I’m genuinely impressed that 2021 managed to be a generally worse year than 2020, for a variety of fun reasons. It had some high highs but also some very low lows. It was a year in which I mostly quit social media (a positive change!), which means I was out of The Games Discourse for the last third. Do I miss it? Like hell.
Despite this, I did play some videogames in 2021. 49 of them for the first time, which is only a few less than 2020. This was in a large part thanks to Game Pass, which turned my consumption of the medium from à la carte to a buffet, which I believe is the intention.
It was also thanks to being pals with some folks with excellent taste. I have by this point adopted a policy that anything Sam Greer recommends is something that I really ought to play, and that hasn’t let me down yet.
As well as plugging away at Feud, and my ongoing work on Scavengers, I also released a new game-like thing this year. As part of Rare Mammals, with excellent human Antosh Wojcik, I made A LAKE IN AMERICA, a weird poem-game with themes of hypochondria and health anxiety. Please check it out.
As ever, this list doesn’t include anything I bounced off immediately or played for less than an hour or so (unless it was short). It also doesn’t include anything I had already started playing prior to 2021, so while Hades and Assassin’s Creed Oranges consumed a lot of my time, they don’t count.
You can see my lists from previous years here:
The games of 2021 were as follows.
Ghost of Tsushima (PS4)
Ghost of Tsushima has a lot of the ingredients of something I’d quite like, but unfortunately it rather falls apart in the execution. Its rendering of Tsushima is a beautiful place, but the very claustrophobic third-person camera means you never really feel like you’re able to fully appreciate it. Couple that with some really quite dreary writing, and I’m sorry to say I gave up on this one after just a few hours.
That said, my brother played about 45 hours of this and loved it, so if you think it’s your thing by all means go for it.
Alba: A Wildlife Adventure (iOS)
Alba is a pretty little adventure game that I think largely achieves what it sets out to do. The setting is a joy to explore and the photography mechanic is good fun. It also has a pretty inspired user interface if you play it without a controller where you rotate the phone for different situations. I liked it quite a bit.
NUTS is a strange game. The art direction is really striking and it has the tone of a creeping horror game, yet as far as I could tell from my few hours with it that isn’t what this game is or is even trying to be. Perhaps there’s some late-game twist but I found the mechanics too clunky to continue beyond the first couple of hours.
This was the first game I played with a Backbone controller, which I’d really recommend if you find yourself playing on iOS a lot.
13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim (PS4)
It’s really hard to write about 13 Sentinels while remaining succinct; such is the scope and ambition of the story it’s telling and also how much I adored it.
The thing I will say is that its storytelling is of a sort that I don’t think could be easily achieved outside of the medium of videogames, one where it actually goes so far as to justify the medium. This isn’t due to the plot itself, which is good, but because of how it unfolds; the player is encouraged to unravel the mystery of what the hell is going on in whichever order they see fit. This means that the answers you gradually uncover and the realisations you come to feel earned, rather than just dropped as exposition.
I can recommend this one without hesitation, even if you think the very anime vibes are not for you. It’s out on Switch in 2022, I believe. Tied for my game of the year, despite being technically a 2020 release.
Disc Room (PC)
Disc Room is a videogame-ass-videogame and I love it for that. I had high expectations from something Jan Willem Nijman worked on and this didn’t disappoint; it feels incredibly tuned and precise in a way that pitches the difficulty and responsiveness just right. A treat.
Loop Hero (PC)
Loop Hero takes inspiration from roguelites and idle games, and is somehow both and simultaneously neither. The “one more loop” mechanic is really compelling, and it’s also got a really interesting thing going with its tone and setting. Unfortunately this is also a game that I am very bad at, and will probably never manage to see all the interesting stuff that comes later in it.
Lair of the Clockwork God (Switch)
I need to get back to this one. It combines classic point-and-click adventure style mechanics with some puzzle-platformer stuff, and does it in a way that is hilariously self-aware. I was prepared to find the writing quite irritating (after Journey to the Savage Planet last year I have a deep suspicion of ‘funny’ games) but it actually made me chuckle quite a bit.
Cloud Gardens (PC)
A lovely peaceful terrarium of a thing. It’s a really nice way to unwind after a stressy day. Looks stunning, too.
Paradise Killer (PC)
I didn’t get too far into this bonkers detective-ish game but in tone and presentation it’s absolutely incredible. Characters have names like “Doctor Doom Jazz” and the setting feels like nothing so much as a haunted, abandoned Minecraft server. It’s really good.
I spent a very pleasant evening playing this survival-crafting game with good pal Ally. I focused on getting our chimney to look exactly how I wanted it, he went off exploring. Truly, something for everyone.
Assemble With Care (iOS)
I found the concept of “repair broken objects” quite compelling. Unfortunately, the “puzzles” never require much thought, and the whole thing is overlaid by an utterly cloying plot and a script that I found borderline insufferable.
Good Sudoku (iOS)
The pitch of Good Sudoku is “does the easy, boring bits so you can focus on the hard, more interesting bits”. I think it accomplishes this pretty nicely - you pass right over the hunting-for-numbers bit in the puzzles and go straight to learning the more advanced strategies with names like “X-wing” and “locked candidate”. The presentation is really slick, too.
Concrete Genie (PS4)
I gave this one a go when it came up on PS Plus, and found it to be a fairly slick and enjoyable action-ish game. The story hits the right balance of sweet without being saccharine, and while the painting mechanic is perhaps a little underutilised it’s certainly at least unique.
NieR Replicant (PS4)
NieR Automata was a surprise hit for me; after a rocky start I ended up adoring it. Replicant hits a lot of those same notes, but I didn’t find it compelling enough to see it through in one go. I do intend to go back to it to find out what the hell is going on.
There was a lot of capital-D Discourse around this game at launch, about its price, difficulty and lack of sensible save options. I’m not going to talk about those things because other, smarter people have.
What I will say is that Returnal evokes Metroid Prime in a way that no other game ever really has for me, and in a way I can’t really explain. Anyway it slaps and I want to play more of it.
The Legend of Zelda: The Minish Cap (GBA)
OK, I technically played this one in [frantic Googling] 2004, but I think it’s been long enough that this can count.
I revisited this, along with a bunch of other GBA games, thanks to a MiSTer unit I set up earlier in the year. A lot of these games hold up well but I think the Minish Cap in particular is a Zelda game that doesn’t get the recognition it deserves. It’s also some of the most beautiful pixel art and animation ever done on that hardware.
A platform/action game where you control a wee mouse was always going to be good, but I think this one justifies the use of VR - by placing the player in the actual world as a sort of spirit, you feel embodied in a way some third-person VR games can lack. You can see your own reflection in the water and sometimes the wee mouse waves up at you. Lovely.
An Airport For Aliens Currently Run By Dogs (PC)
It’s a Nelson game. It’s very funny. You can pet all the dogs and there’s an Orb. I love Orb.
Yakuza: Like a Dragon (Xbox)
I’m not super well-versed in the Yakuza series - I loved 0 but that’s the extent of my experience - so by introducing a brand new protagonist Like A Dragon does a great job of bringing relative newcomers into the series. It’s got the usual blend of joyous stupidity and surprisingly good character writing. Not super keen on the turn-based combat, though.
Going Under (Xbox)
It’s a fairly standard dungeon crawling action game, but with great music and some beautifully snarky writing. Check it out if you like that sort of thing.
Death’s Door (Xbox)
This game is absolutely the definition of My Type On Paper. Zelda-ish top down camera and exploration? Wonderful. Soulsy, deliberate, precise combat? Fabulous. You’re a wee bird? Amazing. Unfortunately all these parts didn’t come together to make something that clicked for me. I understand why this was so lauded at launch, but for whatever reason I bounced off it fairly quickly.
The Ascent (Xbox)
From pre-release materials and so on I was somehow put under the impression this game was a turn-based tactics thing. If it had been I probably would have kept playing; the setting of the arcology is something I really would like to explore more. Sadly it’s a bad twin-stick shooter, so I couldn’t be bothered.
I love Ikenfell. It’s reminiscent of the best GBA RPGs, full of heart and humour, and with a really unique and satisfying combat system that’s like a cross between Paper Mario and a tactics game. The only slight irritation is the occasional musical number during boss fights - and by musical I mean “sounds like it’s from a musical”. I hate musicals and the boss fights can be quite long. Alas.
Deep Rock Galactic (Xbox)
I think I tried this one earlier in the year and bounced off it, but in hindsight that was probably because this game is absolutely designed from the ground up (heh) as a co-op experience. In that it excels - the core loop is satisfying, and there are enough silly diversions between missions to keep the voice chat lively. Would’ve been a great lockdown game if I’d discovered it in time. Well, I guess we don’t know what 2022 holds here on Plague island.
Halo 5: Guardians (Xbox)
I never got around to playing this one because until fairly recently I didn’t have anything I could play it on. It remains a bit of a strange artefact as the only mainline Halo game you can’t play on PC.
I’d heard the campaign was dreadful, so I was pleasantly surprised to find that it’s…OK? The plot is nonsense, but it’s Halo so of course it is. The shooting is OK. It doesn’t really feel like Halo, but neither did 4 and I think I like this one better.
It didn’t give me any confidence that Halo Infinite wouldn’t be shit, mind. Thankfully, as we’ll see in a bit, I needn’t have worried.
I didn’t get too far with this Metroidvania-ish thing, but thanks to some stellar art direction I can at least say that the vibes are utterly immaculate. I intend to revisit this one.
Ratchet and Clank: Rift Apart (PS5)
A lot of reviewers described the new Ratchet as a “playable Pixar film”. This is incorrect. Ratchet does that face, so it’s a playable Dreamworks film.
Anyway, the game is pretty good. I don’t have a lot of nostalgia for this series as I never had a PS2 or PS3, but it holds up well in its own right and is, as many have commented, a fantastic showcase for the PS5 hardware. One of, like, three.
“Halo 3 but with portals” ought to be a pretty easy sell, and for many people Splitgate is exactly that. Unfortunately all it really did was remind me of two games I’d really rather be playing.
I played this one on PC, which meant I spent the first couple of hours with it fiddling with graphics settings instead of enjoying what is an extremely good game.
Dishonored was a game that punished you for playing it the most fun way, then Death of the Outsider removed the negative consequences for doing so. DEATHLOOP goes further, actively forcing you to play it as an action game, leaving the save-scumming and sneaking behind. The result is some really dynamic, exciting action sequences that aren’t scripted but emergent from the game’s internal logic - exactly what the immersive sim has always promised but been prevented from delivering largely by its players.
Assassin’s Creed Odyssey (PC)
2021 was the year I finished Assassin’s Creed Origins, a game I liked a lot more than I thought I would. Once I’d wrapped up its story (which ended in a faintly unsatisfying way, I have to say) I immediately installed Odyssey.
This may have been a mistake. I spent a few hours in Odyssey and enjoyed them - I think Kassandra is better as a lead even than Bayek was - but in hindsight I just wasn’t ready for another open world game of this magnitude. I’ll probably revisit this one after a bit of a break.
I’ve no idea what being a DJ feels like but if it’s anything like playing Fuser I think it’d be great fun.
Harmonix have always made the sharpest, most polished music games, and Fuser fulfils that legacy wonderfully. There’s a story mode to play through but it’s enjoyable just messing around with the thing for hours on end. I missed this one at launch and I’m very glad I came across it this year.
Metroid Dread (Switch)
If you’d told me a year ago we were getting a new Metroid game in 2021, and it’d be Dread, the game I remember hearing rumours for as a DS game, I’d have laughed at you. And yet, here we are - Metroid 5 exists, it’s out, and it’s really good.
It’s also hard; I’ve got past the first big boss fight but not much further. Having a blast, though, and very keen to see how this series’ story wraps up.
Turnip Boy Commits Tax Evasion (PC)
A ludicrously silly Zelda-ish thing. It made me giggle several times. I don’t have much else to say about this one other than “I liked it”.
Genshin Impact (iOS/PS5)
I’d always sort of observed Genshin from afar and had it summarised in my head as “bad Breath of the Wild rip-off with gacha mechanics”. What Genshin Impact actually is is a surprisingly OK BOTW rip-off with some really quite competent writing and impressive mobile performance. I ended up quite liking it, though as a Destiny player I don’t really have time for another Forever Game.
The first time I tried to play Sable I bounced off it fairly quickly - its relative aimlessness in play, as well as poor console performance, was something I just wasn’t in the right headspace for.
Thankfully, after a bit of a break, and some patches, I was able to appreciate Sable for what it actually is - a staggeringly good-looking exploration game with some really lovely, warm writing. It’s a great big hug and I love it.
Forza Horizon 5 (PC/Xbox)
I actually took a day off work to play this at launch, such is my love of this series, which I recently heard someone describe as “Pokémon but with cars”.
I’m glad I did - Horizon 5 delivers More Forza Horizon, exactly what I wanted, and does it extremely well. I do miss the more varied seasonal weather of FH4, but Mexico is an inspired setting. Also, the cars can do big jumps and I like it when they do that.
Hunt: Showdown (PC)
I played PUBG back in 2017, and experienced it essentially as a tourist - I played with someone much more experienced, joined their team, and just did exactly what they told me. It was great fun.
I played Hunt in a very similar way, with excellent humans Sam and Gary who know this game back-to-front. The setting is pretty unique in games, creating a tension that is entirely appropriate for its mechanics, and by playing with those two I was able to experience all the best bits without worrying too much about the fact I’m rubbish at it. Videogame guided tours ought to be a thing.
Gravity Rush (PS Vita)
I dug the Vita out of its drawer after watching Sam play Gravity Rush 2 in order to have a go at the first one. It’s great - the gravity mechanic gives you an enormous amount of freedom to explore its gorgeously realised world. I also really like how it uses the Vita hardware.
Persona 4 Golden (PS Vita)
I finished Persona 5 at the start of the year, and by the winter I was ready for - make that craving - another game in the series. Persona 6 isn’t anywhere to be heard of just yet, so I went back to 4, playing on the Vita that seems like its natural home.
Knowing this game was originally a PS2 title meant I had quite low expectations - Persona 5 was so stylish, would its predecessor be able to measure up in any way? I needn’t have worried - while not quite as gorgeous to look at as its big brother, Persona 4 has a huge amount of polish, style and heart that I now understand to be a property of this series as a whole, not just the latest entry.
Exo One (Xbox)
Exo One is Tiny Wings that thinks it’s deep, but it actually manages to be a great experience all the same. It manages to create a feeling of speed and momentum in a way that gave me brain-shivers, and the just-hinted-at story is evocative enough to provide a nice breather between surprisingly intense levels.
I only wish that that feeling of speed and momentum wasn’t so difficult to achieve, and wasn’t so easy to have interrupted by slight jank that never really felt like my fault.
Speaking of jank…
JETT: The Far Shore (PS5)
JETT is one of the most fascinating games I played this year. It is unlike anything else I’ve ever played, and uses both its narrative and mechanics to ask questions about exploration, colonisation and humanity’s place in a hostile universe.
It’s also a game that could really have done with another few months’ development. It runs horribly on the latest console hardware, the controls are a little bit broken, dialogue triggers at incorrect times, and it generally gives the impression of being a little bit unfinished. I think it speaks to JETT’s ambition and accomplishment that all of these things didn’t stop me really liking it.
Solar Ash (PS5)
Hyper Light Drifter is one of my all-time favourites. If you’ve not played it, I really recommend this Cool Ghosts (RIP) video so you can see what it’s all about. Needless to say, my expectations of Solar Ash were pretty damn high.
Did it meet them? Er, no. Solar Ash is in many ways a very by-the-numbers action game, one where HLD’s evocative silence is replaced by near-constant chatter. The art style is beautiful and it’s a very polished thing, but it gives the impression of something where the rough edges have been removed to the point where it’s just no longer that interesting. It stands in stark contrast to JETT, which I played just previously.
With all that being said, I ended up having a pretty great time with Solar Ash, even going so far as to 100% it, something I do with a vanishingly small number of games. This puts me in two minds about the thing, and I’m still trying to work out if I actually liked it. I guess I did.
Unpacking is mechanically simple, but this only serves to help it provide the experience it’s trying to. When you’re placing objects around the various rooms, you find yourself not “gaming” it, but genuinely thinking, “hmm, where would I put this?”. It also has a really touching narrative that’s presented almost entirely through its mechanics, which is a great achievement.
Games made in the Source engine have something a bit special about them; they provide a sense of place that their more advanced counterparts usually don’t. I have no idea why this is.
INFRA is no exception. It is a very Source game. Lots of concrete. Good.
Halo Infinite (Xbox)
When I got put into isolation due to a positive COVID test, the first thought I had after I’d finished being sad about missing the Christmas build-up was “well, at least I’ll have a lot of time to play the new Halo”. I did.
I love Halo, and Halo Infinite is Good Halo in a way that the series hasn’t been since Bungie left the helm. The sandbox is exciting again, and the grapple hook changes the game’s mobility for the better while still somehow keeping the “Halo feel”, something at which Halo 5 didn’t succeed nearly as well. I also appreciate the story for not requiring players to have read the novels - though as someone who actually has read some of the novels I did appreciate the occasional nod.
I’ve yet to play much of the multiplayer but I suspect I’ll put a lot of time into it in 2022.
The Gunk (Xbox)
The Gunk is quite a departure from Image & Form’s SteamWorld setting, but it retains a lot of the good humour that’s in that studio’s DNA. It’s really beautiful to look at - there’s something of a claymation vibe to its textures - and tells a simple but compelling story about the conflict between industry and the environment.
The vacuuming mechanic gets a little bit stale by the end, but it doesn’t outstay its welcome. I think it’s well worth checking out if you have Game Pass.
The Forgotten City (Xbox)
It’s a toss-up between this and 13 Sentinels for my favourite game I played this year, and for very similar reasons. The Forgotten City is a game that lets the player unravel the mystery at their own pace, in the order they choose, and that makes the discoveries all the more rewarding.
It’s also a wonderful setting - beautifully realised, and clear that real research went into making it as authentic as possible within the confines of its premise.
There’s very little I can say about this game without spoiling some aspect of it; I went in knowing almost nothing about it, and I’d recommend you do the same.
Scarlet Nexus (Xbox)
I love me some anime bullshit, and Scarlet Nexus has some anime bullshit. I’m about five hours in and the plot is already becoming incomprehensible even by the standards of the genre. It’s great fun.
It also features a combat system that’s a little bit Bayonetta and a little bit Genshin Impact - weird, I know, but it seems to work.
Dandara came right in at the end of the year as something I’d heard of last year but never got around to trying. I played it on Apple Arcade, and, shockingly for a Metroidvania-ish thing, I think it’s perfectly at home on a touch screen. The main mechanic involves leaping between ceilings, walls and floors, and these jumps are plotted by swiping in the rough direction of travel, with some very aggressive target-snapping.
The result is something that feels really responsive in the hands. I’m only an hour or so in but it’s managed to hold my attention in a way few mobile games have this year.
There’s your lot. Here’s hoping 2022 is a bit less shit. Get your jab, be nice to your ma and have a lovely day.