Also, ongoing experience of the year.
Ongoing experiences of 2021:
I suck at coming up with titles. “Ongoing experiences” might be my worst title yet because of how deceptive it is; it does perfectly capture how I interact with these games, though. Most will think that I’m talking about “live-service” games, but these games are much more than that and I think only one and a half, fit that description. These are games that have no definitive end or, better yet, they have an end but I’m actively avoiding it; to put it simply, these were the games I kept coming back to, for one reason or another. The best analogy I can think of is, I treated them like rogue-lites; each 10-minute session or an hour here and there, were like runs. Every run, I made some progress then I put down the game and came back to it whenever I felt like it. I could have kept playing them until I reached their end, but I didn’t want to; slowly, over the course of 2022 I will finish them, but I’ve started a lot of these titles by the fall of 2021 and kept playing them (as of the time writing this), putting in dozens of hours in each one of them. In that way they are more like my version of an MMORPG; worlds I can return to whenever I feel like it, take seconds to remember the controls, my objectives and have hours of entertainment. Before I start the list, I do want to give two special mentions; one is currently in Early Access, the other was in Early Access and released properly this year. The latter is “Gunfire Reborn”, a game I put a lot of hours into earlier in 2021 and got back into after it released properly, but now has been collecting digital dust in my digital library; not necessarily a bad thing, as its core FPS, rogue-like structure, is so easy to get back into and addicted to, I had no problem picking it back up and won’t have a problem once I want to get back into it. It’s a special mention because I did not spend as much time with it recently, but I also know I will spend a lot of time with it overall, so I wanted to mention it. Lastly, “Black Skylands” is a game currently in Early Access that I spent a lot of time with and I have loved thus far; it’s a mix of twin-stick shooter, base building/resource gathering and management, and ship combat with added touches of Metroidvania. It controls great, has a fair challenge to it, and always made me feel like I am progressing in some way, which makes it so fun and engaging to occasionally come back to. Having said all of that, here is the unranked list of “ongoing experiences” in alphabetical order.
Top-down, action rogue-lite with an interesting premise. You play as Cassidy who recently moved to a new city called Redhaven, dealing with a few issues of her own. During nights, you dream and deal with your personal issues in the form of a top-down action game – using melee, ranged, and magical abilities to deal damage, dash, and parry – with randomized gear and abilities that you get better at the more you use each piece of equipment. By day, you wander the city and talk to its inhabitants, befriending them and gaining their buffs, while also unlocking new stuff for your dreams and purchasing permanent upgrades. In essence, these systems are nothing new to the genre, but I did find their implementation – alongside the interesting context – to be enough reason to keep coming back. The combat is fluid and responsive, the challenge is fair, the abilities are diverse but all feel able to beat the game with; it also adds a timing mechanic for each weapon where upon mastering and hitting it will lead to a critical hit and you could keep that going for as long as you keep hitting the timing right. Add to that the pleasant visuals and soundtrack, the bittersweet story, the cool boss fights, and the inhabitants all having gifts they like that can allow you to befriend them faster, it all adds up to an experience that allows the player to engage with it for as long and as often as they’d like.
One of my favorite games of the year and partly the reason this list exists; I started playing “DYSMANTLE” when it first released – late 2020 – in Early Access and never stopped. The most addicting loop of the year, “DYSMANTLE” allows you to deconstruct anything and everything to materials (besides the actual terrain), has a basic yet functional combat system alongside a myriad of other systems to make those materials useful, and that’s all I needed to become addicted. This is one of those games that I’ve seen people loving parts that I didn’t really mess with too much; some really like to have an area of the map to call their base, use nearby farms for farming and cooking, before venturing out in areas they have not been to yet; others like the progression of it, gathering enough resources to craft tools needed to access new areas. I like all those things, but I just fell in love with the idea that I’m going to demolish anything I want; a chair, a table, a fridge, the whole kitchen, heck the whole house. What they built around that is not as vital for me; it’s sort of an ARPG with the ability to gain more resources by resetting an area’s zombies and making it more difficult; there’s a resource management aspect where each time you rest, you reset the zombies if you haven’t found the tower yet to make them stop respawning, but your resources and health are restored so it’s a risk-reward decision; there’s crafting, cooking, farming, building, melee and ranged combat, equipment that allows access to new areas or prolonged access to some areas that are too hot or cold. All that is to drive you back towards demolishing stuff and getting resources, which is something I seriously wanted to like in the past, but I never did until now.
- Forza Horizon 5
My first controversial opinion of this list is coming up: I like Forza Horizon 4 more than 5. I loved the seasons gimmick, it made each weekly reset a good reason to keep checking in weekly; I liked the “stories” side stuff more, like recreating classic games or deliveries in a van that Dominic Toretto would have been proud of; the properties were more interesting and desirable – who doesn’t want to own their own castle with one of the most difficult danger signs on their lawn?! Regardless, Forza Horizon 5 is the most popular and most critically acclaimed of the two, and it is one of the best games of the year. I already spent close to 30 hours with it and I am nowhere close to being done with it; I love Mexico and the digital recreation of it is a fascinating achievement of design and technical ability. I like how that community feeling is engrained in the game with gifting cars and receiving kudos for doing so. I adore the changes they made to car collecting with players now able to gift or sell cars they don’t want, by giving them a card for their collectathon scrapbook allowing them to keep “owning” a car without owning it. The new Series X version of this game is simply phenomenal; it takes seconds to load into the game and start driving, restarts happen in the blink of an eye, while the game runs smoothly with no bugs or glitches whatsoever. I do hope that some ideas from 4 find their way back in 5, like businesses, extravagant properties, better music tracks, better UI for festival seasons, but I’m glad I have another reason to start a new Horizon journey all over again and start hunting down boards and roads all over again while listening to trashy pop and driving million-dollar cars with anime girls on them.
- Halo Infinite
I didn’t always love Halo; my first experience with the franchise was due to Halo 5 being a ‘Games with Gold’ offering and deciding to try it out. I liked it at the time, but then my buddy and I decided to play through all the campaigns on couch co-op; needless to say, I am now a huge fan of the franchise. Despite that, I am taking my time with this new Halo and treading it as an “ongoing experience”, because of that absence of couch co-op; I’m playing through the campaign on Normal difficulty (despite playing all the others on Heroic), simply because I want to fully explore the map and enjoy the story, rather than experience the campaign (which, for me, is couch co-op on Heroic). I also played a bit of the multiplayer for the first time and I enjoyed it, so I occasionally play a few rounds here and there. Long story short, I don’t want to rush through Halo and I’m taking my sweet time with it savoring each moment and slowly familiarizing myself with the multiplayer; this is why this game is the “half” of the “one and a half live service games” I talked about in the intro, since that is exactly what the multiplayer side of this is all about. Even with only a handful of hours with the game, I can already tell it’s a great Halo experience; this might be my favorite feeling Halo game so far, with new and old weapons feeling fantastic to shoot; Master Chief feels fast and mobile; the sandbox is a ton of fun to mess around in and cause physics-based chaos and destruction; the story so far is mysterious and engaging in some ways, but I’ve only done a couple of story missions so I can’t definitively say if I like it yet. Overall, this is a game that already convinced me to spend dozens of hours with it and I’m taking my time to enjoy every second of that playtime as it comes.
“Wildermyth” is this year’s “Hades”. It takes an established genre that had become obsessed with outdoing or outsmarting other games on mechanical/system progression or complexion or other gameplay-driven means and adds an innovative narrative spin on that; in this case, tactical combat-driven, tabletop RPGs. In “Wildermyth”, you have a legacy of characters with their own, procedurally-generated backstories, relationships, combat styles, and legends; these characters can have a full life and story, as meaningful and poignant as any great arc tabletop RPGs can offer, but they also can be cautionary tales of being a little too confident, a tragic consequence of previous mistakes forcing you to make risky decisions, and whole heaps of other ingenious, systems-driven narratives. There is so much I love about this game, but all of that comes from my own characters and my own expectations for them, my imagination to where they might gravitate towards, etc. An example is that I tried hard to have two hopeless romantics fall in love with each other, but I never managed to do that, because one had to stay behind and help unscrew up my hastily made mistakes from earlier; that sounds staged to work with perfect dramatic balance and foreshadowing, but it was not. It was the game allowing me (or forcing me) to carve my own stories; I had the expectation and want to see these two end up together, but I made the mistakes of not dealing with the numerous threats on the map by prioritizing gathering equipment and resources for the next chapter. Thus, she had to remain with a lonesome witch in the woods to try and contain the spread that would surely destroy me had it become any stronger. It’s one of those blossoming ideas for the narrative nature of video games that fascinates me, yet I never thought I would actually see what it can become so early and so incredibly realized. I’ve actually rolled credits on this one, but I only finished one of the campaigns and I’m currently going through another, with the developers having a large amount ready for any player and allowing Steam Workshop support for an infinite amount of variations or special rules; the thing is though, I didn’t really care about that stuff before but with “Wildermyth” the difference is that you can gather points from the previous campaigns and use them to take heroes with you on the next campaign, which continues their story and builds on your relationship with them. Already, I am not looking at the new campaign as a “New Game +”, but as a continuation of a single storyline and that is what makes it interesting and worthwhile for me; this is definitely one I’ll be talking about more in the future, but for now I’m already enthralled by it and I can’t wait to play it more.
My favorite games of 2021:
There were some great video games this year, but I would be lying if I said that I found them to be as engaging or memorable as 2020. Having said that, delays and an intensely prolific indie scene made 2021 a great year and a really hard list to curate and narrow it down to just 10; so, I kind of didn’t. There are a few honorable mentions I want to highlight before getting into that list, which is an 8-way tie for 3rd place (in alphabetical order) and the top two ranked.
I am going to limit myself to just three otherwise I’m going to be writing this list until 2023! First off, by alphabetical order, it’s “Boyfriend Dungeon” a game I did not expect would make me feel like crap because I had to cut it from the list. In theory, this game does not belong on this list; it is a mix of dungeon-crawling and dating-sim, but it does neither particularly good. In practice, the merging of those two genres works surprisingly well and the lovely presentation, great soundtrack, and excellent writing allow the game to have a life of its own and sink its charming claws into you; in gameplay as well, the systems of both genres work surprisingly well to counter each genres’ issues. For example, the not-so-great boss fights and limited variety for dungeons isn’t an issue here, because I want to level up my weapons and clear dungeons over and over due to the writing and the characters. This is also a game that I appreciated more with time because it had the restrain to have a 10-hour, 100% completion playthrough, instead of an infinitely replayable campaign or add extra fluff that would break the excellent pacing. The second honorable mention is “Death’s Door”, a game that also broke through the indie scene this year to achieve great success and spotlight from mainstream publications and audiences. It’s a Zelda-like, action-adventure with puzzle and Metroidvania elements, starring a crow sent to reclaim souls of people not willing to die and pass on. It’s a stunningly beautiful game, not only in audiovisual terms but also in its writing, however that is a bonus that allowed it a mainstream success; at its core, it’s a challenging and rewarding action-adventure that requires careful thinking and, if you want to find all the secrets and get the secret ending, a keen eye for detail and secret hunting. Lastly, I want to highlight “Unpacking”, a chill game about moving to new houses and…unpacking and organizing your stuff. The only reason it got cut from my list is that it was exactly what I expected and wanted. I loved how Zen it was, how beautifully detailed its pixel art was, and how it managed to tell a story in this simple game; there were a few annoyances like objects having to be placed in specific rooms that made little sense to me, but even that can be fixed by checking the “place any object anywhere” option in the settings.
Now that I feel terrible about these honorable mentions not being on the actual list, let’s feel a bit better by making the list.
Favorite games of 2021:
I, like many others, played “Before your Eyes” or BYE once back in April and I honestly could not get it out of my head; it hit me hard and made me emotional in ways that only “To the moon” managed up until that point. It’s a poignant, bittersweet story that I don’t want to spoil any part of it; the reason it’s not ranked is simply because of the gimmick (playing this game through web-cam and controlling the flow of the game through blinking your eyes). I love how inventive and appropriate it is with the story and I’m thankful most people seem to have it work for them, but I just couldn’t get it to work properly and constantly worried it would desync or register my eyes blinking when they were not. There is an option to play without it, but I found it so appropriate and inventive that I simply refused; I still think that the game is great even without the webcam gimmick, so don’t miss out on this one for any reason.
My favorite game of 2018 was “Wandersong”, so the developer’s next game was always going to excite me and intrigue me. “Chicory: A colorful tale” is a top-down, coloring, adventure game that has everything that surprised me about “Wandersong”; a deceptively serious story hidden inside a fairy tale sounding story with colorful characters; a gameplay loop that is more about expression and joy, alongside some puzzles, rather than challenge that remains engaging and interesting throughout; a show-stealing soundtrack. The reason it’s not in the ranked spots is that, I just liked Wandersong’s gimmick of singing better, and that with that element of surprise gone what remains is an excellent game; obviously, that’s not bad, but it made it feel less “special” than “Wandersong” or the two ranked games of the year. Regardless of that, it is a game I thoroughly enjoyed and remember fondly.
Freebird Games are the type of studio where I allow myself to become a GamerTM; ever since “To the moon” shot straight into my top 5 of favorite games of all time, I just anxiously wait for announcements, details, or whatever other news they have. I am so confident in their abilities, I bought “Impostor Factory” the moment it released and only played it in late December, because I knew that it was going to be great and wanted to give other games a fair shot before I tried it. In a lot of ways, “Impostor Factory” is a better game than its predecessor “Finding Paradise”. The devs finally dropped the puzzle stuff that only distracted or annoyed from previous games, and focused more on the story and the environments that were always the pull for most fans. Moreover, I found “Impostor Factory” to have a theme that is less explored in video games than “Finding Paradise”, which also added to a feeling of novelty, without the game ever straying too far from its crisp, melodramatic writing and its wacky and goofy sense of humor. If this was a list of games that made my jaw-drop so hard it hurt or a list of games that made me cry, then it would be number one by a longshot; however, there is a noticeable increase in duration which makes the pacing, at times, feel off. It also loses that momentum other games from the studio have of finishing them in one sitting, making the whole experience less impactful. It is easily my second favorite from the studio and I’m very excited to see the next chapter in their story.
David Mullins releasing a new game was always going to mean, for the people who played any of his previous work, an exciting time and an interesting game; I am glad that “Inscryption” blew up the way it did, because maybe more people will discover “Pony Island” and “The Hex” and I’ll have many more people to be excited with when his next big project is announced. As with all his games, “Inscryption” is best played by going in completely blind; the only thing I would mention is that this is a card-building and combat game, and it’s kind of off-putting. Some have even called it a horror game, but that often misleads people away from content they would be okay with; it has a lot of dread and an uneasy atmosphere to it with lots of off-putting ideas, but nothing to worry about when it comes to jump-scares or anything like that. I loved the whole game and, although it isn’t my favorite of his games thus far, I still found it to be one of the best experiences of the year; I would highly recommend playing through it and then spending a bit of time catching up to the AR side of the game, which is hinted within the game but also has some devious puzzles that can be very fun to solve with a group of friends. Also, check out the eventual ending of that side to because it is freaking wild, just like the game!
- Song of farca
My most recent entry on this list and one I would not expect to end up here, from the first half of the game. “Song of Farca” is a typical, indie game from the past five years; it’s a detective-puzzle game, about a hacker who has just been released from jail into house arrest and must keep her P.I. business going while working at home, through hacking and her drones. It’s typical, because it is a text-based, narrative-driven, puzzle adventure with only one notable new idea; the screen is divided in two and the player only has control of the character when she’s using her computer. As a puzzle game, I often found it frustrating and just wound up using a guide for most of those sections; puzzles are usually all about deciphering a code from an obscure hint the target has in the vicinity. However, as a detective/narrative experience it is simply one of the best of the year and one of the only games that made me keep playing long after I planned to stop just to see the conclusion to a case or progress the overall story. Admittedly, that does take some time to get to and, for the first half of a 9-hour campaign, most people may not want that but I did find the political themes, the characters, the flow of the story, and the pacing of the second half to be addicting and I would recommend a playthrough alongside a guide for the puzzles.
As you can see from this list, I like colorful games. None of these games had the style and presentation of “The artful escape”, a platforming game about an up-and-coming folk musician who secretly dreams of being an intergalactic rockstar. However, in my opinion which seems to be in the minority again, it is much more than a pretty game with a good soundtrack; it takes lessons from other favorite games of mine and mixes them up with their own ideas to form something that stands out from the rest of the games this year. It has the choices that don’t change the story but allow you to shape your character; it allows for personal expression in many ways like having a button to wail on your guitar for a sick solo, or it allows the player to extend and personalize his “take” on the “Simon-says” combat system that has them repeating button presses. It’s got surreal landscapes, great voice-acting, a story that is at times funny and at times poignant. I was initially worried about this game since it has gone cold for quite a while since it was first announced, but it is a wonderful experience.
One of those games that people have had differing opinions depending on what technical state the game was on when they played; I’ve seen people be really disappointed by it with frustration stemming from technical issues. I can relate to that since that happened to me with “Sable”, but thankfully it did not happen with “The ascent”. It’s got impressive art design, a gameplay loop that felt both inventive and finely tuned, great feeling to guns and controls, with a few added touches like loot and some RPG aspects to help with the feeling of progression and pacing. I absolutely loved this game and is one of those games that I would happily return to for co-op, even though I 100% it the first time; I’m also hoping for a sequel/spiritual successor just to see what the team can do with feedback on progression or story, which were the aspects of the game that did have some issues.
- The big con
I’m sad that this game did not hit the “mainstream” wave of indie game appreciation. “The big con” has all the right elements and nails its execution to deliver an excellent and wholesome experience and I would have loved to see more people bang that drum (also for the devs to reap the rewards for their hard work). As Ali, a young teen runaway touring the country to hustle money in order to save their family video store, you’ll pick-pocket, scam, and con your way through a 90s comedy adventure that is genuinely one of the funniest and most charming games of the year. Getting dropped in a large map with dozens of people to pick-pocket, a few smaller jobs that earn more money, and a big job (alongside a hidden, game-spanning job) to progress the story was one of the highlights of the year when it comes to games; the comedy worked for me, the gameplay was simple yet appropriate, while the writing, story, characters, and the cons themselves were a particular highlight. It maybe lacked that “X” factor that makes a game standout over its competitors or maybe people just skipped this one altogether, but I can’t recommend this game enough and it is truly a shame it went under the radar.
I only played the original “Psychonauts” this year, in anticipation of the sequel and I get why that game is a cult classic; its janky and rough around the edges, in a way that would turn most people off before the game can sink its charm in them. “Psychonauts 2” was so highly praised and incredibly successful because, it is the best parts of the original with the polish and the glow it required to be the runaway success the sequel is. I loved “Psychonauts 2” so much that I would spend hours in its levels vacuuming up any collectibles I could find, just so I can be in those brilliant worlds, with those characters, with that music, for a little while longer. It’s an inventive game in every way it can be; each world with its own theme, visuals, sounds, characters, collectibles, gimmicks, boss fights, platforming, etc. Just when an idea gets kind of tiresome, a new world opens up. Just when a joke doesn’t land, another one makes you laugh. But, beyond taking a joyride inside the brilliant and weird head of Tim Schafer, “Psychonauts 2” is a mature and brilliantly written story; it understands deeply that the themes and ideas it tackles cannot be solved easily or should not be simplified and condensed because this is family-friendly entertainment. It explores old age, regrets, past mistakes, broken psyches from past wounds, and many other themes with wonder, gameplay-based representations that lead to great levels and memorable interactions, but it also respects the player and does not shy away from darker topics, engaging them with respect and seriousness. However, the standout feature for me was the pacing of the experience; not a second after I felt like the game was starting to drag on an idea, an expansion to it or an entirely new idea would pop up. By the time I was done, I had 100% the game and I never felt any of the 26+ hours weighting heavy on me; I never felt a boss missed the spot; I never felt an area could get stale; a character being too much. Out of all the games that Xbox released in a fantastic year for them, as a fan, I am most excited by “Psychonauts 2” because it is the level of quality competitors like Sony would be proud of and I hope this is a sign of the quality and quantity Xbox is capable of in this new generation.
- It takes two
“Special” is a word I try to use rarely, because there are many great and excellent games released every year, but “special” should feel like something more than that. “It takes two” is the only game from this year I know is special to me and the industry as a whole; maybe the latter will change as more games try to replicate its success, but for now it is “special”. For all the praise I gave “Psychonauts 2” (and the hope that it will eventually feel special for me as time goes on), “It takes two” is even more impressive in some regards; every level has a new gameplay idea to add to the style that is already in use or a new style altogether. The creativity behind those ideas can carry whole games, but here its just the best parts in a contained level and then you move on; that’s not even including the numerous mini-games you find around each stage. It is just so much fun to cooperate with a partner/friend through this game, because it forces that cooperation and it allows players to have fun while doing it; required, but not that difficult to get through, which is an almost impossible balancing feat. Beyond that, it looks great, the voice-acting is pretty decent, I loved Doctor Hakim, and it even has the best moment out of any entertainment IP of the year (the elephant scene). It’s a game that can be nitpicked to take down a couple of places, simply by highlighting some of its shortcomings like the story, but in the overall experience I couldn’t care less about that; it’s a brilliantly paced, imaginative game that creates 12+ hours of unmatched fun for you and a partner, regardless of how much they enjoy games or not. Those hours are going to be unique and you are going to laugh, scream, and sit in silence while focusing on a boss (or watching the elephant scene), and I’ve never played a game that was so effective or fun at that; that is why “It takes two” is special and it’s my favorite game of the year.