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aurahack's Top 10 Games of 2021

aurahack is an illustrator that played a bunch of games in 2021. Some that even changed her outlook on life.

ASCARI
ASCARI

aurahack is an illustrator and character artist that works in both games and music. You might’ve seen some of the vinyls she’s made or some of the buffoonery done for videogames.com in the past. Currently, she is chairwoman of the Ascari Respect Zone, headquartered on her Twitter, which is also where she regularly posts art and great opinions. You can support her on Patreon or find her on Twitch where she streams art every Monday and Thursday @958 .beats.

I’m happy to be back with another list of cool games even if this year was still a weird one. My gaming habits changed a lot. About 1100 hours (to my count at least) of my game time this year exclusively in two games. I fell down the live-service game hole big time. I think I just... needed a routine? Consistency? After so much time spent indoors and playing the pandemic by ear and not really committing to any long-or-short-term plans, it felt nice to have something regular in my day. Week. Month. Some of it kinda took over my life for a while! Some of it... you ever have a game that just, changes your outlook on life? We’ll get to that.

I also made time for other cool stuff. Here’s a bunch of it!

Honorable Mentions

Shin Megami Tensei V

They released an actual new Shin Megami Tensei game in 2021 and... it’s exactly that, for better and worse. I’m kinda stunned! I mean, I’m kinda stunned it came out as a Shin Megami Tensei game and not as a Persona-like. It’s great! It’s all I could have asked for! For better, we got a new SMT soundtrack that’s suitably weird. Abstract, haunting, and full of borderline-bit crushed guitar riffs. It introduces a couple of changes to the battle system that while I don’t think always pans out, they’re interesting. They’re genuine attempts to mix the formula up that aren’t just “make it more frictionless”. There’s also some great demon dialogue this time around. The guys who call you a bitch for having your party full when you try and invite them make me laugh out loud every time. Maybe best of all, we got the Nahobino. I would gladly do nothing but stare at that man until the real apocalypse eventually eliminates us all.

But also, for worse, it’s... I don’t know. Unlike IV or Nocturne, V doesn’t have much in the way of that old-style SMT weird environment art. I mean it has some but its predecessors got so truly abstract with that stuff... I miss it. I miss that era, the SMT IIIs and DDSes and Devil Summoners. The era of internal-Atlus dev that knew its niche and its market and had a team that was generally allowed to explore the weird stuff they wanted to explore. Like cults. So many cults.

The biggest bummer is that SMT V is a lesser game for being on the Switch. It’s pretty heartbreaking. I don’t want to say “it’s unplayable’ but it’s hard to play! For real! The framerate gets to be downright awful in some spots and the field of view is incredibly restricted. It’s hard to see ahead of you in some areas and with the rest of the UI taking up what little screen real-estate there is on the Switch, you feel like you’re playing the game with horse blinders on a lot. I somehow manage to have a pretty high tolerance for stuff like motion sickness but the FOV in SMTV is so strict that it felt kinda disorienting at times. I really hope to revisit it when this inevitably makes it to another platform.

Shin Megami Tensei III: Nocturne HD Remaster

The only thing more blessed than getting a new Shin **Megami **Tensei **game in 2021 is getting a remaster of the best Shin Megami Tensei game in 2021. Atlus deserves a lot of credit for the work done on Nocturne’s remaster. Revised localization, all-new (and great) voice acting, updated UI work without detracting from the original’s art direction, upscaled everything. Very rarely do these, especially with niche and beloved games, feel like they come out “better” than the original and that might be debatable for some in this particular instance (I think it is, personally!) but at the very least it’s a fantastic way of playing one of the best JRPGs ever made.

Playing SMT V and Nocturne this year really made me appreciate that style of game so much. What if things were fucked up and weird, and the story wasn’t the draw. What if games were just about you killing God and deciding who rules when God is dead. What happens in between? Who cares. Some people want power for themselves. Go ask em’ about it. Oh shit, they’re a cult, and they built a temple inside a skyscraper and it looks like an alien spaceship in there. The story, loosely defined as such, is an excuse to get you from moment to moment as you explore a weird and cool world full of cool demons.

This was always Shin Megami Tensei and it makes a lot of sense that, over time, newcomers to the genre drifted more to the cinematic story experience but we still get to have the former. And this year, we got to have more of that than we’ve had in a long time, so I’m very happy. I hope the Nocturne remaster did well enough to warrant them revisiting some other stuff of that era. The Digital Devil Saga games in particular, I’d love to see.

Valheim

I don’t have a ton to say about this other than, like for a lot of people, Valheim took over a couple of weeks of my life because for the first time in a while we had a new Minecraft. Not really in staying power (for me) but in that early “a bunch of friends are working together to make progress in exploring this uncharted world” way. We’d log in at night at disparate times as everyone was doing tasks and eventually go on journeys together either to mine or discover a part of the world we had discovered earlier. Some of us would log in the next day excitedly telling everyone else about a new thing they had JUST discovered when sailing around the map alone at 2AM the night before. To get to re-live that kinda stuff in a new context was great. So was staying up late a couple nights and rebuilding entire parts of our base to the surprise of my friends. It’s my favorite part of those games. But like most of this stuff it hinged a lot on people keeping up with it and the group I had moved on to other stuff so I ended up doing that too. Fun time while it lasted, though.

Chorus

I played a bunch of Chorviss and I will probably not see it to completion because it being an open-world game is exhausting and unnecessary but the couple hours I did put into it are good fun. It’s stuck with me since playing it though because it’s one of the strangest, I don’t know, examples of half-step execution I’ve ever seen. There is SO MUCH in that game that kicks ass from an idea standpoint. Space dogfighting game where you play as a cultist war criminal so disgusted by your actions that you move to take the entire cult down, constantly taunted by your homicidal ship AI to chase violence at every opportunity. It writes itself! Genius shit! Except, it apparently doesn’t write itself! So so much of the game’s writing and voice acting just flops on every idea it sets up. Every idea is the world’s easiest pitch setup and every attempt at execution is just motionlessly standing there with the bat in hand, striking out long after your time at bat is over. Chorves just repeatedly introduces so much cool shit and refuses to do anything interesting with it. It’s bizarre. The amount of polish the game has otherwise makes me wonder where the ball dropped.

At the very least, the space dogfighting is super fun. It takes a bit but once you get the drifting and teleporting abilities you really get to feel like the all-powerful ace pilot of the Space War Crimes cult you topped the ranks in. Every enemy becomes meaningless cannon fodder. It’s a great feeling. I just wish this wasn’t the only part of it that was so impeccably done. Abstract space religion/corrupting AI stuff is nothing but my jam but the game ends up feeling like it was conceptualized by someone who had an incredible vision and the rest of the team just could not pick up what they were putting down. I hope whatever’s next for that team makes better use of the talent they clearly have there.

Boomerang X

Haven’t beaten it yet because I started playing over the holiday break but holy shit. Nearly every ability you get feeding into the already frantic pace of movement **is inspired. If I was making a fast-paced shooter anytime in the future I’d be looking at Boomerang X as the movement blueprint, easily. Really fantastic art style too and the way the music slowly builds in every encounter per wave cleared makes for some real “holding your breath”-type moments.

The Actual 10 List

10. The Ascent

It was really fun to play a good twin-stick shooter in 2021 but if I’m being 100% here, the time I spent with The Ascent was super positive almost entirely because of its worldbuilding. I am extremely tired of the synthwave/neon purple-and-green, red-and-blue cyberpunk thing. I have been for a very long time! There is no meat to it and it being repeatedly being attributed to media like Ghost in the Shell or Neuromancer incenses me. The depiction of Kowloon Walled City-esque overpopulation as an aesthetic instead of a reality. I don’t know, you’re probably reading this being like “I don’t get it, it looks cool” and I can’t take that away from you but it’s important to me. I draw that stuff for a living! The why behind these places and how they come to be and how people live in them is important. The aesthetics don’t just materialize out of thin air. It’s a manifestation of community and local life, almost always under the crushing weight of capitalism. The warmth of the noodle shop light isn’t “warm” because it looks cool, it’s warm because it’s communicates comfort and respite, like a fire. It’s why those signs look that in real life! There’s meaning to that! I overlook my actual problems with this stuff a lot because I get it, right. The feelings those things evoke, that’s what you’re there for. You’re scrolling through Twitter, Pixiv, Artstation, whatever. You’re not taking everything in for several minutes at a time. You glance at it for a sec. It does something for you or it doesn’t. If it has the cool neons and the wet pavement, all of that stuff—the stuff that is born from people forced to commune and exist together, people with stories and struggles—clicks for a second and everything that made it is kinda washed over for the end result. How it gets there is evokes a thing and the “thing” is what you’re there for. That’s fine! It’s ok. But I love the stories that make those places. I love exploring those spaces not because I like finding the nooks and crannies but because I like the sense of people living there, the sense of community. The dream of that “aesthetic” to me isn’t the visuals, it’s the people that make those places. I like understanding how that place came to be, why it came to be like that, and why people still live there. “Sonder” is the poetical term for it, I guess. If you had to ascribe a philosophical meaning to the concept of people watching. You people-watch long enough and you start thinking about them, the space around them. How it came to be, what it means to them, etc.

Anyway, The Ascent did this in a way that truly fucked with me because I immediately dismissed it as one of “those”. “Oh great, somebody had Blade Runner running on a loop while doing concept art. Sure needed another one of those," I very cynically told myself when it was first announced. But it’s more than that. Places feel lived-in not just in decor but in the absurd puzzle of their layout. People built these spaces, which means they make no sense because people aren’t designers or architects. Residents of its hub areas don’t kinda aimlessly mill they talk to people, shop, navigate alongside you. It contrasts so heavily to me against something like Cyberpunk 2077 just plopping people down in front of you and despawning them the moment you look away. No matter where you existed in that game, its residents weren’t there to be people they’re there to be density.

No Caption Provided

The way Ascent’s arcology is written and mapped out is my favorite way of executing the idea. So much of that game’s world exists to make it a place. There is so much for you to explore and not find anything gameplay relevant but it’s just... there. It’s there because it’s a place in that world. You’re rarely given a linear path to navigate and you’re never given that in its open-world. I spent a huge chunk of the game exploring parts that never had any missions or sidequests in them, they were just fun to navigate and take in. The art direction and technical prowess of the game overall made it really pleasant to look at but the world design and environment design is a real standout. It’s a successful execution of an extremely oversaturated idea and no matter where I went in that game I was constantly thinking about the lives living there, helped by some surprisingly (if not kinda rare) poignant writing. Two moments really stood out to me in that game:

  1. It takes several hours of game time for you to see a huge sweeping overlook of the rest of the arcology. Cyberpunk games love to show you this almost immediately because they want to show you just how overcrowded their overcrowded city is but The Ascent understands all of that is meaningless if you don’t spend the time learning about the situation of everyone around you, why they live that way, and how they persist despite. It made a thing that has become very trite have weight again.
  2. The titular Ascent corporation’s reach extends across multiple planets in space, which are traveled to using transport ships that put its flyers into cryosleep for the journey. In your arcology’s spaceport, there is a random NPC completely off the path you can talk to that tells you this, and talks to you about how in cryosleep, you start having comatose-like dreams that feel incredibly real. You’re in such a deep sleep that the dream extends for what feels like months, years even. They dreamed of a life they had, a family they raised. And then they woke up. “I couldn’t stop crying.” They just stand there at the arrival gate, still reeling from it.

It’s the kinda thing where... you know, it’s nothing new. The ideas it sometimes tries to communicate aren’t new, but alongside every other effort made to evoke a true sense of humanity and place to its world, it has impact and that stuck with me for a really long time after putting the game down.

9. Forza Horizon 5

I could just write “It’s Forza!” and that could be that but Forza Horizon 5 might be my favorite one in the series for feeling like it’s the first game to genuinely give a shit about the location it’s in. Mexico is a really, really inspired choice and the scenery is expectedly beautiful but what surprised me was how much all of the “story” missions felt like genuine love letters to the place around it. A lot of really cute stories about local desert racing and South American car culture. For the first time, Horizon felt like it was less “we invaded a part of the world to hold our EDM-slash-racing festival” and more... well, “we invaded a part of the world to hold our EDM-slash-racing festival to show you how beautiful this place is.” That’s not perfect but it’s also not what I was expecting! And after how quickly tired I got of 4, it was nice to have this touch to it.

Somehow Forza Horizon 5 was also finally the one to fix its long-standing busted AI and design issues. Maybe some of this was confirmation bias on my part with 3 and 4, I was seeing the problems I wanted to see because I was just not playing “right” or something, but I just could not deal with the AI in previous games. I just gave up on playing after a handful of hours because the Drivatars are just bad. It isn’t a good system, my friends and XBL randos all drive like assholes, and I want to participate in races where I feel like I’m playing against skilled drivers not faux-matchmade maniacs. Worse was when it frequently pitted those jerks against me in the same two cars: a stock Ford Focus RS and Audi TT Coupe. No matter the car! I’m in a McLaren F1 LM! Why is this Ford Focus overtaking me at the last corner!!

Anyway, they fixed that. The AI has largely been pleasant and the latter issue never arose. It even restricted some of the vehicle selection a little more and forced me to take advantage of the variety in my garage which I appreciate. The last couple games really let you enter anything with everything, which, you know. Sure. But also why bother driving different cars if I can just use an S1-class Impreza in everything. Having a variety of standbys and some picks I had to get creative with let me develop a closer relationship with some of the cars I had. I had my favorites for some scenarios and the comfort ones I’d use when I just wanted to explore the map or make a long drive to the next race.

FH5 really re-invigorated what I felt for the series, even if after a couple dozen of hours clearing the map I’m now back in the seat of “The next Forza Horizon game might have to rethink what kinda game it is” because I just don’t know if I can deal with live service racing games anymore. The way it’s implemented in Horizon is bad and I don’t know if I’m interested in whatever “good” would be for it. Having to “grind dailies” and “do weeklies” and “Engage with The Content” just to get an AE86 because it’s purposely not in the normal dealer shop sucks big time. Real fun game to go out on though.

8. Hot Wheels Unleashed

I don’t know what else to say about Hot Wheels: Unleashed other than for a couple hours, I got to feel like a kid again and that I got to play a killer arcade racer in 2021 that wasn’t a Forza game. It’s been a dreadful couple of years for arcade racers. I’ve said this plenty on Twitter and stuff but the high cost of game development, broader audiences required to recoup that cost, unspoken requirement for “licensed” cars to reach said broad audience, licensees not interested in damaging their license/cars, and a buncha other miserable things that have largely ridden on the shoulders of the late PS2-era Need for Speed games have simply resulted in that genre of game dying out. Cars can’t be fun anymore. Or, you know, they can’t be “fun” in the “crash them into shit and make them all handle like Ridge Racer” way. Yet, by some miracle, comes Hot Wheels: Unleashed, a game by the (extremely sim-like) MotoGP games developer Milestone.

I’m sure there’s a more, like, “business” reason for how this game came to be but I choose to believe that one day, a Milestone developer was messing around with Material in Unreal and made a shader that really, really looked like plastic. “Oh wow, I even got the edges to look like it came out of a mold!” He calls over to the guys sitting at the desks next to him. “Guys, check this out.” “Haha, pretty sick,” one of them says. “Is this for next year’s [MotoGP] game?” another one asks. “Nah, I was just fucking around,” the artist tells him. “Kinda looks like what they make toy cars with, you know?” The first guy says. They all kinda fall quiet. The artist bolts out of his chair and makes a beeline for the company CEO. “GET MATTEL ON THE HORN. PHONE. ZOOM CALL, IDK.” And then it was history. Probably. Like I said, the reality is probably more boring but this is what I choose to believe.

The creative direction for Hot Wheels: Unleashed is incredible. The dedication to making the experience remind you of playing with toy cars is such a work of love. It loves Hot Wheels! It loves little toy cars and the burst of imagination you’d get from building tracks with little strips of plastic around the house. The career mode map being a giant carpet city, the levels all being to-scale living rooms and skateparks, the healthy mix of classic Hot Wheels cars, new ones, and licensed real-world cars-but-still-look-like-toy-cars. I hate repeating “I felt like a kid again” but like, I did! It’s a joyful game. And better still it plays great. Its boost and drift mechanics are simple but give you just enough depth to feel like you get better at it over time. What a fun game.

7. Halo Infinite

I ALWAYS BELIEVED IN YOU 343 I KNEW YOU’D EVENTUALLY FIND YOUR WAY.

Halo Infinite is great. The multiplayer could be an entry of its own but with the recent addition of Team SWAT and Slayer to the playlists all I really have to say about it is that it’s easily become my favorite multiplayer Halo experience. It feels great, sounds incredible, and plays almost flawlessly. If the AI cores didn’t insist on all being “Quirky Robot ;) ;) ;) Wow That Was Epic ;) ;) ;)” it would truly be a perfect game.

What I really wasn’t expecting was the campaign being the blast that it was. My life PTSD-style flashed before my eyes when they first revealed it as an open-world game but explaining their direction as “making an open-world that feels like the first level of Halo: CE” made it make a ton more sense. Even if, in practise, it feels more like an open-world version of The Silent Cartographer. Mostly because the indoor levels all look the same. The story is okay but you know what, I’ll take okay. It’s still got a bunch of that good ol’ 343 “bring up a concept or character and just refuse to explain what it is, signaling mystery but actually delivering incomprehensibility” but everything else they tackle is well-made, well-told, and even has some of that AAA “we watch a lot of HBO and Marvel shows” vibe for good measure.

The grappling hook, though. Man, the grappling hook. It’s so good. It’s so good in Infinite that I just barely used vehicles to get around. It’s so fun to zip across the world, swinging from tree-to-cliff-to-tree again. That the physics work almost identically to Pathfinder’s in Apex Legends made it even more fun to immediately start trying wacky shit in the middle of combat. It often ended poorly! But that’s Halo. The sandbox they’ve made is at its best. The variety of weapons is fantastic and the options given to you with the larger environments allow for a really refreshing mix of old-and-new styles of play. The task of capturing what Halo “felt like” while bringing in new ideas seems Herculean but 343 did it so flawlessly that it’s almost infuriating. How did it take 3 games to get here? Were the lessons learned from 4 and 5 that critical? It’s not actually that infuriating, I’m not mad about those games like some people insist on being, but it’s a shame it took so long for us to get an unbelievably fun Halo game. So fun that it was a no-brainer to keep playing the game long after I’d beaten it, clearing out what I had left to do in its open world.

All I can hope for whatever’s next is that it just understands what it finally got right instead of trying to eat its own tail like they seem so inclined to do previously. I really, really feel like the open-world of Infinite works because of how lean it is. It’s very small but very dense, and the things you get from exploring have value because they’re so limited in scope. There’s no XP, there’s no skill “tree” (just flat upgrades), there’s no loot, nothing there to ever get in your way of Doin’ a Halo. You are never stopped from letting Master Chief get in a Warthog and toss that shit off a cliff and you are never discouraged from just getting on with the story if that’s what you’re there for. After countless years of open-world games BEGGING you to engage with all of its populous, meaningless side-content so that you’re tricked into thinking its colossal world has any value beyond its square kilometrage, it’s incredible to play one that says “fuck off” to all of that and gives you a grapple hook on top of it all to say “go nuts”. More of these should just let you say "go nuts" and know not just the value of that but also that you don't need 300 hours of that. A tight 20-30 does just fine!

6. Final Fantasy VII Remake

The thing I couldn’t stop thinking when I beat Final Fantasy VII Remake is that it’s insane nobody came in to stop them from making this game. If any executive or CEO or, like, “money” guy looked at this thing at any point in development, they’d have pumped the brakes on it immediately. I’m convinced they tricked them. The dev team has some internal build sitting somewhere that’s a vertical slice of a 1:1 remake in Unreal and they kept showing that to the people that sign their checks and they were just like “Alright seems cool, please release it by X date.”

Like it’s not insanity that Remake ever got made, it was inevitable, but it’s insanity it came out as the game it is. I can’t talk about why without spoiling it but it’s just... I’m not even that big a fan of FF7! I like Advent Children more than I like the original game! I’m that weirdo! But alongside Evangelion 3.0+1.0 and The Matrix Resurrections, Final Fantasy VII Remake is a game about itself, its legacy, and what it means to Make a New One of Itself in a way that floored me. I mean, it’s rare to get a game series last long enough to ever really get to a point where that can be a meaningful thing to explore but they didn’t just do it, they did it for Final Fantasy VII.

I also just think FF7R is a really great game on its own merits. The music is superb across the board and the game gives genuine depth and thought to its characters, with a lot of story time devoted to it in a way that never felt like fluff or stretching for time. I have no idea how much of this is new or lifted from internal documents spanning decades but the world of Midgar is impeccably realized. It convinces you there really was that much to the original game’s city but it’s all new and it’s beautifully realized.

Going into Remake I think I expected to finish it thinking I knew exactly what would be next and being mildly excited for it but I truly don’t. I have no idea what comes next and after seeing the swings Remake takes, good or bad, I’m handing all my trust to that team. I can’t wait to see where they take it from here.

5. The Forgotten City

The Forgotten City feels like a lost 360-era game and I mean that in the most joyous and endearing way possible. It’s an ambitious idea executed very well within the limitations of the developer’s manpower and budget but the way you experience those limitations are never frustrating. They’re just reminiscent of an era of videogames where ambitious narrative ideas were still at the mercy of very scripted animations, invisible walls, and static event triggers. Would it make the experience more immersive to have all of that stuff more "modernized" or cinematic-like? I don't know. Probably. I kinda don't want it to. It very rigidly feeling like a videogame made me feel a lot more prone to mess around in its world and that frequently opened up new stories or secrets. I wouldn't have it any other way.

To say anything more would be spoiling several moments of a story I think is really worth seeing so I’ll cut it short and say it’s a really wonderful thing. The “true” ending is a very sincere execution of an idea that isn’t especially new but was still really satisfying to see all the way through. After living in what seems like a never-ending nightmare, it was really pleasant to start and finish something that left me feeling kinda nice and positive by the end of it.

4. Resident Evil Village

I’m not sure I’ve played a game this year or maybe ever that’s gone as batshit off-the-rails as Resident Evil 8. The Titanfall 2s and Uncharted 2s of the world, they’re incredible rollercoaster rides. That’s what a lot of those games are now. It’s fun! But Resident Evil 8 is levels beyond that in a way that creatively breaks my brain. I have no idea how so many people said yes to so many insane ideas and I’m honestly thrilled for the games industry that it sets that example. That you can just have a whiteboard up in a room somewhere with even half the stuff in that game and everyone is like “Hell yeah, let’s get to work.” People came up with those ideas, greenlit those ideas, gave those ideas a budget. Inspiring.

My Resident Evil VII playthrough was cut short since I insisted on playing it in VR and very quickly chickened out of that idea. It meant I went into RE8 not knowing, like, how that whole story unfolded but unlike RE7, I did see RE8 to completion and the way that story is “wrapped up” is just as crazy as the rest of the game. It’s incredible dumb videogame stuff that only a Resident Evil game could pull.

It’s really something that Resident Evil 8 is what it is and it’s incredible that 25 years later, the series is still putting out new entries that kick ass. I was bouncing in my seat after beating it. I immediately wanted to start a new game just to get on the ride again and I rarely, if ever, feel that way about games.

3. Apex Legends

This is gonna be a real “commiserate with me”-type thing. I went on a real journey with Apex Legends this year. Last year, I wrote a lot about Valorant and my experience of going from playing no competitive games at all to one of the most demanding competitive shooters. It was a real ride! And almost immediately after posting that, I fell off the game in a very stiff way. It’s not worth going into (It’s personal, actually!) but what matters is that I accepted my time with the game was over. My desire to play something to at that level persisted, though, and maybe what I needed was something that I could play on my own. Knowing that Apex Legends is maybe the only modern shooter that you can seriously competitively play without needing a headset/voice chat because of its fantastic ping system, I picked it up again. I played a bunch of Apex when it originally came out, kept playing it for a while after that and fell off in a way where I’d kinda only check it out for a few matches every couple of months. When I came back at the tail end of last year, about mid-way through Season 7, it just swallowed me whole. I was in. Twitch streams on all day, hours and hours of practise every evening and night. Hot-dropping on Estates not to try and win matches but to simply build the muscle-memory I needed to loot quick, shoot quicker, and survive the bloodbath that is the first 3 minutes of every round of Apex Legends, ranked or unranked.

That went on for weeks until maybe two or three months later, I randomly told my sister—who had started playing Valorant last year as well—”Hey you should try Apex Legends. :)” Then I realised that in 2021, I had to explain to someone what a battle royale was. That was weird. We gave it a shot. I felt bad. By then, my matchmaking rating (Elo for brevity’s sake here-on in) had skyrocketed because I was playing every single day. Partying up meant I threw her and her fiancée into the thresher. It was rough. But she kept trying. A lot. She also started watching streamers. A lot. Before I knew it, she was rapidly catching up to my skill level, Wraith solo queuing and calling bad players “bots” and all that. It had gripped her like it gripped me. We played every night and started crushing unranked lobbies until it eventually wasn’t enough. The real grind had to start.

Getting better at Apex was a challenge and maybe the most rewarding one I’ve ever taken on in a game. The way you develop game sense and movement/gunplay skills happen at a pace that’s beyond frantic. Before you even land, your brain is going a mile-per-minute. Where is everyone else landing, where are the crafters, where relative to our drop will be easiest to rotate from. You land. You’re looting, trying to find your usual loadout but there’s always something to read. What is the first in-meta gun you find. What ammo does it use. What ammo are your teammates using. Where is the ring now, where is it going to be, where are you hearing shots from early on, who’s getting killed in the kill feed this early, is it a bunch of squads or is the same squad wiping everyone, where is a care package dropping, where is the nearest beacon, where is the nearest choke, where is the smartest path through and around it, how many squads left, how fast should we rotate in. All of this in the first minute or two of the match. It’s intoxicating. And eventually, every scenario becomes this. Combat becomes this. There are endless permutations of how a fight can happen and the only way you get out alive is practise, teamwork, and knowing the exact set of variables you need to know before your enemy does. Once you put the time in and it all becomes second nature, when it all just falls into place and you don’t even think, when the R-301 one-clip just happens, you move on to fight the greatest foe.

No Caption Provided

My nemesis. The Apex Legends ranked system.

I’m not... I’m not gonna turn this into a manifesto about how I think the ranked system is busted. I’m not. I’m not mad!!

OK, I stopped myself. I actually did write a bunch. You can read it here if you want to know what I think of the ranked system but I will not put it here. It’s just not worth it and I’m not a game designer; this stuff is ultimately beyond my understanding. I just know I’m not happy with it. The long-and-short of it is that Apex’s ranked system encourages minimization of point loss as an efficient means of progress, which encourages a lot toxic match behavior instead of rewarding intelligent and tactful play. It wore me out. It killed a lot of fun I was having with the game, where play sessions ended up more focused on making any kind of progress over simply just enjoying my time with it. Which is infuriating because even when trying to make progress I was still, like, enjoying the game. It’s Apex! It feels incredible. The movement and gunplay are unparalleled. Respawn are undisputed at it. But for any fun I had in a match it was viciously ripped away from me at the end of it and making most nights frustrating and unfulfilled.

Fortunately, this frustration only came very late into my time with Apex. For the vast majority of the year, I just had a ton of fun playing the game. Getting good at Apex is a surreal feeling because it becomes a different game. I didn’t realize how much so until my incessant praising of it got friends to come back after not playing for months (if not years). They’d slowly prowl the ground for loot, inspecting every item to see if it fit the current loadout they were looking to build. Which, if you’re reading this you guys I’m so sorry I’m not trying to shittalk you I PROMISE. But competitive Apex is another world. The way its gunplay, movement, character abilities, and level design all work off each other (when they do) makes for some of the most exciting gameplay. When it all falls into place it feels like a perfect game, truly.

Nothing made this more clear than also getting into watching competitive Apex. The pro circuit, the Apex Legends Global Series (ALGS) is, imo, the best shooter eSport out there right now. Which is a very biased statement, I’m sure. But I stand by it. The scoring format for ALGS uses a simple point scoring tally based on kills/placement and when teams get a certain threshold, they’re at match point. Win a match on match point, you win the whole thing. It creates scenarios where teams don’t just have to “win”, they have to think about everyone else’s position in the match and leaderboard and creates some of the most intense, heart-pounding fights I’ve seen in a game. Genuine shouting-at-your-desk shit. Esports live off of stories built over the course of a tournament and in ALGS it happens over the course of a single day, if not a single match. I could go on about it for days. I’m sad its entire circuit so far has been online-only because of, you know, circumstances. I can’t wait to see its first proper LAN tournament after its recent resurgence in the pro scene. It makes me wish ranked games played the way ALGS matches play because if they did I would have never stopped. I had the chance of playing a few community tournaments using that scoring system and it was indescribably fun. It was SO rewarding to think the way I had to think in those matches. It almost made me angry that the ranked experience is not even anywhere close to emulating it.

In a lot of ways, my time with Valorant felt I walked with Valorant so I could run with Apex. And if I was going to go back to one for realsies, it would only and forever be Apex. But I also felt like whatever arc I had with the former went into turbo-mode with the latter. Apex is a very soloable experience until it isn’t. As I got better at the game, it got harder to find people who could keep up with the experience I wanted. The people I did play with competitively eventually found players in their timezone/with their schedule because the grind eventually demands that, so I was back to solo queues. By then, the game had decided that my Elo was in the top 5% or thereabouts. If I played ranked, I had to solo queue against demons in a fucked, unrewarding, and punishing system in a squad with people I didn't know. If I played unranked, I had to solo against demons who were tired of the fucked and unrewarding system and wanted to stomp on ants. I’d try making alt accounts to play with my friends but it very quickly realised I wasn’t actually a level 4 account and promptly put me in the “correct” lobbies, and then I had to subject my friends to not just those demons but to a different pace of game altogether. It was very clear they weren't having fun. I felt really bad and I quickly stopped trying to do that.

There’s now basically no space for me to just kinda enjoy the game, which is frustrating. I still watch it plenty on Twitch. I hope to come back to the game itself. I don’t know what force will make that happen. I miss it a lot. I miss the grind but more than anything, I miss the way it plays. But it’s okay. For 2021, I had my time with it, and the highs of it were unlike anything else.

2. Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart

Where Hot Wheels: Unleashed let me relive the joy of playing with toy cars, Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart let me relive the joy of playing a really good character platformer. Which apparently this year was the year for that! I’m told. I wouldn’t know. Ratchet is the only one I played. It’s really good. It’s probably my favorite Ratchet & Clank game. Rivet and Kit are really charming, the story is fun interdimensional wackiness, and the weapons are as goofy as ever.

I realised maybe half-way through why I felt so enamored with it and it’s that the PS5’s tech allowed them to basically eliminate load times—something it emphasizes in really flashy ways—but that there was also a very conscious decision to counteract that sometimes. There’s a lot of transitionals and moments of respite in both cutscenes in gameplay that feel more akin to movie-like editing than anything else that’s earnestly tried to do this in the past. I devoured the game over the course of 3 days because I couldn’t stop playing. It was so fun! The way it’s paced just let me take it all in like, you know, a good movie or something does. Which I hate saying because great games specifically don't do this but you know what I mean. Kit is also a really wonderful character. Both Kit and Rivet are great but Kit’s arc is well done and I’m glad they found a way to write that kind of story in a way that didn’t come across as trite.

There’s not a ton I can say more about Ratchet & Clank: RA. It’s just really good! In way that I was hoping for but also kind of exceeded my expectations in every way. It’s a ton of fun, doesn’t overstay its welcome, looks incredible, and like I said is just paced so well that it was the most frictionless playthrough of a game I’ve had in a very very long time. It does a bunch of neat new things, has a more involved story than previous fare, but most of all is just a great videogame-ass videogame. You jump around, shoot bad guys with weird ice guns, and you have a great time. I just felt excited for videogames when I beat it. When I beat it I immediately dove back in to New Game+ and get all my weapons powered up but I just... kept playing after that because the ride was too fun.

1. Final Fantasy XIV: Endwalker

aaaaaaAAAAAAAAAAAA HOW

do i talk about this game

Look you’re gonna know if you’re in for reading this or not when I tell you that Final Fantasy XIV: Endwalker isn’t just one of the best stories ever told in a videogame but that it’s also the best Final Fantasy game, it’s the best Final Fantasy story, it’s maybe the best JRPG story, and that it being an MMO is intrinsic to why that story is so good, so meaningful, and so impactful to both its world and to you as a human being with (hopefully) feelings. I wish I was better with words so I could do justice to how I feel about it. I feel fortunate to have experienced it. To understand why it’s so impactful feels impossible to convey but I’ll try.

In 2010, I was a year from starting college. I had a couple years of kinda... milling about. Depression. Working full-time at GameStop. More depression. Some very fraught relationship things. I started college in 2011 and in 2014, I started working in the games industry full-time. Since then, I moved to the city, I got laid off, took new jobs, got laid off again, moved into multiple apartments, took new jobs, shipped games, made new friends, traveled to conventions, quit jobs again, went freelance, became a character artist, came out, made a lot of new friends, made a lot of new girlfriends, no longer had a lot of new girlfriends, met the person who’d eventually become my wife, married that person so she’d become my wife, moved to Japan, moved back from Japan, moved to the US, made a comic, and spent two years locked inside due to a pandemic. It’s 2022, and we’re mostly caught up. I skipped some not great things, but we're mostly caught up.

In just ten years (11, sure, whatever.) I have been through a lot. My life has changed a lot, multiple times, in very very different ways. In one of those ways, I became an entirely new person. Don't humor me if you're just here to read but take a quick second and think about the big and not-so-big impactful moments of your live since 2013. 2010 if you really want to stretch it.

FFXIV: A Realm Reborn didn’t come out until 2013, which is when I started playing, but even then that’s seven (eight) years. Most of the stuff I listed above still happened in those years. It’s an absurd amount of time. In that time, in all those years, you’ve gone through multiple stories and adventures. So many characters old and new, some who’d grow, some who’d stay the same, some who’d die. Multiple years, in-game, alongside these characters that became your regular adventurers. Your friends. Your party. The eyes with which you see the world through.

And alongside all of that, you made real friends. The people you meet in your free company, the bonds you forge in-and-outside of the game. The people you don’t even befriend, the people you just notice. The guy who’s always passed out on the ground in Limsa, being swept by a maid. The Weeabo Police of Famfrit. The weirdos in Diadem shoutchat. The adventurers you see for 30 minutes once in a leveling dungeon, have a really pleasant conversation with, and never see again. The party of Lalafell that perform Metallica concerts for whoever passes through the Gridania aether crystal. The people you have idle chat with during ocean fishing. The people you catch RPing. The time you spend housing and furnishing your own little apartment. The time you spend crafting, gathering, contributing to a world and economy that’s shared with everyone else in a space you feel safe and excited to explore. For some, all of these experiences, all of this time, it’s not much. It’s the past year, maybe two. Maybe three. For most it’s since A Realm Reborn and for some it’s even further back, since the dark times of 1.0. And for everyone, this experience shared together, came to an end. Closure, on a story over a decade in the making. Accomplishing this in any storytelling format is a feat on its own but to do it in this space, one that has seen multiple iterations and revisions with millions of people experiencing it in the way they choose... It's mind-bending to think about.

 Sometimes you AFK and you come back to a handful of people just chilling out and having a sit with you.
Sometimes you AFK and you come back to a handful of people just chilling out and having a sit with you.

In the real world, it’s still not good out there. The people who’s sole job it is to help refuse to do so and the people who should have a shred of human empathy don’t, ensuring we are stuck in this hell for longer than any of us want to be and for longer than is likely sustainable. I played and finished Endwalker in this hell, as did everyone else. All of us, with all our own lives and our own problems and our own ups and downs experienced over a decade or more, closed a chapter of our lives together. The story, about the friends made and the bonds shared and the unquestioning hope and desire for a better tomorrow that comes from loving and caring about those friends and the lives they touch, landed for everyone in a time where the only thing holding our sanity together is the faintest empathy left after so much of it depleted. We share the desire to work together, to look forward, and know that however it happens, however we work towards a better tomorrow, it happens together, all of us.

I know that's a real hackneyed thing to say but how can I not genuinely feel that way after so much time invested in something, a life, my life, for it to come to whatever fucking nightmare we perpetually suffer now? How can any of us, emotionally frail and at a constant minimum of energy, not want to take an opportunity to process that with open arms. A likely third year of standstill, of plans and projects and ambitions all stuck in purgatory. Is it actually all that trite to go through this story and put all of yourself into it and let it emotionally Tumble Dry it until you want to do nothing but cry and plead to the world to be kinder?

None of this would carry the weight it does were it not for Final Fantasy XIV being an MMO. It’s the time spent. It’s living through everything up to this point. The dreadful political nonsense and painfully boring Lahabrea of A Realm Reborn, the devastating and heartbreaking tale of Ysayle and Nidhogg, the fight against occupation from an Empire in turmoil of Stormblood, and the rescue of a universe near collapse in Shadowbringers. All of it done at various periods of time in my life. At various points in your life. I see it end and I can trace back every step of the game’s story alongside my own. I cry for the characters I loved and lost like I cry for the real relationships and friendships that fell apart. The places I’ve been to, that I miss, that I’ve yet to see. The things I learned to do, the things I got really good at, the things I kinda forgot about. The people I’ve met along the way that felt like made my life worth living. The one person that my life revolves around, that means everything to me, getting to be by my side for the story and its conclusion. Closure on the story feels like closure on a third of my life. In a lot of ways it very literally is that and being faced with that is, well, devastating. How can it not be? Ten years.

The story FFXIV: Endwalker tells is a captivating one. It goes to some pretty wild places and the things it thematically touches on relies a lot on the groundwork established with Shadowbringers but it’s adeptly told nonetheless. To write everything I did like the story’s merit comes only from the circumstances around the game would be doing it a tremendous disservice because on its own it’s simply one of the best. In its franchise, easily, and in games in general.

But Endwalker is just more than that, for me. For a lot of people. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience that no amount of “fuck me up, Yoshi-P and Ishikawa” could have prepared me for. There are multiple parts of that game that shredded me emotionally. Repeated manifestations of that one Simpsons episode where Bart has a crush on an older girl and he imagines her ripping his heart out and kicking it into the trash.

All but the ending. You go through so much and see it come to a close and in its final moments... I don’t know. I didn’t cry! I just felt... hopeful? Optimism? Confidence in myself? I spent a lot of time after beating Endwalker thinking about the relationships I’ve built with people and how I could have sometimes done better. How one, five, ten years from now I’ll be looking back and probably be in the same situation I’m in now. What can I do to make those next years better for myself? For my loved ones, my friends, for everyone around me.

 Boxcari. I don’t want to post any screenshots because everything else I have is major spoiler-town.
Boxcari. I don’t want to post any screenshots because everything else I have is major spoiler-town.

I’m rambling but I’m also being as earnest about the experience as I can. Endwalker will hit differently for everyone. Some people are still out there thinking ARR is still FFXIV at its peak. Some people will feel even stronger about Endwalker than I do. And some people will probably never see it through because honestly, for an MMO, the expansion has a lot of talking and cutscenes and surprisingly little “do MMO-ass quests”. That’s fine. The walks of life, all of them, is what the whole thing is about.

On all of these lists, we list the games that really hit with us during the year and the top one is always, you know. The one you think is “best” or “spoke to you the most” or any other factor that determines it as “your favorite”. This list is no different but I also know I will never have a number one like FFXIV: Endwalker again. This journey can only happen once. Everything I’ve experienced will never circle back around for me to get it right the second time or re-live it like I did the first. All I can do is move forward with the experiences I've had since I began it all, looking at the person I was then that helped form the person I am now, and live a better and fuller life as that person. And also get the rest of my classes up to 90.

Endwalker is really special. I don't know if I'll ever be able to succinctly put into words why in a real, like, academic sense but I hope at least came close to explaining why it is to me specifically and why it isn't just a "best of this year" but "will stay with me until the rest of my life" thing.