There’s a certain sensation I get whenever I’m asked to choose ten of ‘the best’ games at the end of any given year. At first, it’s exciting. It makes me feel as if I’m in some kind of exclusive club where they serve cocktails in teapots and everyone has one of those fancy cigarette filters that are hopelessly impractical. As is the case when you realise you’re actually exhaling not-very-good-for-you smoke back into your own face, however, the excitement soon shifts to a sort of sourpuss shame. Ten games? The best ones? Me?
It just feels a bit defeatist. I play so many games every year and like the vast majority of them well enough. On one hand, there are only maybe five or six games I am either completely satisfied with or will continue seeking satisfaction from for weeks, months, or years to come. On the other, there are probably 25 games from 2021 alone that could easily wrestle their way onto this list depending on whether it’s 2pm on a Tuesday or 5am on a Thursday. It feels as if my mind changes with the wind, which doesn’t seem conducive to an objective ranking of the ten best games in a 365-day period.
That’s not to mention three other issues with ranking games on a yearly basis. Firstly, these lists often forget December exists, so it’s not really a 365-day period. Poor December. Secondly, there are so many games I have yet to play on account of the fact that a) time is finite, b) games are too long, and c) the world is on fire. I still desperately want to try out Deathloop, Guardians of the Galaxy, Nier Replicant, and Lost Judgment – maybe in 2025, eh? And thirdly, I spent over 100 hours this year making my way through the Yakuza series. Does the Yakuza Remastered launch for Xbox Series X and PC count as a game from 2021? If so, it’s my number one, but for the sake of this list it seems necessary to exclude it. Also, what about major updates? I’d have put Baldur’s Gate 3’s latest patch in my top five if it wasn’t specifically labeled a ‘patch.’ What I’m trying to say is that this is messy and I’m not sure I’m the right person to hold the sweeping brush. I’m three paragraphs in and I’ve already broken all the bristles.
Still, this is my last ever post at TheGamer. Given that TG is staffed by such a remarkably smart, kind, and talented team, it’s only fair that I at least try to put something that isn’t egregiously awful together. Here are my top ten games of 2021 – the best one is at the bottom, obviously, because that’s how suspense works. Honourable mentions that didn’t quite make it include Before Your Eyes, Sable, Exo One, and The Artful Escape, the last of which I was convinced would be in my top five until I looked at my actual top five. These lists are harder than Danny Dyer thinks he is.
Have you ever wondered what it would be like to take on the apocalypse with nothing more than a frying pan and a flamethrower, particularly in a situation where the former is more powerful than the latter? If so, Eastward is the game for you.
Styled as a top-down RPG juxtaposing a retro aesthetic with modern narrative ambition, Eastward oozes character and warmth like its electric slugs ooze sluggy goo after you give them a good wallop. It’s gorgeous, witty, and staunch in asserting its own distinct identity, as well as being one of the best new indies in a year packed with them.
9. Pokemon Unite
Part of me didn’t want to include Pokemon Unite on this list purely because I am currently very angry with it. I’m sick of there being barely any Gen 2 ‘mons, salty about being booted out of Master rank, and, to be honest, still a little bit disappointed in myself for getting into a MOBA at all.
All of that being said, I’ve put a frankly absurd amount of time into Pokemon Unite this year because of how irrefutably great it is. Aside from making a historically impenetrable genre approachable, it has excellent pacing, solid structures for player retention, and Blastoise, the greatest Pokemon of all time.
P.S. When I said I’m currently angry with it, I wasn’t being exactly truthful. I just want to be angry with it. Geddit?
8. Halo Infinite
Disclaimer: Like most of you, I have not played the Halo Infinite campaign yet. Does that matter for the purpose of this list? No. Why? Because multiplayer is outstanding. Don’t believe me? Ask me how many hours I’ve played and watch me die of embarrassment.
In all seriousness, Infinite is a real statement from 343 Industries. Unlike Halo 4 and Halo 5 – both of which don’t exist and you can’t convince me otherwise – Infinite is a resounding return to form that legitimately feels like Halo. Sure, it’s got tons of new bells, whistles, and grappling hooks, but sniper headshots and half-clip gun punches haven’t felt this good in 14 yea-
Sorry, I started thinking about Halo Infinite and had to stop writing to play a match. If the campaign is even remotely decent and I wrote this list a week from now, this very well could have been much higher.
7. Forza Horizon 5
I’ve never really been a fan of driving games because I’ve never really been any good at them. Whenever I’m supposed to be off drifting and getting sick air, I usually end up spending near uncomfortable amounts of time befriending a bunch of walls, which is basically just a way of saying I crash a lot without being too self-deprecating about it.
Forza Horizon 5 is different. It’s a stunning feat of open-world design that makes each and every pixel on the screen sing. For what it’s worth, I know that’s a mixed metaphor – my point is that Forza 5 is a spectacle of audio-visual finesse. It’s also got some great, grounded dialogue and comes with near endless incentive to explore the gorgeous mountains and motorways of Mexico. Again, as someone who never really gelled with this type of game before, I can honestly say Playground’s latest roadtrip blew my socks off.
6. Beast Breaker
I am not even slightly exaggerating when I say that you need to bookmark this page now, go to your PC storefront of choice, buy Beast Breaker, install Beast Breaker, play Beast Breaker, and then come back.
Back? Let me guess: “Beast Breaker is incredible!” you’re saying to yourself. “Thanks Cian!” You’re welcome, dear reader, although for some weird reason people still aren’t playing this wildly ambitious story-driven, pinball-esque version of anthropomorphic Monster Hunter. On the off chance you didn’t take my advice and haven’t played Beast Breaker yet, I’m going to leave you to mull over that description. It’s somehow even better than it sounds.
5. The Riftbreaker
The Riftbreaker is another game that far too few people are talking about. Despite being on Game Pass and openly flaunting its killer premise – it’s a base-building survival sim in space where you slowly become best mates with your mech suit – nobody seems to be talking about what is quite frankly one of the best indies of the year.
Basically, Earth is dying. You’re a scientist tasked with making an alien planet known as Galatea 37 habitable, but it’s far more complex and nuanced than any typical space colonisation simulator. There are so many intertwining systems at play that it should be impossible to come to terms with them all, and yet The Riftbreaker is so flawlessly put together that intuiting its interconnectivity just happens naturally. The fact this was made by an indie team is ridiculous. If you have any interest in mechs, space, base-building, or good game design in general, please give it a spin.
4. Loop Hero
“Loop Hero came out in 2021?!” I hear you exclaim. Yes, reader, it did. It’s important to remember that this year was seven centuries long on account of the fact that time has well and truly morphed into a flat circle, which is quite literally part of the reason as to why this particular roguelite succeeded in resonating with so many people all over the world.
Aside from its brilliantly fragmented storytelling, retro-chic art style, and outstanding soundtrack, Loop Hero excels mostly because of how tight its core gameplay loop (eh? eh?) is. If you want something you can focus intensely on for countless hours, Loop Hero’s your man, although it’s also perfect for just vaguely paying attention to while committing to something else. Oh, and it’s coming to Switch this week – a match so perfect Heaven never did see.
3. New Pokemon Snap
You take photographs of Pokemon – what’s not to love? Aside from being a brilliant showcase of how there are no bad Pokemon and exhibiting endlessly inventive level design despite some extremely tight constraints, New Pokemon Snap is just inherently charming in a way that most other Pokemon games aren’t. Despite being a spin-off, it’s arguably my favourite Pokemon game since Let’s Go, which in turn was my favourite game since Platinum. That makes New Pokemon Snap the series’ second best game in 13 years. Will I die on this hill? Mate, I’ll fight to my last breath on it.
2. Persona 5 Strikers
While I don’t think it’s quite as good as Persona 5 Royal before it, Persona 5 Strikers was given a hard time by critics and fans alike. It obviously doesn’t include the beloved Confidant system that drove so many of Persona 5’s relationships, but also… did it need it? By the end of Persona 5 the Phantom Thieves are all best pals – further gamifying their friendship by adding another ten ranks would just feel superficial. That’s not to mention that Strikers’ story slaps hard.
On top of that, Persona 5 Strikers is one of the most successfully showy games I have ever seen, especially later on in the experience – the UI alone belongs in a museum. Combined with some tastefully revised songs, a brilliantly implemented multicity structure, and a surprisingly clean transition to musou combat, it should come as no surprise that Strikers is so high on my list.
That being said, we’re about to move on to my Last Surprise…
1. The Forgotten City
Actually, if you’ve read my review of The Forgotten City or interview with Modern Storyteller creative director Nick Pearce, this will be anything but a surprise. The Forgotten City is a marvel of design, storytelling, and creativity in general, and is absolutely my favourite game of 2021.
After starting life as a Skyrim mod, its entire development was fueled by an ambition that shines through every facet of its final iteration. While I’ve seen plenty of people claim that this was a slow year for games, I feel obliged to say that The Forgotten City would have topped my list for several other years, too. I’ve already written about it so much that there’s very little else I can say without getting into historical and philosophical weeds spanning trillions of words. All I can really say now is that you should absolutely play it.
I mean, you should play everything on this list, really – that’s the whole point, right? If you only play one though, make sure it’s The Forgotten City. Cheers.
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