With 2021 coming to a close, and Christmas just around the corner, most game companies have taken the next few weeks off.
“OH MY GOD?! IT’S ALMOST CHRISTMAS!!!! What do I do? My kid/wife/husband/secret santa wanted some game about…I don’t know, European villages, or psychic astronauts, or killer robots, or maybe something that had all three. Do those exist? If they don’t exist what can I get?? HELP ME!”
Okay, okay, stop fretting, I got you covered. I will be giving you a buyer’s guide for each month with my top picks in BOLD. What were the best games to come out; which ones sucked, and which ones flew under the radar and deserve your attention? Get ready to find out!
Since this guide tends to be on the long side, and in the interest of keeping your attention, I will be splitting it into two parts; January to June and July to December. Get your pencils ready folks, the games are coming and you better be taking notes.
- Best – Atelier Ryza 2: Lost Legends & The Secret Fairy (PC/PS4/PS5/Switch), Hitman III (PC/PS4/PS5/Stadia/Switch Cloud/Xbox One/Series X|S), The Medium (PC/PS5/Series X|S), Scott Pilgrim vs the World: The Game (PC/PS4/Stadia/Switch/Xbox One)
- Avoid – MXGP 2020 (PS5/Series X|S)
- Hidden Gem – Cyber-Shadow (PC/PS4/PS5/Switch/Xbox One)
Hitman III is the concluding chapter (probably) for this recent reboot of the franchise, and it certainly goes out with a bang. While you will certainly understand the story a lot better if you’ve played the previous two entries, if you are coming into Hitman III totally cold (like I did) you will still find tons to enjoy here. Knowing the backstory doesn’t make sneaking around, trying to murder terrible people any less satisfying, in fact, in some ways, it made the killing easier because I had no baggage to carry. This game has been appearing on multiple “best of” lists for 2021, and you should absolutely give it a try.
January also gave us our first Xbox Series X exclusive, The Medium, until it eventually came to PS5 a few months later. This survival horror game was also the first title to skip the Xbox One despite Microsoft’s promise that all Series X games would play on the ol’ XBone, but The Medium’s unique multi-dimension gameplay mechanic requires a solid state hard drive, something Xbox One doesn’t have. We also got a sequel to everyone’s favorite thicc potion maker with Atelier Ryza 2, and after a multi-year absence from digital storefronts, Scott Pilgrim vs. The World: The Game finally came back, even getting a physical release, lest it ever gets delisted again.
Perhaps it is because I didn’t play as many bad games this year, or maybe because there just wasn’t a ton of stuff out there, but the games to avoid this year aren’t as terrible as previous years. The title to avoid this month is MXGP 2020 and that’s not because it’s bad (I’m sure it’s a fine game), but it’s because MXGP 2021 just came out a few weeks ago, so you can easily ignore last year’s version. What I can wholeheartedly recommend, however, is the retro-inspired side scrolling platformer Cyber-Shadow. Part of a wave of games from 2021 that looked to capitalize on what everyone would assume was a deep love of Cyberpunk 2077, instead gave us multiple titles to play INSTEAD of that disappointing, overhyped RPG. Cyber-Shadow is a throwback to the old NES days where games were tough as nails and required pin point precision. While it isn’t as good as other retro-inspired contemporaries like The Messenger and Shovel Knight, Cyber-Shadow easily fits in with those titles as another game for people who enjoy hardcore challenges and yearn for the halcyon days of the 1980’s.
- Best – Bravely Default II (Switch), Little Nightmares II (PC/PS4/Switch/Xbox One), Persona 5 Strikers (PC/PS4/Switch), Super Mario 3D World + Bowser’s Fury (Switch), Ys IX: Monstrum Nox (PC/PS4/Switch)
- Avoid – Destruction AllStars (PS5)
- Hidden Gem – RetroMania Wrestling (PC/PS4/Switch/Xbox One)
I had my reservations about calling a port the best game of the month, and while Super Mario 3D World is fantastic by itself, it was the inclusion of the new Bowser’s Fury expansion that elevates the game to an even higher status. Bowser’s Fury is about as close to an open world Mario game as we’ve ever gotten and, yes, I don’t think the format belongs in every game franchise, you can always count on Nintendo to do something unique when they’re given the chance to do something new. Moving from task to task in this big open play field, being able to drop in and out of each of them, is like playing one giant level from Super Mario 64 without having to continually jump back into the painting. Couple that with the intense fights between Bowser and Giga-Cat Mario, and Bowser’s Fury shows why it is one of the best video games of the year.
I thought for sure that Persona 5 Strikers would have thrilled me since I love that series AND it’s a Musou game, but sadly it was a bit ho-hum, cutting out much of the mindlessness and fun that something like Dynasty Warriors gives. Still it isn’t a bad game, just not the one I was expecting. Two massive RPGs also came out this month, Bravely Default II and Ys IX, two games that I own and have put maybe 2 hours into each. Personally, this is the year that I pretty much ignored RPGs, likely to my detriment. Finally, rounding out February, we got Little Nightmares II, the sequel to Swedish developer Tarsier Studios’ Little Nightmares. This is a puzzle platforming game with survival horror elements, with critics going ape shit over it early in the year.
February’s title to avoid isn’t really a bad game, it’s pretty fun, actually, and if it wasn’t tied to an online only gameplay mechanic I might have called it the hidden gem but, sadly, Destruction AllStars is our title to avoid. While the core gameplay mechanics are pretty solid, an arena shooter with cars, the fact that it is online only, with the typical progression bullshit that comes with all these games, I can’t recommend it. The player base is scarce, so good luck finding a match. The hidden gem, though, is also not something I would whole-heartedly endorse either, but it’s at least doing something interesting. Like Cyber-Shadow, RetroMania Wrestling is a throwback to an older era in gaming, specifically the late 80’s/early 90’s wrestling arcade games put out by Technos Japan. Fans of these older wrestling games are in for a real treat, while modern gamers might not find as much to love here.
- Best – Evil Genius 2: World Domination (PC/PS4/PS5/Xbox One/Series X|S), It Takes Two (PC/PS4/PS5/Xbox One/Series X|S), Monster Hunter Rise (Switch), Story of Seasons: Pioneers of Olive Town (Switch)
- Avoid – Balan Wonderworld (PS4/PS5/Switch/Xbox One/Series X|S)
- Hidden Gem – Root Film (PS4/Switch)
If March 2020 was all about playing Animal Crossing with your Switch friends, then March 2021 was all about playing Monster Hunter with your friends. The global COVID-19 pandemic forced us all indoors and Animal Crossing did its best to keep us occupied, but a year into it and you could tell cabin fever was setting in. Thank goodness we had Monster Hunter Rise to help make the prolonged absence of friends and family feel less terrible. Rise doesn’t really change the formula too much, you’re still running around giant maps fighting giant monsters with your buddies, but the inclusion of a sort of tower defense/raid mode was a welcome addition, as well as the new grappling hook-esque tool the Wirebug, allowing you to move vertically as well as ride & control monsters. A major expansion is coming out in the Summer of 2022, so grab this now and get ready before that arrives.
The rest of March’s big titles aren’t three that I’d place on any top 10 list of 2021 (most games this year were, um…lacking), but Hazelight Studios’ It Takes Two was very well received by multiple gaming outlets, even taking home Game of the Year from The Game Awards. Like Monster Hunter Rise, It Takes Two is a game best played with another person, but unlike MHR, you can not play this game by yourself. It Takes Two requires you to be partnered up with another person as you take control of a bickering married couple on the doorstep of divorce. Their daughter, not coping with it very well, turns her parents into little dolls and forces them to work together to solve puzzles, despite their issues. We also got two simulation games in march, the lair building game Evil Genius 2, and the farming sim Story of Seasons: Pioneers of Olive Town which, I’ll reiterate here, is the series that used to be called Harvest Moon. There are still Harvest Moon games coming out (including one from this year), but they are NOT part of the original franchise. Anyway, you should check these games out.
Oh boy, we have our first game that you should avoid because it’s, well, actually terrible! There was a lot of hype surrounding Balan Wonderworld before it launched due to its creator being Yuji Naka, best known for also creating Sonic the Hedgehog and Night Into Dreams. Sadly, Balan Wonderworld fails to live up to these previous gems and is undoubtedly the worst game of 2021. Game breaking bugs, poor controls, poor level design, bad graphics, and potentially a front for money laundering, you would be best served never playing Balan Wonderworld. You can, and should, however play the fantastic game Root Film. This visual novel is a real treat for mystery fans as you take on the dual roles of Rintaro Yagumo, a young film director, and Riho, a young actress. When both land jobs working on a new television program they are ecsatic and feel like they’re about to get their big break, but a real life murder that happens on set threatens to derail their careers before they fully take off. You must use all of your wits to solve the mystery of this murder, if you can survive the experience. Big thumbs up.
- Best – Fantasian (Apple Arcade), New Pokémon Snap (Switch), Nier Replicant ver.1.22474487139 (PC/PS4/Xbox One), Oddworld: Soulstorm (PC/PS4/PS5), Returnal (PS5), Total War: Rome Remastered (PC)
- Avoid – Outriders (PC/PS4/PS5/Stadia/Xbox One/Series X|S)
- Hidden Gem – MLB The Show 21 (PS4/PS5/Xbox One/Series X|S)
April has some of my favorite games of the year, starting with the excellent rouge-like shooter Returnal. Like many early video games, Returnal is incredibly difficult and requires you to finish it in one sitting. It’s a tough task (one I still haven’t been able to do) and was the cause of much controversy when it released. Many players were put off by the difficulty and lack of save states, particularly since the game would reset if your PS5 ran an update while you put the console in rest mode. What followed was even more discourse about difficulty in games, how accessible a game should be to everyone, is it fair that games are hard, etc., etc. Developer Housemarque have since added a light save feature to allow people to take a break from the game, which is fantastic news, since Returnal has one of the best stories of the year. Now, just go find a PS5 so you can play it.
The rest of April is an all-star line up, starting with the long awaited sequel New Pokémon Snap. Some critics derided its short run time and lack of replay value, but they clearly have no souls. Speaking of long awaited games, Final Fantasy creator Hironobu Sakaguchi returned to the RPG genre after spending the last few years on mobile games with the Apple Arcade exclusive Fantasian. The game is a bit rough around the edges, but playing through a Sakaguchi RPG with music by Nobuo Uematsu was a real treat. Apple Arcade is only $5 bucks a month, well worth it for Fantasian. We also had three remakes/remasters in April, with Nier Replicant probably being the least different from its predecessor, Total War: Rome being a graphical upgrade with new gameplay elements, and Oddworld: Soulstorm being completely redone from its original version. Each are stellar and shouldn’t be passed up if a good sale price comes along.
I am once again asking you to avoid the online only, multiplayer game; this time it is Outriders. Again, this isn’t really a bad game, but based on how quickly it fell out of the public eye I just can’t endorse it as it will likely be obsolete within the year; hard pass. The hidden gem might seem a little weird as sports titles are typically some of the best selling games every year, but I feel like “real gamers” tend to overlook them as mainstream garbage for the “normies”. Yeah, we probably don’t need new sports games every year, can you honestly tell me that Madden 22 is better than Madden 21? No, you can’t, nobody can and if they try to then they’re a fool. Now, let me tell you why MLB The Show 21 is better than MLB The Show 20. Okay, so it probably ISN’T better but there just seemed to be a real sense of community around the game of baseball in 2021. This translated into renewed interest in baseball merchandise, particularly trading cards, and it put Sony’s flagship series in the spotlight. Oh, and I shouldn’t ignore the fact that the game also came out on Xbox for the first time! That’s right, a Sony developed game was released for a rival console, and that rival gave it away for free to Game Pass subscribers; genius. Every video game fan should have at least one title in their collection for each major sport, this year it should be MLB The Show 21.
- Best – Famicom Detective Club (Switch), Mass Effect Legendary Edition (PC/PS4/Xbox One), Miitopia (Switch), Resident Evil: Village (PC/PS4/PS5/Stadia/Xbox One/Series X|S), Shin Megami Tensei III: Nocturne (PC/PS4/Switch)
- Avoid – Biomutant (PC/PS4/Xbox One)
- Hidden Gem – Warhammer Age of Sigmar: Storm Ground (PC/PS4/Switch/Xbox One)
May’s best game is my second favorite of the year, and the one that made the internet the horniest; Resident Evil: Village. Once again, protagonist Ethan Winters must go through the worst day of his life in order to save someone he loves, this time his daughter. Taking place in a remote European village, Ethan must contend with another super powered family, leading to some of the most terrifying an horrific imagery you’ll see in a video game this year. Of course we also can’t ignore the giant vampire in the room, Lady Dimitrescu. Our collective horniness for this big woman overshadowed the game a bit, and I’m sure more than a few people were disappointed to find out she was only in the game for a couple of hours before she bites the dust. Still, the amount of Deviant Art images we’ll be getting with her in it should be enough to keep us occupied for the rest of our lives.
The rest of May’s big titles were remakes, with the most different being the Famicom Detective Club visual novels getting a major upgrade from their NES days. RPG fans also had their pick of the litter with three different types; Western RPG fans got a superb remaster of the Mass Effect trilogy, JRPG fans got a stellar port of Shin Megami Tensei III to tide them over until SMT V, and the casual RPG fan had the opportunity to play Miitopia, a Switch port of the 3DS game.
This month’s game to avoid is the very plain looking Biomutant. Initially I had high hopes for this game, but after reading reviews and seeing gameplay footage I quickly reversed course. Biomutant, like many other titles to avoid this year, isn’t really bad, but it sparks no joy, so don’t bother. What does spark tons of joy (at least for me) is the Warhammer franchise, and while every video game from this property isn’t a slam dunk, May’s Age of Sigmar: Storm Ground is an example of one of their best. In this game, players move their units around a grid, similar to Final Fantasy Tactics or Fire Emblem, but the kicker here is that this is a rogue-like game, so when death comes you will find yourself being moved all they way back to the first mission. Like Returnal, this can be frustrating, but if you are able to get through an entire scenario then the next time you play you’ll be able to skip it. As this game is based on the Age of Sigmar trading card game, cards do play a big part in the game as they represent your units, gear, and special abilities. In each stage there are treasure chests to discover and open, adding to your deck, but be careful, when you die you lose most of these cards, giving the game a major risk & reward factor.
- Best – Chivalry II (PC/PS4/PS5/Xbox One/Series X|S), Disgaea 6 (Switch), Final Fantasy VII Remake Intergrade (PS5), Guilty Gear Strive (PC/PS4/PS5), Mario Golf: Super Rush (Switch), Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart (PS5), Scarlet Nexus (PC/PS4/PS5/Xbox One/Series X|S)
- Avoid – Atari VCS
- Hidden Gem – Necromunda: Hired Gun (PC/PS4/PS5/Xbox One/Series X|S)
With the PlayStation 5 still a very difficult console to obtain I have my reservations about calling out a game that hardly anyone can play, but damn it, Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart is, hands down, the best game to release in June, 2021. Not only is the game gorgeous to look at, but it is built solidly well with incredibly tight controls and a multitude of interesting weapons with about 75% of them being useful and the other 25% alternating between hilariously inept and plain old useless. The power of the solid state hard drive is put on full display here as the player moves between different environments seamlessly and zipping quickly around each level by finding various warp gates. The story and tone take a lot of inspiration from Pixar films, including moments that make you want to bawl your eyes out. If you just got a PS5 and need to figure out what to play next on it, Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart is by far one of the best games you can get for the system.
The rest of June’s games weren’t too bad either, with just about all of them potentially taking the top spot. First up we have Mario Golf: Super Rush, the latest entry in the franchise and the first one on a home console since the GameCube. Aside from the standard game of golf, players can also compete against one another in a couple different speed golf modes, using powerups to trip up their opponents, Mario Kart style. Tons of fun and a great party game. Are your party guests a little more violent and in a demographic between the ages of 15 and 35, then check out Guilty Gear: Strive, the latest entry in the long running franchise. For Strive, developer Arc System Works overhauled the mechanics to help make it more accessible to new players, so there’s no excuse to not give it a try! Looking for an RPG? Well June had three big ones; Final Fantasy VIII Remake Intergrade was a next-gen remaster of the PS4 game and added in new story content that featured fan favorite character Yuffie, Disgaea 6 came as well, dood, to scratch your tactical RPG itch, and Bandai Namco published Scarlet Nexus, a deep and engrossing game that will take hours of your life away from you. Finally, Chivalry II came out for all you online multiplayer fans out there, and while I’d typically tell you to avoid this stuff, Chivalry II is clearly well supported by its developer and community of players, this isn’t going away anytime soon, so jump in!
May’s game to avoid is actually a new console. Yeah, did you know we got a new console in 2021? It was the $400 Atari VCS that is, essentially, a gaming PC from 2017 that you can hook up to your TV or a monitor and play games on. I suppose $400 isn’t bad for a PC, but this is already well outdated and unable to run most modern games. Its online store features old Atari games, as well as new versions, but all of these are also available on every other console out there, so what’s the point? If the Atari VCS was $100 bucks then maybe I’d be more inclined to recommend it, but at its current price point you might as well just go buy a decent video card for your PC instead. This month’s hidden gem is, well I’ll be, another Warhammer game; imagine that! Set in the 40k universe, Necromunda: Hired Gun is a fast (and I mean FAST) first person shooter that, once again, looks like it wanted to jump on the Cyberpunk bandwagon and instead came out looking better than its supposed inspiration. While the game isn’t perfect, there is just so much joy to be had with running and gunning hordes of enemies while a techno-industrial soundtrack blasts out of your speakers. This won’t win any awards, but if you want something quick, cheap, and dirty, Necromunda is the perfect fit.
Hey, look at that, six months down and six more to go! I hope I was able to steer you towards a few games that you might have missed out on or given you some good ideas on something to get for that gamer in your life this holiday season. I’ll be back tomorrow morning with a look at the titles released from July to December. Take care out there folks, and play some Xbox with your brothers.