I unfortunately don’t have as much time to blog as I once did, but I at least like to sit down to craft a list of my favorite games every year. I thought this might be the year that tradition ended, but I have finally compiled my top ten for 2021. A little later than I’d hoped, but better late than never! Here is the first half of my list where I highlight six great releases from last year (I snuck in an extra game I didn’t feel right leaving off with a tie at ten!):
10. (tie) Unpacking and Little Nightmares II
Unpacking both played to and occasionally clashed with my obsessive organizational side. So while I enjoyed the gameplay, I tended to play it in short bursts (and preferred to unpack as much of my boxes as possible before I started sorting it out!). What I unequivocally loved though was the storytelling. It’s subtle and really plays to the strength of the medium. There were these little “Eureka!” moments I’d have when I unpacked something and realized what it meant for the lead character. I felt great joy when she finally had her own proper workspace. And of course, there was the “Fuck you” moment of trying to find a place for one particular item in one particular living arrangement. But even that makes the journey that follows more satisfying. Unpacking is an unconventional yet lovely gaming experience whose story beats remain stuck in my mind some months later.
With Little Nightmares II, Tarsier Studios delivers a wonderfully creepy horror experience and a more than worthy follow-up to the 2017 original. The game is positively dripping with spooky atmosphere. Dolls and mannequins are used to great effect to create tense moments, hair-raising chase sequences and some truly ghastly creature designs. Like its predecessor, LNII combines puzzle-solving and cinematic platforming that recalls Playdead’s Limbo and Inside while the new AI partner mechanic makes it feel like a more horrific version of Ico. Released early on in 2021, Little Nightmares II is not to be forgotten when looking back at last year’s best titles.
9. Metroid Dread
There are things I don’t really like about Metroid Dread. Mainly, that it seems to lead you by the nose on where to go next. I like to get lost and have to figure out where to go in these types of games by examining the map and this game doesn’t really allow for that. I wasn’t a big fan of the E.M.M.I. sections either. And yet, this is still probably my favorite Metroid game. The controls are so slick and your traversal maneuvers so cool that moving around the world is just an absolute joy — especially given the speed at which you can do it. The game also has its fair share of extremely memorable and satisfying boss battles. Throw in some cool bits of lore to uncover and Dread is a welcome and long overdue 2D addition to the series.
8. Psychonauts 2
The strength of the original Psychonauts came in the unique worlds it created as you explored the inner workings of people’s minds. But it was sold to me as a platformer and from that perspective it left me wanting due to some fiddly controls and questionable level design. So my big question for the sequel was: how would it play? I had zero doubt that Double Fine would create another set of imaginative worlds to explore – and they even managed to top the first game in that regard – but would it be something I actually enjoyed playing? I’m happy to report that it was! Not only does the platforming feel good and have a quality moveset, there were some genuinely impressive level layouts. The combat is still meh, but when you take the charming oddball characters, ingenious worldbuilding and engaging narrative of the series and combine that with a fun platforming component, you end up with a vastly improved sequel that I can now recommend to any 3D platforming fan.
7. Resident Evil Village
I have just loved this latest stretch of Resident Evil games that included it’s first-person reinvention with RE7 and the pair of recent remakes, and Village keeps that hot streak alive. In some ways, this eighth major entry feels like a handful of miniature horror adventures. The first plays like a traditional RE game as you slowly explore a castle and are stalked by a giant figure while others go in different directions like psychological horror or full-on action. While that first area is my preferred version of Resident Evil, I still enjoyed all the other parts too. And I really liked the titular village area – a central hub that expands as you gain new keys/items and acts as the connective tissue for the game’s more disparate locales. Village is another hit for the storied horror franchise and I am already excited for wherever this series takes us next.
6. F.I.S.T.: Forged in Shadow Torch
This is just a well-done Metroidvania title. Once you get a few abilities unlocked, it really comes into its own. Combat is super fun. You have plenty of combos to unleash on enemies. Multiple weapons to swap between on the fly. Dashes and counters give you cool ways to avoid damage. And there are some superb boss fights throughout the adventure. Movement is equally joyful with an intricately-designed map filled with a nice variety of environments to explore. And while not all the character designs worked for me and the story was just kind of there, the world felt unique – anthropomorphic characters in a stunningly realized dieselpunk city. Given the plethora of games released in the subgenre over the last ten years, F.I.S.T. doesn’t deliver a lot Metroidvania fans haven’t seen before, but overall it remains an impressive package, one I found myself hooked on playing from start to finish.
That covers the first half of my favorite games from 2021. Keep an eye out for my top five games of last year in Part 2 which I hope to have up by the weekend. Thanks for reading!