2021 was good for me in a lot of ways, but as far as videogames go, it was a crapshoot. Kind of? Pretty much most of what I was excited for either got delayed or ended up being massively disappointing.
Luckily a bunch of rando stuff came in clutch to remind me why I enjoy this medium, even if I find myself spending less and less time engaging with it as I continue to grow older and cope with my mortality salience - not to say that games are for kids, but that more gets put on my back with each passing year.
But that's the extent of the depressing talk. Let's instead talk about my favorite games of 2021. I've done it a little differently this year - rather than have the list completely ranked or completely unranked, I've instead created a list that's unranked until my top 5. I still think ranking games is kind of a waste of time, especially when one game can be so drastically different from another, but in 2021 I found myself able to accurately point to which games I obsessed over most, in chronological order, so there ya go.
Let's dig in.
Persona 5 Strikers
Persona 5: Strikers was an unexpected surprise to me as far as the quality of the game. It might be sacrilege to weirdo fans, but I think it's better than the original in pretty much every way, from writing to run-time. It's almost rehabilitated me into being a fan of the series again, despite how disappointing P5 ended up being to me, so that's a high accolade from me.
The game that seemed to be marketed for 3 years straight, Deathloop deserved all that air-time because it was an immensely satisfying experience. Sure it wasn't particularly balanced. Sure the lady in the nuke bunker was a pain the ass. But it was unique. Going balls-to-the-walls with superpowers and hearing the banter between pro-and-antagonist was a blast.
Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart
I knew exactly what I was getting with Rift Apart. Insomniac produces these games with laser-focused intensity to deliver the videogame equivalent of your favorite meal at a restaurant. It's comfort food, and it does the job. It's also just plain fun, a game with the sensibilities of a PS2 title and graphics that will make your jaw drop. Seriously I barely care about graphical fidelity but Rift Apart is gorgeous. Two bad it's been two Christmases and you still ain't got a PS5 huh?
Monster Hunter Rise
It's Monster Hunter. I don't think I have to explain tbh. I put in 60 hours and I'm probably going to go back to it for more this weekend.
Forza Horizon 5
I am not a vroom vroom connoisseur, but Forza 5 certainly got me close. It's the perfect blend of arcade mechanics that allow you to customize your experience with as much depth and accessibility as you want. The perfect "melt into the couch after work" sort of game.
Sorry to say, but I've always been on the Castlevania side of the Metroidvania coin. Metroid Dread has certainly embarrassed me for not playing those games, though. It's a short romp, but that for me translates as "not overstaying its welcome." What you get is 8-ish hours of action-platforming perfection.
The stealth sections kinda sucked though.
Neo: The World Ends With You
A game that I never expected to happen. Granted, Square Enix made sure that this one would be a commercial failure too, but critically it slapped and I can live with that (for now). N:TWEWY focused on an ensemble cast's growth as opposed to a singular character, and while it got muddled at times, it still had heart, and portrayed a group of youngsters that are more realistic than anything else I've experienced in fiction. And despite the lack of a second screen, the updated combat system perfectly captured the frenetic intensity of the original.
Scarlet Nexus was better than Tales of Arise. This is important to note because both games were created by teams that have worked on Tales games. But unlike Arise, Scarlet Nexus doesn't have cringe-inducing racism-plot. What it does have is some fun character action and a plot that goes places you simply would not expect given the game's aesthetic. Couple that with some absolute bangalanging tracks and you get what was probably the best JRPG I played this year.
Monster Hunter Stories 2
I was happy to hear that MHS2 performed well, because I always felt like the original was pretty slept on. The sequel fixes pretty much every problem I had with that entry, adding more depth to the combat by providing more opportunities for strategy and more weapons to mix things up. The plot is breezy fun with some honestly fantastic cutscene work to punctuate the more climactic moments. And it has Pukei-Pukei! The only thing stopping this game from being a top-five contender was that the grind gets a little rough near the end, but it's still well worth checking out.
A small indie title from a team in Brazil, Dodgeball Academia was a joy to play. My favorite genre has always been "JRPG + Sport," which is exactly how DA operated. Leveling up the cast of weirdos and helping them save their school was a great way to spend a weekend. It's on Xbox Gamepass, so you have no excuse: play it!
Shovel Knight Pocket Dungeon
Shovel Knight Pocket Dungeon is the reason why I'm happy to procrastinate when I write these things. It came out in the last few days of December and quickly became my obsession. Where the original Shovel Knight captured the era of NES platformers, but with more modern sensibilities, Pocket Dungeon does the same with SNES puzzle battlers. Once all of the mechanics click, it's addictive in a way most games aren't. There's a ton of depth with the variety of characters and items to pick up, and both a Rougelike mode and a straight-up Puzzle mode depending on your mood.
Deedlit in Wonder Labyrinth
Another surprise, Deedlit is a gorgeous, engaging Metroidvania based on an old-school novel series from the long-ago time of the 80s. It's come closest to capturing the original magic of Symphony of the Night, and barring some difficulty spikes with the bosses, is engaging from start to finish. The element-swapping mechanic is a particular highlight, but puzzles are fun too. Check it out! It's not too long, either.
Okay, now for the top five!
5. Resident Evil 4: VR
I mentioned before that I only recently became a believer in VR, and RE4's VR port certainly helped in solidifying my feelings. Resident Evil 4 is already one of the greatest games ever, and I've played it a million times, but doing so in Virtual Reality is one of the freshest experiences I've had in games in...years, really. Not since I held a wiimote did I feel this level of wonder (and also fear). It made a 16-year-old game feel new again, and it's the main way I want to play RE4 from this point on.
4. Solar Ash
I have mentioned before that I share NakeyJakey's ailment, Goopy Goblin Gamer Brain syndrome. Solar Ash was my main cure for that affliction this year. Moving through the game's world is a one-of-a-kind experience, and it delivers on its pitch of being Jet Set Radio crossed with Shadow of the Colossus with aplomb.
What I didn't expect, however, was to be as affected as I ended up being by the game's story. The finale of Solar Ash was jaw-dropping, an emotional gut-punch that left me feeling empty after the credits rolled. If that's not the sign of a good game, I don't know what is.
3. Halo Infinite (Multiplayer)
Halo Infinite was what I needed after getting burnt out on Apex Legends. I wasn't expecting to get so drawn into it, but the beta put it on my radar, and the surprise full release was one of the most exciting game-related moments of the year for me. Infinite has the perfect mix of sweat and casual. You can chill out and mess around in Big Battle, or get into it for real in Ranked or 4v4 Deathmatch. The gunplay feels good, the sound design is stellar, it's uncluttered visually...really, it's the best way to relax after a long day of work. And it's free! You know what I'm gonna say next.
2. Psychonauts 2
I would argue that most games aren't exactly well-written, nor are they funny very often. Not only is Psychonauts 2 both of these things, it's also a game that encourages you to be better, elevating it above every other game on this list but the one above it. It's a triumphant return to an overlooked classic, expanding on the world of the Psychonauts, adding flavor and context, tightening the gameplay, and making you laugh all the while. I cried at the ending, and I can count on my hand how many times I've done that playing a video game. I wish I could have played Psychonauts 2 for 30 more hours, and I hope I don't have to wait until I'm 40 to play Psychonauts 3 (please make Psychonauts 3).
1. Chicory: A Colorful Tale
It's hard to write about Chicory. I haven't really talked about it on this blog because I've been scared that I wouldn't be able to put into words what makes this game so special, so impressive, so important. Which is funny, because that's kind of the point of the game.
Chicory: A Colorful Tale is a game about facing your creative fears. To rise above the thought, "I'm not good enough." It's a game that encouraged me to care less about the perception and reception of my art, and to instead focus on the joy that comes from the simple act of creation. I have never encountered a pair of characters more relatable than Chicory and Pizza. The game approaches anxiety and depression and their connection to creativity with a level of deftness that could only come from experience. It hits close to home, but in a way that doesn't make you feel bad. Chicory isn't interested in wallowing in negativity, but instead wants us to grow past it.
It helps that the game itself plays really well. Painting in the world with your magic brush is a joy that doesn't exist in any other game I've played. The puzzles are simple but satisfying, the cast of characters is broad and incredibly likable, and the entire experience is backed by music from the goddess herself, Lena Raine.
I don't really have anything else I can say about Chicory that doesn't make me sound like a sap, but I'm going to say it anyways. This game helped me, in a way that very few, if any other games have. To see it go under the radar of so many is a travesty. I know I am prone to hyperbole - "play this game! It's incredible! It's fantastic!" - but no hyped-up adjective is enough to describe how much of an impactful experience Chicory: A Colorful Tale was. It's not only one of the best games of this year, but I'm confident in saying it's one of the best games I'll have played in the next ten years.
So, there you go. That's my list of games for 2021. What were yours? Let me know @mintmakesthings.
I hope you had a good year, and a good start to your 2022.