Another year come and gone and with it another roster of game releases. Despite what a lot of people might say, this game was filled with a ton of great games. While I didn’t get to play everything that I had wanted to, I did have the opportunity to play quite a few big titles and some surprising gems that I almost overlooked. So let’s ring in the new year with my favorite games of 2021.
10. Subnautica: Below Zero
There really is nothing like getting lost in an alien world. Below Zero had me fighting the elements as I established a base, fought off starvation and below-freezing temperatures, all while trying to track down what happened to the crew that once worked on the planet.
The underwater world of Subnautica is beautiful and there were countless moments where I was stunned by the softly moving plants with fish swimming through them or out of caves. The world felt so alive. It tolerated me as long as I could manage to stay alive but it never welcomed me. I was the fish out of water, and that is part of the allure of the Subnautica games.
9. Genesis Noir
This year was a little different for me as not every game I enjoyed for its gameplay. Some were completely visual feasts that captured my imagination and let me become lost for several hours in like Genesis Noir. I had not heard of Genesis Noir until it was practically released, but I was immediately entranced by its visuals and cosmic noir tale.
The contrasting black and white colors not only heightened the noir aesthetic but also the sci-fi elements that it borrowed from writers like Italo Calvino. It was so enraptured by Genesis Noir’s world that I even made it one of my final projects for grad school to analyze its style choices. I won’t be forgetting about this perspective warping story any time soon.
8. The Artful Escape
The Artful Escape is less a game and more of a ride because while there are small platforming and rhythm-based gameplay elements, the core of the game is in its music, art style, and story. This coming-of-age tale shows Francis Vendetti grappling with his own creative identity while fighting to escape the shadows of his famous uncle.
The levels all feature different planets from a fashion-obsessed society to a wintery forest, but the highlight is always the vistas and skyboxes of these areas. These scenes seem to come straight out of sci-fi paperback covers with their vibrant colors and truly awe-inspiring scale. These are the moments, with the conflicts of the story playing overtop with a guitar-playing some cosmic rifts that were the highlight of this experience.
I was shocked with how much I enjoyed Unpacking, not for its gameplay but for its subtle storytelling and meditative practices. You watch as a young woman moves to different homes throughout her life, and as you unpack her belongings, you realize the different milestones that she has achieved along the way.
You see her first love, the collapse of that love, and you see her get back up and focus on herself. All the while, you are forced to slow down and think about each item this woman owns and where it belongs. It’s hard not to begin to think about your own life while you ponder where the coffee maker should go. I was thankful for the opportunity to slow down and reflect.
6. Mario Party Superstars
It has been a long tie since I have had the opportunity to play a Mario Party game that I have enjoyed every moment of. Superstars was a return to form in more ways than one as the boards are remasters of the same ones that introduced me (and many others) to the franchise in the first place.
The sheer amount of garbage that can happen during a game that will have people shouting over who should have a star stolen and whose fault it was that they lost the last mini-game. This game made the holidays so much better and made me just enjoy playing silly games with friends and family again.
5. Cyber Shadow
It has been a number of years since I have enjoyed a good boss fight, and Cyber Shadow delivered boss after boss that had me wanting to throw my keyboard across the room (in the best way possible). The levels were designed like they were straight out of the NES era of Ninja Gaiden games with a heart-pumping soundtrack to accompany them.
Mastering these levels, from their difficult platforming, sadistic enemy placements, and final bosses, while not exactly pure bliss, felt like an accomplishment that made each playthrough worth my time. Cyber Shadow rekindled the love I have for difficult games, and I love it for that.
4. Forza Horizon 5
If you asked me if Forza would make it in my top ten, I would have said it was a possibility, but the fact that it’s in my top three is astounding. I never expected to like this game as much as I have, but it was almost therapeutic to get home from work and complete a few races through rainstorms or across mountaintops.
For a few brief hours, I was transported across the globe, racing the nights away. I never got bored, and part of that is because the game keeps scaling with the player (and offers difficulty settings), so it’s incredibly hard to get bored when you can make it as challenging as you want to attempt.
I enjoyed getting outside my comfort zone with this one, and it convinced me that maybe I should be playing racing games a little more often than I currently do.
When I first stepped through the desert in Sable, I knew I was going to enjoy it, but I had no idea just how lost I would become in its world. Young Sable has come of gliding age and must set out to define who she will be to her tribe. She must find a mask for a final ceremony that will define her occupation, but before that, she is free to find what she enjoys and meet people who will help shape her decision and her experiences.
Whether I was climbing a nearby ruin, wandering through a decaying spaceship, or gliding across the desert surface, Sable had me in a trance with its Mobius-inspired art style and simplistic game mechanics.
It’s all about becoming exposed to the world, challenging oneself, and learning about others. I may have glided into my final sunset in Sable, but this chapter will stick with me for years to come.
2. Halo Infinite
Halo Infinite was a return to form, and despite dropping into an alien world, I felt like I was coming home. Everything from the environments, combat and even the narrative all feel like a true Halo game. I became invested in Chief and the Weapon’s story as they piece together what happened in the events leading up to their current situation while taking out the footholds that the Banished had made up to that point.
I was smiling like an idiot at Weapon and Chief’s banter and crushing my controller in anger when I got killed by the same boss for the 15th time in a row, and I loved every second of it. It’s not a perfect game, but it means so much to me that the story that I have been following since I was a kid can truly continue in the medium that it originally was designed for.
I can’t wait to see how Zeta Halo evolves over the next few years, and I know that I will be playing this one a few dozen more times in the meantime.
1. Psychonauts 2
The best game of the year, hands down, for me was Psychonauts 2. Everything about this game was perfect from its story following Raz’s investigation into who was helping Dr. Loboto, the secret cult of Muligula, and even his own family history. All the while, we get fantastically well-designed levels themed around mental health representation. Each psyche level and the overworld are a joy to wander around and find every collectible.
The characters themselves had me grinning from ear to ear during my entire playthrough, and I still can’t get over how well this game uses facial expressions to emphasize its humor. Both the combat and the platforming felt tight, and I never got bored or had any frustration with either.
In fact, I felt like I had a ton of control to be creative in my efforts, and seeing those experiments rewarded only encouraged me to keep playing differently. If you haven’t played Psychonauts 2 yet, you owe it to yourself to give it a try. Trust me, it’ll blow your mind.