My Top 10 Games of 2021
My Top 10 Games of 2021 (including honorable mentions).
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My Top 10 Games of 2021 (including honorable mentions).
2021 was a strange year, one I’d describe as walking on eggshells, to say the least. I’ve been working from home for nearly two years now and I’m not convinced I’ll be returning to the office anytime soon. During the second quarter of the year, however, I’ve attempted to have some sort of post-vaccinated life. Although the pandemic continues to rear its ugly head, I’ve continued to dip my toes back into society over these past six months; reconnecting with friends I haven’t seen since before the pandemic, going to the movies, went camping, headed to the beach and even visited New York City and California for the first time. Because of this, I haven’t completed as many games as I have in previous years, especially when compared against 2020. With that said, the games have been great and although I didn’t play everything that I wanted to, here are ten games that resonated with me the most during 2021 (including some honorable mentions). I already wrote about most of these games in previous quarterly posts, so if you’d like to go back and read the unedited original posts, you can do that here, here, here and here!
I chose five honorable mentions to highlight. These games just barely made my top 10 list, but for one reason or the other, they missed the boat.
HM. Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart. Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart, developed by Insomniac Games, is a phenomenal, yet familiar showcase of what the PS5 can currently offer, both in terms of visuals and the power of the SSD. When the game flexes its dimension-hopping capabilities (which essentially eliminates load times as the player will be transported instantly to a new environment), it truly felt like the first, authentic next-generation experience. Unfortunately, outside of a few set-pieces during the main campaign, the in-game “pocket dimensions” were essentially short challenge rooms with little visual flair, challenge or creativity. The story plays with the idea that there are alternate versions of every character in the universe and if you’re a fan of the series, there are plenty of cameos and callbacks to previous titles (although spotting these references isn’t necessary, as it’s perfectly welcoming for newcomers as well). The series is also known for its wacky and outrageous arsenal of guns and the weapons in Rift Apart, outside of a few, felt mostly tame in comparison to previous entries (or perhaps after so many games, it’s hard to feel surprised).
I don’t want to come off sounding too negative, however, as there’s a lot that I loved about the game. Rift Apart utilizes the adaptive triggers on the DualSense quite well as each weapon has half & full trigger alt-fire depending on how much pressure you push down on the triggers. To put it simply, firing guns in a R&C game has never felt better. With that said, I do wish the enemy variety was better. While they’re designed with a consistent theme in mind, the robots/baddies you fight along the way don’t really require you to make use of all of your weapon’s capabilities. I was playing on the second to last difficulty and I could essentially employ the same tactic during every combat encounter; throw your turret-based weapons on the ground first, then unload the rest of your arsenal until you run out of ammo. R&C games aren’t really known for their difficulty, but it would have been nice to see an enemy or two require more experimentation with your arsenal.
Rift Apart is quite the looker, to say the least. The environments are colorful, densely packed and meticulously detailed. One of my favorite things about R&C games is when you first arrive/land on a planet. As soon as your player jumps out of their ship, the camera is positioned further back to give the player a more scenic view of the environment. If you move either of the analog sticks, however, the camera will snap back behind the player to its default position. While this isn’t something exclusive to R&C games, Insomniac has been specifically employing this camera technique since the original release back on the PS2 and it’s one of the smaller details that I’ve always appreciated about the games. At the end of the day, Rift Apart was an enjoyable, yet familiar ride. Rivet and Kit, the new protagonists in Rift Apart, were both welcome additions to the cast, too. I’d love to see them take the forefront moving forward (with Ratchet & Clank playing support roles, similar to how Peter Parker takes a backseat in Insomniac’s Spider-Man: Miles Morales). I completed the game with nearly everything done and collected, but I’ll be revisiting the challenge mode in the near future to mop up the rest of the trophies.
HM. Bowser’s Fury. Bowser’s Fury (from Super Mario 3D World + Bowser’s Fury) was truly a joy to experience and a breath of fresh air. It’s the perfect marriage of Super Mario 3D World’s gameplay/power-ups with Super Mario Odyssey’s sprawling kingdoms (and a little Super Mario 64 thrown in for good measure). Unlike Super Mario Odyssey, however, you’re welcomed to a truly open-world environment with seamless load times as levels can be entered from any direction completely out of order. The game is essentially comprised of miniature island-like courses with non-linear objectives and at the center of the lake is a gigantic, tar-soaked Bowser. Over time, Bowser will rise from his tar pit and wreck havoc causing thunder, lightning and other hazards to spawn. Unless you collect one of the many “Cat Shines” scattered about the environment, Bowser will continue to be a menace until enough time has passed and the storm has calmed. This cycle, for better or worse, repeats itself until you face-off against Bowser a handful of times. Unfortunately, this idea becomes predictable and somewhat unexciting by the 10th or so encounter and they don’t do the best job at making the scenarios feel fresh/new, but that could just be a product of the size/scope of the game. The core concepts/ideas are great here, but I think Nintendo needs a bit more time to cook them.
I also wish the challenges made more use of all of the abilities at your disposal as you’re almost always using the cat suit power-up to navigate and overcome the courses (similar to Super Mario 3D World itself). One aspect that should be noted, is that the courses change and evolve over time; new layouts, enemies and collectables are added just as soon as you leave and re-enter an island/course and it all feels extremely organic. There’s even some elusive secrets where a random golden island will descend from the sky while Bowser is running amok. You can also lure Bowser near special blocks to unveil a secret Cat Shine which is a good strategy to send Bowser away if you’re not in the mood to deal with him. I’m not quite sure this is the direction future 3D Mario games should take, but I’d certainly play a follow-up to Bowser’s Fury that’s bigger and more robust.
HM. Kaze and the Wild Masks. Kaze and the Wild Masks, developed by PixelHive, is the best DKC-like I’ve played in a long time. It’s a 2D platformer through and through, but an exceptional one at that. It nearly captures what makes both the original DKC trilogy by Rare and Retro’s more recent Donkey Kong affairs so good. Just like in DKC, there’s “KAZE” letters to find (ala “KONG” from DKC), 100 plus gems to collect and bonus rooms to discover in each stage. Going for 100% is certainly challenging, but fair and rewarding. The art-style and sprite-work is great, too. Kaze has a lot of personality as she’ll use her ears to grapple ropes or blow-up her cheeks underwater to breath. It’s small details like this that aren’t completely necessary, but go a long way in showing that the developers really cared about their game and its main character. The background art is also very detailed and colorful, there’s even a good amount of parallax scrolling on display here which is almost required for any modern-day 2D game.
The stage flow is superb and you’ll realize how great the level design is once you start attempting the game’s time trials. Each stage also has unique platforming ideas and they’re hardly repeated. One stage may make use of ropes while another will introduce bouncing jelly pads which launch your character to greater heights. The levels are also short and sweet, highly replayable and never overstay their welcome. Kaze and the Wild Masks checks almost every box for me personally when it comes to 2D platformers. More so than the original DKC trilogy, Kaze and the Wild Masks reminded me of the types of platformers we received in the early 90s; games like Rayman, Klonoa: Door to Phantomile and Astal (if you remember that one from the Sega Saturn!) come to mind. If you had to play just one indie 2D platformer this year, however, Kaze and the Wild Masks is my highest recommendation! I completed the game at 100% and I can’t recommend it enough if you’re a fan of the genre.
HM. Chicory: A Colorful Tale. Chicory: A Colorful Tale, developed by Finji & friends, is a cute and thoughtful top-down Zelda-like with an emphasis on painting. Like a lot of indie games from 2021 (or just in general lately), Chicory explores themes of self doubt and what it means to reject one’s legacy. All of the colors in the world have vanished and the original wielder of a magical paintbrush has gone missing. You play as an aspiring artist of sorts who takes on the monumental task of repainting the world and bringing life back to its inhabitants. It’s a somber, self-reflecting story centered around a bunch of animals just trying to “get by”. Over the course of the game, you’ll gain new paintbrush techniques which act as backtracking/puzzle-solving abilities. There’s Zelda-like “dungeons” with clever puzzles that make use of your painting techniques which culminate in some truly epic boss encounters. There’s even loads of side-quests and collectables to discover off the beaten path. You can also freely paint the entire world to your liking, no matter how talented of an artist you are.
If there’s one thing I would have changed about Chicory, however, is that I would have preferred it more if there was some sort of hit-points (HP) or damage penalty (outside of getting knocked over and rewinding to just before you were knocked-out). While I do love chill, experience-driven games where there’s no combat or fail-state, Chicory sort of tricked my brain into thinking it was more Zelda-like than it actually was, especially when you’re facing off against some of the game’s numerous bosses. I would have loved to have seen a post-game “hard” mode of sorts where you did have HP or perhaps a boss rush mode where you could take damage. The boss encounters are some of the best moments in the game and combined with Lena Raine’s phenomenal soundtrack, they’re truly some of the most intense, high-stakes sequences in the game. As I’ve mentioned, however, some of the adrenaline you receive during these fights is lost when the player is only slightly inconvenienced. I really like Chicory, but I wanted to love it.
HM. Kena: Bridge of Spirits. Kena: Bridge of Spirits is the debut action-adventure game from Ember Lab. The studio behind Kena is mostly known for their animation background, specifically the Terrible Fate short film. They’re clearly a group of talented artists and animators, but what about the game itself? For better or worse, depending on what you value, Kena feels and plays like a PS2/GC era Zelda-like. At the same time, the game looks like something that a “AAA” first-party studio would produce in terms of visuals and production, perhaps even Pixar-like at times. While there are some minor blemishes here and there (like how some foliage/leaves in water do not react to your character’s movement), the game’s simply beautiful. Kena also reminds me of the types of games you’d receive at/near a system’s launch (as it did technically fall within the first year of the PS5’s release). Similar to how I felt about Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart, it feels more like a promise/road map for what true “next gen” games will look like/be capable of.
This may also come off as a negative for some people, but the entire game feels like the first quarter of most 3D Zelda titles, specifically the young Link portion of Ocarina of Time (OOT). If you’re just following the main story, it’s about a 10 hour game. Just when Kena is wrapping-up, most 3D Zelda games are getting started. There’s essentially three areas/zones, with hub-like open spaces, interconnected environments, fast-travel points and mini-dungeons to conquer. There are numerous sub-bosses throughout the entire game, but each area culminates in some truly challenging boss encounters. Some have said it’s Souls-like with its challenging difficulty at times, almost border-line character-action game difficulty, but I think it’s still more comparable to the types of bosses you’d encounter in a 3D Zelda title. I completed the game on Normal, but I’ll revisit the game on the highest difficulty and will go for 100% and the Platinum trophy then.
#10. mon amour. mon amour, developed by Onion Games and spearheaded by the legendary Yoshiro Kimura, is an arcade-like, “kiss-’em-up” hybrid of sorts. In mon amour, you’re a simple man who’s about to marry a princess, but three witches kidnap your bride-to-be, including all of the citizens in the kingdom, apparently. The story doesn’t matter, however, because mon amour is an arcade game in the most purest sense. It’s all about high-score chasing and mastering the game’s deceptively deep mechanics. mon amour is a single-screen game; you start from the left side of the screen and your goal is to make it to the far side of the screen in order to plant a kiss on a “damsel in distress”. Similar to games like Flappy Bird (or the rocket ship mini-game from Onion Game’s very own moon), mon amour is a single-button game. As soon as the game starts, if you’re not tapping the “A” button (on the Nintendo Switch Pro Controller, for example), your character will fall to the bottom of the screen and it’s game over.
There are around 50 levels/screens and every 10 levels/screens you can “bank” the citizens you’ve kissed/rescued along the way. Each level/screen is filled with traps and hazards, however. At the top and bottom of the screen, there are tall buildings which slowly expand from each end, making your potential flying space much more narrow. If you run into one of these buildings (or any of the unique stage/boss hazards, such as fire-breathing Kaiju or meteors from an erupting volcano), you lose whoever’s behind you or rather, the individuals you’ve kissed along the way. Think of the citizens you’ve saved as hit-points (HP); if you take too many hits and lose everyone you’ve rescued, the run’s over and you can either start from the beginning of the game again or use the “Citizen List” as a sort of level select. The catch here is that while you can finish the game from the Citizen List and rescue some of the more hidden individuals more easily through this method, your total high-score potential will be much lower than if you were to start from the beginning of the game.
So you might be asking, “How does the scoring system work?”. It’s surprisingly deeper than one might think at a first glance. Here’s some pro-tips from someone who managed to break the top 100 positions on the leaderboard: When you get closer to the person at the end of the level/screen, an arrow indicator will surround them. Depending on how you approach them (from either above/below), you can control (generally) which direction the hearts will be blown from each individual. Hearts give you points, but they can also lead to bigger rewards. The catch here is that the more hearts that occupy the screen, the more potential there is for them to collide with each other, which in turn will make the smaller hearts bigger netting you more points and the potential for a higher total score. What’s genius about this is that it adds another layer to the game’s core mechanics. You learn very early on that you’re supposed to avoid the obstacles/hazards littered about the screen. But when going for a high score, it’s better off if you ignore the hearts and navigate your way through everything until the larger hearts form. There’s a classic risk/reward system at play here and it’s incredibly addicting.
In addition to the hearts that are strewn about the screen, there’s fruit and melons to collect, which give you points and a shield, respectively. Fruit will send a small shockwave once collected, which will move the buildings above/below you backwards off of the screen. The melon provides invincibility for a short duration, which also allows you to “clear the screen”, so to speak. Think of the melon as a traditional “bomb” in an arcade shooter. You can complete the game in one sitting (a run of the game takes maybe 15-30 minutes), but it’s meant to be replayed in order to climb the online leaderboards. I completed the game with the true ending (which requires all citizens to be rescued) and I ranked 65th place on the leaderboards. mon amour is one of my favorite games of the year and it’s yet another reason why I continue to love Onion Games as a developer. What feels like a project that started as a jumping-off point from their very own mini-game found in moon and an extension of their free PC release, Romeo & Juliet, mon amour is a culmination of their previous works and one of the best arcade-like experiences you can find in 2021.
#9. Resident Evil Village. Prior to the release of Resident Evil VII (RE7), the franchise was treading in some rough waters. RE6 and Operation Racoon City, just to name a few, set the series off-course for many fans, including myself. One could argue that the franchise was headed in the wrong direction since RE5, as it paled in comparison to RE4 (despite being one of the best cooperative games for its time). Now, we’ve arrived at Resident Evil Village and although it’s not as impactful or groundbreaking as RE7 due to its lack of PSVR support, it’s still an incredible follow-up and a notable (if not relatively safe) entry in a long-running series that clearly has a lot more to say. RE7 felt like a reboot of sorts with it being the first, mainline RE title to go first-person (if you don’t count the Gun Survivor games). RE7’s atmosphere is still unparalleled and while Village doesn’t quite capture the isolated, creepy atmosphere of the previous entry, it’s not without its jump scares or two. Without spoiling anything, Village essentially pays tribute to the entire franchise. It’s a roller coaster of sorts that takes the player on a wild ride through what feels like an assortment of amusement park attractions. It’s got the action-packed encounters, variety and superb pacing from RE4, the mansion-like design (specifically in the starting castle area) which harkens back to the first game and the weirdness you’d come to expect from some of the more esoteric entries like Code Veronica.
The “tall lady” made quite the splash on social media to the point where most people believed she was going to be the focal point of the game. Sure, the vampire-adjacent villains were mostly memorable and the performances were great, but there’s so much more to Village than what we were lead to believe, at least in terms of how the game was shown prior to release. Capcom unintentionally played us all and I’m happy the rest of the game wasn’t spoiled in pre-release footage/details. Village takes you to a ton of different locales/environments, with a central town that acts as a hub town which branches outwards. There’s secrets, hidden areas and other collectables to find throughout the many areas you’ll visit, but most importantly, it all somehow feels tightly woven together and relatively cohesive. The enemy variety and combat encounters are mostly good too; monsters will duck and sway away from your shots and I believe you can even duck to avoid grabs, which gives the player some decent movement options considering it’s a first-person shooter at its core. The guns mostly feel great to use as well and much like RE4/5 before, they can be upgraded with money you earn by selling treasures you collect along the way (although, there’s nothing here that feels quite as satisfying as reloading the bolt-action rifle from RE4).
Resident Evil Village has pockets/moments that remind me why I love the series so much, especially the earlier games. Exploring the castle, managing my resources, getting stalked by the tall lady and rushing into the save/safe room to restock my ammo and save my progress is peak old-school RE adrenaline. There’s also an area called House Beneviento that’s one of the most memorable sequences I experienced all year and quite possibly the scariest RE has been in ages. Resident Evil Village is a messy carnival ride full of sugar and empty carbs, but it tastes really, really good. I’m not quite sure where the series is headed at this point, but an RE9 is inevitable and I’m hoping Capcom closes strong on this new trilogy of sorts. I completed Village on Normal difficulty, but there’s still a ton of unlockable goodies and harder difficulties to tackle (including recently announced story DLC!). If you’re a long-time fan or a newcomer to the franchise, Village is one of the best games of the year, hands-down.
#8. Psychonauts 2. Psychonauts 2, developed by Double Fine, is a familiar, yet faithful sequel to a cult classic 3D platformer that, after nearly 15 years, still feels rooted in LucasArt’s adventure games. Psychonauts 2 picks-up right where the first game and Rhombus of Ruin (its VR sequel of sorts) left off. While the game can be mostly enjoyed without having played the original Psychonauts, Double Fine did a fine job (see what I did there?) at providing a summary of the first game right at the start. Just like the original game, Psychonauts 2 deals with exploring the minds of individuals who are dealing with serious mental conditions. You’ll explore the minds of those who are dealing with addiction, PTSD, and general anxiety, for example. Unlike the first game, however, the main protagonist, Raz, now asks for consent before jumping into someone’s mind. To put it simply, the sequel is much more mature, well-written and mindful than the first game. The character models look great and the animations are suburb too, Raz & company are probably some of the most expressive and charming characters from any game in 2021. 3D platformers are my bread & butter and Psychonauts 2 was everything I was hoping it to be and more.
If you’re new to the series or a returning veteran, the structure of the game hasn’t changed in nearly two decades; you’ll hop from brain to brain, sorting people’s emotional baggage while collecting figments and defeating baddies with psychic abilities both new and old. The bigger picture surrounding Psychonauts 2’s plot isn’t as interesting as I was expecting it to be, but the individual minds that you explore are visually striking and thought-provoking nonetheless. I do think the game can be a bit too wordy at times, but the humor and writing style more than makes up for the stop & go pacing. At the time of writing this, it’s been a few months since I’ve beaten the game and I’m still thinking about its relevancy in 2021. Psychonauts 2 is a 15+ year old game that didn’t feel the need to reinvent the wheel, yet somehow still felt both fresh and familiar to fans new and old. It blows my mind Microsoft/Rare can’t see the same for a new Banjo-Kazooie today. Here’s hoping both Microsoft and Double Fine continue refining Raz & company into the platform-mascot series Xbox deserves. If the bear and bird aren’t going to do it, then the Psychonauts have no choice but to carry the 3D platformer torch into the next generation.
#7. Sable. Sable, the debut game from Shedworks, is an open-world, non-linear adventure game, not unlike Breath of the Wild (BotW). In Sable, you play as a wondering nomad of sorts who, after completing a rite of passage, sets out into a barren wasteland to “see the world” and “encounter life experiences”. It’s a game with no combat or worldly threat, which was refreshing once I realized what I was playing. Sable is about low-key exploration, discoverability and relaxed gameplay moments. The BotW comparison is appropriate for many reasons, but one that specifically comes to mind is the fact that you can technically finish the game very early on if you choose to. In Sable’s world, there are many factions, tribes and professions to discover out in the wasteland and you’re tasked to engage with (some of it), but not all of it. Once you’ve had your fill, you’re asked to “head back home” to reflect on your journey, a sort of self-imposed retirement, if you will.
Exploring the world of Sable is an absolute joy. One of the very first objectives in the game is to craft a hover bike to make traversing the wasteland more manageable. BotW specifically comes to mind as a point of comparison as there’s almost always a landmark or something of interest in the distance that’s begging for your attention. The world seems specifically designed around eye-catching landmarks sprinkled around the map. While Sable is somewhat of a 3D platformer at its core, much like BotW, you also have the ability to climb nearly any wall in the game. The core gameplay mechanics center around a stamina meter, which dictates what you can climb/explore. Over the course of the game, you’ll find Korok Seed-like collectables which can be traded for stamina upgrades. There are small settlements, larger towns, crashed spacecraft, ruins and creature-filled caverns to discover and almost all of these areas rely on your stamina meter to explore. Everything you do in Sable is also tied to a job/profession of sorts, with the ultimate reward being a “mask”. The masks are a big deal in the world of Sable. Not only are they proof of mastery for a specific job/profession, they’re also needed to trigger one of the game’s many endings.
The writing is exceptional, too. Your main character doesn’t speak, but has internal monologues often. Conversations and quests will also play out differently if you’ve already completed something prior to speaking to the quest giver. Similar to Recompile (another game I finished this year and wrote about), the endings are mostly in written form, yet they’re quite insightful and still impactful. Outside of some fairly significant stuttering/performance issues at/near launch (which at the time of writing this have mostly been patched), I truly adored the world of Sable and I couldn’t stop thinking about once I saw the credits roll. I completed the game with nearly everything done and collected, but I chose the path of the Cartographer ultimately (which just meant unveiling the entire map). Sable is the closest I’ve gotten to experiencing the feelings I had when I first played BotW and for that reason alone, it’s a truly special experience.
#6. It Takes Two. It Takes Two, developed by Hazelight Studios, is one of the best couch-coop games I’ve ever played. If there’s one thing It Takes Two taught me, it was the power of cooperative experiences and the importance of a good friend, especially during what is still an ongoing global pandemic. When this game initially launched back in March of 2021, I wasn’t vaccinated yet. Being a fan of this developer’s previous games, however, I knew I was going to play it eventually. It didn’t help that the game started receiving glowing reviews and positive word of mouth on social media. As weeks passed, the anticipation to play this game was becoming unbearable and so was my desire to be near another human being after mostly isolating myself for an entire year. Prior to the beginning of the global pandemic, I didn’t have many local friends who enjoyed playing video games as much as I did. While It Takes Two does offer a “Friend’s Pass” (a free download key of sorts that allows another online player to experience the game with you at no additional cost), the game felt like it was meant to be played locally. Considering the state of the world and my own comfort level prior to being vaccinated, playing this game physically next to someone wasn’t an option.
So, I waited until things “got better” (which they really haven’t). I became fully vaccinated by the beginning of May 2021 and I had one special person in-mind that I wanted to experience It Takes Two with. If you’ll excuse the sob story, I met this person back at the end of 2019. I felt extremely connected to them almost immediately and after getting the chance to spend a weekend together in February of 2020, I felt like it was something that could have been more than a friendship if given the time and opportunity. When March rolled around, we agreed that it probably wasn’t the best idea to try and see each other as the cases rose and information regarding how the virus was transmitted became more apparent. This person, however, eventually made plans to move across the country as the months passed by. I never got to see them after I became vaccinated and I never even got a chance to say goodbye in-person, let alone ask them to play the game cooperatively. I was devastated and the idea of playing this game with anyone else left me completely heartbroken. Time passed and I eventually came to terms with what happened. Ultimately, I was grateful to experience the game with another good friend locally who also appreciated couch-coop games. Although it wasn’t the person I had in-mind initially, we still had an amazing playthrough full of laughs. It Takes Two is a phenomenal experience and I can’t recommend it enough, especially if you have the means to play it with someone who’s important to you.
It Takes Two is not exactly an easy game, however. Right out of the gate, the game means business despite its somewhat casual, couch-coop friendly appeal. It’s a relatively challenging 3D platformer disguised as a genre-blending cooperative experience of sorts. The game truly requires you to be in-sync with your partner more than any other two-player cooperative experience I’ve played before. While It Takes Two is mostly forgiving, there’s a few instances where the developers expected the player to have some sort of prior gaming experience, especially when it comes to camera control and hand-eye coordination. It must also be said that the game nearly has every genre/subgenre represented in some fashion or form including a fighting game and a top-down Gauntlet-style sequence. It’s remarkable how well each unique gameplay scenario/idea works, nearly everything feels good to play/control. Although it’s primarily a cooperative experience, there are also optional competitive mini-games for you and your partner to compete against in. Most of them felt relatively throwaway, but some were extremely clever. My friend and I completed the game with most of the mini-games discovered and a majority of the secret trophies earned. It’s a game that I want to return to, but not one that’s easily approachable after you’ve already experienced it with someone else. I’ll never forget my first playthrough with this game and I can’t wait to see what this studio does next.
#5. Metroid Dread. Metroid Dread, aka “Metroid 5”, developed by MercurySteam and Nintendo, is the long-awaited, true follow-up to Metroid Fusion. If you exclude MercurySteam’s very own Metroid 2 remake back on the 3DS, Samus Returns, fans have been left clamoring for a new entry for what feels like a decade or more (and I’m not talking about the indefinitely delayed Metroid Prime 4). Metroid Dread feels like a dream game that shouldn’t exist by today’s standards. Not only does it capture what was so great about traditional, old-school Metroid games, it somehow carves its own place in a sea of tribute/homage-pieces that the independent scene has been chasing for years now. We’ve had games like Axiom Verge, Hollow Knight and Ori, for example, critically acclaimed “Metroidvanias/Metroid-likes” that, for some people, have surpassed classics like Super Metroid and Castlevania: Symphony of the Night. So, how do you make a new Metroid game for jaded, veteran fans and newcomers alike? MercurySteam was tasked with this monumental impossibility and they (mostly) succeeded.
Where as Metroid: Samus Returns felt like a resume-builder for MercurySteam or rather, proof that the development team from Spain could handle the legendary Nintendo IP with the utmost care, Metroid Dread feels like a mastery of the groundwork that was laid before them. With that said, Metroid Dread does feature a lot of the same elements found in Samus Returns; the counter system returns and the 3D backgrounds look better and more detailed than ever. Metroid Dread does play with your expectations, too. Instead of finding the morph ball upgrade early on, you’re equipped with a slide which mixes up the traversal during the early areas of the game. Most of the fan favorites are still here, however; the super missile, morph ball bombs, grapple beam and screw attack, for example, make their usual appearances. If there’s one area I felt Metroid Dread was lacking was its environment cohesion and sense of place. I never felt like I knew where anything was on planet ZDR. Despite there being elevators, tram cars and teleporters connecting each zone in the game, they all somehow felt disconnected from each other. The game structure and flow itself is superb, however. You’ll often find yourself feeling lost when all of a sudden the game somehow organically pushes you towards the correct destination due to its visual pathing and upgrade placement.
Similar to Metroid Fusion, someone (or something…) is on the hunt to take down Samus in Metroid Dread. This time around, it’s a group of robot hunters called E.M.M.I. Instead of scripted moments/sequences from the previous game, the robots here are relegated to specific zones that you can freely enter and exit at your will. The robots here will react to your footsteps/presence and as soon as they’re alerted, the zone you’re in will lockdown until you can put some space between you and the enemy. As you progress further, you’ll gain the ability to destroy these hunters permanently, but they become aggressively more difficult as the game progresses. If a robot grabs you, the player is given two opportunities to counter their one-hit kill maneuver. These quick-time-events (QTEs) are super strict, most people (including myself) will die a lot during these sequences. The checkpoints, however, are fair and you’re right back in the action if you do happen to fail. While the idea presents a high-stakes, threatening environment, the fact that the checkpoint is just right outside of the zone makes the entire idea feel less impactful. With that said, if the game booted you back to your last save point, it would have created an even more miserable experience, so it’s a fine compromise as it is.
Samus herself is mesmerizing to witness and just a pleasure to control. She might be my favorite iteration of the character yet. Unlike the Samus found in Other M (the notoriously divisive Metroid entry from Team Ninja), the Samus here is confident, cool and downright badass. At times, her attitude reminds me of Platinum Game’s very own Bayonetta. After four mainline missions, she’s grown to become super stylish and her acrobatics are put on display throughout the numerous cinematics. Speaking of Metroid Dread’s cinematic flair, there’s so many dynamic camera angles, usually triggered during boss encounters, which truly shows off her strength and experience. I completed the game with over 50% of the items collected at around 8 hours logged. I’d love to go back and complete the game on the harder difficulty and unlock the remaining ending screens, but I’ll save that mission for another day. Metroid Dread is a phenomenal game and a triumphant return to form for fans and newcomers alike. Hopefully, MercurySteam and Nintendo get another opportunity to take us on a trip through space, but maybe not make us wait another 15 years, shall we?
#4 Returnal. Returnal is arguably Housemarque at their finest. Their signature arcade gameplay returns in one of their most ambitious games to date. Returnal takes the now popular Rogue-light genre of sorts and presents it in true “AAA” production with cutting-edge visuals and sound design. In Returnal, you play the role as Selene, an astronaut who’s crash landed on an alien planet. The twist here is that upon her death, she repeats the same crash landing sequence over and over again in a groundhog day style scenario. As she explores the alien landscapes, she finds herself experiencing flashbacks and visions from what appear to be from her past, present and future. She also finds her body strewn about the environment from her previous attempts at survival on this hellish world; it’s all rather dark and depressing.
Returnal has had an interesting launch period, to say the least. Leading up to its release, this was Housemarque’s reentry into the traditional game release hemisphere, so to speak. After Matterfall in 2017, Housemarque hit a bumpy road or two and claimed they were done with their traditional, arcade-inspired titles (they even wrote a letter to their fans, which you can read about here). A battle royale game was in development, called Stormdivers, which has yet to release (and may have already been canceled?). Fast forward to 2021 and we now have their first “AAA” game that also happens to stay true to their arcade roots. Stranger things have happened, but I’m glad this developer is back doing what they clearly know best.
The Rogue (or Rouge-like) sub-genre has been around for ages, but it’s become more popular, especially amongst the indie developer circuit. Games like Hades, by Supergiant Games, has propelled the sub-genre into an entirely new stratosphere, for example, so it was only a matter of time before a larger, “AAA” studio like Sony/Housemarque would make their attempt. With that said, the effort here doesn’t feel forced or a response to the current trend, however. Returnal does have all of the usual Rouge-like trappings; run-based sessions, loss of power-ups/inventory upon death, shortcuts that make consecutive runs faster, and passive upgrades that carry between playthroughs to give you some sort of sense of progression. It’s all here, but because of the presentation style and 3rd-person perspective, it all feels fresh and new.
Returnal is quite the experience; dashing around the environment, using the alt-fire/adaptive triggers for each weapon, feeling the rain hit your controller with its haptic feedback and watching the enemies explode into a dazzling array of particle effects never gets old. The sound design is impeccable as well. I played through the game mostly with the 3D audio from my headset and as cliché as it sounds, the environments felt like they were alive and breathing. The adrenaline rush you get when you dash into a room that locks-down and spawns waves of monsters, hearing their screams from every corner of the environment, there’s nothing else quite like it. Returnal is arguably my favorite 3rd-person shooter since Platinum Game’s Vanquish, which hasn’t been personally dethroned in years.
Finally, now that I’ve had some time to reflect on the game, I’m finding myself comparing it to my time spent with another first-party PS5 title that has recently released, Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart. On the surface, they’re both third-person shooters with dash mechanics and a fixation on devastatingly powerful guns. While R&C has always been known for its wacky arsenal of sorts, I found myself enjoying the gunplay here more than the game/franchise that’s mostly been known for its 3rd-person shooting. I completed the game with the initial ending, but there are still perks to unlock on weapons, artifacts to discover and collectables to earn in order to see the “true” ending. You can be sure that I’ll be returning (see what I did there?) to this game often until I secure the Platinum trophy in the near future.
#3. ElecHead. ElecHead, by solo developer NamaTakahashi and music by Tsuyomi, is a masterclass in 2D puzzle-platforming design. This game has been one of the biggest surprises of the year. I first saw it during the asobu event that aired on YouTube back in September of 2021. If you’re not familiar with asobu, “asobu is a community hub for Japanese independent developers; our goal is to support indie games and indie game development as a viable career and lifestyle here in Japan, through education, advising, promotion, and fostering connections with other indie devs both domestic and abroad.” (quoted from their website). The independent gaming scene has become so massive over the past decade or so that certain releases and hidden gems are getting consistently lost in the shuffle. While it’s been critically acclaimed by players from the more hardcore gaming community at large and a variety of outlets who did manage to cover the game, ElecHead hasn’t been getting the exposure it rightfully deserves.
ElecHead is simplicity at its finest. You play as a little robot buddy who electrifies any surface that they touch. You can walk left/right, jump and eventually toss your head (reminiscent of Dynamite Headdy on the Sega Genesis). With such a simple concept, you’d think the developer would run out of ideas or resort to some sort of gimmick to keep the game interesting. ElecHead does not rest on its laurels, however. It exceeded my expectations in terms of pacing, creativity and most importantly, making use of one’s limitations. Every screen is an “aha” moment that must be experienced to truly understand how well-made the game is. It’s the perfect example of teaching the player new mechanics/ideas non-verbally, without the need of tutorials, dialogue or even environmental storytelling (although there is some to a degree).
You could say ElecHead is a game about trial and error, but it quickly teaches the player to observe their environment and think critically within the first few screens. In one instance, for example, a hanging retractable platform is attached to the ceiling above you. The platform will only retract if it’s charged. Since your character can only jump so high, you’ll have to hug the side of the wall where the retractable platform is attached to (which will make it descend). However, the moment you step away from said wall, the platform will retract to its original position, so you better act quickly if you want to make the jump. It’s observant, environmental puzzles like this that are built upon and layered in a natural, logical progression the further you play. It’s a masterfully crafted game. I’ve said this countless times over the past few years, but we’ve been inundated in 2D, retro-inspired platformers. Sometimes, a game like ElecHead comes along to remind you to never judge a book by its cover. Does ElecHead spark joy? Yes. It’s honestly a perfect game and if it weren’t for one other release this year, it may have been my 2021 GOTY.
#2. Little Nightmares II. Tarsier Studio’s Little Nightmares II (LN II) is everything I wanted a sequel to the original game to be and more. Without spoiling any of the particulars, Little Nightmares II can be perceived as both a prequel and a sequel to the original game. Just like the original game, LN II falls in the Limbo/INSIDE-like 3D puzzle-platformer sub-genre of sorts. The sequel, however, feels much more bleak and muted than the original game. It’s an extremely dark and depressing experience, but its atmosphere is somehow both cozy and welcoming. The game doesn’t stray too far from the first one; you wake up in an undisclosed location and your adventure simply starts. It’s still a beautifully shot, filmic experience with some amazing art direction, grotesque creatures, beautiful lighting and thrilling set-pieces. One of the more interesting aspects of LN II is its similarities to the PS2 cult-classic, ICO, as your AI-controlled partner, Six, will assist you along the way in a similar fashion to how Yorda accompanies the horned boy. What’s interesting and impressive about Six’s implementation was how natural they acted while you played. You can call out to Six to boost you up to a ledge and even hold their hand, but it all feels extremely organic as if someone else was controlling them alongside you. The game feels like it was designed around being a cooperative two-player experience, but it’s still a single-player game at its core.
While there is still a ton of trial & error (you will die a lot just like in the first game), these setbacks ultimately didn’t detract too much from the overall experience. The checkpoints are common and well-placed and the pacing makes it so you never want to put the controller down. If there’s one thing the developers have clearly learned/mastered since the original release, it’s their commitment to minimalism. There’s still no spoken dialogue and outside of a cinematic or two, everything is done through environmental storytelling. Six, just like the player, becomes more confident in their actions as you progress and encounter more horrific scenes which creates an even greater bond between the two characters that no cut-scene could replace. Every year, I’m also on the lookout for my “game of the year (GOTY) moment”. If a game, for whatever reason, makes me put the controller down to reflect upon something, whether it’s gameplay-related, a powerful story moment or even a particular music track, then it’s typically a contender for my GOTY. LN II did this to me within the first hour or so of the game, which usually doesn’t happen so early in the year.
Finally, one of the only disappointing things about LN II is the fact that it’s another transitional PS4/PS5 game that actually doesn’t have a PS5 version available (although a free update is promised for those who already own the “last gen” version. The entire time I was playing the game I was imagining the ways the developers could have utilized the Dual Sense controller and its haptic feedback/adaptive triggers. Unlike the first game, for example, there’s actually melee combat in LN II. There’s moments where you’ll be wielding pipes/axes, but because of your short stature and the heaviness of the objects, your character drags the weapons behind them as they run forward. This would have been the perfect opportunity to incorporate the feeling of dragging your weapons across the floor through the use of haptic feedback. I’m hoping when the time comes, the developer thought about these things as it’ll give me a reason to revisit this nightmare again in the future. Unfortunately, Tarsier Studio has disbanded from Bandai Namco and the IP is no longer in their hands. While I wish the studio the best of luck with their new partner, Embracer Group, I can’t imagine LN being in someone else’s hands.
#1. FANTASIAN. In early April of 2021, I was scheduled to receive my first Covid-19 vaccine shot during the week of my birthday. While I was doom-scrolling on Twitter and Facebook, I saw people tweeting about a game called FANTASIAN. It was a project I’ve been loosely following and keeping tabs on for awhile, but it seemed so distant and non-existent to me, especially considering the fact that it was only going to be available on Apple devices (I’m an Android guy). To calm my nerves and curb my ongoing pandemic-related anxieties, I decided that some retail therapy was in order. As soon as the game’s release date was announced, I impulse purchased an Apple TV and subscribed to Apple Arcade just to play FANTASIAN. I grabbed my phone late at night, went to their website, ordered my Apple TV and a day later, someone from a local Apple store pulled up to my house, walked up to my doorstep and placed my newly purchased product on the welcome mat. It was the first time I truly felt excited about anything since the pandemic started.
It’s rare for me to include a game on my top 10 list that I haven’t technically finished, yet here we are. FANTASIAN is the latest turn-based RPG from Mistwalker, the studio responsible for games like Blue Dragon, Lost Odyssey and The Last Story. If you’re unfamiliar, FANTASIAN has quite the prestige/legacy behind its development. The father of Final Fantasy (FF), Hironobu Sakaguchi, was at the helm and the soundtrack was composed by the legendary game composer, Nobuo Uematsu. The studio, as of late, has primarily been a mobile developer. With their legacy rooted in home consoles, you’d think FANTASIAN would have released on the extremely successful Nintendo Switch or even the Xbox series of consoles, at the very least? Unfortunately, that’s not the case. At the time of writing this, FANTASIAN is an exclusive to the Apple Arcade and for the foreseeable future, it appears that it’s going to stay that way.
On the surface, FANTASIAN is a traditional, turn-based JRPG. If you’re a fan of post-PS1 era FF titles (including the aforementioned Mistwalker games), you’ll feel right at home here. What’s different/unique about FANTASIAN that sets it apart from anything else you could have played from 2021 is how the developers approached making the game. You see, in FANTASIAN, every area/environment in the game was handcrafted and built from scratch with real materials and craftsmanship. What you’re actually seeing in the game are high-res photographs of the diorama sets that were created for the project. The UI, visual effects and character models are essentially placed on top of these pictures. It’s a stylistic/artistic approach I’ve rarely, if ever, seen before when creating a game and the amount of love and care put into these sets is truly remarkable. Every little cup, table, tree or piece of fabric was meticulously and purposefully placed to bring the world to life. I found myself walking into someone’s house/shop and just putting the controller down to look at all of the objects and props that were created and placed on each set.
FANTASIAN also somehow feels more like a spiritual successor to FFX than any of the more recent FF titles. If you specifically valued the boss encounters from FFX, how they introduced unique encounter mechanics/gimmicks (like the crane on the boat during the Oblitzerator battle, if you’re familiar), you’ll love the boss fights in FANTASIAN. Almost every boss encounter has some sort of battle condition/gimmick and from the twenty hours I’ve logged so far, it stays true to this design philosophy. In one instance, a giant bird boss will flap its wing every few turns in an attempt to blow you off the map (which results in a game over). In another fight, a death-like figure hovers in the background and until they decide to come forward (think front/back rows in classic FF titles), both you and the boss will deal less damage. Each of these encounters asks the player to strategize and make use of each of their character’s abilities.
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the “Dimengeon”; a battle mechanic that allows the player to essentially store/stock random encounters into a dimension of sorts so that you can freely explore dungeons/areas without constantly battling. Once you reach a cap (which can be upgraded), you’re forced to fight every enemy that was bypassed earlier while you explored. It’s a feature that has been in other JRPGs before (see the cancel system implemented in every Wild ARMs game after the second title, if you’re familiar), but nevertheless, it is appreciated here. With that said, my only gripe with the game is that battles are very slow and the game could use a fast forward option, similar to what the Bravely Default games (or a lot of modern-day JRPGs) offer today.
FANTASIAN was released in two parts initially. The first half of the game (which will roughly take most people around 20 hours) feels very limiting. Your characters can equip weapons, armor and accessories but you’ll only learn new abilities/spells at level-up during the first half of the game (so there’s not a whole of customization or wiggle room for a good portion of the game). The second part of the game (which released in August) apparently introduces skill trees for each character, but I can’t speak to that yet as I haven’t gotten to that part at the time of writing this. With that said, there’s something extremely rewarding and satisfying about having to use only a handful of the abilities at your disposal (and items too, shockingly!), the game truly asks the player to make the most out of their limited resources.
In post-release interviews, both Hironobu Sakaguchi and Nobuo Uematsu have stated that FANTASIAN could very well be their last game, so it’s fitting that the two got to work together for what could potentially be the very last time. Considering their ages and how long they’ve been in the industry, FANTASIAN feels like a retirement project of sorts, a love letter to a specific era of JPGS, but more importantly, a tribute to a body of work that has clearly shaped both their careers and the industry at large. I’m looking forward to playing more FANTASIAN (and hopefully finishing it) well into 2022. Here’s hoping it gets ported to more platforms soon as well. Any self-respecting JRPG/FF fan owes it to themselves to play this game. FANTASIAN is truly something special and for someone who grew up with FF titles and games from these creators, I don’t think I’ll ever see a project like this ever again during my lifetime.
See you next year!
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