If 2020 was a wet fart of a year, then 2021 was the lingering smell left behind that refuses to dissipate. The novelty of staying at home for most of the time due to COVID-19 has already worn thin, and it affected my enjoyment of things to a great degree. Still, I was lucky to only be inconvenienced by COVID, and my best wishes go to those who were impacted in their health and income.
Still, in this terrible year, I still managed to play many great games. In fact, staying at home, I actually played a lot more games than usual, but I suspect my enjoyment was unfortunately slightly affected by the general malaise of the year.
Yet, there are these games that managed to bring me joy and fun through that, and I am happy to share my list of top 10 games I played in 2021 with you. This year, I closed the chapter on the excellent year of 2017 by playing one of the last heavy hitters of that year, and then went on to play some of the great games released in 2018., and most games on the list come from those two years.
Interestingly, I actually played a game released last year, but that’s because it has a huge multiplayer focus. Otherwise, I was happy going through my backlog and PS1 reviews schedule (with one excellent PS1 game featuring this year), with the exception of another game that I played after enjoying its PS1 predecessor (and hope some of you try as well). At this rate, I may actually go up to mid-2019 releases by the end of 2022.
Without further ado, here is my list of the best games I played in the second year of Covid, alphabetically ordered:
Brigandine: The Legend of Runersia: (Switch, 2020)
Of all the games in this list, this one is probably the most unconventional choice. A niche game in a niche genre, this mix of light Grand Strategy and Tactical RPG goodness is a long-overdue follow-up to a PS1 cult classic that I also played and reviewed this year. Both games share much of the same DNA, and it is a testament to the quality of the original that the sequel is brilliant while changing very little.
The gameplay loop is extremely satisfying. Your army consists of named generals that develop with time and experience, and each general can control up to six monsters that can also grow (or permanently die). You can use your generals to conquer cities on the map, with each battle a Turn-Based tactical romp between three generals and their monsters. These battles and the highlight of the game, and the huge number of variables from units to terrain make them engaging for a long time.
You can choose one of six nations in pursuit of conquering the continent of Runersia, which theoretically allows for six different playthroughs, but that is being too generous, as the differences between nations start eroding over time.
Sadly, the story and characters, while certainly more prevalent than the first game, are actually too on the nose for their own good and don’t offer much of a justification for multiple playthroughs. While I like the rather unique character art and design, I understand those that are disappointed with it. The same can be said about the story, which is lacking in some ways and suffers from a lack of editing.
It is then a testament to the brilliance and variety of the core gameplay that even without much variety or narrative reason, I still felt compelled to finish the game six times. It is just really good, and few Tactical battles systems provide the same experience of fighting a truly challenging battle as this game.
God of War: (PS4, 2018)
From the most unconventional pick to the most mainstream, God of War was an extremely highly rated game in the year of its release, and time didn’t dampen people’s appreciation of it. I think that may be due to how few expected it to be a great game in the way that it did. Personally, I always liked the bombastic action-packed, and juvenile flavor of the originals, but this grittier take at the character worked well without being too dour, even if I persist in saying that it never needed to be about Kratos anyways.
The story is mostly about the father and son journey of Kratos and Atreus as they go through a world devastated by the gods. It explores their familial bonds in the background of their obvious supernature and the tragic passing of wife and mother. It works remarkably well thanks to strong writing, directing, and acting. With a setting that is brilliant in both graphics and design.
Other than its storytelling chops, the gameplay is also an exceptional take on the character action formula. It's more deliberate, more like a boxing match than the all-out slugfests of the original, with a lot of hidden complexity behind its basic mechanics. Sure, it's not as technical or deep as other character action games, but it fits this older version of Kratos.
The game isn’t without its faults though. One major narrative shift happens suddenly without any build-up and it's extremely jarring, especially since the story was on point until then. Apparently, an entire section was cut, and you can understand the necessity of doing that since the game nearly overstays its welcome. Thankfully, if you feel that you are not engaged with the side-content, you can always go through the critical path. For me, one feature I appreciated is the ability to decrease my level to reduce my power in the story compared to the optional content, and I wish more games allowed you to do that.
The Mega Man Legends series is a bonafide cult-favorite franchise. Starting with a first game that introduced Mega Man to the 3rd dimension, it established a unique feeling to the game, but it was limited in scope. The second Legends game fulfills the promise of the first game with an expansive and more ambitious sequel.
One of the things that define this game is its sense of exploration and adventure, with its post-apocalyptic mysterious world and variety of locations and dungeons. This fits in really well with the look and feel of the game, which aided by some very good voice acting, is just like a Saturday-morning Cartoon in its style and vibes.
Thankfully, the game also controls really well after solving some of the camera and movement issues that faced the first game. Other than a famously stingy economy, it's an extremely solid Action-Adventure game that is as close to The Legend of Zelda series as anything else.
Another key part of the game is the Bonne pirate family and their armies of Lego-like minions. These recurring comedic villains add much to the comedy and the charm of the game, and Capcom understood that and even made a spinoff game that focused entirely on them. The result, The Misadventures of Tron Bonne, is a really good game that shows the best of Tron and her yellow minions.
Now I understand why it is so painful that Capcom canceled the third Legends game. It doesn’t have anything to do with the act that Legends 2 had such a cliffhanger ending (and a promise of a nearby sequel), but because the world of Mega Man Legends is a unique world that is rich with a unique charm and feel that it’s a shame we won’t get another game in its universe.
Monster Hunter Rise: (Switch, 2021)
The only contemporary game on my list, it is better to play a Monster Hunter at its release due to its social elements and the sense of community around it. However, given the quality of Rise, I expect it would still be vibrant even if I come to it two years later. Not being an expert on the series, I still loved its weirder parts, and Rise does a better job at keeping and modernizing those idiocentricities than World ever did.
Simply, Rise plays better and faster than any other Monster Hunter game while retaining much of its charm. The new Wire Bug mechanic adds a huge element of verticality to both traversal and combat, and the canine Palamutes that you can ride add to that renewed focus on motion. Both elements make monster battles faster and more engaging, all the while retaining the deliberate nature of the combat that requires you to fully understand both your weapons and the monsters you are facing.
As with every new Monster Hunter game that isn’t a re-release or a compilation, there were some complaints about the dearth of content in this game, but I honestly didn’t feel it with my casual play style, and I am yet to see everything the game has to offer 200 hours in.
So, let’s keep on hunting.
Octopath Traveler: (Switch, 2021)
When it was revealed, I instantly knew I was going to love the game. A turn-based RPG built as a love letter to the SNES glory days, but with updated “HD-2D” graphics and an innovative turn-based battle system, of course, count me in. However, the fact that you had eight characters to choose from suggested the inspiration of the game was more Saga than Final Fantasy, and that had me a little concerned.
It turned out I didn’t need to be, not too much at least.
First, the gameplay loop is perfectly straightforward (unlike Saga games) and easy to follow, both in the turn-based system and the overall flow of the game. Second, the story does suffer from having a disconnected story, but this is at least counterbalanced by eight really good individual stories despite some slight variation in quality.
Mostly, the story is a vehicle to get you experiencing an amazing battle system that is augmented by an interesting job system. Also, and certain Dtoid commenters will agree with me, this kind of story where you have gaps to fill with your own imagination and interpretation, is EXACTLY how it was in the SNES era.
Lastly, other than its delightful throwback graphics, the game also has an excellent soundtrack that is both inspired by and updates the SNES musical canon.
Persona 5 Royal: (PS4, 2019)
When it comes to the Shin Megami Tensei dichotomy, I swing hard to the original’s darker notes rather than the spinoff’s teen drama and anime trope-heavy stuff. Yet, that doesn’t mean I fail to see the excellence in the Persona games, and Persona 5 Royal is excellent in nearly every aspect.
From is earlier moments, and through its entire design sensibilities, the adherence to the Phantom Thieves theme runs strong in the game. This allows for strong opening chapters, where the heroes must punish the adults in the world using a magical phantom world, but the narrative’s length works against it as the game goes on. Ultimately, the story becomes more about the relationships you build with your party and other supporting characters in the world, which is developed through social links and daily activities.
In Royal, you are afforded more time to develop all your social links, which is a positive as well as a negative. In general, it removes scarcity from the equation and makes everything easier (including the combat which is trivially easy for half the game, but more on that in a bit). It also introduces one of the best characters in my opinion (with one of the most poignant personal stories) and themes in the extra sections of the game, and I think its story is more interesting than the original.
Yet, with Royal, an already long game is even longer. However, for most of my playthrough, I didn’t feel like the game was dragging on. When building my party up, battling, and fusing my demons, it felt like the gameplay loop was keeping things interesting. However, as the game went on and became easier and more supporting characters were thrown into the mix, it felt more like busywork than meaningful content. The game doesn’t always get this balance right through its chapters, and I think the fact that you can max everything in Royal while the game gets easier to be a major balance issue (that isn’t solved by difficulty sliders), but this doesn’t ultimately detract from an excellent game with killer stylistic visuals, battle system, and soundtrack.
Shovel Knight: Treasure Trove: (Wii U, 2014-2019)
Man, can you believe someone actually played a game on the Wii U in 2021? To answer that question with another question, can you believe that Shovel Knight was first released in 2014?
As a backer of the game since its inception, I played it on the Wii U when it was released, enjoyed it very much, and then left it. Of course, Yacht Club Games didn’t leave the game back then; they continued developing its promised expansions and freely adding them for the original backers. So, as my copy of Shovel Knight sat on my then dusty Wii U, it kept getting free updates, culminating with the release of King Knight’s campaign and the fighting sub-game.
Early last year, I dusted off my Wii U and played all Shovel Knight games as a final send-off to both the console and game (although I suspect we will get more shovelry action in the future), and boy did I enjoy every minute of it. There is a reason that this game is considered the quintessential Kickstarter and Indie-game success story, and it has a lot to do with a level of heart and expertise that Is crucial for retro-throwback games to succeed.
Shovel Knight doesn’t blindly copy the past. It carefully analyzed what worked, attempts to emulate the “feeling” of it while firmly updating and morphing it into its own unique thing. This allowed them to make a game that feels retro and modern at the same time. Scratch that, this allowed them to make four games. Shovel Knight is a very vanilla campaign that feels like the medieval equivalent to Mega Man. Following from that analogy, Plague Knight is more technical and is like the non-existent Zero version of Mega Man. Both Plague Knight and King Knight go on different but equally interesting Action-Platforming territory while providing extremely interesting narrative twists with a poignant love story and a funny reflection on power.
Rarely does a game’s title capture its essence as much as this one.
Tales of Vesperia: Definitive Edition: (PS4, 2019)
You can always count on the Tales series to provide safe and solid JRPGs with good battle and customization systems. That’s why I consider the series a kind of comfort food, rarely astounding me with its taste, but rarely disappointing me as well. Tales of Vesperia isn’t far off that description, but it has its reputation as one of the best Tales games for a reason; a reputation that I happen to agree with.
At its most basic, this isn’t much different from any other game on the series. A cast of quirky characters are suddenly thrust into a possibly world-ending conflict, and they confront it with their power of unity and friendship. All the while, the story reveals itself through anime tropes and optional characters skits, the action battle system continues advancing into complexity until becoming something really satisfying, and a true tried and tested Motoi Sakuraba score accompanies it all.
However, Tales of Vesperia does everything better enough that it rises among its peers. The cast of characters, headed by possibly the series’ best protagonist, are all winners. Somehow, they lack the melodrama and trope-heavy characterization of the latter games and are more developed than the earlier ones. It's quite telling that the child and princess characters are also the best iterations of those tropes. As for its gameplay systems, it features the best classical Tales combat system before it abandoned Technical Points, and I think its application here provides enough limitation for battles to be challenging without stifling them out of variety.
Ultimately, this is another Tales game, but it might just be the best one in the series not counting the latest release (surely a top 3 pick for me).
Valkyria Chronicles Remastered: (Switch, 2018)
I first played Valkyria Chronicles near its release on the PS3, and I was enamored with its visual style, unique strategic gameplay, and story. However, before reaching the middle of the game, my fat PS3 died on me and I lost my save. Initially, I wasn’t going to play the game when I was about to start Valkyria Chronicles 4, but I am glad that I changed my mind.
Valkyria Chronicles is a game about the experience of one squad in a war reminiscent of WW2 but in watercolor. Here, I am not only speaking of the incredibly unique visual style of the game, which is the closes to an anime coming to life I have ever seen, but also the fact that this is a much softer take on war even if it explores the same themes of devastation and loss.
By the time I stopped my initial playthrough, I didn’t yet reach a critical point where the war comes home to your main squad, and moments as emotionally impacting as it is are rare in videogames (at least it's rare that they affect me). The game’s story and characters, despite the occasional dose of anime tropes, really do manage to grow on you and I ended up feeling attached to most of them.
Of course, both story and visuals wouldn’t be enough if the core gameplay wasn’t really good, which it is. Despite a mission scoring system that favors speed over tactics, if you ignore it, the game’s mix of turn-based tactics and real-time strategy and action is both unique and satisfying
Xenoblade Chronicles 2/Torna: (Switch, 2017-2018)
The last game in this alphabetically ordered list was also the last of the heavy hitters in the excellent gaming year of 2017. Now, after playing it, I better understand why it was relatively ignored in that quality-heavy year. Besides the fact that it was released late, it would take a month of game time to put a dent on the game’s story, and there still would be a lot of complexity in the game’s combat and preparation that you may not yet unlock.
That, coupled with an unapologetic anime aesthetic, I think pushed any chance of the game having mainstream appeal. Hell, I am sure it even pushed fans of the original Xenoblade. Yet, I think for those who stuck with the game and approached it on its own merit (or even tried to ignore its anime designs), they would be in for a deeply complex RPG with a decent story and characters and an amazing world to explore.
For me, despite not appreciating the random nature of unlocking “blades”, I massively enjoyed the combat and how it continued to open up well into the mid-game as you unlock more of them. It might seem chaotic, but there is a lot of strategy going into the game, and I honestly think the gameplay is closer to an ATB Turn-Based strategy system than an action RPG with how deliberate it is.
Later in the year, I finished the DLC expansion, Torna, which expands on the tragic backstory of some of the game’s characters (more effectively hitting if you play the base game) while shaking the combat up in interesting ways.
The final thing to note is how gorgeous the game is in terms of world-building and design, which compliments an absolutely brilliant soundtrack
Hollow Knight: (Switch, 2018)
Maybe if I was in a different state of mind when I played this, it would have made a better impression. While I initially loved the game’s world, combat, and exploration, I soon became frustrated with how big it was, and I found the areas similar to each other, and it just grew tedious. Eventually, I picked up the game again and had a better time with it, but my experience with the game didn’t end up being as glowing as it was for other people. I honestly think the game is too big for a Metroidvania, and that it would have benefited from a 30% cut of content to be a tighter and more even experience.
Ni No Kuni II: Revenant Kingdom: (PS4, 2018)
This is the game that was bumped off the top 10 list, and that may be due to recency bias since it was also one of the first games I played in the year. Following the step (but not the story) of the first Ni No Kuni, this is a game about being transported to a magical Ghibli-inspired world and solving the fairy tale problems. The gameplay is better than the original thanks to abandoning the monster-catching element, but the story doesn’t have the same heart as the original. There is an interesting kingdom development system that is nice to play with as well, as well as some big post-game procedurally-generated dungeons if you really love the battle system.
SaGa games are known for their obtuse leveling-up system, confusing structure, and non-linear narrative tricks. While these are still present in this game, the structure if established enough, the order of the story can be guessed through, and the leveling-up system is more forgiving. As a result, this is a SaGa game you can actually enjoy. The game follows two stories that expand into the fates of several characters, and it could have easily been a better game if it actually followed up with that strong premise with more engaging chapters. As it is, the game is a flawed but interesting experience that is actually playable, unlike its SaGa brethren.
The Messenger: (Switch, 2018)
This is an indie game that is inspired by Ninja Gaiden but with a surprisingly good story and funny meta-narrative tricks. Go into it as blind as you can, and just know that the action is tight and top-notch and that things are not as simple as they may initially seem. Also, note that the game has some killer retro visuals and an amazing soundtrack.
Yakuza Kiwami 2: (PS4, 2017/2018)
For a third year in the row, a Yakuza game is in my top 10 played games list, but like with Kiwami, it is in the honorable mentions list. With its really good story and improved visuals, Kiwami 2 could have been better. However, I actually didn’t like the evolution of the combat system from that of Yakuza 0 and didn’t like the side activities and stories as much. Now I am bracing for a reduction in the quality of the series as I go through 3 and 4. Here is hoping 5 and 6 have better stories.