Mike’s 2021 Games of the Year

Oh dang, dudes, they done did it again. Video games. They just keep on makin’ more, huh? And until I figure out how to break that witch’s curse, I’ll keep on playing ’em. I played a total of 87 games this year. Not finished, mind you, just played in some capacity, but that’s still a pretty good number, I think. It took a while to whittle down, as it always does, but I eventually landed on these ten games as my standouts from 2021. Not all of these were released in 2021, so bear that in mind. These are all games I played in 2021.

Incidentally, if find yourself missing the sound of my voice while reading these, I’ve also produced a 7-part video series this year, counting down from my Honorable Mentions right on down to my game of the year. Do check that out if you’re interested. It was a lot of work.

Now then! Without further ado, I give you…

MIKE’S FAVORITE GAMES OF 2021

10. Hitman 3

IO Interactive’s follow-up to 2019’s excellent Hitman 2 ended up occupying a surprisingly marginal place in my mind between “great” and “just okay,” hence it’s spot at the bottom of this list. It hit a lot of the right notes, and carried a lot of momentum forward from the previous games in the trilogy, but it also took a gamble on some new mechanics and a sharper focus on story that, for me, fell a bit flat.

I went into the game with muted excitement. I loved IO’s previous 2 Hitman games, and had just finished Hitman 2 earlier that week, but had also read several reviews warning me of the things that I would eventually write into this GOTY roundup. The first of those things was a new digital camera item in Agent 47’s toolbelt. From the very first moments of Hitman 3‘s first mission, the game cries out to you, “Hey! Check out this camera item! Pretty cool, huh?” And while it’s neat to be able to use it to unlock some windows on a building in the moment, I was left feeling pretty lukewarm on the experience. Again and again, the game’s story missions remind you, Microsoft Clippy-like, that that fancy new camera of yours might just get you out of such-and-such jam. It’s a weirdly forced experience that runs completely counter to the previous games’ ethos of “use whatever you have however you want.”

Hitman 3 also featured a new focus on story, which also (to me) grated against the whole experience just a bit. While both Hitman and Hitman 2 hinted at story beats here and there, and featured lightly-animated cutscenes between missions, none of those games’ stories ever came at the expense of each level’s open, sandbox nature, which allowed you to assassinate targets in almost any way you could imagine. In contrast, and with the exception of a few more “classic” levels, Hitman 3 often felt as though it were on rails — a feeling that is made manifest in the final level, in which you are literally just walking through a train.

If it seems as though I’m only focusing on Hitman 3‘s negative aspects, I do so only because it’s so surprising that a game which should have represented a celebration of one of gaming’s most fun trilogies of the last five years fell so flat. I think IO got the better of itself in a few key areas that, while interesting and new, bogged down some of what makes their Hitman games so fun in the first place: a hands off approach, and a focus on the interactivity of its systems. I understand IO’s desire to finish the story they started injecting in the games back in 2016, and I truly like the characters they’ve written. I just feel like they painted themselves into a bit of a corner, as it all resulted in a game that felt shorter and emptier than its predecessors. It always feels like it’s about to get going. Then before you know it, you’re on that train.

I truly had a good time with Hitman 3. It’s still a solid entry in the series, if lacking some replayability for its forced story beats. It’s as fun as ever to traverse the game’s puzzle-box environments, which are also stunning to look at. A couple of stellar, standout maps keep the Hitman feeling alive (both China and Berlin come to mind). And from a certain point of view, it was nice to have a conclusion to the trilogy’s story, having played 1&2. IO have also continued updating the game and pumping in new content, none of which I have checked out yet. Maybe I should. I certainly wouldn’t mind another trip to the World of Assassination.

9. Mario Golf: Super Rush

From the outset, Mario Golf: Super Rush looks like a fun, bright, colorful golf outing, and in that respect, it truly gives what it promises. Here’s the important bit: the golf is good. It feels really good to swing a piece of… metal? wood? both? …at that little virtual ball, and hear that satisfying little thwack. And you might think well, there you are, job done, 10/10, perfect game. But. The problem with Mario Golf: Super Rush is that it doesn’t give you all that much… to do.

After this game’s announcement, a lot of people got really excited about the fact that it would purportedly contain some kind of campaign or story mode. Those people had all played the previous Game Boy Color or Game Boy Advance Mario Golf games, which had some kind of story or RPG mechanics. I never played those games myself, but I got excited because they got excited. Unfortunately, Mario Golf: Super Rush‘s story mode acts as little more than a tutorial for certain golfing mechanics. It’s very short, and even though it is, I never finished it. Because it’s boring.

Well, story mode is just one of many modes contained in this game, right? There must be more. The big draw of this game, of course, is Speed Golf. This is Super Rush, after all, so Speed Golf must inject some kind of excitement — fire — into into the experience of golf. Right?

I’m sorry, no, Speed Golf sucks.

In Speed Golf, you take a shot, your ball flies through the air, and then you take off running towards it. Your reward for this is that… you have run to it? I don’t know. For me, all this does is 1) Takes away the ability to see where your ball has landed, and consequently how your shot went, because it also removes the shot camera, and 2) You have to run after your ball! I’m playing a video game to not do that! And fair, this is a Mario game, there’s a little more going on here. There are Star Shots, and special dashes, and different ways that you can affect your opponent’s balls — blast them off the course, turn them into ice, etc. — but none of that does it for me. I don’t find that fun. I do not wish to inhabit the soul of the God of Tricks Loki himself and play little pranks on my golf friends. I just want to have a good time.

At this point, you might be wondering, “Mike, do you like this game? Why is this on your list?” Fair questions, which can be easily answered with the four simple words that can either mean prolonged life, or premature death, for any video game: It’s better with friends.

The highlights of my time with Mario Golf: Super Rush were easily the times that I was playing online, playing in the same room as my girlfriend, some of her friends, or best of all — and this is it, this is the reason why this game is on my list — when my friend Zac threw together some spreadsheets and put together an unofficial tournament for some of his friends.

One course, 18 holes, doesn’t matter how many people, Zac would set out a list of rules for what kind of clubs we could use, what kind of characters we could be, etc. We’d play through once per day, average out our scores, and at the end of the weekend, we would have a winner.

All of us playing, by the way, asynchronously. Not online together in one big party mode, all just on our own whenever we could. This should be in the game! Why is this not in the game? People have lives. I can’t always hop online for a four player, eight player, Party Time Jam Band™. Zac’s unofficial, slapdash, Google-Doc-spreadsheet-living tournament mode gave this game life for me. It was one of my favorite parts of the summer.

Eventually, as Zac stopped putting tournaments together, I stopped playing. I returned to it if, and only if, there was another tournament. There have been new characters added, and new maps updated, but I haven’t been back to check out most of that. I might, if I’m bored — I do have some plane rides coming up — but I also might not.

The golf feels good! I’m no golf game fanatic, but I’ve played my fair share of Kirby’s Dream Course in my time, and I can tell you that this is a very good-feeling golf game. So if you’re looking for a very good-feeling golf game, something you can play at a party with your friends, that everybody can get the hang of relatively quickly, Mario Golf: Super Rush is that game.

8. Ring Fit Adventure

I feel like everyone had their moment with Ring Fit last year, as the pandemic was still getting started and people were eager for a way to move around a little bit. Unfortunately, I didn’t get to try it last year due in part to supply issues. So this year, when a fresh batch of stock was available, my girlfriend and I, both starved for any kind of regular exercise, finally got a chance to try it out.

Much to our delight, it’s great! I had some misgivings about the blend of exercise with a cartoonish adventure, the worry being that it would come off a bit silly or maybe too childish. Happily, that is not the case! Every inch of this game is very much exercise and health focused, and that doesn’t get lost in translation when you also happen to be chasing down a big (buff) dragon. Any time the game asks you to do an exercise, it pops up a helpful little video showing you exactly how to do it, and do it right. These videos even pause the action if you’re in the middle of a battle to give you time to get things right. The adventure stuff is there to complement the workout, and the developers clearly recognized that learning the proper way to do a lunge is more important than gaining a level or defeating a monster.

Exercising with Ring Fit is novel at first — the game comes with a big plastic ring that you slot one of the joy-cons into, while the other gets strapped to your leg. You accomplish tasks in-game by running in place (detected by the joy-con strapped to your leg), and squeezing, stretching, and otherwise moving the ring around (detected by the ring joy-con). Luckily, the novelty fades away once you realize you’re in for an honest-to-goodness workout. My girlfriend and I stopped questioning the game’s methods pretty soon after we started playing. Suffice to say, we felt the burn.

Our time with Ring Fit Adventure lasted a good couple of months, and we really only stopped playing it daily when it got too hot in NYC to exercise, even with the AC blasting. I’ll never forget what a nice surprise this game was. It provided us with an effective workout routine that we wanted to come back to every day, and helped us learn how to exercise in a non-judgemental way. I know this is cliche, and I’m sure it’s exactly what Nintendo wants me to say, but it really did make working out fun.

7. Animal Crossing: New Horizons – Happy Home Paradise

Like it was for many people, Animal Crossing: New Horizons was a big part of our 2020. I think we’ve played something like 400 hours at this point? Probably more. So when Nintendo revealed their Happy Home Paradise DLC, grabbing it was a no-brainer.

HHP puts you in the role of a “Paradise Planner.” Villagers hang out on the beach of an island resort, and you design vacation homes for them based on their loose specifications. One villager might want a cozy place to read a book. Another might want a place where they can DJ all night long. You pick out a home for them, and then get down to the meat of this DLC: designing the interior. And here’s where things get fun: upon entering the still-empty vacation home, you are presented with three items that fit the villager’s stated aesthetic. These are must-haves. Then, you’re given access to a list of other furniture that fits that aesthetic. And you get to just…place it. As much of it as you want, into infinity. Or at least until you hit the game’s item limit. If it sounds simple or obvious, that’s because it is.

These are not things you can do back on your home island in the base game. Back at home, you have to scrimp and save and toil away just to amass anything even remotely resembling an aesthetic. Almost two years in, my home still feels more like it’s inhabited by six different underpaid grad students than it does a home, much less an idealized, virtual one. Happy Home Paradise finally sets you free, within just the right set of constraints, to make what is unquestionably the best part of New Horizons — making perfect little dioramas — truly shine.

This perfect meeting point of freedom and constraint has already resulted in some of the coolest, most creative rooms I’ve ever bothered or wanted to bother to make in Animal Crossing. I made that little elephant a cozy place to read a book, I made that weird little penguin the perfect all-night rave house, and my girlfriend got so close to creating a perfect replica of Frasier’s apartment from Frasier that I can stand before you and swear on my life that I have seen the face of God. With Happy Home Paradise, Nintendo has proven that there is a mathematical formula for unlocking the creative potential of the mind, and they do know what it is.

By being forced to think differently about how to design a room, being constrained to what each villager wants in their house, but having my resources opened to infinity, I found myself effortlessly designing rooms I never would have designed for myself — either because it just wasn’t my taste or because I would never be able to find or buy all the items I want or need — and having a blast doing it.

6. Metroid Dread

It’s not every year that we get a new Metroid game to play with. Even less often do we get a proper entry in the mainline series — the last one being Metroid Fusion in 2002. So, with its official status as Metroid 5, and one half of the weight of the “metroidvania” genre upon its shoulders, Metroid Dread had some big shoes to fill. Luckily, Samus’ latest adventure in space fills those shoes with the accuracy of a Cinderella’s Foot.

Let’s get this stuff out of the way, Metroid Dread feels fantastic to play. Moving Samus around the world of ZDR is a fluid, dynamic love letter to the concept of “game feel.” Running, jumping, shooting, sliding, grabbing a ledge, turning on your heel to change directions, all of this is fast and buttery smooth. This is to say nothing of the joy of interacting with Samus’ further tools and upgrades as you discover them littered throughout the world. If you haven’t played a Metroid game since the SNES, you’re in for a real treat.

The story of Metroid Dread is perfectly passable. Honestly, in a game like this, I really don’t need too much narrative content as long as the mechanics are tight and fun to interact with. However, it was neat as a long-ish fan of the series, to see some more development of Samus and the galaxy she inhabits. The few interactions you have with your AI companion are sprinkled sparingly throughout, and not terribly long-winded, so the character doesn’t overstay their welcome. The majority of cutscenes I remember were wordless, often featuring Samus pulling off some badass finishing move after a boss encounter.

The world of Metroid Dread — we’re on the planet ZDR this time around — follows the conventions of previous Metroid worlds, and comes off feeling a bit disjointed for it. Progress is decently paced, and it’s actually pretty hard to get lost once you get into the swing of things, but I must admit to encountering a decent amount of frustration, particularly when returning to the game after time away, and a few instances of feeling entirely lost. By sticking to series conventions like elevators and trams that connect each area through lengthy loading screens, Dread ends up breaking its own momentum, and allowing a little too much room to forget what you’re doing and which way you should be going, especially on longer backtracking journeys. This is compounded by the unfortunate fact that a lot of the world just looks…the same. There were maybe one or two rooms where I thought, “oh wow, what a cool area,” but looking back, it’s a lot of stark metal hallways that give way to stark metal rooms.

It would’ve been cool to see Metroid Dread break away from its roots a little bit, and present a more open, continuous world, or perhaps introduce the ability to warp to different points on the map at will. There are a small number of “warp points” throughout ZDR that technically allow you to “teleport” across the world within the fiction of the game, but these amount to nothing more than glorified elevator rides, featuring loading screens of their own which entirely defeat the purpose. It’s also disappointing to see a series I remember having some truly memorable environmental art — and music, for that matter — be rendered so flatly on modern — if somewhat limited — hardware. It’s not that the game doesn’t look good, and it sounds just fine, it’s just that I don’t remember anything I saw, and none of its music is caught in my head.

Despite these (admittedly few) shortcomings, however, Metroid Dread came through as one of the best games I played this year, and one I’ll likely remember for years to come. This was my first time playing a new Metroid game at launch, which is arguably pretty special in itself. I cannot overstate how great this game feels to play, especially as you accrue more and more power-ups. It is an absolute pleasure to move about the world as a fully kitted-out Samus, and wipe the ever-loving floor with every alien you see. Honestly, talking about it here, and looking back on my time with it, I’d happily play Metroid Dread again! That’s not something I can say about every game on this list.

5. Unpacking

Unpacking is one of those unique games that is able to elevate a common, humble, human experience to its highest form, and provide that most special of experiences that only the medium of video games can. In so doing, the game is able to show us the life of another person — without ever showing the person themselves — so perfectly, through such a focused lens of shared experience, that we come to understand exactly the arc of their story.

Unpacking is a game about… well, it’s right there in the title. It’s a point and click game where you open up boxes, take out their contents, and place them in the environment. Most of us will move at least once in our lives. Many of us many more times than that. It really only takes one move to understand the unspoken language and ritual of putting everything in its place. After a handful of moves, you start to realize that someone could learn a lot about you by taking stock of when, and where, and how you’ve moved, but also the things you’ve taken with you, and the things you’ve left behind.

This is the conceit through which Unpacking operates. It all starts in a brightly colored bedroom, unpacking some art supplies, board games, and stuffed animals. Each level ends with a gold star once you’ve placed everything where it belongs, and we’re taken to the next era in the life of the game’s subject, some unnamed, unseen person, about which we will eventually know almost everything. The game won’t move on if something is a little too wrong, like a toaster in the bathroom, though you can turn this off if you just want to vibe or goof off.

I suppose if you were really trying, you could take each of these spaces on their own at face value, with no connection whatsoever, just to have a good time placing little objects in little drawers and cupboards. But that connective tissue is what makes Unpacking so special. The degree to which this game has hit upon the idea that continually unpacking a person’s life can convey not just simple facts like, “they are older now,” or “they like the color red,” but also accomplishments, mistakes, hopes, and dreams, made for a surprisingly moving (no pun intended) experience. The things we take with us, and the things we leave behind, and the things we don’t know that we have waiting for us, are all deeply personal. From start to finish, Unpacking subtly employs that very fact to great effect.

One of my favorite examples — spoilers for Unpacking here — is when you, the main character, this person whose things you’re unpacking, moves from college housing to what is clearly a romantic partner’s apartment. Previously, you’d been setting up a new place from scratch with only your own belongings to worry about. Here, the space you’re moving into is already inhabited. The challenge this time is not only finding a place for all of your things, but also working around everything they’ve already placed. You quickly find that not only are you not able to move their things to make a better space for both of you, but this person has not left you much space for your belongings in the first place. This leads to some pretty heartbreaking choices, like having to place your carefully framed diploma under the bed rather than display it proudly on the wall. In the following level, you’ve moved back into your childhood bedroom.

Every item and environment in Unpacking is rendered in exquisitely detailed pixel art. You’re able to spin items around to view them from multiple angles or place them just so, and everything seems to have just the right weight or chunkiness to it. Every stuffed animal looks huggable, every video game console sparks instant memories. Every animation, from the swing of a cabinet door to the roll of a drawer is smooth and satisfying. Clothing automatically folds and unfolds when being put in a drawer or hung in a closet, and rolled-up posters unfurl when being tacked to a wall. And each box you empty folds itself flat and disappears in a gratifying flourish.

What truly sells all of Unpacking‘s pleasingly convincing tactility, though, is its sound design. You might not notice it at first, and that would be the point, but spend enough time moving things from room to room and you’ll start to realize how many hundreds of hours must have gone into recording and getting each object and surface’s sound just right. Place a metal pan on a wooden floor, that’s one sound. Place a roll of toilet paper on a kitchen counter, that’s another sound. You get the idea. But what’s truly mind-boggling about Unpacking‘s sound design is that there are multiple sounds for every object and every surface depending on exactly where on that surface the object was placed. I saw one video going around Twitter of a player placing a can of air freshener on the lid of a toilet. The sound changed depending on what part of the toilet lid the can was placed on. Whoever did the incredible work of implementing all of that should be immediately given the Nobel Prize for Peace.

All of these elements come together beautifully in a game that, while only 3 or 4 hours long played right through, amount to something really special. I love that this game exists. And it’s one of my favorite games of the year.

4. Axiom Verge 2

Two metroidvanias enter, only one can win. And in a year where we actually got a brand new Metroid game, Axiom Verge 2 still comes out on top for me. Following up on 2015’s Axiom Verge with even more awe-inspiring pixel art, satisfying and inventive gameplay mechanics, and a whole new world to break wide open, Axiom Verge 2 came as a surprise release after being delayed twice, and a surprise favorite for me, after I fell off the first game all those years ago.

If you’ve never played or, like me, never finished the first Axiom Verge, worry not. Axiom Verge 2 is something of a prequel to the first game. I think? Honestly, it doesn’t matter. If there’s a story going on here, I truly could not explain it to you. There’s something about a lost research team and an ancient cataclysm. Basically just enough to make you go, “huh, okay,” in that way that makes it clear you’re actually thinking about what to make for dinner tomorrow night. And that’s fine! In my experience, you don’t come to an Axiom Verge game for the story. You do so because everything else is so incredibly tight and well designed.

The world of Axiom Verge 2 is constructed like one big puzzle that needs solving. The whole map is one open, continuous, 2D world, and you can run from end to end pretty early on if you like. But it won’t divulge all of its secrets quite as easily. Short cutscenes with major characters set objective markers on your map, giving you a loose direction to aim for, but progress is anything but linear, and the path forward is not always laid bare for you. Rather, Axiom Verge 2 simply says, “there’s a thing over here that you’ll need to get to in order to move the game forward,” and then sets you loose on the world to figure it out for yourself. This quickly gave me a real feeling of ownership and familiarity with the game’s world, as I combed its every nook and cranny. And it never felt boring, or like I was constantly butting up against dead ends, purely because there’s just so much to do and see across Axiom Verge 2‘s wide world.

Save points are peppered pretty generously throughout, which not only act as respawn points should you fall to one of the game’s weird robot monsters, but you can also instantly warp to any save point you’ve previously visited simply by selecting its icon on the map at any time. Therefore, even when you aren’t discovering hidden items and upgrades, exploration always feels like progress. Having one big open world rather than a more traditional Metroid-style world with sequestered areas connected by elevators and hallways (as was the case in the first Axiom Verge), plus the ability to fast travel at any time, made it so much more enjoyable to pick away at the game’s puzzle-box world. Whenever I had an inkling about a certain area, I could simply pop over, look around, and if I turned out to be wrong, I’d pop over to my next hunch. All of this paired with the ability to set custom markers on your map, plus the fact that the world map is set on a rigid grid of (x,y) coordinates, made for some of the best, most gratifying exploration I’ve yet experienced in a video game, and ensured that things didn’t grind to a halt in the endgame when you’ve see just about everything, but still need to find that last little piece.

The game’s myriad powers, items and upgrades are doled out at a solid clip that naturally coincides with new ways of traversing, exploring, and otherwise opening up the map, meaning you’re constantly having a-ha moments about how to get past that last obstacle you saw. At the same time, no one power-up ever felt like, “oh okay, I’ve got The Thing now, this world is mine.” Again, cracking this world open like an egg and drinking deep from its yolk is a singularly satisfying video game experience that is not to be missed.

Combat can be a bit of a slog, especially at first. The game starts you with only a pickaxe, meaning you’ll have to get up-close to fight any monsters you encounter. You’ll quickly realize that you’re better off avoiding bigger threats for a while and playing with your remote hacking mechanic to freeze foes in place or turn them into allies. If you do decide to play this game, and I obviously highly recommend that you do, just be aware that there’s a bit of a trial by fire that you need to push through at the beginning. Once you’re over that hump, you should feel right at home.

If you’re thinking about playing the first game before hopping into Axiom Verge 2, my recommendation is that you not do that. I went back and restarted Axiom Verge after finishing 2, and once again, I just couldn’t stick with it. Now, this could’ve been for a number of outside factors as well, and maybe one day I’ll finish it and change my tune. But I really feel like the sequel is where it’s at. You’re not missing anything by skipping ahead.

It’s hard to end this review because there’s just so much to gush over. Like when you first lose your body, and you get turned into a little bug drone thing, and you’re like ah man, I don’t want to be a little bug drone thing. But that little drone gets a grappling hook upgrade that feels better than anything else in the game up to that point, so by the time you get your body back, you’re like, no wait, I want to keep being the little bug drone! And then the game lets you be both!

Axiom Verge 2 pulled me in like almost no other game this year, and I was always excited to jump back in and play some more. It’s one of the very few games that I have ever 100% completed in both map exploration and item discovery. If I could wipe my mind and experience it again for the first time, I would.

3. Eastward

I remember seeing screenshots of Eastward on Tumblr in 2015. Images of decaying, intricately detailed cities rendered in some of the most gorgeous pixel art I’d ever seen. Game development takes a long time, though, and so in the intervening years, I forgot about it. Every once in a few years some new images or maybe eventually a trailer would pop up, and I’d briefly remember that I’m still waiting for this game. Until suddenly, like a firecracker in the night, like forgetting your own birthday, suddenly it’s there. Suddenly, I was able to slip into that beautiful world I’d first glimpsed six years ago. Time spent waiting for something can build up a lot of hype, which can lead to disappointment. I’ve experienced this many times with many games. But you know that’s not where we’re going, because we’ve reached the number three slot in my top ten games of 2021, and we’re talking about Eastward.

Let’s start at the start: this game is GORGEOUS. I haven’t seen a pixel art world crafted this lovingly…possibly ever. Paired together with some subtle lighting effects, every new space you enter is completely transportive. Forests are lush with bushes rustling, cities feel smoggy and alive with bustle. The only things better than Eastward‘s exterior environments are its interiors. Dank mines are dimly lit by rusty hanging lanterns, item shops glow brightly fluorescent, and at dusk, the sunset gleams through the window of an apartment living room such that I just… stood there for a while. It’s a feeling that hasn’t left me at any point while playing Eastward. This world is inviting, and warm, and cozy. It’s the kind of video game world that makes you want to take your shoes off and stay a while.

And while I had been primed to take in some stunning visuals upon glimpsing Eastward back 2015, I was woefully unprepared for its music. I won’t mince words. Eastward‘s soundtrack, composed by Joel Corelitz, is quite simply some of the best music I have ever heard in a video game. When you find out what my number two pick is, that’s really gonna mean something. It would be unfair to say that the game’s chiptune beats hearken back to your favorite action/adventure RPGs of yore, though any game playing in the pixel art/chiptune space must lean upon nostalgia in some capacity. To be asked to write music to pair with Eastward‘s sumptuous pixel art world is to be given an impossible task. It’s something I hadn’t given a second thought, and something that now, looking back, had I given it a second thought, would have seemed impossible. For Corelitz to deliver not only an album of exceptionally atmospheric, immersive, and grounding electronic chiptune music, but a soundtrack which blends so perfectly with its partner visuals as to be easily mistaken for twins born of the same womb is in a word: virtuosic. Perhaps that’s hindsight talking. But it’s really good music.

One of the areas in which I’ve actually managed to take umbrage with Eastward is its writing. A lot of people have criticized the game for being paced a bit more slowly than they expected, but personally I never felt that at all. However, Eastward is very clearly looking to imitate the SNES classic Earthbound in its writing, and that’s a tough act to follow. It’s hard to write a game that’s charmingly funny, and harder still to take a swing at the king. Eastward isn’t nearly as weird as Earthbound, at least not weird in the same way, not what I’ve played of it so far, but I can feel it trying to meet Earthbound‘s style of humor in places. A lot of the time, this manifests as what I suppose you would call “adult humor,” which just ends up feeling awkward and out of place. Luckily, the writing seems to more or less even out as the game progresses, and upon reaching the third major area, just past a very poorly written, and mercifully short, chapter spent in a village called Greenberg with a woman named Uva, it feels like it’s finally found its footing. Luckily, Eastward spends the majority of its time and words trying to be its own game, and is much better off for it.

When it isn’t wasting time trying harder than it ought to, Eastward has a pretty neat story and truly endearing characters. You play as both a man named John, and a little girl named Sam. According to the game’s intro cinematic, John found Sam floating in a mysterious tube in an abandoned laboratory, freed her, and took on the role of a kind of foster father. John is your typical silent video game protagonist, never saying a word on screen. Sam is energetic, mischievous, fun-loving, easily distracted, and probably the best-written child in a video game I’ve seen in a bit. The two of them live in a mining town underground, until Sam starts having dreams about the surface world. It’s clear from the outset that not everything is as it seems with Sam (remember how she was found in an abandoned lab?), though that has yet to be fully reckoned with in my playthrough. That storyline’s on a slow simmer. From there, it becomes a story about a growing group of adventurers riding the rails, and trying to outrun a dark cloud of death referred to as, “The Miasma,” which is understood to have more or less ended the world some time ago. I promise, it’s cozy.

In practice, you mostly control John while walking around towns and other peaceful areas, with Sam following in tow. Out in the game’s dungeons and other enemy-filled environs, you can choose to control the frying-pan-wielding John to engage in melee and other forms of traditional combat, or click a button to switch to Sam and use her latent magical abilities to freeze enemies in place and clear certain obstacles. Every so often, a dungeon will split the two along separate paths, with Sam clearing the way for John, and John clearing the way for Sam as you gradually shuffle them along towards a common goal. It’s a fun idea that mostly works out, but some of the combat is a touch clunky, which can result in some frustration. Most of the time, though, the game is so beautiful, its music so entrancing, and its animations — both the enemies’ and you own — are so smooth and fun to watch, that I simply do not see the clunk.

Eastward is a game I’ve been waiting for for a while, and that I never saw coming. Despite my few issues with its writing, it presents a truly fun, and seemingly quite beefy story about characters I’ve come to love. It manages to successfully blend a cozy, beautifully lit world, with a real sense of dread that everything you are enjoying could be wiped out at any second. I’ve made wallpapers of its art. I’ve thrown on its soundtrack while cooking dinner. Oh also, there’s an entire JRPG styled after Dragon Quest, called EarthBorn, inside the game. All the kids in every town rave about it, and you can play it wherever you find a glowing CRT television with a little console perched atop it. That’s wild!

I still haven’t finished Eastward. If I had to guess, I’d say I’m maybe a fourth of the way through? If this is how I feel after what is essentially an extended first impression, I can’t wait to see the impression it leaves me with when it’s over. In more ways than one, Eastward was worth the wait.

2. Final Fantasy VII

I have a confession to make. Prior to this year, I had never played any Final Fantasy game. I had written the whole series off at some point — I’d gotten the idea that they were long, dull, self-serious, and boring. And then early this year, after witnessing a year of hype over the Final Fantasy VII Remake, and in the interest of challenging beliefs that I hold for no discernible reason, I decided it was time.

I chose Final Fantasy VII partly because the remake sounds cool and seems like it does some genuinely interesting things, but also because ever since its original release in 1997, it has been — for a lot of people — the Final Fantasy game. The one of note. The one you should play. I wanted to know why. I picked up the game on Nintendo Switch, so I could play in bed — JRPGs are very good cozy time games. While perusing the Nintendo eShop page, I came across three interesting bullet points touting some “extra features” that had been added to the game: 3x speed mode, ability to turn battle encounters off, and battle enhancement mode. We’ll come back to those later.

For now, let’s cut right to the chase: why do people love Final Fantasy VII? People love Final Fantasy VII for its story. Final Fantasy VII is a globetrotting sci-fi fantasy epic about a group of eco-terrorists on the run from a corporation who owns a city that runs on the literal souls of the dead. Final Fantasy VII is a — conservatively — 50 to 60-hour HBO series about childhood sweethearts, climate change, corporate greed, war profiteering, betrayal, grief, self-realization, unethical resource extraction, what they mean when they tell you to never meet your heroes, and chocobo racing. To put it another way, it’s better than most seasons of TV.

Look, I’m not going to stand here and review Final Fantasy VII, a game that was released when I was four years old. What could I possibly say that hasn’t already been said by people who know much more? What I can do is tell you about my experience. And my experience of this game largely hinged on those three extra features I mentioned earlier. Seeing those three additions, and realizing what they would mean for my experience of this game, and by extension a series and genre I’d previously been unsure about, is what ultimately got me to click the “Buy” button.

I have another confession to make. I was lying when I said I’d never played any Final Fantasy game prior to this year, and when I said I held certain beliefs about Final Fantasy games for “no discernible reason.” Some time back in middle school or junior high, I don’t remember, I found out about emulators. Having been an indoor kid who followed video game news online, I knew about Final Fantasy, despite never having played the games. So one of the first games I loaded up in my shiny new Snes9x executable was Final Fantasy IV.

Final Fantasy IV starts, if I’m remembering correctly, with a lengthy cutscene aboard an airship. And so the very first emotion I experienced while playing a Final Fantasy game was boredom. By the time I arrived on a screen with which I could actually interact, I felt lost. When I hit my first monster encounter, I watched a pretty cool JPEG of a monster appear onscreen, and then tried to fumble my way through a series of menus I didn’t understand to try and make a battle happen. It’s so interesting to me now, recounting all of this, because by this time in my life, I had definitely played and enjoyed a Pokémon game. What was it that was so different? Anyway, that’s why I thought I didn’t like Final Fantasy games. I’m sorry for the obfuscation, but sometimes you gotta get from A to B.

It’s important that I explain that, because with that as my only prior experience with Final Fantasy — outside of watching one waste 7 goddamn hours of any number of GDQs — the prospect of speeding up the game and avoiding random encounters seemed like direct answers to my specific problems with Final Fantasy specifically and JRPGs in general.

So let’s run through those three options I mentioned and talk about why they’re great. First, the ability to speed up the game by 3x. At the press of a button, the game enters a kind of fast forward mode, and everything from animations to cutscenes to dialog speeds way up. This is great because sometimes things take a long time in RPGs. Sometimes the world map is really big and you don’t remember what that one town looks like. Rather than waste 25 minutes literally walking all over the planet trying to find it, or look up a walkthrough while trying not to spoil the story, I can click a button and turn into The Flash for a little bit.

Next, the ability to turn off random encounters. A lot of classic JRPGs feature random battle encounters, where you’ll be walking along, and suddenly, bang, you’re attacked. The idea being that, in-game, you ran into a monster or group of monsters. This gets old really fast for me. Especially if I’m lost, or even if I’m just trying to enjoy and stay in the game. By the time I’ve hit my third or fourth low-level monster in the space of 30-seconds, I’m about done. Being able to turn these off and on at will saved me a lot of grief.

And finally, “battle enhancement mode.” In my head, I always called this turning on “beef mode,” because it beefs up all of your characters in battle. What this means in practice in this game, is that everyone in your party has health and mana that recharges the instant they use any, and their Limit Break gauges fill every turn, allowing them to continually use their most powerful attacks.

Now, some folks might argue these options break the game or some kind of special holistic experience, and first of all shut up. But second of all, it actually feels like some great care and thought went into the design and inclusion of these options. For starters, the beef mode is limited in a few key ways, including that your health only refills after you lose it, meaning that if you’re dealt a one-hit killing blow, you’re still dead, and you don’t auto-revive. Your attacks don’t do 9999 damage, and you don’t magically avoid every attack levied against you. So you can’t just turn on beef mode and sprint to the end of the game, you still need to level yourself up along the curve the game intends. And while the ability to turn off random encounters saves you from having to fight the same level 1 rat or whatever 600 times, you cannot avoid any battles required to advance the story. So again, no beating the game at level 1.

You might think that this would all still leave you weirdly under-leveled or force you to grind a bunch. But again, I did not find that to be the case. The fact is, with all three of these options at my disposal, I really only chose to turn off random encounters in a handful of situations, like if I died before making it to a save point and had to run back through the area I’d just completed. In most cases, and especially once I was very familiar with battle strategy, I was content to simply turn on 3x speed mode, and burn through whatever little battles I had to. Or, if I was particularly bored, turn on both 3x speed mode and beef mode, and just get through it. The music that plays after a winning a battle is certainly worth hearing a few hundred times.

And here’s where we get to the bottom line. In the end, I found that I didn’t want or need to use these options most of the time, because Final Fantasy VII is a damn good game that’s really well designed. I’d still lobby for random encounters to be turned way the hell down, but regardless, Final Fantasy VII is just really fun. It turns out that the mechanics are really interesting and fun to pick at, and it’s fun to build up your squad with new items and abilities. A battle encounter can feel cinematic and weighty or it can feel like solving a puzzle or it can feel great when you absolutely crush a low level monster. It CAN feel like a slog, yes, but it often doesn’t. Final Fantasy VII pulls enough of its weight to make you not feel that way.

Also all of the music kicks complete ass. All of the characters are my children and I would die for them. And the story is so engrossing and well written. More than once, and this is coming from someone who previously derided Final Fantasy games, more than once this game made me gasp alound, or well up with actual tears.

My conclusion is this: I am not one of those people who devours 60-hour RPGs one after another. Maybe I am now, I don’t know. But if you, like me, have been keeping yourself from experiencing JRPGs — or anything in your life — because you assumed you wouldn’t like it, or that it wasn’t for you, or that you were above it: Take a risk, take a chance, make a change. And play Final Fantasy VII. It’s transcendent. And it’s my second-favorite thing I played in 2021.

1. Inscryption

Thank god for Inscryption. If it weren’t for this game, my GOTY list would’ve been so much harder to put in order. It didn’t take long for this game to rocket to the top of this list, and put all things in perspective for me. Inscryption is a game that knows itself so well it’s intimidating, it’s a masterclass in itself. Inscryption‘s developers’ understanding of competitive card games and card game mechanics is so complete as to dwarf my own understanding of almost anything by comparison. It’s terrifying, but it makes for a damn good game.

Look, Inscryption is hard to talk about if you’re trying to avoid spoilers, because there’s just so much going on in this game. If you want to avoid spoilers and play the game for yourself, which I absolutely think you should do, here’s my quick pitch:

You awaken in a dimly lit cabin, sitting at an old wooden table. Across from you, a pair of glowing eyes slowly opens. You’re dealt a hand of cards and made to play a game. You flip between one-on-one card battles, á la Magic: The Gathering, and moving a small wood carving along a crude map, as you progress through your captor’s game world. You can get up from the table and look around the cabin if you like, but you cannot leave. There are strange objects littered about — some that seem like puzzles, and some you don’t quite understand yet. Are you really trapped here? And are “you” even who you think you are?

If that’s enough for you, by all means, switch this video off now and play the game for yourself. You’re in for a ride. If you don’t care, or if you’ve seen it all for yourself, let’s talk about Inscryption.

SPOILERS AHOY

I so deeply respect when a game development team can portray its game as one thing in all of its marketing materials, all the while hiding the fact that the “game” everyone thinks they’re playing is but one of many, and that they aren’t merely playing a game, but bearing witness to an entire meta-narrative hidden within. Inscryption isn’t just an exceptional roguelike deckbuilder played in an immersive horror setting. It’s the answer to the question, “what if Frog Fractions wanted to kill you?”

The cabin section, or part one, is a perfectly paced, slow burn introduction to both the card game you’re playing, and the game of Inscryption itself. Failure is expected and intended here, with new rules and mechanics — and characters — being introduced after each death. Inscryption waits so long to drop its roguelike deckbuilder act, by which time you’ve already come to suspect that something is up. By then, the game has drawn you in so masterfully that only a true cynic’s desiccated corpse could resist the urge to press on.

The card game itself is beautifully designed — both visually and mechanically — with card values and abilities that are easy to grok, and tantalizing new deck-building possibilities between each match. The game and its story unfurl each other continuously, slowly picking away at the game’s veneer without ever tipping its hand (pun very much intended) as to what lies beyond. The cabin section is expertly constructed as such an all-encompassing prison, its climax and denouement are such satisfying payoffs in themselves, that while you have probably guessed by that point that there is more to the video game Inscryption that awaits you, you will likely be unprepared for the fact that not only is the video game Inscryption a video game inside the video game Inscryption, but also that you have only been playing with the tip of the card game Inscryption‘s iceberg.

Upon entering the 2D, pixel art version of Inscryption, you find that the card game you’d been playing in the cabin is only a small slice of the true Inscryption, and the full card game is at least four times bigger than you thought it was. The deck and rules that you’d bee playing with, revolving around beasts, blood, and bones, is one of four different flavors of cards available in the full Inscryption, alongside robots, zombies, and wizards. Robot cards require battery power to play, and can be powered up with electrical conduits, zombies generate bones when they die, allowing you to play more powerful zombies, and wizards rely on the presence of “Mox” cards on the board for their power, and in some cases to be summoned at all. And you aren’t limited to playing with only one pure set of these four, you can mix and match all you like, and you’re better off if you do. And every set’s mechanics gel with each other! Because the game is built on a solid foundation of attack power, health, and abilities, you can throw just about anything on top of that and still have an exceptional, easily understood card game. By the time you complete the 2D pixel art section and Inscryption reveals a third new version of the game, this time with robotic Scrybe P03 in charge, you’ve pretty well got your sea legs under you.

Inscryption is always doing something, whether that’s introducing a whole new mechanic for you to learn, or opening up yet another whole new video game for you to play through. The same goes for its characters. Inscryption introduces you to a handful of characters, with the Scrybes being the ones you’ll interact with the most. The Scrybes are the main characters of each deck, for lack of a better description. There’s Leshy, the one you play against in the cabin, who plays with beast cards, Grimora, who plays with zombies, Magnificus, who plays with wizards, and P03, who plays with robots (and is one himself). Each of them has their own special boss gimmicks — just as each of Leshy’s characters (the prospector, the angler, the trapper) has theirs in the cabin section — and each of them is also standing in for a different type of game developer, or tabletop GM, or one of the many types of specialized people who need to work together to make a video game. Leshy’s section is oozing with drama, embellishment, and immersive character work. Story is very important to Leshy. He’s a narrative designer. On the other hand, P03 fumbles over descriptions and seems to be making up character motivations for his bosses on the fly. He’s a pure mechanics guy. He’s also that guy in the card shop who calls out everyone’s misplays even though he keeps losing.

Unfortunately, we don’t get to spend much one-on-one time with either Magnificus or Grimora. Based on what we see in parts two and three, we might reasonably predict that this cycle would continue, with us resetting the game to 2D world, and another of the Scrybes taking over and GM-ing us through a new adventure. However, as we’ve also seen, Inscryption is not interested in being predictable, and the game chooses not to overstay its welcome rather than stretch things out beyond its third act, but this is a smart choice. The game’s fast-paced finale, a whirlwind of what could have been, hits you with a series of “holy shit” moments, and when the dust settles, I can almost guarantee you’ll be tempted to go back in.

There is so much more to Inscryption than I’ve mentioned — plenty that I’ve left out intentionally, and even more that I simply don’t know! I definitely didn’t see everything there is to see in this game. Don’t ask me how I know. Luckily, in the post-game, Inscryption makes one final design choice that arguably a lot of games could stand to adopt, and makes it easy for you to jump back in at different points in the story to keep hunting for more information, or just to play more of that goddamn good card game.


Honorable Mentions:

Book of Travels
Really gorgeous and calming take on an MMO from a team that knows how to set a vibe. Can’t wait to see more of this.

Sonic Forces
Fun, colorful joyride. Character creation is a fun addition, clothing options rule. Some of the same problems as all other 3D Sonic games.

The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time 3D
I get why it’s a classic. 3D remake looks pretty, nice to play handheld.

Mini Motorways
Another beautifully minimal puzzler. Hooked me in ways Mini Metro didn’t. I love to watch the little cars go.

Bowser’s Fury
Great add-on to an already terrific game. Loved bouncing from biome to biome, riding on my dinosaur friend. Big Bowser Kaiju Battle is a good premise for a game.

Later Alligator
Delightful point & click adventure with gorgeous art & animation, hilarious writing, and boppin’ jams. Please play this game and please be nice to Pat.

The Swindle
Cool heist premise, great art, satisfying to grok, some issues with controls/hitboxes.

Sonic Rush
Just an outstanding 2D Sonic. Bangin’ tunes.

Yu-Gi-Oh! Legacy of the Duelist: Link Evolution
Solid Yu-Gi-Oh! game if you want to relive some nostalgia. None of the predatory mechanics from its mobile predecessors.

Duskers
Solid sci-fi, space, hacking, rouguelike game. Impeccable aesthetics. Can’t wait to explore this one more.

Orwell
Cool point & click narrative game, interesting gameplay, good writing. Want to check out the sequel!

Control
Incredible X-Files-esque supernatural horror sci-fi. Impeccable vibes. Superb cinematic storytelling. In love with the FMV. Wish I’d given it more time.


Games I Missed:

  • Loop Hero
  • Death’s Door
  • Sable
  • Toem
  • Steel Assault
  • Beast Breaker
  • BoomerangX
  • Garden Story
  • Griftlands
  • Unsighted
  • Solar Ash
  • Midnight Protocol
  • JETT: The Far Shore
  • Chicory: A Colorful Tale
  • Wildermyth
  • Outer Wilds: Echoes of the Eye

Alright, that does it for me! Woof. I’ve typed out enough already, so from here I’ll just say thanks for reading, and have a great 2022!

One thought on “Mike’s 2021 Games of the Year

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