THE WASHINGTON POST – Variety saved 2021 from the doldrums of malaise and delays. While many of this year’s most anticipated titles were rescheduled for the next year, 2021 kept me busy with a wide selection of titles that offered a variety of experiences. It speaks to the strength of the games medium and industry that even in what many might call an “off” year for development, especially a year following two major console launches, there’s still a spectrum of compelling experiences that drew in many players.
The Launcher staff has already listed our best games of the year, but I wanted to rank out my personal favourites. These may not even be the best of the year (note that Forza Horizon 5, a game I awarded a 9.5 score, is missing on this list), rather they’re the ones I kept returning to month after month.
For anyone who’s just getting to know me, I’ve been gaming since I was FIVE years old, my first game being Jordan Mechner’s groundbreaking fighting game Karateka. Since then, I’ve been playing through every console generation, with my favourite genres solidly falling in the action adventure realm. I started my career as a video games journalist at The Washington Post by ranking my favourite games in The Legend of Zelda series. The list itself offers a glimpse into the kinds of games I love and admire, the ones that offer new or compelling gameplay experiences.
These are the 10 games of 2021 that were not only my favourite of the year, but some that I will likely return to many years later.
While Chicory: A Colorful Tale is likely the more inventive of the two Zelda-like titles, Eastward filled in the blanks for me with enchanting sprite work that reminds me of the best years of the Super Nintendo. While its simplicity in combat and constant narrative interruptions might grate, I expected and even welcomed them. The deep details in the sprite work kept this engaging sense of adventure and place that I won’t find in the latest PS5 or Xbox titles. It’s a game that reminds me of how powerful presentation could be when it’s focussed on evoking mood and less about pushing pixels. This was my comfort game for 2021.
My initial impression of Housemarque’s first attempt at a big-budget game was soured by its difficulty and inability to reward the player. Then I kept playing and gained a new understanding of Returnal: Every small victory is itself a reward. I felt myself not just getting better, but I developed an appreciation for Housemarque’s ambition to create a personal story in the vehicle of a classic arcade shooter. This is much the same as those created by legendary Defenders creator Eugene Jarvis, with whom the studio has worked closely in the past. Every enemy and location has distinct behaviours and aesthetic designs that hark back to the best of what classic arcade shooters offered. I still struggle at the game, but the struggle itself became the draw.
8. FIST: Forged in Shadow Torch
While Metroid Dread was a welcome, much-needed return to form for the series, I found it lacking when compared to the suite of games that have inspired it in the decades since.
Developed by TiGames, FIST represents the best of the genre today, featuring a robust action combat system unmoored by tradition, unlike a Metroid game. Not only does it feature tight controls and challenging platforming gameplay, but a compelling character hero that’s as fun to play as he sounds – a cyborg rabbit with a ridiculously huge robot arm. Its story presentation also reminds me of the classic cinematic platformer Another World, an automatic win in my book.
7. No More Heroes 3
It’s a miracle this game exists at all, a sequel and trilogy closer to the acclaimed but niche No More Heroes series. It’s a shonen-style story by creator Suda 51 about a world in which virtue is worthless, and the only thing that matters is glory. Thus, there are no more heroes in this world. Instead, we are Travis Touchdown, now at the end of his journey of self-adulation, trying to be a better person. Beyond the poignant themes, it manages to be Suda 51′s most polished game yet, with quick lightsaber action, wrestling moves and even a return to the open-world format to further satirise the formula. The final boss fight (and the format it takes) is worth the price of admission alone.
6. Lost Judgment
I’ve long held that Ryu Ga Gotoku Studio should be held up in the same high regard as Rockstar Games or Naughty Dog, and Lost Judgment is only the latest testament to that team’s storytelling power. Yes, the plot twists in this crime drama – though sometimes predictable or heavy handed – still hit with intended impact thanks to character work that could compete with the best of prestige TV.
It also continues the studio’s legacy as masters of tone, balancing an adult, violent mystery about bullies getting murdered against the game’s many minigames and side activities, which include walking a crime-solving Welsh Corgi around the city to look for even more mysteries to solve. On top of being a poignant tale of justice, it’s also one of the best brawler games released in recent years, topping even the studio’s Yakuza series with fast, fluid, kick-based attacks and counters.
5. Resident Evil Village
The latest Resident Evil game contains the single most memorable sequence of 2021. This game was built like a theme park of horrors, but its House Beneviento contains the scariest moment in games in years. Capcom’s team flexes its mastery of building tension until you’re ready to burst at the seams. Once the moment builds, the game pops you with one of the most horrifying sights you’ll see in any medium, leaving you gasping for relief and wishing you were instead being chased by the game’s more attractive villains, most notably Lady Dimitrescu.
On top of reminding us who the true masters of horror are, Capcom built its most fun Resident Evil game yet, echoing the cheesy one-liners of its classic titles, while mirroring the pace and action of its greatest game Resident Evil 4. Despite its early release during the year, its telling that Village remains a fan favourite. It’s one of the year’s most unforgettable experiences.
4. Monster Hunter Rise
At over 200 hours logged in 2021, there was simply no game I played more. While other role-playing games fumble in creating the “loot grind”, enticing players with new gear the more they play, the Monster Hunter series mastered it by turning our prey into fashion. The 14 different weapon types means there are 14 completely different ways to play. While I ran mostly with the basic sword and shield, I was enticed by the hunting horn, which turns my warrior’s moves into wuxia-style acrobatics while I blow on a gigantic horn to cast spells.
And the addition of dog companions not only sped up hunts, but gave me new ways to customise how I fight by adding yet another warrior to my team. There’s nothing better than having my orange cat work as a trapper to wire up a giant dragon, while my dog leaps onto the monster’s back to bite out its neck while I stand my ground, blocking and slashing at its feet.
3. Hitman 3
Deathloop was the critical darling of 2021, but I found it wanting, especially when compared to a series that has been perfecting the immersive sim genre for years. While Deathloop mimicked detective-like gameplay by having you run around to find passcodes, Hitman 3 lets you literally become a detective in an Agatha Christie-like murder mystery, and that’s just its second level. The Hitman trilogy has been the best James Bond games in existence, and its no wonder developer IO Interactive has been tapped to make the next James Bond game.
Agent 47 could walk silently through an underground German rave, surveying the pulsing landscape and taking out his prey like he’s John Wick at his prime.
The entire modern Hitman trilogy has been excellent, and it’s worth checking out the previous two, especially since they could all be packed within the Hitman 3 menu system and benefit from its next-generation graphical upgrades. There’s no better time to finally try out the best spy games ever made.
2. Ratchet and Clank: Rift Apart
I called it “practically perfect” in my 10/10 review, and I still maintain that view. Rift Apart is the first game to really usher in the current generation of graphics, but more than that, it was the perfecting of an action platformer formula that’s been long missing from mainstream games. While it was disappointing Insomniac Games didn’t do much with the rift mechanic besides teleporting the player between areas, it’s still a stunning achievement to pack in that much detail and let the player summon it at the speed of flicking a light switch.
Beyond the technical achievement, Rift Apart was an excellent tale of self-doubt and identity that makes it resonate like a major 3D animated blockbuster. Its score by Mark Mothersbaugh, co-founder of Devo, mixed synth wave modernity with classic Hollywood orchestral scores. The battles Ratchet and new character Rivet fight through were as big and bold as anything you might find in even Halo Infinite. Ratchet and Clank: Rift Apart is still the best PlayStation exclusive in years, and has firmly placed Insomniac as the crown jewel for PlayStation’s stable of studios.
1. Halo Infinite
The sixth Halo game has elements of many other titles on this list I love: the visual distinction and particle-effects action of Returnal; the operatic wars with aliens from Ratchet and Clank: Rift Apart; and the open-ended, solutions-based approach of Hitman 3. There are many first-person shooters in existence today, but none of them quite play like a good Halo game. Even 343 Industries took two games to figure out how to return the series to its grandeur, but the studio finally achieved that balance with Halo Infinite.
In a time where it’s become very easy to feel powerless in the real world, it was wise and generous for 343 Industries to once again focus on making a Halo game that’s keenly attentive to making the player feel as powerful as possible in the boots of Master Chief. With 96 hours logged over the past month, I can see myself easily playing Halo Infinite decades later, much as I have with the original game.