an all-time classic requires another couple of times through the game. For now, though this is a hugely satisfying gaming experience, with Nintendo taking inspiration from the Metroidvania market, then going above beyond. My expectations have been met and then exceeded, and if you have a Nintendo Switch, you should be playing this game.

That’s it for Game of the Year 2021, let me know what you think was missing, and what you agree and disagree with.