I think that we can all agree that 2021 was a good year for video games. While we did not get a sequel to Mario, Zelda, or any PlayStations flagship IP, we got new games for beloved and dormant franchises, including Halo Infinite, Resident Evil Village, and Metroid Dread. We also got numerous new IPs, such as Deathloop and Returnal. So whether you spent time playing new IP or sequels to a popular franchise, we all had a game to help us through a year of ever-changing uncertainties.
For myself, I was fortunate enough to get my hands on both the PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X early this year and late last year, respectively. Both Xbox and PlayStation have provided me with countless hours of entertainment between stunning console exclusives and Game Pass. While both companies provided a fantastic start for the new console generation, I, personally, found these consoles as a great place to catch up on a backlog of games that I missed over the past generation.
While the new consoles tout 4k graphics, 120 frames per second, and cutting-edge gaming, I cannot fail to mention ole reliable, the Nintendo Switch. Nintendo may not have given us a new Mario game or the Breath of the Wild sequel, yet, they still showed up in force this year. Providing us with Metroid Dread, a game that was stuck in development hell, Pokémon Brilliant Diamond and Shining Pearl, remakes that provided sweet nostalgia for many Pokémon fans, and a plethora of Indie games to pick from.
While I have dabbled with many of the new releases this year, including Returnal, Forza Horizon 5, and Metroid Dread, a vast majority of the games that I beat were released in years past. This decision is mainly due to pricing. Many games I beat were on sale at a lower price than the $60 to $70 new releases go for.
Here is how I rank the games I beat this year!
*SPOILER WARNING: Please note that there may be some light spoilers throughout this article. I did my best to avoid major plot spoilers, but some may have slipped through. *
1. Hades – Switch
Hades is hands down my favorite game that I beat in 2021. While I technically started Hades in 2020, it was my third most played game on the Nintendo Switch this year, falling behind Stardew Valley and Octopath Traveler. * There is a reason Hades received countless awards at the end of 2020. Between the addicting gameplay loop, isometric camera angle, unique art style, and distinct dialogue, it created hours of hellishly fun slaying.
Hades is a Rogue Lite game, where after every run, you lose all the power-ups, called “Boons,” that you receive from your godly aunts and uncles up on Olympus. However, before you say, “Oh, this does not sound ideal to lose all my progress,” you can spend darkness, an in-game currencies, to unlock abilities that make escaping easier. For myself, the game became drastically easier as I selected different boons. The knowledge that came with experience allowed me to know what boons I had to take and the ones I would probably want to avoid selecting. Learning the different boons and their versatility made each run different, sometimes allowing me to clear a battle in seconds.
Supergiant Games’ decision to mix the isometric camera angle and their unique art style created an incredible visual experience. With six different main areas to explore and experience, each place felt unique, providing a perfect scene as I attempted to escape the multiple layers of the underworld. Each level presented its own beautiful backdrop to a world not touched by living souls. Further, each level of Hades had its own challenges and environmental hazards that kept me on my toes as I ascended to the Earth above.
On top of the visually stunning set pieces, every NPC character I interacted with was drop-dead gorgeous, some the internet would say were more literal than others. Each god, goddess, and underworld assistant had their own visual reactions to events and dialogue throughout the game.
The final pièce de résistance is the seemingly, different dialogue between Zagreus, the player character, and the NPCs. As I progressed, I increased the relationship between Zagreus, his father, his aunts and uncles, and the rest of the NPCs in the world, unlocking unique and sometimes funny dialogue. Each character has a special role in the story that continuously unfolds with each attempted escape. The whole story of Hades does not end after the first successful escape, nor does it genuinely end after the tenth escape. There is still so much to do and learn even after rolling credits.
2. The Last of Us Remastered – PlayStation 5
Looking back, I made some great choices on games to play, many of which were either game of the Year nominees or winners. The Last of Us Remastered fits right in this category of games I played. What better way to experience this masterpiece than on a brand new PS5? The visual fidelity was jaw-dropping, as every cut scene looked lifelike, and each interaction with the wilderness left me in awe. While the graphics stick out, the storytelling, beautiful pacing alongside overall gameplay and combat make this game everything I could ask for and so much more.
The visuals that have been created by Naughty Dog for The Last of Us are second to none. The visual fidelity of the game’s environment alone adds an extra layer to the game’s overarching theme. The environment is stunning as the overgrown and decaying buildings tell a silent story of a world long forgotten. This story tells how nature always takes back what was once it’s own. Outside the environment, every cut scene feels real through the detailed animation of every single character, including supporting characters. The tender love and care that the team at Naughty Dog gave to a character that you may only spend an hour alongside add extra depth to the story.
When putting The Last of Us on a best-of list, you must take time and appreciate the story that is told throughout the entire adventure. As you experience this beautifully crafted world, you see the hardships that so many people go through and how loss is just a part of life now. Sometimes hard decisions are made, and some people choose not to deal with the desolate world anymore. Yet, all the while you hear the stories and hardships of side characters, you grow to love the two main protagonists: Joel, a rough and gruff mercenary who has his own scarred past, and Ellie, a young girl that may be the cure that humanity has been looking for. Their relationship starts off solely intended as a business transaction. Still, it blossoms into a relationship that anyone cannot break.
As someone who does not care for stealth games, Naughty Dog did a great balancing act of making stealth important while still allowing for gunfights. Throughout the dystopian world, you must avoid, by moving slowly and silently, and distracting, with breakable objects, clickers, zombie-like infected. When I found myself in a pinch, I used melee weapons and guns, but this generally ended poorly. I found that guns were more advantageous against human enemies than against clickers.
Not only did Naughty Dog flawlessly balance combat and stealth, but they also managed to make you about every bullet shot and every item crafted. As for ammo and crafting supplies were a scarce resource. The Last of Us is not a game that supplies you with endless ammo that you can hoard. Instead, the game provides precisely what you need to succeed, no more, no less. The scarcity of ammo made me think about every shot. I knew a missed shot could make future encounters significantly harder.
If you haven’t played this game, find a cheap copy at your local game store and experience this visually enticing and perfectly written masterpiece.
3. Marvel Spider-Man – PlayStation 5
Growing up, Spider-Man was the first superhero movie I saw. Spider-Man 2, for PlayStation 2, was the first superhero game I played. Flash forward 17 years, I get to swinging through New York again as your friendly neighborhood Spider-Man. Insomniacs iteration of this beloved superhero is arguably the best one ever made. With the lively open world, compelling and moving story, a plethora of side content, combined with fluid and varied combat, Insomniac created a unique Spider-Man experience.
This iteration of Spider-Man takes place a few years into the masked hero’s time as the Spidey everyone grew to love. Allowing the story to show a different side of Peter. Instead of getting another origin story, we see new and sometimes relatable struggles that Peter deals with. From him balancing the superhero work, volunteering with Aunt May, his full-time laboratory job, and trying to fix his relationship with MJ. For myself, I had a cathartic experience playing the game, as I was dealing with similar struggles; sadly, none of them had to deal with being a superhero. I related with how Peter was trying to balance a life of work, school, personal time, and mending a relationship with a loved one. Surprise, I struggled just as much as Peter, but that makes Peter relatable in this game. Luckily, I would say we both worked everything out in the end!
The gameplay is repetitive, but it was like eating comfort food. I could swing around the city, pick up collectibles, take down some Fisk hideouts, and find Catwoman’s calling cards. While these tasks were repetitive, they were exactly what I wanted to do. The major downside of the repetitiveness is the lack of variability between sub-activities between enemy factions. For example, while taking down Fisk hideouts was enjoyable, late-game equivalents were not as exciting to experience. The only differences between initial hideouts and the late-game counterparts were enemy types.
Combat fluidity is always a key when playing as the agile and nimble Spidey, and Marvel Spider-Man hits all the right notes when it comes to combat. Combat feels as smooth as butter, as you get to throw punches, dodge, and drop a few gadgets to take down the different enemy types. Executing spidey sense dodges work wonderfully, and it feels even better when you begin to master perfect dodges. Performing an ideal dodge opens opportunity attacks that take down enemies in a quick time attack.
Insomniac may have created one of the greatest Spider-Man stories to date. The story is arguably the golden egg of the game. It is only enhanced by the beautiful voice acting of Peter as you traverse the ups and downs he experienced. From dealing with loss and making the tough decisions that only a superhero would have to make.
4. Ori and The Blind Forest – Switch
Ori and The Blind Forest is the gorgeous and moving adventure of Ori, a spirit, through a dying world. The ability to connect with the emotions that Ori and the other characters within the game feel is one of the game’s highest points. To feel the sadness and heartbreak of loss from characters who do not talk or have dialogue is a stunning feat. While there is a fair share of sad moments, feeling the love shown between Ori and her adoptive mother from the start of the game brought a sense of warmth that I was not expecting to feel. The emotions conveyed in depth by each character keep you interested in the story and want to experience each and every moment.
When not in a cut scene, the fluid movement, and ever-evolving skills that Ori procures keep the gameplay fresh and exciting to the very last moment. While Ori seems like a basic platformer at first, you notice areas you cannot reach. Once you begin to find and understand the new abilities, whether a simple double jump or using lamps to explode upward, you can backtrack and discover hidden secrets. These skills drastically impact the game. As it increases the pace and difficulty of traversal, bringing a simple platformer to an elaborate maze where you must learn to use all the skills you’ve been granted.
Using the newfound abilities to find and discover hidden areas opens the door for collectors to dive deep into the world. With collectibles that increase health, energy, and skill points, players can do as much or as little as they want. While I easily beat the game with 80% of the collectibles, the game can be beaten with fewer collectibles. However, I do not know who would not want to spend a little extra time in this beautiful world that is slowly coming back to life.
My only gripe with Ori and The Blind Forest is that the combat feels stale after the first few hours. The “boss” fights were simple and the most forgettable parts. Each “boss” fight is the same enemy, only changing the number of them or increasing their health. It is possible to beat the game by only using the primary attack, Spirit Flames, and not incorporating any more advanced combat skills. The varieties of enemies are stagnant, and I saw the same enemies from beginning to end. The only differences were color changes and health increases.
While this game does not have the most memorable combat, every other game is an actual work of art. If you are looking for a short, impactful story with wonderful traversal, Ori and The Blind Forest is a game I could not recommend more.
5. Marvel Spider-Man Miles Morales – PlayStation 5
Over the past few years, Insomniac has been able to pump out fantastic video games left and right, and Marvel Spider-Man Miles Morales is no different. While Insomniac stated that this game was not a “1.5” game, it was a more concise version of the original Spider-Man game. However, that does not mean that the game was any less “fantastic” than the first. Miles Morales cut away a lot of the fat that the original Spider-Man game experienced, with drastically fewer world events to complete and collectibles to find. The primary focus of the new game was to show Miles as he struggles to live up to the Spider-Man name and try to stop the potential destruction of Harlem, his home in New York.
Just as the original game did, my heartstrings were pulled every which way as the story progressed. Seeing the hardships that Miles and his family face, as they traverse life after the unfortunate death of his father during the first game, was gut-wrenching to watch. However, seeing the good his mother wanted to do after the events were heartwarming. Not only did I get to see Miles’s relationship with his mother, but I also got to see him rekindle his relationship with uncle Aaron. The latter plays an impactful role in molding Miles into a stronger Spider-Man. Of course, Insomniac created another tearjerker at the end, but I’ll leave that for you all to experience.
While working through the story and seeing Miles’ relationships grow, I found myself enjoying the combat a little less than I did in the preceding game. After careful attention to combat, I believe Insomniac adjusted the Spidey-sense dodge. In the new game, it appears that you are no longer invincible when you dodge. Resulting in Miles taking damage if I dodged in the direction that ranged enemies were attacking. While the change may have created a “more realistic” combat, it did not feel natural to be punished for executing a dodge in such a manner.
Overall, Miles Morales is an excellent addition to the Spider-Man story, building on the already existing world from Marvel Spider-Man. Even though there were fewer world events and a change to combat, I enjoyed my time experiencing Miles’ story, just as I did with Peter.
6. Ratchet and Clank Rift Apart – PlayStation 5
If I had to purely choose a game that encapsulates the promise and power of next-generation consoles, I would pick Ratchet and Clank Rift Apart. This visually stunning masterpiece has vibrant colors that make you say that age-old expression, “Video Games are never going to get better than this.” While we know this saying will not hold the test of time as technology advances, at this time, there is not a single game that grabs your eye the way Rift Apart does.
Any Ratchet and Clank fans will love to journey through the multiverse that Insomniac has created with our nostalgic, dynamic duo. As you experience new worlds and characters, you get the same action platforming that made the series great, to begin with. Strafing and shooting enemies felt as smooth as ever, and the implementation of dual firing, by using DualSense Haptic feedback, adds a new level of gameplay and strategy.
Insomniac created a heartwarming story of overcoming hardship, regret, and feelings of inadequacy. Each character has their own struggles that they deal with. Each internal battle felt relatable, especially as our society is becoming more accepting of mental health illness and recognizing it’s ok to say, “I need help.” As I slowly worked through the story, each character finds the help they need and reminds me that there is power in looking to others for help.
Ratchet and Clank Rift Apart ranks in the lower half of my favorite games merely based on the price point I bought the game at. Rift Apart is a great game, but at $70, the value is not there for a gamer on a budget. If you can catch this game on sale, pick it up. If you paid full price, I would hold off for the game to go on sale.
7. Psychonauts 2 – Xbox Series X
While working through Psychonauts 2, I struggled with deciding if I liked anything about the game. I knew I enjoyed the platforming portions of the game and Metroidvania-style travel system, allowing me to return to previous minds to find more collectibles. However, I was not sold on the combat or the storyline. Still, it was much more profound than I initially thought after thinking and dwelling on the story. The combat, though, I still wasn’t crazy about any of it.
Psychonauts 2 is centered around Raz as he looks to save the Psychonauts, a group of powerful psychics that fight evil from the doom that seems to be brewing by a mysterious evil. He meets some of his heroes and explores their minds, uncovering their deepest fears as he progresses. From a surface level, it’s tough to feel connected to some of the fears presented within the game. Still, as I delved deeper into my own thoughts, I had a realization. I realized that each character is introduced with a different mental illness. You are helping them overcome the issues causing them to spiral out of control. While some mental illnesses presented in this game were dark, most of them had a lighthearted note. The carefree notes made talking about the struggles that characters and real-life people deal with easier.
The 3-D platforming portions of Psychonauts 2 kept me coming back alongside the story. Double Fine brought nostalgic feelings from the early PS2 era of video gaming, where the mascot platformer reigned supreme. Traversing the brains and surrounding lands was fun to do. No matter if I was simply jumping from spot to spot, using Raz’s psychic abilities to float between distances or popping between thought bubbles. On top of the countless running, jumping, floating, and thought-changing movements (this being quite literal in the game), Double Fine rewarded creativity. Getting creative is crucial to the avid collector who wants to find all the collectibles hidden throughout the game.
Unfortunately, the combat is by far the weakest part of this game. Most enemies had one specific weakness. You had to use that particular psychic move to either harm or impede them and hack away at their health. While the psychic attacks had an initial flair, they quickly lost their pizazz and made combats feel monotonous.
Overall, Psychonauts 2 is a fun and cute game to play through, but the lack of consistently enjoyable combat made it tough to jump back in at points.
Bonus: Cyberpunk 2077 – Xbox Series X
Cyberpunk 2077 had one of the buggiest launches in the history of gaming, with the PS4 and Xbox One versions of the game being nearly unplayable. Luckily, I had the opportunity to play Cyberpunk on the Xbox Series X and did not run into any game-breaking bugs. However, I do have an achievement that won’t unlock.
Cyberpunk gets a pass as a game I “beat” in 2021, even though I put 50 plus hours into the game between launch and the end of 2020. Hence it is the “Bonus” game for this list.
Regardless of when I put the most time into the game, Cyberpunk is still one of my favorite games that I have played in a while. The gameplay, world, side missions, and, of course, my boy Kenu Reeves’ character Johnny Silverhand make for a phenomenal and unforgettable time.
Hands down, my favorite part of Cyberpunk 2077 is the gameplay. The wide variety of weapons and cybernetic upgrades you can put into your character make for countless combat playstyles. In my 67 hours of playtime, I went from running in guns a blazing to hacking enemies to bits with the swift Mantis Blades to burning out optics with the hacking abilities. While each method of combat can be drastically improved by leveling up skills and selecting specific perks, each is feasible to play, regardless of skill points invested.
Night City always felt alive, with numerous world events and side quests to get into. Rather than the city simply being a backdrop to my adventure. I could drive up on an NCPD scanner event or assist a Fixer with their problem in their respective area. However, I had a significant qualm with the city because the wanted system was haphazardly done. If I got in trouble with NCPD, all I had to do was hop on my bike and drive for, maybe, ten seconds, and I would no longer be wanted. While this avoided some headaches, it did detract from the “realness” of the world.
Major side quests were, arguable, as crucial as the main story. Each side quest was headed by a romanceable character; this was dictated by the gender you picked your character to be. Major side quests explored the darker parts of Night City and the unique struggles that people in the city faced. Ranging from Panama’s desire to protect her people to River’s willingness to overcome the corruption of the NCPD and uncover the truth on a case. The side quests felt more rewarding and thought out than the main storyline.
I can’t write about Cyberpunk 2077 or say anything about Keanu Reeves’s performance as Johnny Silverhand. While his character’s dialogue is a little choppy, likely due to Keanu having minimal history with voice acting, his rough and gruff rock persona added just enough flair to every main event.
*These two games won’t show up on this list as I did not beat them. They would fall into a list of games that I played but did not beat. Both are likely near the top of games that I played most, with Stardew Valley rolling in 30 hours of gameplay and Octopath Traveler having 25 hours.
Some great picks there 🙂