I think 2021 can succinctly be summarized as the year I didn't manage to nab a PS5, so my candidates for Game of the Year reflect that, as my aging PC can't act as a good substitute. Though I actually have some candidates this year compared to 2020, so that's something.
Since I haven't been keeping up with many new releases this year, I spent a lot of time doing backlog management. My standout achievement being getting "done" with Final Fantasy. Of course, I need to qualify that statement by clarifying that I've only completed the mainline titles I was interested in (3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 9, 10, 12), plus Dissidia 012 and Type-0.
It's been really interesting to finally get context for all the stuff I've heard about such a huge franchise, like Kefka, Sephiroth, Vivi, the Job System and the like. But for as much good as there is, you can tell that so many other JRPGs used Final Fantasy as a base to make more interesting systems, which is the reason I got into the genre to begin with.
So I can't really call myself a proper fan of the series, but I do have greater appreciation of its legacy now. FF16 and Stranger of Paradise look interesting, so I'll definitively be keeping up with it to some capacity. Hell, I might even trick myself into playing Lightning Returns on the off-chance its nature as a supposedly reworked Valkyrie Profile game with Majora's Mask time mechanics will make it interesting to me. Would probably make a decent blog, since I'd be jumping in with very little knowledge of FFXIII and FFXIII-2.
Now I've started working through the dot Hack series instead, which presents its own set of challenges. But after that, I don't have that many JRPG series left to get through. Once I pass that hurdle, I could probably blaze through the rest of my backlog. How scary.
Anyway, let's get to my runner ups before we talk about my Game of the Year.
I'm not much of a fan of visual novels outside of Ace Attorney, since those games have mechanics and animated sprites, but the "To the Moon" series by Freebird Games have caught my interest. At their core, they are explorations of a single character's life using the framing device of a "flashback machine" that two doctors use to suss out how to leave their dying patient with the impression that they fulfilled their greatest wish.
It's pretty heartwrenching stuff, since a patient's story is told out of order, meaning that offhand comments take on deeper meaning in retrospect. To keep things palpatable, our protagonists Eva and Niel get up to some goofy stuff from time to time as the simulation screws up. I'd describe the writing as heartfelt but quirky, which works for the most part, though sometimes a joke just feels like it was written in 2008.
Impostor Factory continues the overall formula while straying from the format even more than Finding Paradise did. You do go through someone's life story yet again, but this time you're not playing as Eva or Niel. There is a lot of stuff around that which gets recontextualized as you go along, so the game changes tone about every hour. It felt like the game was spinning too many plates, both genre-wise and when it comes to the actual thrust of the plot, which borders on nonsense by the end.
I still liked it, but it just feels like the groundwork for a final game with a story they really want to tell. I'm all for making that final story a real gut punch, but all I have right now is the newest game in the series which doesn't manage to hit the same highs as the previous ones did, so it doesn't win my GotY award. I hope they can get their production schedule in order before I forget all the setup they put into Impostor Factory.
Here it is, my last ounce of Falcom goodness until the next Trails game escapes the localization process. I put off playing 8 for so long that 9 came out, so I played them back-to-back so I could complete 9 before the year ended. This was a bit of a mistake.
Ys games pride themselves on being simplistic (even if newer titles add a lot of cruft like quests and collectibles), so playing two of them so close together invites a bit of burnout, though admittedly less so than my marathon of Cold Steel 3&4 the year prior. I reviewed 8 on the assumption that they would be similar enough that I wouldn't have to go into detail with 9 here, which turned out to be correct.
The big new thing are the traversal powers, which let you dart around the city of Balduq and search for secrets. It feels like Falcom just got the idea of a city sandbox game from seventh-gen without any consideration of where that genre is now for the rest of the industry. It's fun, but still very restrictive, as there are magic walls everywhere making sure you don't explore the whole city immediately.
I liked the combat more this time, as every party member was fun to use, the bosses were more intricate and the returning Boost Mode adds a tiny bit more depth compared to just having super moves. In 9, boosting upgrades your standard combat skills, regenerates your party's health and lets you finish off with with a super move when it's about to run out, giving combat a more interesting pace.
The healing change in particular felt right to me, as only relying on boosting to heal not only balances the game better (since pausing the action to heal with a stack of potions completely undermines the challenge and the hectic action you were just partaking in) but also serves as a natural reason to switch party members compared to enemies being weak to specific damage types.
If you use potions, you can just keep healing your current character, but if you swap out injured characters and boost you can "spend" the regenerating HP that would otherwise be wasted on a fully healed character while letting that injured character recover. Seeing as the next game is gonna undergo some mechanical changes, I hope they look over the healing mechanics and settle on something more balanced.
The story was decent and spent less time spinning its wheel than 8, but it's still incredibly long for what you get out of it. There are a couple of decent scenes and it revels in some mysteries (that may be pretty obvious), so it's not without merit, but there's just so much talking and not enough engaging swording to offset that. It hit me that the series has become musou RPGs and I wish it was slightly more than that.
That's enough foreplay, time for the main event!
So, I am cheating here a little bit, making a free piece of DLC for an older game my GotY, but in my defense, this was the year I first played Blasphemous (which I loved), so a DLC that expands on some areas, adds a handful of bosses plus an ending that leads into the sequel really got me good.
Since I've already written about the core game, I'll focus on what the Wounds of Eventide adds to the game. The big thing is a new quest that changes your path through the story in very satisfying way. It really lets you get to the bottom of the world of Cvstodia in a way that the core game never did. It reminds me of the stuff you have to do in Hollow Knight or certain Castlevania games in order to look past the immediate threat the game presents you with and confront its underlying forces. It's a setup that metroidvania games rely on constantly, but it's an excellent way of getting the player to explore the world thoroughly.
And as a way of capping off the excellent journey that is Blasphemous, Wounds of Eventide lives up to its full potential. The new bosses are a good challenge and force you to shuffle around your rosary more as the degenerate strategies of the normal game don't hold up as well.
But the best part of the DLC (and the whole game, by extension) is the moment this remix of the main theme plays:
I cannot properly communicate the chills I felt as this songs comes on at the perfect time to really sell what a momentous fight you are about to get yourself into. It's hard as hell, but the Spanish guitar emboldened by just a tiny bit of metal does so much for one's ability to bang their head against a proverbial wall for like an hour.
It's a tough challenge, but as soon as you get through it, the path to the new ending is clear and there isn't anything left that can stand against your quest of true penitence. This is the shit I play video games for, the unification of story, mechanics and music to create a singular moment where you as the player know exactly what the game expects out of you and what you will be rewarded with if you succeed. I don't know what games 2023 will bring, but Blasphemous 2 will assuredly be a contender for my game of the year that year. For magnanimous are the ways of the Miracle.