Saturday, December 25, 2021

The Best Games I Played in 2021: Non-Yakuza Edition


Whereas last year I spent most of my time playing older games that I kept meaning to play but never got around to until the pandemic gave me plenty of time to play through an extremely long game like Persona 5, this year I split my time between playing through the Yakuza series and trying to keep up with some of the more notable titles of the year. As such my list for 2021 consists mainly of games that actually came out this year with a few older titles sprinkled in, and I've split them into two lists rather than the undifferentiated list of all games that I used last year since I feel like I can actually field a decent best of the year list. And I also put all the Yakuza games I played in their own list so that they don't swamp this one.

Probably the biggest absence worth mentioning before getting into it is Metroid Dread, which I haven't had time to play yet but which would almost certainly be on there given how much I love Metroidvanias, and by all account it seems like a great one. Feel free to mentally slot it anywhere in the top five, which I'm pretty sure is where it will end up when I actually get around to it.

Older Games

Titanfall 2 (PS4, 2016)

I'm not sure there's much more that can be said about Titanfall 2 at this point. It's probably one of the five best games of the last decade and pretty much everyone knows that by now, even if it didn't get the blockbuster sales that it deserved. Great to play, great story, has maybe the best level in any shooter ever ("Effect and Cause"). A stone cold classic.

Judgment (PS4, 2018) 

Technically not a Yakuza game, since while it does take place in Kamurocho and within the same continuity as the other games, it features different characters and is about solving crimes instead of committing them, so it's sneaking in. While it doesn't have the sweep or hit the operatic heights of its parent series, Judgment has maybe the best story that has been told in that universe, tasking the player with solving a mystery that goes all the way to the top. You get all the best stuff from Yakuza - fun combat, silly minigames, a great setting - but told with a leanness that really fits the shift in genre.

Monster Train (Xbox Series X, 2020)

I signed up for Xbox Game Pass this year, and while that's been good for playing some of the newer games Microsoft and their subsidiaries put out, it's been even better for trying out older games that I missed when they came out, or are from genres that I don't generally play. Monster Train falls into both categories, since I thought it looked cool when it came out last year, but I also have little grounding in card games so didn't feel like spending money to check out a game I might completely bounce off. Being able to download it as part of a subscription service completely removes that worry about wasting money, so I finally played it and really got into it. The design of the game and its various demonic creatures is extremely charming, the mechanics of the card game itself are easy to pick up, and the sense of progression as you get better is very rewarding.

Ori and the Will of the Wisps (Xbox Series X, 2020)

Another game that I likely wouldn't have played unless it was right there on Game Pass, this sequel to Ori and the Blind Forest feels like one of the most thoroughly complete games I've played in a while. Everything about it fits together so perfectly, from the smooth movement to the beautiful art, to create a game that feels so seamless. Considering that it's a game all about exploring its world and learning new abilities in the best Metroidvania tradition, it's imperative that the movement feel good, and the movement in Ori is great. Running around that gorgeous world is an absolute joy, and going on an epic journey with that little guy made for one of my favourite games in recent memory.

Astro's Playroom (PS5, 2020)

It's a low bar, sure, but Astro's Playroom has to be the best tech demo ever made. Included with the PS5, it's an absolutely adorable platform adventure that has you piloting Astrobot through extremely cute levels that double as a journey through the history of the PlayStation, collecting peripherals from various eras and running past recreations of iconic games like the The Last of Us and Metal Gear Solid. Beyond the pure nostalgia of being reminded of old games, and even old sounds and loading screens, it's an immensely fun game to play, and a case could be made (now, by me) that - since only like six PS5-exclusive games have come out in the past year - it's still the best game on the console.

2021 Games

Honorable Mention: Babble Royale (PC)

Throwing this in here since it's in early access, and it feels weird to include a game that isn't finished. But even in its current state, this is one of the most fun spins on the battle royale I've played since Tetris 99. Essentially " the death!" it has a small group of players drop onto a board with a starter letter, then requires you to keep coming up with new words to move closer to the centre of the gradually shrinking map, all the while trying to take out your opponents by making words that intersect with theirs. It's an extremely clever take on a genre that has so rapidly codified, and seeing those familiar elements used for, well, Scrabble is a delight. I'm really excited to see what happens with it over the months and years ahead.

Honorable Mention: Tetris Effect Connected (PS5)

I can't in good conscience include an update to a game that is three years old as a proper entry, but Tetris Effect is one of my favourite games ever and the addition of a multiplayer mode that allows you to play cooperatively with other people really breathed new life into something that I had already spent countless hours playing.

8. The Artful Escape (Xbox Series X)

Truth be told, there's not a lot of game in The Artful Escape. As you leap through space playing the nephew of a famous folk musician, wailing out frenetic solos across the galaxy while the voice of Carl Weathers guides you, there isn't much in the way of an actual challenge. At most you do some simple rhythm games to win aliens over to your side, and most of the time you just run to the right while holding down a button to make the music go. But on the flipside, all that wild stuff I just mentioned is happening around you as you run to the right and hold down a button to make the music go. The Artful Escape has an abundance of style and imagery to it, and its story of self-acceptance and actualization, while pretty basic, is at least wrapped in a package that is constantly engaging to watch and pretty funny. Not a long game, nor a challenging one, but a good time.

7. Halo Infinite (Xbox Series X) 

This is only so low on the list because I haven't had much time to play it, but what little I have played has been fantastic. I only played the first two Halo games before losing interest in the series, so when the trailer for Infinite debuted last year, and the lackluster reaction necessitated a lengthy delay, I didn't feel much need to check it out. The effusive response to the game's multiplayer, coupled with it being on Game Pass, persuaded me to give it a try and it's as smooth and polished a shooter as I've played in years. The action is satisfying, the story is engaging (even though, as someone returning to the series after a long absence, I have only a tenuous grasp of what is going on) and the addition of a grappling hook, while seemingly simple, does completely open up the movement and possibilities of the game even more than the pseudo-open world structure. With more time I'm sure it will rise higher, but for now this feels like the right place for it.

6. Loop Hero (PC)

I'm sure there are antecedents to Loop Hero that provide a point of comparison and I just don't know them, but it truly feels like Four Quarters, the small team behind it, created their own genre with this mix of the adventure, strategy and rogue-like genres. Each playthrough finds the player character wandering through a void, fighting monsters, which is fairly standard on its face, except the user doesn't control the hero, who moves automatically on a pre-set loop, instead they control the world around them, placing buildings, mountains and fields, which spawn new enemies, alter the hero's stats, or produce resources that the player can use to improve their camp in the hub world. It's a strange, unique game that can be tricky to learn, but extremely rewarding and varied once you learn the ropes.

5. Bowser's Fury (Nintendo Switch)

I was excited to play the Switch release of Super Mario 3D World since I, like everyone, never bought a WiiU and so didn't get a chance to play it when it originally came out. But while I played through that over the course of a weekend and had a really good time with it, I spent far more time playing through this open world experiment that was included alongside it. Like most of the other 3D Mario games, Bowser's Fury has great platforming and movement, fun puzzles and a sense of adventure that few other games can match, but the ability to travel pretty much anywhere in its watery hub world and try different challenges in any order really shakes up the formula in a way which is both simple and profound. 

Though not technically a full game, the extent to which it succeeds at taking something so familiar and making it feel fresh is startling, and I really hope they try the same approach for whatever the next full Mario game ends up being. It also inspired one of the funnier James Austin Johnson Trump videos, which you can't say for Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart.

4. Psychonauts 2 (Xbox Series X)

I had not played the original Psychonauts prior to this year, so when I fired up the sequel I didn't really know what to expect outside of the general premise of psychics who go into the minds of other people and explore their psyches. I certainly got that, and the game is an extremely inventive adventure that makes great use of its premise to craft colorful, imaginative levels (the highlight being a psychedelic trip through the mind of a psych-rock singer voiced by Jack Black) and provide the player character, Raz, with plenty of opportunities to use his various powers to conquer both enemies and puzzles. 

But beyond that, it's also an incredibly sweet and nuanced story about forgiveness and trauma, delivered with wit and humour by the team at Double Fine. Considering the sixteen year gap between the first and second games, this could have easily been one of those games that lands with a complete thud and fails to capture the magic of the original, but this really feels like they captured lightning in a bottle a second time.

3. Hitman 3 (PS5)

I have long believed that the Hitman series, particularly the recent run of games produced by IO Interactive, are the perfect games for the age of live-streaming for one simple reason; it doesn't matter how good or bad you are at the games, it's still so much fun to watch people play them. Watching a total master complete a level with a Silent Assassin rating? Exhilarating. Watching someone who has no idea what they're doing Inspector Closseau their way through a level and leaving dozens of bodies in their wake? Hilarious, some of the easiest and most plentiful slapstick you are likely to find online. 

Yet, despite having watched Giant Bomb's Hitsmas videos multiple times, I had never actually played any of the games until this year, when IO rounded out their trilogy with this final(?) installment. Turns out it was a really good time to hop on board, because the six levels that comprise Hitman 3 contain some of the most fun level design I've seen in years. 

There's tremendous variety from level to level, whether it's scaling a skyscraper to kill two of the most powerful men in the world, impersonating a detective to solve an Agatha Christie-style murder in a country manor, or prowling through a German rave, trying to identify unknown assassins who are looking for you, the game constantly changes things up and keeps you on your toes even if you are following the relatively straightforward throughline of the story. But then within each level, there are so many ways that you can go about taking down your targets, and the game is so endlessly replayable as you try and investigate every nook and cranny. And that's before factoring in the Elusive Target events that IO periodically release that offer even more opportunities to explore familiar levels in new exciting ways. Honestly, it's ridiculous how good and generous these games are.

2. Death's Door (PS5)

I'm not exceptionally good at video games. Like, I can solve puzzles okay and my reaction times are pretty decent, but I've never been particularly outstanding. What I do have, though, is perseverance, which is why I tend to gravitate towards games like Cuphead, which have reputations for being difficult, because I know that I'll be able to beat them if I just put in enough time and effort. I will grind those games down before they grind me down.

Which is why I fell in love so quickly and so completely with Death's Door, an extremely cute action-adventure game in which I died a lot. Playing as a crow who functions as a grim reaper of sorts, the game takes you through this decaying, stagnant world overrun by creatures who are determined to absolutely flatten you into a fine paste as you try to defeat large monsters and claim their souls. It's very indebted to The Legend of Zelda series in that you explore various dungeons, learning different skills that allow you to progress and ultimately defeat each dungeon's big boss, but the game has its own distinctive Gothic fairytale look and atmosphere which keeps it from ever feeling derivative. 

More importantly, the combat is extremely fun and honed to a fine edge. Learning the patterns of the enemies, particularly in the tougher boss battles, is very satisfying, since you can so easily see yourself improving every time you fail, to the extent that I would often get completely wrecked the first time I took on a boss, then after five or six attempts, I would defeat them while hardly taking any damage. Which is not to say that those fights wound up being easy, since winning still requires split-second dodges and laser-focused play, but that balance between being so difficult that every boss initially seems impossible, yet being accessible enough that you don't just throw up your hands after the tenth defeat, is a hard one to manage. Death's Door strikes it beautifully.

1. Inscryption (PC)

There's no good one to put this across in print, but as soon as I started writing this entry, I let out a big sigh because everyone who writes or talks about Inscryption very quickly falls into some variation on the same cliche - "Look, it's fantastic, but I don't want to spoil anything, you should really just play it." - and it really is hard to avoid it by the very nature of the game. Inscryption is nominally a card game in which you pull different creatures from a deck - squirrels, wolves, bears, various and sundry monsters - and place them opposite your opponent, the aim being to destroy all of their cards, and then do damage against the opponent until they are defeated or concede. Fairly standard stuff, familiar to anyone who has played Slay the Spire or any of the similar card battling games that have proliferated in the last few years.

Then there's the other stuff. The stuff you can't really talk about.

Inscryption...changes. Even before it changes, it messes with you and subverts your expectations. When you start playing, you see that you're sat at a table opposite a malevolent-seeming figure who explains the rules to you, and it seems like a simple enough set up. Then, your opponent asks you to get something for him, and you realise that you can move around, and that in the cabin where this...person has confined you are a bunch of escape room-style puzzles that you can solve for extra cards or to advance the story. And underpinning it all is an atmosphere of quiet menace that is genuinely unsettling, even before the really creepy stuff kicks in.

But then again, you can't really talk about that stuff. 

The most important thing I can say about Inscryption is that it is really, really fun to play, and that is key to why it is my game of the year. Strip out the all the weird stuff, and you still have a really well put together card game which is unforgiving if you mess up, but also open enough that, thanks to the ways in which you can upgrade and alter your cards, you can create some extremely powerful and broken attacks that just chew through everything. If that central core wasn't so robust, then everything else would just be oh-so-clever window dressing for a mediocre game. But Inscryption is fundamentally a really involving and engrossing card game. At least, initially.

Look, it's fantastic, but I don't want to spoil anything, you should really just play it.