Some quick context to start: I did not play most of the big-ticket games of 2021 because I was playing the popular online MMO Can I find a PS5?. Many of my picks for The Week Ahead went straight from GOTW to the Pile of Shame. I will get to them eventually. So, stay tuned for my 2022 list, where I'll wax lyrical about Ratchet & Clank, Pathfinder and Guardians of the Galaxy.
I only have a top 5 because I'm not sure I even played 10 games from 2021. Instead, I finished off a bunch of games from previous years and leaned on some old faves. So here is my totally zeitgeisty top 5 games of 2021.
5. Disciples: Liberation
This year, there were a few revivals of the Heroes of Might and Magic style of game and this was my favourite of them. It is a little lore-heavy, and all the factions are equally unlikeable, so I didn't care whether I betrayed them or not. This turned out fine because I had to chop and change my allegiances in order to access a wider range of units from each faction. What actually kept my attention was the hex-grid, turn-based combat and the synergies between the abilities of my motley army units. It's a solid, mid-tier effort that was fun to play, but I probably won't remember it in a year.
4. Mass Effect Legendary Edition
This feels like cheating, but it was genuinely great to revisit Mass Effect. I'm normally hesitant about re-releases, but I did a lot of "comfort gaming" in 2021, which probably explains this purchase. As soon as the theme music hit, I was in my happy place, and a fresh coat of paint and some UI tweaks were all I needed to enjoy this classic saga all over again. I rolled up a new FemShep, picked a build I hadn't tried before (Vanguard) and... went on to make all the same story choices as I did 10-plus years ago. What else can I say? It's a classic series and you already know whether you like it or not. As with Skyrim, fans reheat and consume every morsel of these games because new titles aren't coming any time soon.
I didn't finish Eastshade, but it made a deep impression. Imagine Skyrim, but everyone's an anthropomorphic animal and there's no combat. I really dug the peaceful, artistic vibe of this game: you're a painter, walking around, talking to folks, gathering materials to paint pictures of the countryside. You stumble across someone camping by the sea and he plays you a song on his lute. You walk upstairs in a bar one night, and someone is giving a poetry reading. There's nary a "YOU'RE DEAD" screen to be seen.
"Charming" gets bandied about a lot for games and is often used in an infantilising way, but I was charmed by Eastshade. I needed its gentle mood in 2021, and it made me realise that combat systems aren't so necessary to hook me into a game.
2. Phoenix Point
This was not particularly on my radar until TheHarpoMarxist mentioned it on the Conference Call—how many of us have a similar story, eh? The Conference Call went from strength to strength this year and I loved it. It probably peaked around episode 784, though.
Anyhoo, Phoenix Point is a Firaxis XCOM-alike made by the dev of the original 1990s XCOM. Fans will be familiar with the cycle: take your squaddies on a mission, get rewards, go back to base to spend rewards, then get back out for next mission.
But the difference is in the details. Instead of a percentage chance to hit (which meant point blank misses), Phoenix Point models each bullet and has an aiming reticle, and if all of the target is in your reticle, you cannot miss. Instead of making passive income each month, you have to explore, trade, or do missions to get resources. Instead of crouching behind cover and cheesing Overwatch, line of sight is more important and you can move after you shoot.
Phoenix Point is familiar enough to jump in without feeling swamped, but different enough to enjoy learning the new systems. It was buggy at launch, but after over 2 years of patches and solid DLC support, it is now well-polished. The highest praise I can give is that after playing it, I'm not sure I can go back to XCOM.
1. Old World
Mohawk Games Old World ticks many of my boxes before I even get to the 4X gameplay. It's set in the age of classical antiquity. Most folks who enjoy classical history are always craving visuals: what did stuff look like? This game's maps and art are evocative and beautiful.
Old World also packs significant changes to the 4X formula that prevent it from feeling stale. The Order system is a major shake up of how turns play out. The economy and diplomacy systems are miles ahead of Civ but don't drown you in spreadsheets and submenus like Paradox games can. The dynasty mechanics add personality and a sense of rivalry that spices up each run and makes your playthrough feel more personal. Most importantly, the AI knows how to play the game without cheating (much).
As I get older, I feel myself hardening from a "I'm open to all games" kind of gamer to a "I like what I like, dammit" kind. It can be hard to dislodge me from my faves. I need a delicate blend of familiarity (so I'm not worried about a learning curve) and novelty (so I don't feel like I've played the thing before). Both Old World and Phoenix Point got that blend just right, and got me off my lawn. I look forward to more campaigns in each game in 2022.
To finish, I would like to extend a hearty thanks to Amoebic and GWJ for having me around, and to each of you community members who make GWJ what it is. It is weird to be doing The Week Ahead when my personal gaming is so far behind the curve. However, I appreciated GWJ more than usual in 2021, perhaps because of *gestures at world* reasons, so thank you all. Even the smallest acts of kindness can have a deep impact on someone else.
Death Trash (only here and not on the list because its EA, strong contender next year)
Critters For Sale
Vagrus: The Riven Realms
10. Ender Lillies
A hidden gem Castlevanioid that grappled with some heady themes, Ender Lillies was this year's heir to Hollow Knight. Though it never quite hits the same high highs, it is a beautiful game that I played for much longer than I thought I would when I started. The mechanics are built less around leveling up, and more around cleansing corrupt spirits and recruiting them to protect you. These spirits present a wide array of powers that give you tons of unique tools for dealing with the many challenges.
9. Loop Hero
Loop Hero blends a deeply satisfying gameplay, er, loop with a trippy, surprising narrative that had some pretty novel takes on what an apocalypse and a post-apocalypse can be. Like many games on this list, it is also singular in its graphics and presentation. It is easily one of the most innovative and unique games I've ever played, and in a normal year would be near the top of the list.
8. Trials of Fire
A deckbuilder meets XCOM? Yes please. Trials of Fire came out of nowhere to rock my 2021 for several weeks. The campaign took only a few hours and never overstayed its welcome. But thanks to a variety of interesting character builds, the replayability is off the charts. This is a game that has so many fun choices in it. It’s also damn near impossible to stop playing once you start.
7. Gordian Quest
The era of the deckbuilder has created some absolutely masterful games, but Gordian Quest might be my favorite. Leaning heavily into the RPG side of things, the deep mechanics and compelling campaigns are immensely satisfying to tinker with and explore. Some games have wide mechanics, some games have deep mechanics, few can successfully claim both.
Wildermyth is a forever game. Exciting, strategically satisfying turn-based battles are met with narrative comics, where character behavior is seeded early on based on personality traits you ascribe them. It is amazing that something procedurally generated can feel so deliberate and authored. The stories are fun and exciting, and the experience of watching a rag-tag group of friends become prominent heroes, age, and then pass the mantle on to a new generation gives this small indie gem a huge, epic feel.
5. 1000-Year-Old Vampire
Most of what I remember of childhood is a profound sense of isolation. To me, TTRPGs are where I first found connection to other people. The idea of agreeing on the shared reality of worlds we could make up together was a revelation. Despite losing what I always thought was an integral part of the TTRPG experience, 1000-Year-Old Vampire not only works—it absolutely sings. This solo RPG explores the loneliness of eternal life; you watch as people blink in and out of your vampire's life. The most important people, events, and places eventually disappearing from your mind. The mechanics are so perfectly suited to creating fun, melancholic, startling, surprising, and even dangerous-feeling stories. This game reminds you that you can be both the creator and audience and is an absolute gift.
4. Pathfinder: Wrath of the Righteous
Sometimes you need tight, lean mechanics. Sometimes you want CRUNCH. Pathfinder is a true, multi-course meal. The first act alone contains three epic sequences that could all probably be climaxes in a normal game. The set pieces are spectacular, epic fantasy at its best. This is a game that swings not only for the fences but for the city limits. I happily doled out over hundred hours, savoring every scrumptious bite of this RPG-feast.
3. Black Book
Magic feels like something that should be creative, dangerous, and mysterious. Black Book is one of the few games I've ever played that has truly felt like it captured all of the core things that make magic feel, well, magical. (Loom is the only other one that comes to mind, and that game comes with the advantage of childhood nostalgia built in.) It doesn't hurt that the story and characters are compelling and that the game is beautiful and singular in its presentation. It also captures a time and place with a fascinating, nuanced perspective on both the mundane and mystical worlds.
2. Dungeon Encounters
I've talked this game up quite a bit, but I'll happily bang this drum one more time. It is a mechanical masterclass, an expert display of emergent storytelling, and a real imagination sparker. It isn't surprising to me at all that the catch-all thread was started with Dungeon Encounters short-fiction.
1. Neurocracy 2049
Neurocracy is staggering and brilliant on so many levels. A deeply interactive game that uses the verbs of browsing Wikipedia to tell a dense, rich hard sci-fi story, it was easily the most innovative game I played this year. On a single article stub, Neurocracy has more ideas in it than most Triple-A games can even hope to muster over the breadth of their 80-plus hour run times. It is an astounding accomplishment. We were fortunate to have three members of the writing team appear over two episodes on the Conference Call, and the space in my imagination that this game took even when I wasn't playing it makes it an easy choice for my GOTY.
10. Loop Quest
I really wanted to like Loop Quest—the distilled RPG elements, the streamlined “management” gameplay, even the simple graphics. But I could never quite figure out where it fit. I gave it too much attention for it to sit on a second screen at work, but too little attention for it to fill my evening gaming time. But it was at least sticky enough that I double-dipped on a Switch copy when it finally released there.
9. Metallic Child
Metallic Child is a solid, enjoyable rogue-lite that earns its place here as much for it’s gameplay and mechanics as it does for being the satisfactory culmination of a years-long wait for its release. It leans heavily into fast-paced, arcadey combat, complete with encounter scores and limited-time boost-or-bust enhancements, but suffers from the meager upgrades between runs. Still, I find myself eager to return.
8. Minecraft Dungeons & More
This was the year I finally got to play real games with my kids. Set in a world my children already loved, Minecraft Dungeons was the main event, with it’s pre-assigned loot drops, snappy combat, and a catch-up mechanic for stragglers. But we also dabbled in the fantastic two-player puzzler Pode and took turns giving increasingly silly internal monologues to the hapless protagonist of Good Job.
7. Super Mario 3D World + Bowsers Fury
I was thrilled when 3D World was ported to the Switch and I was finally able to enjoy this amazing Mario game. But Bowser’s Fury is what brings it onto my list. I hadn’t thought Mario would make for a compelling, open-world game, but I was so happy to be wrong. Between low-stakes item collection and intermittent, high-stakes boss encounters, this really felt like the future of Mario games. At least I hope so.
I wish I played more of this. I wish I’d finished it. I wish I could write from the view of the end of the story rather than the middle. Because Haven is a remarkable, honest game, a love story that focuses on the enduring companionship of love, the unflashy, comforting side of love, the contentment of having someone who is always on your side regardless of all the ebbs and flows of life. Or while exploring an alien world to repair your crashed ship. I just want to curl up in bed, Switch in hand, and bask all evening in the warm glow of Haven.
I’m a sucker for collection games; in fact, I have to be cautiously selective about when I decide to dabble because I can loose countless hours of sleep to the repetitive, rewarding loops. Forager was the right game at the right time this year, and I wrung out every last drop of enjoyment from it. And then I just kept on playing until I’d finished my final few, very grindy goals.
4. A Fold Apart
A Fold Apart is a beautiful, heartfelt exploration of relationships, misunderstandings, and the affection that endlessly attempts to bridge even the greatest distances. The paper-folding mechanics are simple, direct, and delicately unobtrusive, allowing the story and characters to shine even more brightly. While I finished in mere hours, this game will stay with me for a lifetime, nestled tenderly in a cherished corner of my heart.
3. Metroid: Dread
I was not expecting 2021 to be the pinnacle year of Metroid games. While Dread may not be the best or the most loved of the series, it is certainly the peak of design and implementation. The environments and animations are gorgeous, and the map design and pacing are superb. Sure, reducing early exploration by closing corridors felt needlessly limiting, but the consistent sense of momentum and the steady drip of new abilities more than made up for it.
I will never do justice to my experience with Spiritfarer in a short, quippy paragraph; it deserves a far deeper discussion, a far brighter spotlight. But today, I will give it the highest praise I can think of.
Spiritfarer is the finale of The Good Place: The Game.
1. Hyrule Warriors: Age of Calamity