Bones’ 2021 Games in Review

Even at a whopping 22 games, a new record (previous was 2019) for a single year of playing for me at this time, this is obviously still only a small fraction of the total games from 2021 that I could have played. The selection was limited by obvious practical factors like what hardware I have (i.e., I don’t have a functional gaming PC or a next-gen console) and more broadly by the fact that I couldn’t simply keep updating this forever. I look forward to hearing about games I have yet to play and about your 2021 game thoughts generally. I look forward to playing more games from 2021 as time goes by!

And lastly, here’s a general, significant spoiler warning for any and all of the games discussed below.

20. The Artful Escape (Incomplete)

This is the most smug, insufferable fucking game I have played in a while. And a big part of why it bothers me as much as it does is how easy it is to see the potential for better. The game gets in its own way at every turn. Its construction of a violently opposed dichotomy between traditional, working class oriented folk music and hard prog rock, where you simply must choose one, one or the other has to be utterly dismissed and rejected at any given time, is thuddingly excessive, artificial, and obnoxious. The game wants to be a soulful story of identity and self-transformation, but all it has is a visual feast with no meaning to compensate for its shallow and juvenile attitude.

19. The Forgotten City (Complete)

It takes a lot longer to sneak up on you, but this too is a deeply smug, insufferable game. It gradually builds up a solidly intricate world and mystery which evokes complex ideas regarding ethics, politics, law, etc., complete with a rather literal Socratic Dialogue for examining as many angles as possible for these issues, before abruptly tearing all that down without a second thought and mocking you for thinking those are actually still relevant issues to be discussing or questioning in this modern world. It’s a deeply frustrating, completely misconceived total house of cards collapse, and it was my most disappointing recent gaming experience. It certainly doesn’t help that mechanically, it goes from a decent enough living puzzle world with occasional exciting surprise setpieces, to running out of room to explore both physically and otherwise, so it just becomes tediously monotonous back and forth checklisting. This ultimately leads to aggravatingly literal and figurative empty space containing possibly the worst written and designed “Talk the bad guy to death” sequence I’ve ever experienced. And I’m a big fan of those.

18. It Takes Two (Incomplete)

It Takes Two isn’t in a very fair position here, I will concede. My enjoyment of it was pretty fundamentally dependent on my co op partner’s enjoyment of it, and my girlfriend LibraryLass did not enjoy the game. The combination of an intolerably annoying script and gameplay found to be decent enough did add up to an experience better than either of us expected, but also one that was still ultimately, perhaps inherently incompatible for us.

17. Death’s Door (Incomplete)

I truly hate to say it, but this was a very unsatisfying game for me. Its pitch of soulslike with extra 2D Zelda is captivating, its core components of basic combat, stylistic charm, etc. are satisfying enough, but it goes nowhere fast with all of it. This game, per the guides I checked only after I stopped playing, has six main areas and corresponding chapters, with a bonus backtracking sequence to get 100% completion + true ending. In just one hour of play, I was already on the third of six worlds and I still hadn’t seen a single addition to my arsenal. That’s not really acceptable pacing for what this is trying to be, and while small scale games are truly awesome when done elegantly, this is just too shallow to achieve that. I do think with just how simple and easy it is, it theoretically makes a decently recommendable “baby’s first Zelda/Souls”, and I think that’s a valuable place to occupy, but I was just bored to tears quickly enough. It just doesn’t offer much for someone already experienced in these genres.

16. Pac-Man 99

(Not easy to classify this one but winning outright for the first time is what I used to put down Fall Guys in my completion logs, so I’ll use that here. Incomplete/unwon)

Pac-Man 99 is a very disorienting but fun enough multiplayer experience. I am generally a fan of this format, leveraging the familiarity of popular classic arcade games to make the extra challenges and complexities more accessible. Of course I’m somewhat infamously terrible at Tetris so this game is a relatively better fit for me than its counterpart. It has its limits of appeal, my girlfriend and I were playing regularly for a few weeks and then dropped off. But it’s fine.

15. Forza Horizon 5 (Incomplete)

This was a lovely reintroduction to the racing genre constrained only by my own limitations. I only spent an hour with the massive open world racing game that is Forza Horizon 5, my first racing game experience in many years. I can honestly say that I enjoyed it enough that I wanted to keep going. But two things happened: first, I realized that I’d rather leave myself wanting more by stopping than play for too long and hit the ceiling of enjoyment which I know is there for me. And secondly, what I experienced at the one hour minimum mark of playtime I’d set for myself was such a joyous emotional high that trying to chase and recapture it seemed all the more foolish, so I simply quit out and uninstalled the game immediately to freely ride a wave of fun. I played a race in which I competed against the pre-recorded best times of other players, and in a nail biting dramatic last minute finish I emerged victorious with the new best time of the server. It was a real culmination to both a complex relationship between me and the genre and to the big beautiful party that is this game.

14. Olija (Incomplete)

A strongly solid game I am completely certain I will be returning to when I have the free time. The core harpoon mechanic is sublime. Good atmosphere and good visuals are just icing on a cake.

13. Omno (Complete)

Omno successfully climbed the ranks to higher on this list off the strength of its ending, an impressive feat for a low-key, relatively short indie platformer. It takes the full runtime for it to fully come into clear view, but Omno goes beyond being a ‘vibes game’ when it effectively captures the experience of pursuing great, transcendental change and then challenging yourself on the worth of that change, the only way to fully achieve a transformation.

To be less pretentious: Omno is a strongly solid and varied 3D puzzle platformer. Its walk is slow and its jump anemic, but it compensates with more satisfying and regularly delivered additional mobility mechanics from dashing to riding your magic staff down sand and snow. Rolling around at the speed of sound indeed. The puzzles are pretty good too. But ultimately it all goes back to the Vibes TM and what the game meaningfully, ultimately does with those vibes. The game is very conscious in its nonviolence and overall peacefulness: you aren’t disrupting wildlife or natural environments, and they don’t disrupt you either. You are taking only light and leaving only footprints. But you also have to think about your relationship to nature and inner peace along the way.

12. Super Monkey Ball: Banana Mania (Incomplete)

I’m not qualified to speak to whether Banana Mania succeeds in adapting the original games that it updates, as this is my first experience with the series. I understand there are some concerns on that front and I’m sympathetic to that. I myself am more than happy with this as my introduction to the series, l I find Monkey Ball as this edition presents it to be a clever and thrilling experience of synthesized puzzle and action, a Portal before Portal if you will, albeit with some frustrations of the physics variety. The core conceit that the player is moving not the monkey, but the course the monkey is on, the level itself, is just so strong, and it’s iterated on well in the worlds and levels I’ve played. The story mode doesn’t offer much more than the strength of this core experience, but it’s enough.

11. Unpacking (Incomplete)

This is a very satisfying and clever puzzle game. Or as I like to call it, a simulator of being a smarter young woman than I was, because the girl held onto her Gamecube.

Honorable Mentions

Metroid Dread

I haven’t played it myself yet so I can’t fairly include it in the main list, but I fell in love with the secondhand experience of this game more than any other experience of watching someone play something. Part of that was watching the love of my life do something incredibly special, her first time playing a brand new entry in a particularly favorite game series and genre of hers, and right at launch at its newest to boot. It was thrilling for us. But I also loved just watching this action, this exploration, this storytelling, and the incredibly lively and animated realization of Samus as a character, all a compelling continuation of interests and attachments I’d begun to develop last year when I played Metroid Zero Mission and Super Metroid. Here’s to me playing Fusion and Dread sometime soon!

Mass Effect: Legendary Edition

Legendary Edition isn’t just by far the most polished and complete official version available for these three games which basically defined my adolescence across dozens of playthroughs. It’s also good for helping one to appreciate the little things even more, the many special little things in what is an undeniably deeply imperfect yet nonetheless powerful series.

10. Super Mario: Bowser’s Fury (Complete)

Look, this still isn’t suddenly my absolute favorite 3D Mario. Many of the imports from 3D World and 2D Mario just aren’t my thing, from most of the power ups (excluding Cat Mario), to having to hold down a button to run instead of just picking up speed from your ongoing motion. But it’s a damn fun game, a worthy entry in one of my favorite series, and a very smart, effective synthesis of the two different design tracks that 3D Mario has operated within for the last 25 years. The level design only keeps improving as the game progresses. On the Galaxy, Galaxy 2, 3D World spectrum, it may well be my new favorite among those, it’s in very tight competition with the original Galaxy at the very least. It has one of my favorite platformer final boss battles of all time, a delightful and thrilling sequence which makes use of the entire game world all at once.

9. The Gunk (Complete)

Working class space trucker lesbians grapple with their relationship dynamic and battle bluntly allegorical climate change with the power of a viscerally satisfying vacuum mechanic, a feature of another favorite video game of mine. What’s not to like for me personally?

8. WarioWare: Get It Together! (Complete)

WarioWare as a series is the joys of creativity and community and humor, all wrapped around the primal, visceral experience of reaction as action. This isn’t the most refined entry overall, that comes with taking a risk as big and meaningful as putting its colorful cast directly into the action, the biggest change for the series since the DS was invented. Nonetheless this game is mightily entertaining and satisfying, and I still play it every week, just as addicted as I was to my series introduction, the compilation entry WarioWare Gold.

7. Halo Infinite (Complete)

Halo has been at such a challenging crossroads for so long at this point, considerably longer than the original trilogy lasted. Between both Bungie and 343, the series has bounced around between weird noir survival, high tragedy war prequel, transparent back to basics ploys, clunky new lore, zeroing in on Chief and Cortana’s relationship, and whatever was going on in Halo 5, sometimes within the same game. Some of these feature in Halo Infinite, which I would call as a whole decidedly uneven, even slightly unfinished, and overly repetitive, but also arguably the most overall successful of these many reboots. It is all at once. Its successes are both mechanical and narrative. The core gameplay loop and general encounter design is at its most top-notch in ages, amplified by the excellent grappling hook which benefits traversal and combat alike. I never get tired of grappling away from danger, grappling an item to me, and especially grappling onto an enemy, pulling myself to them, and meleeing them with the added momentum and damage of the rapid grapple action. However, the grappling hook is also emblematic of just how far this series still has to go to actually provide the most dynamic experience it could. It’s one good step which begs for more, especially contained within a decent enough open world that still grows weary too quickly.

I’m perhaps more invested in the Halo storyline than I should be. it’s not easy to shake decades’ worth of time with a series, you know? But Halo Infinite at its best really impressed me and even moved me with its storytelling. It’s wrapped in an ambitious but deeply shaggy, ultimately unnecessary framework, where the opening is an in media res event, the mystery of which the player gradually unravels even as it’s not at all a mystery to Master Chief himself. I admire the structural boldness, but it just got in its own way, forcibly delaying major beats far longer than they should have. Games and series subverting their own narratives is a weird recurring motif in this article, from Forgotten City and Omno to the forthcoming Resident Evil Village and Overboard. Halo Infinite has the major failures on this front that I just underlined, but it has major successes too: a man breaks down in devastating fear and guilt and self-hate, and Master Chief, Master Chief, picture of action hero stoicism that he is, earnestly comforts his companion and admits to his own failings. It’s not just convincingly performed, but actively sustained as a centerpiece moment in a story which is actively, regularly reckoning with Chief’s failures from beginning to end.

The corrupted Cortana left a trail of destruction in her wake directly resulting in the devastating opening attack which put Chief out of commission and put humanity in its most vulnerable position since the original trilogy. Having that knowledge, Chief still couldn’t bring himself to actually delete her, instead simply rebooting her, in turn forcing the rebooted Cortana to eventually be so consumed with horror and grief at her own actions that she essentially begs for suicide. The painful, conflicting combination of damaged trust and abiding love between the two characters is captivating, and in the process it incidentally (via Cortana destroying a Brute’s homeworld being what transforms a group of mere pirates into crusaders) gives us the best empathy for the opposing faction that the series has accomplished since the Arbiter storyline and oft-imitated Covenant Civil War of Halo 2. As shaggy as the total sum of the narrative parts is, I can’t help but deeply appreciate both the thought behind and the impacts of some of its biggest swings. They are as meaningful of steps forward for the series as the grappling hook is.

6. Life is Strange: True Colors (Complete)

I’m contemplating a full article just on True Colors, that’s how strong an impression it left on me despite just how late in the game my experience with it was, and despite the unfair external factors overhanging it (i.e. my bad personal experience with the original Life is Strange back in high school, and then comparing it to Tell Me Why which I went into skeptical but ultimately loved).

True Colors isn’t the most overall sophisticated entry in its genre, but what it has in spades is an incisiveness and a tangibility to its ideas, its understanding and execution of them. They aren’t just gesturing at concepts, they’re feeling them in their bones and thinking hard about various facets of them. Alex Chen is ultimately someone consumed by a devastating hatred and fear of herself, a conviction that she can only hurt those around her, a complex, thorny matter that’s so difficult to get right. Whatever else you can say about a corny sense of humor, gameplay being secondary to story, how much choices matter, how much character X gets to do, whatever, all of that falls away in the face of a central richly authentic realization of what self-loathing, and slowly crawling your way out of the depths of that self-loathing, looks and feels like. The way to get there might be messy, but the heart is rock solid and incredibly resonant.

5. Hitman 3 (Complete)

I’ve been following the Hitman series since my brother played the original Xbox entries when we were kids, which is to say I’ve seen much of its history play out in real time. 2006’s Hitman Blood Money long stood as the series’ masterpiece, a major evolutionary step forward and a major refinement all at once. The start of the World of Assassination trilogy in 2016 was another big step forward. Even ‘smaller things’ like UI have taken lovely steps forward during the trilogy, I love the big bright outlines option, the cinematic presentation in moments like the openings of Dubai and Berlin is thrilling, and the overall improved social sensitivity is especially refreshing for long-time fans. And now Hitman 3 balances its effective design iterations, and evolutions, and more meaningful storytelling, across each and every one of its main levels to such a degree that it’s my new favorite game in the series. You have a thesis on verticality in level design with Dubai, the environment as puzzle box core taken to its limits by Dartmoor and Chongqing, the action in stealth-action being thoughtfully explored by Berlin, and the integration of the series’ central relationship of 47 and Diana as a mechanic in Mendoza.

Even the controversial finale on a mountain train is itself a spectacular iteration on a part of the series’ history: it was a tradition of the series’ earliest entries to end with an outright rampage sequence, from 47 mowing down his fellow clones to get at his creator in the original game, to Blood Money where 47 rises from his own funeral to destroy his enemies. Absolution went clumsily all out on action all around and this new trilogy pushed harder away from it in response, but returning to the tradition once as a catharsis for what’s going to be the last game in the series for at least quite some time is an affectionate and thoughtful gesture, particularly in execution. I’ve done that funeral shootout enough times to tell you all firsthand: you quite literally have no other option but to run around a wide open space shooting everyone with dual wielded pistols, something I imagine unfathomable to players best acquainted with the new trilogy, except for in runs which have gone horribly wrong. With that in mind the design of the train sequence builds rather brilliantly on that history by providing a more intricate and variable design with room for the stealth option, and I found both approaches to the final level equally satisfying.

I do also want to talk about storytelling here. Look, I know people don’t play these games for the plot or lore, I know we’re all here for funny satisfying murder puzzling, but I care about storytelling in games more than I should no matter what kind of game it is, I’m sorry, I can’t help it. But this also isn’t about the grand series legacy aspect of it either, as much as I could make it be. (There’s a specific part of Hitman 3’s story that is very literally just a better remake of a beat from Blood Money.) I’m also not talking about the ending, though I do love it and its commitment to tossing subtext to the wind with regards to the games’ feelings about the rich and powerful. No, it’s the internal microstorytelling of individual levels like the evolving reactions of the rival agents in Berlin, and the mystery of Dartmoor. I embedded above someone else’s recording for the same climax of the level that I chose first, among the three available for the core detective path, and I heartily encourage you to watch it in all its unexpectedly moving glory. 47 was a contract killer, a neutral party, but in taking that role and flipping around his relationship to a murder for once, he achieves great insight into not just one act of violence but the broader emotional violence humans can inflict on each other, even unknowingly and even to our closest loved ones.

4. Psychonauts 2 (Complete)

I know that an author talking about themselves this much can be dreadfully boring, and I am sorry for that. This will be the last time for this piece. But Psychonauts 2 is yet another example of something I grew up with actually managing to mature alongside me, which means a lot to me for many reasons, but especially so when the many things that failed that same test across the same almost two decades are still downright culturally omnipresent. The first Psychonauts is like the platonic ideal of a particularly snobby, dickish 13 year old’s favorite video game, and well, guilty as charged. This game builds on its predecessor’s already strong visual, mechanical, and thematic ambitions with a more relaxed vibe but with a drive that is anything but relaxed, it’s only pushing itself even harder and further in the name of a deeply rich, empathetic, tragicomic exploration of trauma and mental illness buoyed by imaginative, gorgeous, and divine level design.

3. Overboard! (Complete)

An adventure game where the dialogue system is considerably more intricate than the puzzling, and that’s an important part of the fun, that the puzzles are quick to get you to the next juicy verbal tete a tete faster. It’s the pace and scale that are most key: I grew up on the kind of really gradual, drawn out adventure game that LucasArts made, but this game is a downright breezy affair. A single loop goes fast, but you have as many as you need, and there’s only so much to find on this boat, so you’ll find what you need soon enough. The game initially approaches tone the same way it does the pacing. A murder and its coverup most obviously start as all in good cathartic fun, but soon enough alcoholism and grief among other things pulled into the light touch as well, and it works because it delicately balances the real tension and the outsized exaggerations that any classical chamber murder tale worth its salt has in plentiful supply, regardless of how honestly it engages with that.

Overboard! like Knives Out grasps the inherent kitsch of the Agatha Christie oeuvre and embraces it, accomplishing that with delightful aplomb, but that initial tone/presentation also belies the effective continual stakes-raising that occurs as you progress further, which in turn is a bridge towards grasping an ultimate tragedy of exploitation and abuse to thwart. Maybe Veronica isn’t a good person, but she can in fact ultimately achieve a good deed in a fashion at least as moving and startling as Master chief breaking down his emotional walls was. I may have loathed some of the ‘true endings’ in games this year, but this game only achieves its full, true greatness with its own true ending, and getting there is just one snappy afternoon away.

2. Deltarune Chapter 2 (Complete)

Charm to spare, equally rich and unique mechanical depth and character writing, a love for challenging game design conventions, an unforced aching sincerity with room for effective gravitas…look, we all know all the exact common praises and descriptors for the works of Toby Fox (and his expanded dev team) by now. But Deltarune is so much more than “more Toby Fox”, “more Undertale” could ever imply. I’m not interested in pontificating exactly how original this is or isn’t, but Deltarune is masterfully executing its portrayal of a relationship between player and player character that goes into disturbing and strange places, even actively antagonistic ones. The occasional cutaway scenes of this game do many wonderful things, but the most subtle yet insidious of all is the way the explicitly provide moments where the player’s prying eyes and their own avatar are separate from each other. What are Kris and Ralsei discussing when I’m not there? DO I frighten them as much as they increasingly frighten me? This game is accomplishing many truly great things per chapter, enhancing them further with each chapter, but the elegantly mounting dread is perhaps the most striking of all.

1. Resident Evil: Village (Complete)

Ethan Winters was living on borrowed time from the moment he stepped into the Baker house. He was never the cheesy action hero he eventually believed himself to be. In the end and in a beautiful way, he was the same person he started as: someone who’d do anything for those they love. Earlier I discussed how often games subverted their own stories to varying success, and Ethan’s downfall was the year in gaming’s best realization of that, bar none. It’s a beautiful story wrapped around a game system which was in 2017 already refined to a razor’s edge on all fronts, puzzles, action, and survival horror, and then managed to push itself even further.

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