Check out my other site, RPGreats, for honest RPG reviews!

12/12/2021

Best Games of 2021

As ever, keep in mind that I've played every single game released across all platforms this year to spare you the trouble of telling me I missed one.  Yes, even Playstation 5, despite the notable disadvantage of not owning one.  I had to wire four PS4 consoles together with a black market GTX 3070 and write custom firmware so it would accept PS5 games, and once I was finished playing the final game released on it this year, it caught fire and caused thousands of dollars in damage to my property.  The things I do for you people, I swear.

14. Ys IX: Monstrum Nox (Playstation 4/Switch/Stadia/PC)

Ys is back again, though with a pretty strange twist this time - Adol (and all of his allies) are cursed  into animal-hybrid forms and periodically drawn into a shadow world to fight waves of monsters in something akin to a tower defense game in between all the dungeon exploring and boss fighting.  ...Weird direction for the series to go, but it also adds in some elements of games like Kingdom Hearts, giving you new abilities to traverse the environment as the story progresses - zipping to grapple points, gliding over short distances, running up walls and so forth.  It does also have have a captivating story in that you never quite sure where it's going and plenty of side content, so it's a pretty solid RPG even with some occasional jank.

13. NieR: Replicant ver.1.22474487139... (Square Enix, PS4/XBone/PC)

NieR was a cult favorite action-RPG for the Playstation with two disparate versions - Japan got both the PS3 version where you play as "brother"  Nier and the XBox 360 version where you play as "dad" NieR, but we only got the latter on both platforms.  This one has you play as "brother" Nier, restores some cut content from the original game, adds an extra chapter, polishes up the combat a bit and redoes the graphical style to more closely match Automata.  It probably won't win you over if you saw absolutely no value in the original game, but for those who got enthralled by the original's dark atmosphere, phenomenal acting and moving emotional beats despite its fairly average gameplay, Replicant is a treat.

12. Venaitura (Ephiam, PC)

As a general rule I tend to avoid "homage" RPGs, especially ones made in RPG Maker; they tend to be junky low-effort works that bore me straight to sleep within minutes.  Venaitura, however, is one I took a shine to.  Aesthetically very reminiscent of games like Dragon Quest, it sports a surprising amount of detail and a lot of personality in its characters.  The game also utilizes a class system reminiscent of Final Fantasy and Ultima III (with a few oddball additions like dogs, slime knights and dancers), and its overall world design and gameplay fit in perfectly with games of the 8-bit era too - densely packed with hidden goodies and a variety of colorful, unique locations to explore.  You can tell this is a game born of talent and a genuine love for the genre, not just using 8-bit graphics to get easy sales from an otherwise mediocre game.

11. Actraiser Renaissance (Square Enix/Sonic Powered, Switch/PS4/PC/Mobile)

Billed as a remaster of the SNES cult classic, Renaissance is actually more of a full-blown remake, adding numerous new mechanics, a redone soundtrack (with Yuzo Koshiro returning to update all the tracks) and a visual style oddly reminiscent of an early PS1 game - CGI models turned into sprites are the pervading graphical element here.  The sidescrolling action stages give you slightly more of a moveset to utilize (tip: your down-slash gives you a crazy amount of invincibility frames), while the city building is much more goal-driven, giving you numerous milestones to hit and occasionally having you defend your settlements in a minigame that feels like a cross between a tower defense game and a real-time strategy.  You set down forts and barricades to slow enemies while moving around hero units to engage them, and when things get too dicey you can also utilize your god-powers (formerly just used to clear terrain for your cities to expand) to deal damage and slow down enemies.  It does have a few strange technical issues - I saw an awful lot of screen-tearing on the PC version, and turning on Vertical Sync in the options didn't seem to fix it; however, turning the framerate setting to Unlimited did.  But even with those, it's a pretty solid update of a well-regarded SNES title, and worth a play for old and new fans alike.

10. Psychonauts 2 (Double Fine, PC, PS4, XBox One, Xbox Series)

Psychonauts was a case of a game which was heavily promoted and well-received game by both critics and players that nevertheless was a pretty big commercial flop.  In fact, when it originally launched, it sold well under 100,000 units and led publisher Majesco to adjust their business strategy to mostly focus on portable games.  However, it built up enough of a following in subsequent years that when it saw rerelease through digital marketplaces it ended up selling very well, paving a way for a sequel that ultimately came out sixteen years after the original did.  Psychonauts 2 retains the same quirky art style, sense of humor and strong themes as the original while polishing up its gameplay substantially, leading to another fun, quirky platforming collect-a-thon experience.

9. Dark Deity (Sword and Axe, PC)

Dark Deity is pretty much Fire Emblem by way of Fire Emblem with a dash of Fire Emblem on top, released for the PC.  ...Well, okay, it's very similar in many ways, but it adds a few new twists to the mix so it's not a total copycat (don't want to dip into Tear Ring Saga territory and get sued, after all).  Each character wields four weapons, which are used throughout the game and gradually upgraded instead of having breakables, the 'weapon triangle' is a bit more complex, also factoring in what armor the opponent is wearing, and permadeath isn't a thing - instead, defeated characters take a permanent penalty to one of their stats, letting the player decide whether it's worth resetting or not.  Dark Deity may not be terribly original, but as I've said on multiple occasions, if you're going to copy another game, at least make sure to do it well.

8. Subnautica: Below Zero (Unknown Worlds Entertainment, PC/Switch/PS4/PS5/XBox One/XBox Series)

There have been quite a few building/exploration/survival based games in procedurally generated worlds ever since Minecraft became the hottest property ever.  Subnautica was a relatively novel one in that it took place almost entirely underwater, having you gradually upgrade your diving gear, construct outposts and gradually uncover a growing mystery as you evaded all manner of danger underwater.  Below Zero continues that trend but also adds some land-based exploration, and as the title implies, you're on a much colder planet this time - staying warm in addition to everything else is another significant factor in staying alive.  In addition to that, there's new gadgets, a bigger focus on story, which makes it a very entertaining journey to undertake.

7. Axiom Verge 2 (Thomas Happ Games, Switch/PS5/PS4/PC)

The original Axiom Verge was a fantastic title that quickly cemented itself as one of my favorites.  The tight design, unsettling alien atmosphere and incredible soundtrack all culminated in an engrossing experience I hadn't experienced since, well, the golden days of Metroid on the SNES and GBA.  Axiom Verge 2 retains the general style of the first but goes for a much different feel, with upgradable character traits, a different set of powers and enemies to unlock and generally a more open-world feel.  One can also hack enemies this time, causing them to become friendly, act as stationary platforms, overheat and explode or simply move more slowly, which gives you more tactical options for both combat and exploring.  A game familiar and fresh at the same time, and another I had a ton of fun with.

6. Lost Judgment (Ryu Ga Gotoku Studio, PS4/PS5/XBone/XBox Series)

You know by now that I'm a big Yakuza fan, and it's so prolific a franchise that we get a new one virtually every year.  Judgment is a much darker spinoff, playing up the crime drama and having you gradually untangle a web of intrigue and grisly murder as the story progresses.  Not a lot has changed in the second game, though you do get a dog sidekick to aid you in various ways and some new combat mechanics (including a new fighting style focused on disarming armed foes - handy).  Of course, being a Yakuza game, there's also plenty of side missions, minigames and subplots to add levity, like training a school dance team.  More open world beat-em-up fun.

5. Wildermyth (Worldwalker Games, PC)

A pretty ingenious concept with a solid execution, Wildermyth combines tactical turn-based combat  with procedurally-generated characters and story events; sort of like a more story-driven XCOM game.  Resource management (especially time; you only get so many days to do what you want) and conquering territory to earn more resources play in too; that lets you craft new gear or make bargains with NPCs.  Oh, and in a pretty ingenious turn, death isn't necessarily a "reload and try again" - you can have a character survive while losing a limb, taking a drop in stats or even sacrifice themselves to give the rest of the party a boost for the remainder of the battle, which can turn a desperate situation around.  Carefully weighing your options and managing your time gives it the edge of a solid tactical RPG, but the fact that you're never sure what's going to hit you next keeps it constantly fresh.  Simply awesome.

4. Witch 'n Wiz (Matt Hughson, NES)

No, that's not a typo; there really was a brand-new NES game released this year.  Witch 'n Wiz is a cute little puzzle game where you try to clear all the creatures from the board, though it can only be done by touching them from the side; to that end, you also have to climb on ladders or vines, clear spider-webs by walking through them (or standing upon them), push blocks and use monsters as platforms to get at other blocks or monsters on the board.   Every ten levels or so you get a new gimmick to play with in the next batch of stages, which changes things up in some pretty clever ways.  All good stuff, and you can move back a step at the press of a B button or reset the room entirely by pressing Select, and it even has a battery backup save feature, so there's no superfluous annoyances to get in the way of the entertainment.  It even goes out of its way to be accessible with options like a high-contrast mode and the ability to disable screen-shaking, which was unheard of back in the '80s and early '90s.  Great stuff, and you can get the ROM right now from itch.io at the price of only $10.

3. Super Mario 3D World: Bowser's Fury (Nintendo, Switch)

Super Mario 3D World was one of a small handful of great exclusives for the Wii U, but now you don't have to dig that awkward piece of junk out of your closet to play it.  Yay!  This re-release also adds a new game mode in "Bowser's Fury" - a  more open-world take on the 3D Mario games where you venture through one big contiguous environment in search of Cat Shines.  As you play, though, Bowser will steadily get angrier, culminating in periodic segments of him going berserk and attacking you; this makes things much more dangerous, but also grants you access to some new areas (usually by baiting him into attacking obstacles you can't destroy yourself).  Every once in a while you'll also engage him a giant Kaiju battle, which is pretty awesome to see.  While it's not a super long experience (I finished it in about eight hours), it's nonetheless a great new take on Mario and a stellar bonus atop an already great game.

2. Metroid Dread (Nintendo EPD/Mercurysteam, Switch)

My long-time readers (all three of you) might remember that I didn't have too many kind words for Samus Returns; it tried to be a more actiony Metroid, and while it wasn't nearly as bad as the previous attempt at it on the Wii, it still wasn't a particularly fun experience owing to the 3DS's cramped control layout, a choppy framerate and some awkwardly delayed inputs for things that really shouldn't have had them.  I'm still not fond of Samus's portrayal as a discount Bayonetta that they've insisted on pushing for the last decade, but Metroid Dread at least does the concept well, with buttery-smooth movement, no noticeable input delay and even some pretty badass moments in boss fight cinematics and counter animations.  It is easy to die as you take quite a bit of damage from most attacks and falling in lava will drain your health at a terrifying speed; however, the game is also generous with checkpoints, so you rarely lose more than a minute or so of play time. It also aims to be a successor to Fusion in its way, having segments where you evade or outrun invincible drones called "EMMIs" that take you out instantly if they catch you (unless you make an impeccably-timed counter hit, but good luck with that).  The biggest irony is that for a game titled "Dread" it never inspires anywhere near the level of tension that Fusion did; not to mention the concepts of stealth and suspense are totally out of step with Samus being portrayed as a fearless action hero and the fast-paced style of action and movement present everywhere else in the game. Still, these parts never became (too) frustrating, so I'll give them a pass.  Basically, Dread is a mishmash of elements that evens out to a pretty damn fun game, and even with some annoying bits, it's easily the best (licensed) Metroid game we've had in a very long time.  Don't get me wrong, Mercurysteam could create a game that cures AIDS, diabetes and lymphoma while you play it AND give it away free to anyone who asks, and it still wouldn't make up for killing Castlevania.  But Dread at least proves that there is some genuine talent to their name, and that if they manage to focus it on two or three strong ideas instead of about thirty dozen weak ones, they can make a legitimately great game.

1. Resident Evil: Village (Capcom, PS4/PS5/XBone/Xbox Series/PC)

Resident Evil has really been on a roll of late, and Village might just be its best entry yet.  Taking the first person perspective of 7, the action bent of 4, the focus on resource management, puzzles and secrets from the older games and some amazing visuals to cap it all off, Village becomes a genuinely unsettling and intense experience.  Each segment of the game is a significant change in both horror style and gameplay, with some putting focus on combat, others on avoiding danger entirely, and others more slow and puzzle-based, but each is masterfully done and brings atmosphere in spades.  All of the setpieces and characters are a joy to interact with too, bringing just enough manic Sam Raimi energy to keep things fun but never overdoing it to the point of becoming farcical. Village is just pure, visceral fun from beginning to end, which is something gaming in general has really lacked lately; they're all too busy trying to win meaningless awards to bolster future sales rather than trying to be actually entertaining experiences.  But as long as we have companies like Capcom to keep a passion for genuine quality and substance alive to offset the zillions of games built around boring chore-list gameplay, I'll remain a gamer for experiences like Village.