2021’s 2020 game of the year, best of the rest.
2021’s 2020 game of the year:
I have many hobbies and, as is true for everyone, limited time. So, I always have stuff that I want to play or experience from years past and 2020 was no different. These are the games I played in 2021 from 2020 that I really loved and some of these would have been part of my ‘favorites of the year’ list, however, for this list the order is just alphabetical.
In recent years, indie games have facilitated the resurgence of many sub-sub-genres that have been too “niche” for even mid-tier developers to tackle; one of those is the photography game. “Umurangi Generations”, “Sludge Life”, “New Pokemon Snap”, “Bugsnax”, and even a few that could make it onto another one of my lists this year. “Alba: A wildlife adventure” is one of the best examples of this genre; its wholesome, adventurous, has a beautiful art style and knows exactly when to end the experience. It left me with only good things to say about it and good memories of it; some will find the simplistic nature of its mechanics to be boring, but I like how they supplement that with genuinely challenging quests that require you to study the environment and learn about the animals, in order to figure out where they could be. The studio also made a commitment to plant a tree for each download of the game, and they recently announced one million trees planted, which is a great way to announce a huge milestone for the game and a great way to give back, so congratulations ustwo games and well deserved.
Technically a 2019 release, “Grindstone” is a puzzle game that got ported to Nintendo Switch in 2020 and for a few months in 2021, I could not get enough of it. I was addicted by its additions and tampering of the match-3 genre, pushed forward by its RPG-lite progression systems, and absolutely adored its style – from character designs to the color palette, everything about the game was exactly what I wanted it to be. Just writing about it now, made me feel like I should play it again, so I went ahead and re-downloaded it to my Switch; that’s how good this game is!
Looking through my blog, you’ll find an unsurprising lack of JRPGs and turn-based combat games; rarely do I find them engaging or interesting enough, usually, they need something more to pique my interest and maintain it. Ikenfell’s combat is so good that by the time the “more” turns up, it just made me even more in love with the game. It’s turn-based, but also timing-based, which makes each encounter fun and a challenge. By the point I felt like I had a handle on the combat, I was hooked by its mature storytelling and characters, in love with the soundtrack, and loving the beautiful art style. There are some issues I hope the developers can iron out in their next project (if it’s the same style as “Ikenfell” or even a sequel to it) like how new characters felt inconvenient at first since I did not know their moves or their timing, and how the difficulty curve just skyrockets in the final chapters. Regardless of that, I have “Ikenfell” to thank for a somewhat renewed interest in turn-based games, like I had “Into the Breach” before it.
- Monster Sanctuary
As I wrote in Alba, indie games have allowed “niche” genres to have a new life and no other genre has seen a resurgence quite like “monster-catching” RPGs; “Temtem”, “Nexomon: Extinction”, “Fae Tactics”, “Serin Fate”. All these titles are from the past couple of years and that’s not including larger IPs, like “Pokemon”, “Yo-kai watch”, or “Monster Rancher”. The one that I got to first, though, was the one that I spent 60 hours with and had my fill of that genre for now, because it is that good. “Monster Sanctuary” is a challenging alternative to the light-RPGs that defined “monster-catching”; it will beat you if you think that you can brute-force your way through it. You need to be aware of your party’s weaknesses and strengths, alongside your opponents; you need to have a clear path in mind when choosing their upgrades in one of the best upgrade trees that I have ever seen for EACH of the monsters; you need to be firm with your plan and adaptable enough to know when it’s not working. It also fixes a lot of the issues that other games in the genre have had for years, alongside one of the best combat systems the genre has ever seen. Grinding is practically gone, since players don’t “catch” monsters, they receive an egg that hatches near the level of monsters they are currently at; find a fight where a particular monster would be great at, but they are under-leveled? No worries, just go catch a new one that’s closer to your level! On top of all that, “Monster Sanctuary” is also a pretty great Metroidvania, since monsters have abilities that help you traverse the world and explore it the way you want; some monsters offer mobility options, others offer convenience like turning you invisible which means you won’t fight if you don’t actually want to. Add to ALL these features great implementation of ideas such as evolutions, RPG stats on items for both the player character and the monsters, and you have one of the best “monster-catching”, Metroidvania, RPG hybrids that I’ve ever played. Post-launch support has also been great since the devs added difficulty options, speedrunning support, balancing, costumes, new challenges, an announcement of free DLC coming, and new skills, which have made “Monster Sanctuary” one of my favorite games that I’ve played this year.
- The Pathless
At first glance, “The Pathless” could have been an impactful failure and a risk not worth taking. Giant Squid, makers of “Abzu” and formed by people known for their work on “Journey”, were known for their chill experiences that elicited emotions through beautiful music and art, rather than words or gameplay. “The Pathless” is exactly that, but it also has all the other stuff in it, so it’s even more of a success. It has a tremendously addictive sense of speed and flow that had me exploring and going off path (get it?!) just because I wanted to maintain the momentum I build up. Along that path, you’d hear the exceptional music by Wintrory, you’d experience the sights beautifully created by the game’s exceptional art design, and you’d see the story of the Hunter unfold before you. That story is not particularly novel, but it is a story that allows that open-ended experience to have more guidance and direct the player towards what the game wants you to feel; it’s not as impactful as “Abzu” or “Journey” in this regard, but it still elicits the emotions and the powerful experience expected. It even has some written notes that are as powerful as those previous games – at times – and some of those were as memorable. It’s also strange to praise such a game for boss fights and moment-to-moment gameplay, but that is the level of excellence that “The Pathless” manages to hit.
Best of the rest:
2021 has been a year that has not had enough “interesting” AAA games that speak to me; I can count the exceptions to that in one hand and most of them are structured as experiences that I don’t want to rush through or stop at the end, like Halo or Forza. Thus, I’ve tried a lot of games and I had a lot of experiences through gaming this year; like with movies, there were a lot of good and great ones, and a lot of decent ones, but not many that I would consider being “special” or would go straight into my “favorites of all time” list. As I did with movies, I decided to have a list for both good/great and decent games, and this is the best of the rest; 5 games in no particular order besides alphabetical that I found to be troubled and flawed, but their strengths so strong that I enjoyed them regardless. Special mention to “12 minutes” as a game that I didn’t particularly enjoy while playing it, but enjoyed the conversations it spawned about how it structured its puzzles and the story it told; also, “Kraken Academy !!” is a funny and fun, time-loop, deceptively linear, adventure game that is pretty good, but just misses out on this list.
A game about a pig farmer who has been working with the mob as a body disposer and the day he decided to call it quits. A somber, melancholic experience that manages to convey a lot of ideas and themes in roughly two hours; an experience I had in early March and yet I still vividly remember. Unfortunately, it’s not a very good “game” with a variety of technical issues, design decisions that are not as playful or engaging as they could have been, and an art style that is beautiful and evocative from far away but breaks immersion from up close. Regardless, it is still worth experiencing just for the great use of the “dialogue options” wheel that was used superbly and for the brilliant storytelling, characters, and atmosphere that oozes throughout the game.
- Behind the frame: The finest scenery
Video games are an audiovisual experience alongside an interactive one. Behind the frame absolutely demolishes any other game I’ve played this year when it comes to the ‘visual’ part of the equation; it feels like playing an Anime. A well-written, beautifully illustrated, and gorgeously animated Anime. It exceeded expectations as to how stunning this would actually look; beyond that, the puzzles are not something that will challenge or be memorable in any way, but they are good enough. Similarly, I expected a touching story and it provided that. Add some decent voice performances and music, and it all adds up to a good experience that is appropriately priced and can provide a cozy afternoon’s worth of relaxation and enjoyment.
“Biomutant” is one of the only cases I’ve experienced where a collection of a poor and unfinished set of parts makes for a compelling and worthwhile whole. The gameplay lacks any satisfying impact or interesting mechanics; the systems that are present feel isolated from each other and meaningless; the world and characters look great, but on a massive scale they lose their impact due to a lack of variety; the story is beyond boring and inconsequential, which is doubly hurtful since it was supposed to be a big part of it with multiple endings and a faction system that would challenge players. Despite (or even because) of all that, I found “Biomutant” to be one of the most Zen experiences I’ve had all year. I devoured its open-world, checking off locations and areas with 100% completion like a junkie. Something about its cool and ambitious ideas, like creating your own weapons, a mix of close combat mechanics with shooter elements, and the few genuinely great quests that are hidden in a sea of boring ones, made me want to keep playing. I got the developers’ intentions and I wanted that so badly that I looked past the game they delivered (which is unfinished and poor) and I engaged with what they had hoped to be able to provide. That’s not to say that I spent around 33 hours with it, because of intentions; I genuinely feel that what is there is enough to warrant a playthrough for people who enjoy checking off a huge checklist and getting close to that 100%. It’s not as engaging or polished as Ubisoft titles, but it is flashy and fun, and that was enough for me.
I don’t know what it is about golf games that are definitely not golf that I like so much, but “Golf Club Wasteland” is the latest one in that trend. Continuing the theme of this list, I really don’t like the gameplay, but love the atmosphere and the story. GCW feels stiff and, at times, aggravating to control, but as a human tourist taking a mini-golf tour of a post-apocalyptic Earth, golf is not really the highlight of the experience; one of the best soundtracks of the year is; a dense and melancholic atmosphere is; a smartly written story with great ideas is. If you can stomach some mediocre gameplay for a great experience, then I strongly recommend GCW.
One of the most unfortunate games of this year, Hitchhiker seemingly vanished from people’s lists because of how good Road 96’s demo was. I’ve yet to play “Road 96” (it’s on my list of shame from 2021), but I am sad that more people did not discover “Hitchhiker” because they already got “Road 96” or thought of it as a quick cash grab to capitalize on its success. It’s a different game, one that takes an entirely different approach to storytelling and gameplay, and one that I personally gelled with a lot better than the demo of “Road 96”. In “Hitchhiker” you are someone who hitches a ride towards someplace before you realize something is wrong; that is all I can say without going into spoilers. The reason it is on this list instead of my favorites one is that the interactivity and puzzles they added to a wonderfully deep and complex story, hurts that experience more than elevating it. It often felt too vague (due to the nature of the game, it should feel somewhat vague, but it goes beyond that point) and I would need to consult a guide to even understand the puzzle, let alone figure out the solution; as I said, I’m not great at logic puzzles, so that didn’t help, but I’d often need to break my immersion from it just to figure it out and progress. Also, I do feel like there the player could have been allowed a little more agency because it feels like the “twist” can be seen coming and it can be acted upon, but that could also be due to the excellent writing not being up to their usual standard in that particular category. It was worth it by the end and I have no qualms about recommending it, but this is not a choice-driven narrative or multiple endings one; this is a different take and this is much more about the story, the themes, the subtext, the characters and their connections, rather than “these decisions will impact the story”, Telltale-like games.