Game Of The Year is always one of my favorite times, because it’s a chance to look back and remember all the great times we had with gaming over the past 365 odd days. In that time I usually finish around 60 or so games, be that smaller bite-sized games that can be completed in a couple hours, or a single sitting… or some that take weeks or months to finish. This year I might open up my acceptance level of games I will consider, as well… Gaming has changed a lot over the last several years.
I was staunchly opposed to considering a game to be in my game of the year list that wasn’t finished… those in Early Access, where they haven’t met the official 1.0 release. But the beginning days of Early Access have really dwindled, and Early Access is quite different than it used to be. Originally Early Access was basically a very broad pre-alpha tech demo to entice people to pay for funding the development of a game. Now, after several years of trial and error with this formula, Early Access now seems more like it’s a way to continue to fund development of an already fairly feature complete title, with a continued stream of revenue that helps add new ideas and components to an already fairly fleshed out game.
That’s why this year I have chosen to include games that are technically in Early Access, but with the caveat that they are pretty much full games, that aren’t missing massive chunks of gameplay, mechanics, or levels.
It mostly is because as the years have gone on, Early Access titles are taking longer and longer to come out to 1.0 status, and also, the fact that these two years have really devastated the gaming landscape. No one likes talking about it, but the closing down of studios and forcing people to not be able to work together has destroyed so many businesses, that there just aren’t that many games being finished anymore. And with that middle tier of budget gaming already gone, big publisher titles are even fewer and farther between releases. Indie gaming has been having to fill that void more and more, and it’s overtaken the gaming landscape to where it’s the majority of releases now.
So, as I change my own pre-requisites for my personal Games of the Year list, I hope you spend the time to read and understand my thoughts on these games. Like I said earlier, I usually complete around 60 games in a year, but this year it was far less, with moving across the country at the beginning of the year, and for work having to travel back and forth across the country every couple of weeks for the majority of the year. And just in general, not having as much time to play games. But be that as it may, here is my personal list of Games of the Year for 2021
I avoided DeathLoop like the plague because of two things. It was an Arkane game which I don’t really enjoy, and I didn’t want to be spoiled if I ever did pick it up. When it got down to $30 on a Steam Sale, I couldn’t pass it up. Getting to the point where I felt comfortable dying and loosing certain pickups and weapons, but being able to keep what I really wanted took some time. But, once I got to that point, I couldn’t put the game down until I took out all 7 targets in a single run.
Colt and Julianna have very good chemistry and the dialog is quick and snappy in a way you don’t see much in games. The villains all sound like they were taken out of a more realistic Borderlands game, and the clockwork nature of the levels in different times of the day made the game feel like the Hitman games on acid. All while having a similar art design that looks lifted from We Happy Few.
Figuring out when and where to take out the lead “Visionaries' ' and also explore the much larger than they appear levels really stretched out the game. Learning what path to take in the morning versus the afternoon, and which parts of the map were closed off until I completed certain objective took more time than I’d like to admit, but every minute in the world of BlackReef was filled with excitement and chaos and a bit of luring multiple enemies into corridors where I blasted them all to smithereens.
It has some issues with helping the player understand and where to go at different times, but never felt frustrating. I did feel like I wasted large swathes of time because I didn’t complete an earlier piece of an objective that I didn’t know about in a different level earlier in the day. A bit better tracking and menus would have helped that immensely.
Most weapons feel satisfying, and being able to keep or get rid of certain ones helped me get over the fear of losing all sense of progress every time I looped or died. I do wish I was able to switch out powers or weapons in the middle of a mission, or even see the different ones and which perks I had equipped would have really helped too.
Deathloop is a game I didn’t think I would get into at all, and once I learned a few things on my own about the game, that itself didn’t do a great job of explaining, I couldn’t put it down. I even went back and got a different ending which I never do. It was that enjoyable of an experience, seeing a full plan come together, going to different levels, at different times and plotting a very devious plan to kill multiple VIPs in a single day. It’s really groovy.
9. Resident Evil 4 VR
I never thought I’d play any Resident Evil game all the way through. After giving my best friend the original Playstation game because I couldn’t deal with the survival horror genre and zombies when we were kids, I kinda just wrote off the series, no matter how much people talked about it. But once those REmasters started rolling out, I inevitably was drawn in to give it the ol’ college try, as I was much older; and the updated movement system, playing like a real video game, was integrated.
Resident Evil 4 on it’s own is a fantastic game, or so I've been told. I tried playing it several years ago on the PC, but the modding community was in the middle of a full graphical overhaul that I foolishly decided to wait for, and patiently waited for it to become finalized. That was in 2014, it is now the end of 2021 and the mod is still not finished. So I decided to just get the VR version, since, even though I knew I’d be scared out of my pants, it would be better than waiting around another 7 years for that mod to become a reality.
Playing any game in VR is always going to be more interesting and immersive. Check out my “Why VR Is Awesome” video if you don’t believe me, even older games, ones that came out on the GameCube are better for it. Playing as Leon running around a old Mexican village, inhabited by weird villagers that are not Zombies, but mutated creatures, thanks to the infected parasites given to the town by an evil order; it just feels really incredible to play this game, during October, in VR and feel like I’m inside that village.
Sure some of the textures are lower resolution, but the gameplay feels solid, and aiming in VR instead of the awful weird over the shoulder aiming of the original, is so much better. Being chased by a angry mob of not-zombies and getting cornered only to drop my knife and get my head lopped off by a chainsaw wielding spaniard is something I’ll never forget.So many nights I spent cuddled up in a blanket, in silence and almost screaming as something caught me by surprise. I understand now why so many people hold this game in such high regard. It’s not my personal cup of tea, but when the game is just that good, and gets a really good VR re-release… I find it hard NOT to put it in my Top 10 list for the year, it deserves it!
Over the years, since Early Access has been around, the term really has changed a lot, and the games that have been released under the “Early Access” banner have been unbelievably muddy. Valheim is one of those games that really shows the strength of the Release Genre Title. I was swept up in the hype surrounding this game only after about two weeks. In that time, the game sold millions of copies on PC, and everyone seemed to be gushing over how great it was. So I had to try it. I felt fairly uncertain, but being able to load up my own server made me feel like I didn’t have to worry too much, and exploring the weird and colorful world of Valheim is something that still sticks into my mind today.
Starting off with nothing, and learning how to build weapons and forts and cooking stations, getting everything ready and trekking out into the unknown, and escaping fights by the skin of my teeth really put this game above the rest. Even just in the first month of launch, it felt like a fully finished game that could only benefit from a couple updates and the devs could have called it a day right there. But, the game is getting updates and more things are being added all the time, but to me, I really don’t need all the fancy new things, I’m content just spending time alone, exploring and building forts and marking new places on my map to come back to when I have better gear.
The only issue I really have is how ugly the game looks. It utilizes a very low texture with some great lighting features that makes the game stand out above the rest, but also in a pretty bad way. Something about it just looks off. Upping the textures to something much higher in resolution would only benefit the game, but while I might not like the look of it, it has a unique artstyle that isn’t easily forgotten.
7. Little Nightmares II
One thing that always bugged me about this series, is even though not a single word is spoken, or written… There is an entire lore that people follow, which character names and backstories that aren’t anywhere in the game, yet people have built up this whole outside world that these games are a part of. I’m sorry but I’m not calling the character Six, when it’s just “Yellow Rain Coat Kid You Play As”.
I honestly never thought I’d be excited for a game that looks so creepy and twisted as this game does, but for whatever reason, I was so drawn to it’s dark and eerie artstyle that I couldn’t stop playing it. Having the sequel be another chapter in the main character’s life, and getting to explore more and more of the unnearving world was just a pure joy, with side helpings of terror.
Why I waited till around 1am to start playing this game, I don’t know. I hate scary movies or stories, and this game has some of the most terrifying levels. In an abandoned hospital complete with flickering lights, manquines in statuesque poses that chase you down, or filthy slobs trying to devour you… it’s all just really fighting, but in the best way possible.
Little Nightmares II took me around five and a half hours to play through, and with a few parts that I had to retry more than I’d like to say it took me, I ultimately ended up having an really great time with the game. Each section that you stumble into feels so well designed and the world is something that you don’t want to look at, but can’t help but stare at just like the static displaying tube TVs zombifying the inhabitants of the world. Short and sweet with a little bit of terror mixed in.
6. Forza Horizon 5
The Horizon festival has landed down in Mexico with the fifth outing, and it’s split of the Forza Motorsport series is so vastly superior, I am honestly baffled why they even bother with the Motorsport version of Forza every other year. The bombastic crazy fast paced arcade style suits the series much better, even with the real world cars plastered over the landscape.
The open world hub, allowing you to drive in any direction on over 500 different roads and partake in hundreds of different activities, all while seeing other real life players launch themselves into the air, off jumps, doing donuts or parked on the side of the road pulling up an in game map… It just feels so right.
Even though I’m not a multiplayer person, I did a few races and participated in an impromptu drag race with a fellow car randomly, not really doing much. While he beat me with his Lamborghini, my little suped up Delorean put up a great fight and I keeped up fairly well.
Mexico’s lush forests were my favorite location, but I did have fun blasting the dunes in a buggy and tearing through coastal cities and treacherous mountain ranges as well. The variety of locales was much broader in my mind than what I thought there were going to be, and I’m glad I stuck with the game till the very end. I could have maybe stopped trying to drive all 525 different roads and focused more on events, but over the course of 50+ hours driving around, I never got bored. Wherever the Horizon Festival sets up it’s tents to cause mass chaos next… I’ll be ready to drop out of whatever cargo plane and race any vehicle in a heartbeat.
5. Metroid Dread
When the fifth Metroid game was announced earlier in the year, I didn’t care at all, as I never have completed any of the Metroid games. It was just something I never thought I’d be able to do, as I thought the games required way too much backtracking. However, thanks to a single post about the timeline of the games, I was intrigued enough to try my hand at the series, and I ended up playing the 5 mainline 2D games back to back in the span of a couple months.
Metroid Dread takes everything the series is known for an cranks up the action, terror and atmosphere to it’s ultimate hieght. Samus has never been faster, and the level design and atmosphere of the new planet weaves together in a really interesting way. Each section of the planet’s catacombs and tunnels feels different and unique. The new E.M.M.I.s that show up and hunt Samus down in certain sections make the game become more survival horror at times.
The single game’s flaw, I believe, is the fact that it’s just another time where Samus has all her powers stripped away, and she must regain them one by one. I did love the addition of some new arm cannon beams and even the story that helps bridge some of the gaps between Samus’ upbringing really showcases how good Nintendo can be at stories when they really try. Samus doesn’t have much to say in the game, but when she does… It means something.
While it’s the 5th and what seems like final story in the 2D Metroid series, it’s ends on a high note, and without counting AM2R (A fan remake of the Game Boy exclusive Metroid 2, and not counting Metroid Returns on the 3DS) it’s without a doubt the best 2D Metroid game. I’m so happy I was able to go through the entire series within a couple months for the first time, and I finally understand Metroid games. They are meant to be able to be played over and over again, and getting all the powerups in your first run is just not feasible.
4. Guardians Of The Galaxy
I’m tired and bored to death of Marvel and their formulas. Worse off, I’m still partially bitter with how they keep taking D list characters and turning them into billion dollar franchises. In the early 2000’s, if you told me kids would want to dress up as Iron Man for Halloween, I would have laughed. But even complete E listers like the Guardians Of The Galaxy are some of the most beloved SuperHeroes in the Marvel pantheon.
So when the surprise announcement at E3 this year was a Guardians of the Galaxy game, I was captivated, and then immediately disinterested. The game had a fairly poor showing and even until the last day before the game got released, I had zero desire to play it. But since this year, like last, there has been barely anything new to play, I bought it just hoping that it would be decent enough to hold my interest until the next game to come out.
From the instant the game starts up, you’ll get treated to Star-Lord’s signature mixtape of classic 80’s rock, and being able to groove out to tunes as a teenage Peter Quill on his birthday with his mom for the first 15 minutes of the game… It's so lovingly crafted that I honestly knew this game was going to defy every expectation that I had.
Guardians takes the rag-tag team of heroes for hire to unbelievable locations and planets, fighting monsters and dealing with crisis after crisis. All while dealing with their own inner-personal relationships within the team. The game is extremely dialogue heavy, and I would love to see the actual script for the game, because within the 20+ hours of gameplay I had, I can’t remember more than a minute going by without someone talking. It’s crazy, but in an awesome way.
The game is a mashup of both Mass Effect combat and Uncharted style exploration of levels. Never really able to go too far off the beaten path, but the conversations keep your interest as you spend a few minutes trying to cross a chasm to get a new unlockable outfit for your team.
It is just another game in the “Don’t judge a book by it’s cover” category, and also shows how humor in games can be great when given the love and care and understanding of what makes characters great. Not just going for the snarky one-liner or shoving a meme that doesn’t belong, just to fit a trend.
3. Subnautica: Below Zero
The day the game was announced as a sequel to the original Subnautica, it showed up in Early Access on steam… I bought it without hesitation. I ended up playing an hour or so, before being puzzled as to why I couldn’t get VR working with it. Only to find out later that VR wasn’t planned for it… even though the original game was one of the stand out VR games on the market.
Below Zero had several years in development, and major setbacks because of writers leaving and the game’s script being scrapped and starting from scratch. I all but lost hope for the project, until this year when the game was finally announced as being finished, and basically at the same time, a group of modders implemented VR back into the new game.
This allowed me to spend dozens of hours hanging out below the frozen depths of an alien planet and scanning local flora and fauna. Along with uncovering an ancient alien race and mystery. While the gameplay didn’t change much from the 2017 original, there was much more on land sections and dealing with heat conservation just as much as oxygen got the game to feel a bit more tedious in areas.
VR is the absolute reason why I spent the time I did with this game, and it’s a must for it. The road might have been much bumpier than the original, and it’s atmosphere, level design and story are not as interesting. But exploring the frozen tundra and it’s underwater caves, and terrifying depths really does wonders for the immersive and special experience you only get with VR.
2. Hitman 3
Take what made the Hitman series so memorable in the modern age and just put out more of the same great content, and what comes of it, is an unbelievable ending to a trilogy that just several years ago, I would have scoffed at. While I still believe the episodic release of 2016’s Hitman is the ideal way to deliver the game and story, having a third game finish up Agent 47’s world tour was just as memorable as the first training mission.
Levels like Dubai or the wine orchard and distillery give plenty of the sudo-serious and ridiculous kills, but some new design choices for things like the final Train level that is basically a murder hallway was unbelievable.
It was hard not to just go right into the next level and play through the game in a sitting or two, but Hitman becomes so much more when you sit down and go back through the same level a few times, always changing up your playstyle and attempting new quests and different ways to complete the mission. Stumbling upon a way to secretly kill a target using their own wine press, and squishing them like a grape is just too satisfying to just pass up.
The VR version was also released, but only for PlaystationVR and not available for an entire year on PC… Which is not only stupid but baffling. However, it seems like the VR implementation is only weeks away as of this writing, so I can’t wait!
- Psychonauts 2
This should be no surprise to anyone who knows me and knows that my favorite game of all time is the original 2005 Psychonauts. Whenever someone asks me why it is my favorite game, I give them just a few examples of the different levels, such as the Hexagonal gameboard that you play against Napoleon, or the playwright’s constantly changing stage production, or my personal favorite, the MilkMan’s 1950’s government coverup level. Each one filled with not just imagination, but comedy as well.
And getting a full blown sequel to that game, one I’ve been waiting for, over 16 years to get the answers to, well that just seems like it should be up at the top of the list. And with a wait that long, there are so many different things that could have gone wrong. Especially when the game was originally pitched as a Kickstarter via Fig, and then Microsoft coming in and buying the developer/publisher studio outright. Along with constant delays and the project ballooning much larger than the original pitch scope.
But thankfully, none of the fears that I had ever came remotely true. Psychonauts 2 continues the story right where the last one left off (however there was a VR game that takes place literally as the first game ended and is a bit of a side track) With Raz as an unofficial Psychonaut, and out to figure out what happened to the Head of the Psychonauts (and his girlfriend’s father). Having a new hubworld, one that is the official Psychonauts’ headquarters, and being around so many other Psychonauts really helped shape the larger world of the game.
The original voice actors return, which gives it the same feeling as picking up a book you were in the middle of and put it down to go on vacation. While the game took 16 years off in between sequels, in the game world it’s only been like a day or two. And no one has missed a beat. The levels are still as interesting and strange, just like the psyche of broken and twisted individuals, and there is still plenty of platforming and finding figments around the game to make it feel like a true sequel.
My own personal feeling about some of the subject matter aside, it’s basically a perfect game, and the way a true sequel should feel. Bigger and larger in scope, with the stakes higher, keeping core main characters around and introducing a new set of friends. Along with plenty of side stuff to keep you busy along the way while reaching the main objective. Psychonauts 2 was well worth the wait, and I couldn’t be happier to have 100% it on my first playthrough. It is my absolute favorite game I played this year, in 2021