2021 was a surprisingly great year for games. Sure, games were delayed, and game studios struggled to adapt in a pandemic. We also saw many reckonings around working conditions, sexual harassment, and discrimination. There was more and more talk around unionization. The industry dealt with—and will continue to deal with—many painful struggles in the years ahead as it hopefully adapts into something far more diverse and equitable. But, if like me, you were over here just playing the games, it was a very good time.
This is the kind of year where narrowing down my list to a top 10 was actually pretty difficult. I cut out some very good games along the way. Games like Sable, The Forgotten City, and Bowser’s Fury feel like they deserve a place in my top 10, but ultimately had to be cut for the small but meaningful flaws that kept them from true greatness. In the case of Sable, it was migraine-inducing performance issues that plagued the entire experience. For The Forgotten City and Bowser’s Fury, it was simply a case of them not sticking the landing well enough to compete with the rest of this list.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Destiny 2 at some point here. As usual it was easily my most-played game this year, but it’s also a game I play as a glorified chat room to connect with friends, or something mindless to play alongside a podcast. It isn’t always reaching the highs necessary to crack my top 10. Still, the last few seasons of Destiny 2 have seen its ongoing plot evolve into something truly exciting. The first several weeks of a new season feel like tuning into the latest episode of your favorite TV show, with weekly twists and dramatic turns for iconic characters. If they can maintain this story momentum with next year’s big expansion, we may be looking at another year where Destiny not only makes my top 10, but reaches into the top spots.
Then there are the games that others loved, but didn’t hit the mark for me. I want to finish Deathloop, but it hasn’t grabbed me the way previous Arkane games have. Halo Infinite, excellent multiplayer aside, lost me completely with its campaign. I wanted to love the new open-world concept, but the Ubisoft-inspired structure got repetitive, and the rest of the game was filled with drab, linear corridors and some of the worst boss fights ever made. Guardians of the Galaxy had a ton of charm, and some moments of greatness, but glitches constantly took me out of the storytelling, keeping it from hitting its mark as a superhero Mass Effect-like.
This is all to say that part of what made 2021 great was how many of the following games were true surprises. Even the big tentpole games in this list feel like underdogs. They weren’t trying to appeal to everyone, and that was exactly what made them great. On to the list…
10 – The Vale: Shadow of the Crown
The Vale is an absolute triumph of accessibility in games. The game is designed from the ground up to be playable from beginning to end for visually impaired players. That’s great on its own, but what truly makes it special is how it puts those who can see on equal footing.
I played large chunks of The Vale with my eyes closed, TV off, and headphones on. I felt what it was like to hone in on your sense of hearing and try to navigate the world without sight. On top of that, I had a truly great time doing it. The Vale works because it’s so much more than an attempt at accessibility—it’s just a great game, with evolving combat mechanics and a rich story that puts most games to shame.
If you’ve ever listened to an audiobook with a full cast, or a fictional podcast (or you know what ilovebees is), then you know how great audio-only storytelling can be. In that respect, The Vale feels like the start of another genre—a sort of visual novel game for your ears—that I hope grows into something more than just this one game.
9 – Death’s Door
Developer Acid Nerve’s first game, Titan Souls, was not a favorite of mine. I found it frustrating and shallow. I did not expect to completely fall in love with their next game, yet that’s exactly what happened with Death’s Door.
Gone was the emphasis on boss fights. Gone was the attempt to be so “Dark Souls meets Shadow of the Colossus” in its inspirations. Death’s Door surely owes a debt to games like Zelda, but it feels confident to stand on its own. If anything, it feels like the great Nintendo adventures I played years ago, outdoing most of what they put out now in terms of that magic and charm. It’s a great game to just get lost in for a weekend or two.
Many complained about the game’s lack of a map, but I found learning my way around the world and uncovering every secret immensely satisfying. And even if you don’t feel a draw to achieve 100% completion, there is plenty to love on the critical path.
8 – Tormented Souls
In a year when we got an actual Resident Evil game that was actually pretty good, Tormented Souls came along to steal my nostalgic heart and make Lady Dimitrescu a distant memory.
You can’t like Tormented Souls without liking the original Resident Evil games. It has all of the hallmarks of the originals (Resident Evil 1, 2, 3, and Code Veronica) and the first two Gamecube games (the Resident Evil remake and Resident Evil Zero). Fixed camera angles, optional tank controls, limited ammo, puzzles, backtracking, it’s all there. The developers didn’t even shy away from making saving the game into a limited resource.
And while it has a pretty cheesy story and some terrible voice acting, Tormented Souls also outdoes the original Resident Evil games in some important ways, maintaining the pacing and puzzles of the “mansion/police station” sections of RE1 and RE2 throughout the entire game. It’s a massive achievement for an indie studio and a game laser-targeted at a very specific niche of horror fans I happen to be a big part of.
7 – Metroid Dread
MercurySteam, the developer of 2017’s Samus Returns (a 3DS remake of Gameboy’s Metroid II), impressed Nintendo so much that they collaborated again to make Metroid Dread, a wholly-original Metroid sequel. That’s a cool journey for the Spain-based studio, but for me, as someone who played Samus Returns this year and kind of hated it, I was not so excited.
That makes it all-the-more crazy that Metroid Dread turned out to be pretty excellent from top-to-bottom. Dread is an absolute joy to play. Samus has never felt so good to control, and the team made a lot of smart decisions to keep her moveset a button press away.
Those smooth controls make navigating the maze-like world a joy, even when backtracking or getting lost. The world fights back too. It’s filled with tricky enemies, challenging boss fights, and the aggressive EMMI robots that pursue you through designated areas of the map. It’s often a hard game, but it rewards patience and learning. A boss fight will feel impossible until it’s not, and then you’ll conquer the boss without getting hit at all.
Having played a bunch of 2D Metroid games this year (Zero Mission, Samus Returns, Fusion, and Dread), I can safely say that nothing tops Super Metroid. That game is still a masterpiece of atmosphere and non-linear exploration. That said, Dread is easily second-best, and a must-play for anyone who enjoys this genre.
6 – Devotion
Technically Devotion came out two years ago, but it was quickly removed from digital storefronts due to some silly controversy. 2021 was the first time that the game was made available for purchase since then, so I’m counting it as a 2021 release.
Either way, Devotion is an intoxicating, deeply haunting game that wades into subjects of familial trauma rather than cheap jump scares. Like their previous game, Detention, developer Red Candles builds a world rich in Taiwanese culture. However, this time around, the story is smaller, focusing on a family of three and their small apartment over the course of several years.
As you move between time periods, returning to the apartment again and again, small changes build up, culminating in a painful story that treads in a different kind of horror than most games are willing to subject you to.
5 – Returnal
When Returnal developer Housemarque declared arcade games dead in 2017, then went on to announce and cancel a battle royale title, it felt like the death knell of a lost studio. Thankfully, that couldn’t be further from the truth, as Returnal not only marks their entrance into big-feeling, triple-A-looking, story-driven games, but also a celebration of their arcade roots.
Returnal plays like a slick, fast-paced third person shooter—think Mass Effect Andromeda if it felt as polished as Titanfall 2—but it also brings arcade-y, bullet-hell shooter concepts into a 3D space. Enemies launch slow-moving, beautiful volleys of green and blue orbs among aggressive red and orange homing missiles, while your progress relies on a massive collection of power-ups and weaponry.
There are plenty of rogue-like games now, but Returnal feels closest to marrying that one-more-try arcade spirit with epic runs and a sense of progression. It manages to do all this while also telling a complex sci-fi story with some wild twists that are completely open to interpretation. In fact, I’d argue that 90% of the explainer articles out there have Returnal’s story all wrong.
Returnal got off to a bad start this year, with a punitive save system that relied on the PS5’s flaky rest mode and the hilarious assumption that you won’t ever lose power or play other games. Runs in Returnal can last multiple hours, and at launch it was willing to waste far too much of people’s time for me to justify sticking with it. That’s all fixed now, and I’m so happy I returned to it before the end of the year.
4 – Inscryption
I’ve dabbled in Magic: The Gathering. I had a killer deck of Pokémon cards back in the day. That was years ago though, and outside of last year’s Signs of the Sojourner (which is extremely simplistic in comparison), I’ve had very little interaction with the card game genre.
Inscryption is all about card games. It has characters that mirror different personalities you encounter in the card game community. It remarks on the joys of opening fresh packs and getting rare cards. It is a fourth wall-breaking deconstruction of the card game genre.
And yet, none of that has to matter because there’s so much more going on. Inscryption is a very clever and engaging card game. It’s also a bit of an escape room with a moody aesthetic and a fantastic soundtrack. It’s a game that’s full of novelty—the creators are wildly unafraid to flip the table in favor of surprising you.
I can’t really say more about it without getting into spoilers, so I won’t. I’ll just leave you with this: Inscryption was so fun to play, that I’m not sure it turned me onto the idea of playing more card games. I really just want to play more Inscryption.
3 – Mundaun
Mundaun is unlike any other horror game I’ve played. Steeped in Swedish folklore, this game has you playing as Curdin, a young man arriving at the tiny mountain village to investigate the strange circumstances surrounding his grandfather’s death. The entire game is black and white, and every texture is hand-pencilled to give the game a wholly unique visual style.
The game unfolds in a series of small, open-world areas, where you must solve puzzles and explore to progress and learn more about what’s really going on. At night, strange hay creatures patrol the countryside, forcing you to stay indoors, sneak around them, or, hilariously, attack them with a pitchfork.
A sense of humor and a sense of place infuse Mundaun with a unique atmosphere. One moment it is terrifying, and the next I’m driving around in my Muvel truck, sucking up bales of hay, or talking to a goat head, or trying to figure out how to make coffee.
What I love most about Mundaun is that it is unwilling to fall into the traps that nearly every other indie horror game falls into. It is a pretty ambitious little game, with multiple vehicles, simple combat, an inventory of items to combine and carry, and some puzzles to solve. Mundaun walks its own path, and truly feels like the expression of artists being true to themselves.
2 – Outer Wilds: Echoes of the Eye
Outer Wilds was my game of 2019, and it is frankly one of the best games I’ve ever played. Echoes of the Eye is a pretty large expansion to the original game, offering up what is essentially another planet to explore, but one that is far more complex and ambitious than any of the planets in the original game. If Outer Wilds was a clockwork solar system, Echoes of the Eye is a clockwork world tucked inside of it.
It lives within the main game, and so it is beholden to all the same time loop rules as the rest of the game. That seems kind of annoying at first, but getting back to the next discovery was always pretty quick. What’s more, with a larger focus of on-foot exploration (with a twist or two), it becomes pretty fun to speedrun your way to your next objective.
Echoes of the Eye also has a somewhat different and darker tone to it. There is a horror angle that reveals itself as you explore further, and even as someone who loves horror games I found it to be pretty terrifying and effective. That said, it’s also not nearly as oppressive as other horror games can be. The scares fall away in very clever ways as the layers of “a-ha!” moments come together.
And wow, some of the puzzle solutions are truly inventive. There are multiple jaw-dropping moments here, just like in the main game. The story is presented in a new and brilliant way that enhances the main story even further. When it ends, there’s a change that makes playing the main game’s beautiful finale worthwhile again.
1 – Psychonauts 2
Psychonauts 2 was in development for a long time. It’s rare in those cases that the final product feels like it needed that time. Usually games with long development cycles get scrapped and restarted multiple times. Often, the final game you play feels like something that came together in a year or two, and that’s usually exactly what happened. Psychonauts 2 is not like that. It is a game so rich in ideas, executed masterfully, that it feels like Double Fine squeezed value out of every moment its 6(+?) year development.
When the game begins, it’s a little bit weird. Psychonauts 2 has a short “previously on” video, but it opens up immediately after the events of both the original Psychonauts and the VR game Rhombus of Ruin. It has a lot of the same collectibles and mechanics as the original game. The foundation of this sequel is almost a relic of the past. But it is also quite a bit more polished. The original Psychonauts was a mid-tier platformer even by the standards of the time, but Psychonauts 2 feels great to control—right in line with the greats of the genre like Mario Odyssey, Ratchet & Clank, Spyro, and Sly Cooper. And so the quality of the gameplay and the quality of the writing quickly warmed me up to this somewhat old school adventure.
From there it’s just brilliant. Psychonauts 2 explores the themes of using psychic powers to heal people from a new angle, navigating the trauma of the Psychonauts old guard and the mistakes they’ve made along the way. Each level is an examination of internal fears, mental health issues, and regrets, but they’re all handled in fun, funny, and compassionate ways. It’s a comedy game about serious topics that handles it all with grace.
And as each level is a representation of a character’s mind, Double Fine runs wild with the creativity here. There is no one “best” level in Psychonauts 2. There are certainly standouts, but you couldn’t make me choose a favorite. What matters is that despite being a pretty long game, Psychonauts 2 is overflowing with creative moments, variety, and just an astronomical amount of stunning art. Modern games at this scale and budget simply aren’t made like this anymore.