2021 may not have been a great year overall, but it was a great year for video games. There were definitely ups and downs, with some severe disappointments, and great surprises. But even as the world continues its hellish descent, video games are only getting better. This list represents the games that were our favorites from last year. The games in this list are in no particular order.
I’m a little surprised that UnMetal hasn’t shown up on any other best of lists that I’ve seen. It’s too bad: It’s a game with a great sense of humor that harkens back to heyday of point and click adventure games, when LucasArts led the charge. It’s also a decidedly different take on the stealth action genre that pays homage to retro games and film. It’s told from the point of view of a hilariously unreliable narrator, and you have a hand in how the story is told, which has an effect on gameplay.
I like my sci-fi like I like my coffee: dark and looping. Er, okay, that doesn’t work. But the truth is: Returnal is a masterpiece of dark sci-fi that takes the time loop idea and executes it masterfully. Developer Housemarque has been building on their action game chops for the last few years, and Returnal is their masterpiece. It’ll be hard to top a game that has mystery and action, but I’m excited for what’s up next from Housemarque.
Ratchet and Clank: Rift Apart
If there’s a game that showcases the impressive power of the PlayStation 5, it’s Ratchet and Clank: Rift Apart. It’s a visual treat from beginning to end, and showcases the DualSense 5 controller in a way that hasn’t been done since Astro’s Playroom. Ratchet and Crank: A Rift Apart features some seriously impressive and seamless transitions. Sometimes a game comes along with a technological feat that can warm this reviewer’s cold heart, and Ratchet and Clank: A Rift Apart was a delight.
While I feel like Ratchet and Clank: A Rift Apart has some serious early 2000s vibes, Psychonauts 2 was like revisiting the past, but with modern graphics and controls. But what’s more: Psychonauts 2 is a game that is only possible from the strange mind of Tim Schaefer. It’s a game that’s not ashamed to be strange while managing to be poignant and meaningful.
Chicory: A Colorful Tale was a game that I ended up coming late to, only playing it for the first time for its Nintendo Switch release. A beautiful game that encourages creativity, Chicory also tells the story of the dark side of creativity—the doubts, dread, and other worries that can creep into the head of an artist. I haven’t really played a game that tackled that subject. It also helps that Chicory is beautiful, and heartwarming.
Unpacking was a game that was a total surprise to me. When I was covering LudoNarraCon and first fired up the demo, I had no idea it’d become one of the games I anticipated the full release of most. Here it is now on the best of 2021 list, and there’s plenty of good reasons why. Unpacking features impeccable, subtle, and emotional storytelling and manages to convey it all without any words. Gameplay is a zen garden of putting things in their place, but the real magic of it is connecting with the unnamed character you play as through the things they own, and struggling to find your own place in the world and connect and share with others. I recommend it to those looking for a good story and a nice, relaxing game. It will impact you more than you’d anticipate.
I was already excited for Lost Words: Beyond the Page before I ever clicked play, simply because it was the brainchild of Terry Pratchett’s daughter, and I was curious to see if I was as much a fan of her narratives as her father’s. It didn’t make it to the best of list by way of fanservice though. Lost Words: Beyond the Page is a deeply affecting tale told in a completely unique way, where you handle the pain of growing up, losing loved ones, and change through two interwoven narratives, one of which is your own journal. It hit close to home after a year of loss, but was also one of the most unique games I’d played, too. You platform amongst the words in one place, and use them as powers in the fantasy world you’ve created, and the way that the narratives speak to each other, as well as the way the gameplay is portrayed visually, make it a can’t miss in my book. Just remember to have some tissues handy, as it doesn’t shy away from provoking your own memories and feelings.
I was lucky to come to Inscryption completely blind. If you are as lucky, stop reading now, and just play it. It’s a rogue lite card battler that has a bunch of tricks up its sleeve. Once I got a glimpse behind the curtain, I was obsessed until I could get to the bottom of its mystery. It turns out; it’s a pretty good card game, too. Inscryption isn’t just about its story twists. It takes the roguelike/rogue lite genre and makes a lot of clever changes and introduces interesting mechanics.
I’m a sucker for soulslike games, and Death’s Door is a good one. It features an interesting world with a beautiful art style. It also has great controls and fun, satisfying combat, as well as great design that makes exploration fun. Pair that with a great soundtrack and interesting characters, and writer Alex Orona was right to assume it’d make this list handily.
It has been so long without a new Metroid game, I wasn’t sure if Dread could possibly live up to years of fan expectations and disappointments, but Nintendo proved that it still had the chops to make a good Metroid game, and exceeded even die-hard fans’ expectations with a game some go so far as to call the best game Nintendo’s made since Breath of the Wild. Metroid Dread was my favorite metroidvania of the year—let’s just hope it’s not the last Metroid game we see this decade.
I’m a little surprised that It Takes Two made the top of so many game of the year lists—but I’m delighted it has. That’s not to say it doesn’t deserve the recognition: It Takes Two was one of my favorite memories of 2021, and one of my favorite co-op games ever. It’s thrilling, fun, emotional—and it manages to produce great gameplay through a vast array of genres and styles. It’s charming, visually stunning and emotionally affecting, with plenty of room for replayability and making memories with the people closest to you.
Valheim really took the world by storm even in previews, with a Viking journey unlike those we’d taken before. For us, it held a special place, as we played it with friends almost day and night, building bigger and bigger bases, hunting bigger game and bosses, and raising a whole lot of bees. We lost some boats, went on some epic journeys and suffered some serious setbacks, but this brand of survival suited us well, and we expect it was the same for the many other players who got on the Valheim boat. We can’t wait to see what will come next for Valheim, and hope to return to our base with our friends and start some new adventures.
While Vermintide 2 has been satisfying our need for a grimdark world and some pretty damn satisfying combat for a while now, we fell off it a bit with Winds of Magic. Enter this year’s Chaos Wastes and our four person group just couldn’t get enough. Chaos Wastes introduced random threats and random boons that make every outing treacherous and potentially rewarding, as you can end up an overpowered version of your favorite character who shoots chain lightning with every crit or fight through it with talents you’d rather trade out. Not only that, it was during Chaos Wastes we met up with Kerillian’s completely OP and fun Sister of the Thorn and more recently, Saltzpyre’s Warrior Priest. We struggled through plenty of battles and laughed our way through others, but there was never a dull moment and we’d sign up for another match right now, so it’s only natural this made our list.
There’s even more games that really blew us away this year, but all good things must come to an end. If you feel like we’ve missed some of your favorites, don’t hesitate to let us know in the comments. And, if you love some of the same games we did, tell us some of your favorite memories!
We’ll keep bringing you great video game content in 2022 while we search for this coming year’s finest, too, so stay tuned!