The first proper year following a new console release will always be a big and interesting one. Usually, you expect the pace to be set from each company, and the first twelve months can give you a pretty good idea of what types of projects each prominent gaming manufacturer will focus on. Well, usually that’s the case: but with COVID-19 still delaying projects worldwide and consoles still proving to be harder to find than golden nuggets in a river, things were held back (here’s looking at you 2022).
All of that isn’t to say there weren’t plenty of great video games; in a year void of many AAA sequels, reboots and rehashes, 2021 features many innovations and invitations to play new and exciting twists on genres old and new, with fresh and exciting ideas to be found amongst any gaming platform you chose to play on.
Here are our picks for the Best Video Games of 2021.
10.) Returnal (Housemarque, Sony Interactive Entertainment)
Housemarque’s return to the PlayStation platform and their first game in four years combines everything they’d learnt about arcade shooters and the voxel bullet insanity that made the developer famous in a third-person action game. The gameplay loop here is as addictive as previous games from the developer, but now the gameplay that fans may have mastered in a 2.5D or top-down environment must be re-learnt in a fast-paced third-person view.
The story here isn’t one to forget about either, and discovering the truth behind the signal, Selene’s past, and what lies at the centre of the alien planet that Selene crashed her spaceship into is what keeps you searching out the audio logs and hieroglyphics explaining the backstory of the foreign world.
– Dylan Blight
9.) Final Fantasy XIV Endwalker (Square Enix Creative Business Unit III, Square Enix)
An adventure that began eight years ago from the ashes of its failure, Final Fantasy XIV: Endwalker is the culmination of the MMO’s ongoing story since its relaunch in a Realm Reborn. Square Enix’s development team, Creative Business Unit III, continued the success of the Shadowbringers expansion, bringing the hordes of Warriors of Light to six new areas, dungeons and endgame content that will see the growth of the game for the following year. Endwalker excels at exploring a narrative that lives up to the pedigree of the Final Fantasy franchise that brings many of the ongoing plot threads to a close while setting up the next ten years of Final Fantasy XIV content.
– Ciaran Marchant
8.) It Takes Two (Hazelight Studios, Electronic Arts)
It Takes Two was a breath of fresh air for its co-op nature, though potentially acting as a barrier to entry for those of us that are solo gamers. They that did not play missed out on an open love letter to the game industry in a lot of ways, throwing genres at you in snackable amounts but still filled with memorable set pieces. One of you is fighting a Squirrel in Street Fighter-Esque combat, while the other steers the plane that the fight is taking place on, or ice skating around a beautiful frozen town in a way that was peaceful as it was entertaining. The variation in gameplay and environments is an immense part of what makes It Takes Two memorable. Of course, no one will forget the elephant moment either.
Underneath the incredibly varied gameplay lies a story of rekindling passion for our soon to be divorcees. Their daughter Rose is dreading the divorce, and through the power of magic, turns her daughter into dolls that she has made. In the journey to get back to their bodies, Cody and May must address the issues behind their divorce and learn their selfishness’s effect on each other and Rose. The story is more hit and miss than the gameplay, but personally, It Takes Two was incredibly enjoyable and an important reminder for emotional intelligence. It Takes Two is a must-play game and worth mustering a friend together so you can play together.
– Wil James
7.) Death’s Door (Acid Nerve, Devolver Digital)
Play as a little crow on an adventure to save their soul while fixing what’s up in the underworld in Death’s Door. The game is a lot closer to a Zelda game than you may think at first, and although there are souls to collect in the game, it doesn’t attempt to copy a Souls-like formula. Instead, this is an action-adventure with heart and some of the most intense boss battles of any game released in 2021.
Exploring the world of Death’s Door always rewards you with either very pretty things to look at or an upgrade to your health. You’ll probably need it as the game can be challenging at times, but the combat is fast-paced and all about mastering enemy patterns. There’s no block here either; instead, it’s all about rolling and attacking at the right moments. It’s the combat and beautiful world that’ll keep you hooked, but the story also features a surprising amount of heart and depth for the genre.
– Dylan Blight
6.) Deathloop (Arkane Studios, Bethesda Softworks)
On the Island of Blackreef, Arkane Studios continued to show their pedigree with their final venture onto the Playstation 5, Deathloop. With the mystery surrounding Colt Vahn and the residents of Blackreef, there is plenty for players to discover while going through the various phases of the eternal day. Learning routes of each area brings through the classic Hallmarks of Arkane game design that enables players to use the arsenal of weaponry and abilities to murder the eight Visionaries in a single day.
Deathloop is a rewarding and streamlined experience that pays homage to Arkane’s catalogue and shows no end in sight for the studio’s potential.
– Ciaran Marchant
5.) Halo Infinite (343 Industries, Xbox Game Studios)
The latest Halo package is interesting, with the multiplayer portion of the game being released for free. At the same time, the single-player is purchasable but also available via Xbox Game Pass. The multiplayer also released about a month to the single-player, which was a surprise decision when it happened.
Line both parts up, and you have a new Halo game that takes a few steps into modern gaming designs while also making sure not to forget about what made the series as popular as it is now. The single-player campaign dabbles in some open-world elements while maintaining the corridor shooter design that fans love from the series past. It’s a fast-paced, thrilling shooter. The guns translate beautifully into the multiplayer lobbies, where the tight squad-based modes require teamwork and quick reflexes. Together, it’s the best shooter package you could play in 2021 with both a great single-player and multiplayer portion.
– Dylan Blight
4.) Life is Strange: True Colors (Deck Nine, Square Enix)
Narrative focused game developers Deck Nine bring the latest story to the Life is Strange universe. This time the setting has been moved to a small town and focuses on a young lady with a unique set of powers. The design and pacing of the game have been enhanced from previous instalments, releasing the title as a complete game and not in chapter-based releases like previous Life is Strange games. The narrative runs deep, and the feelings and emotions in the game feel phenomenal. Hard choices are scattered throughout the game and play into the ending. During the gameplay, a strong bond is formed with many fictional characters and enhances the game’s finale.
Deck Nine have come along in leaps and bounds since Life Is Strange: Before the Storm, focusing on their real skill of allowing the player to experience the narrative and building a world within a smaller setting. The upgrade in graphical fidelity leave makes it stand out from the previous Life is Strange universe titles. It will be a privilege to see what comes from this studio next.
– Jacob Hegarty
3.) Unpacking (Witch Beam, Humble Bundle)
Unpacking is one of the exceptional gems found within 2021. It takes the rather dull idea of unpacking boxes and makes it into one of the most engaging narrative devices, with some hypnotic and zen gameplay.
I was hooked on Unpacking the second I booted it up and couldn’t help do one level after another. Not only was the gameplay rather relaxing, or that discovering what each of the new pixel art items was (especially the Bluray and games) was a fun game, but I also just wanted to know what would happen in the protagonist’s life next. What was happening in their love life? Their career? Is the family okay? Finding an item that helped build the narrative around any of these questions was each of the mini-puzzles within a game that’s one big puzzle. Unpacking is undoubtedly one of the years best games for how unique it is and what it does to use the medium in such exciting ways.
– Dylan Blight
2.) Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy (Eidos-Montreal, Square Enix)
What a surprise Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy was. After lacklustre messaging about the game and with Square Enix’s other Marvel game, Marvel’s Avengers, not impressing the masses, Guardians has proven to be one of the best gaming experiences of the year. Getting to travel the galaxy with the Guardians as they go on a sprawling cosmic adventure, visiting various worlds and locations which made comics fans happy, was a delight and had me excited to see where the story was going to go next.
Eidos-Montréal nailed their iteration of the Guardians with Star-Lord, Gamora, Drax, Rocket and Groot being the perfect found family, one that might not always get along but always has each other’s back. Getting to find out more about each of these characters was a real treat, as was their different interactions with each other which had me laughing, a lot. While the combat may not have been the most in-depth it was enjoyable, and not many other games saw you using a special to give your team an inspirational speech mid-fight and then continue while ‘Never Gonna Give You Up’ plays. Eidos-Montréal made me fall in love with these characters all over again, with a story that proves much deeper and moving than we had hoped for. Definitely one for all those Collectors out there.
– Ashley Hobley
1.) Ratchet and Clank: Rift Apart (Insomniac Games, Sony Interactive Entertainment)
It is interesting that Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart has come out during the current trend of legacy sequels because this game contains all the elements we hope to find in these films. A sense of familiarity, a chance to revisit familiar characters with familiar events, twist on old problems and, if we’re really lucky, new elements that have the potential to move that franchise forward. Playing Rift Apart has that nostalgia element, feeling just how we remember the series played like with its third-person shooting, platforming and wrench throwing. But the game is also filled with fantastic additions that improve on what came before, taking bits and pieces from what Insomniac has learned in the many years since the last original Ratchet and Clank title. The game is also visually stunning, utilising the power of the PS5 to look on par with the best animation out there while proving how fast the system is with seamless transitions between different universes.
Fuelled by a fantastic multiverse-centred story, filled with emotional moments and surprises, with its trademark humour, colourful cast of characters and an eccentric set of weaponry, Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart had me happily exploring worlds, solving puzzles and searching for gold bolts for hours. The addition of Rivet and Kit as well as the focus on what happened to the Lombaxs mean there is plenty fertile material there for Insomniac to potentially utilise in the future for this franchise. Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart gave us everything we wanted, introduced exciting new elements and provided an incredibly fun experience. What more could you want from a new entry in a beloved franchise?
– Ashley Hobley