Neil’s 2021 Games of the Year

How has it been a whole year already? I know every year feels faster the older I get, but this whole “never leaving the house” thing really crunched 2021 into a mess in my head. Not to mention the bit of crunch I felt in my wallet! Speaking of which, I had a pretty tough time getting to all the games this year I would have liked to. That’s ok though, because with the little extra curation, I also managed to play almost exclusively games I really enjoyed this year! So without further ado, enjoy my favorites from this year!

Runners-Up

Phantasy Star Online 2: New Genesis

I spent way more time with this game than it deserves, given the aggressive monetization model. That said, the core action gameplay is fun as hell, and (ironically) the slow release of new content never made me feel like I needed to engage with the rough edges. I still find it very silly that New Genesis is part of PSO2, considering the completely new gameplay and separated economy. I guess bringing those cosmetics over is a big selling point?

Beast Breaker

Beast Breaker really surprised me by building ever so slowly into a story about struggling to do good in a dying world. I loved the cast of characters, the billiards-ish gameplay, and even the pre-combat preparing phase. Unfortunately I found that despite how powerfully the seriousness of the narrative hit me, it felt like it was at odds with the attitude the visuals and music bring to it.

Outer Wilds: Echoes of the Eye

Over the last couple years, Outer Wilds has continued to be an experience that sticks with me. All I could think when I heard they were doing a DLC is, “How?” While the DLC does end up extremely sectioned off and doing its own thing, that thing is (mostly) awesome. The amount of mystery they fit into this small space is fascinating! That said, there is one section in this DLC that is absurdly frustrating, to the point that I thought I was just doing something wrong. Because of this section it’s not as good as the original game, but it still ended up being an excellent experience.

 

5 – Guilty Gear Strive

I feel a bit weird putting a fighting game on my top 5, but I also consistently played Guilty Gear Strive through the entire year. I just love this game. The music absolutely rocks, the visuals are pretty as hell, and the netcode is just about best-in-class for consistency compared to the other big fighting games out there. While there are definitely some rough spots in the lobby experience and some tweaks to balance could be used (#BuffAnji), the support Arcsys has shown beyond the new characters gives me faith that the smell of the game will only continue to get better.

4 – Inscryption

Inscryption has all the vibes of a creepypasta while delivering a wild, multi-layered metanarrative about the nature of the very game you’re playing. It’s silly, it’s hard to take seriously, and it ends up feeling very messy. Yet the way it oozes with style gives you a lot to love. But that isn’t how this game broke into my top 5.

It got there because underneath all of that spooky stuff is a solid card game and a bunch of puzzles that feed in and out of it in really cool ways. The escape room-like puzzles test your understanding of how the card game works, rewarding you with cool new tools. Then the card game finds way to reward you for breaking all these rules you’ve come to understand. And the way the ending ties everything together is so fun and exciting!

As much as I want to say more, this is a game that will definitely have a bigger impact the less you know going in. So just go give it a shot.

3 – Axiom Verge 2

The original Axiom Verge managed to be a love letter to classic Metroid games while simultaneously breaching through to a whole unique and interesting world begging to be further explored. This prequel finally gives us the jump back into that universe with a new protagonist and a look at some of the events that lead to the world of the first game. While I didn’t end up finding the game as a whole quite as captivating as the first game, it did strike out much further from the roots that inspired the original.

The way this game turned basically all the bosses into optional challenges is cool. The places where it fills out much of the lore from the first game is fascinating. But the thing this game does that truly shines for me is how, through the gameplay, it leans into the themes of transhumanism. The farther I got into the game, even with the all the upgrades to my “human” self, I would always default to another form. A form that better fit into the world I was inhabiting. Despite the ways in which I found the primary narrative lacking, the gameplay explored the theme so successfully, I came away loving this game.

2 – Monster Hunter Rise

I was very lucky that my most anticipated game of the year released in March. I spent hundreds of hours playing Monster Hunter Rise this year, and it was always a blast. The whole game overflows with Japanese theming from the aesthetics of the town to the Shigin inspired monster intros. Even the new monsters are modeled after yōkai from Japanese folklore!

While the Monsters really are the stars of this game, what shot it up here near the top comes from the gameplay. The core of all 14 weapons (except Hunting Horn) is straight out of the previous game, but the addition of the Wirebugs and Switch Skills create even more ways to customize your playstyle. The game is also full of quality-of-life improvements like the removal of hot/cold drinks, greatly simplified pre-hunt meals, an always-populated mini-map, and so much more. Best of all, it is SO MUCH EASIER than it was in the last game to get your friends into a lobby with you and just go hunting together.

Now I must admit that all of this does add up to making Rise feel a bit more like “Monster Slayer” than “Monster Hunter”, but the sheer volume of improvements makes it well worth it.

1 – Metroid Dread

When Metroid Dread was revealed during the summer, I was worried instead of excited. Don’t get me wrong — Nintendo finally saying the word “Metroid” again was exciting. But what they showed was a classic 2D style from the same developers as Samus Returns. That game profoundly disappointed me not only because it was a remake of the weakest game in the franchise, but because much of what they added managed to make the game worse than the original. And this is coming from a guy who eats exploratory-adventure games (metroidvanias) like candy.

Dread went far beyond meeting my hopes and expectations though. With this installment they manage to perfectly walk that line between classic and modern. Moving through the world and finding the environmental puzzles feels like it did back on the SNES. Modern sensibilities in level design create a flow that helps you understand where the game wants you to find progress, even without explicit waypoints. And I haven’t even mentioned how well they foreshadow bosses through the pretty backgrounds, or how fucking good most of those boss fights are!

All this gushing aside, the game does have a couple of weaknesses. I have a few complaints with the controls being needlessly unintuitive. I also think the E.M.M.I. zones fail in delivering chase or stealth sequences that are enjoyable. But none of that is bad enough to get in the way of what makes the game shine.

Nostalgia might be a hell of a drug, but Metroid Dread reminds me why I got those feelings for the series at all.