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Greg Kasavin's Top 10 Games of 2021

Plus a whole lot of other games he fooled around with!

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Greg Kasavin is writer and creative director at Supergiant Games, the small independent studio behind Hades, Pyre, Transistor, and Bastion. Prior to Supergiant, Greg worked at 2K Games, Electronic Arts, and GameSpot. He’s @kasavin on Twitter.

It was a dizzying year. I was busy just trying to keep up, while counting my blessings. Hades, the latest game I worked on, launched back in the fall of 2020, though continued earning acclaim throughout this past year, including Giant Bomb’s own 2020 Game of the Year award. What an amazing and surreal honor! I’m incredibly grateful for the recognition, though I also couldn’t help but start thinking ahead at what might be next... and my process around that involves stepping away from games a bit to recharge my batteries and adjust my perspective, then coming to my senses and playing as much stuff as possible. Looking back, I sampled a ton of different games, played some in-depth, and finished out the year having experienced a few I expect will stick with me for a long time to come. I hope games have been a steady, reassuring presence for you, too.

As is my custom, let me first highlight some of the games I didn’t play enough before this writing, because they very well might have made my list otherwise; then get into my real Top 10 – including a number-one pick that I never would have expected even as early as the beginning of December.

My Top 10 Games I Didn’t Play Enough

I try not to let the concept of an ever-growing backlog of games weigh much on me, as we’ve reached a point where it’s temporally impossible to keep up with all the media that may be of interest to us, that we ‘should’ play/watch/read/listen to. Nevertheless there do tend to be some games I mean to get around to, or play more deeply, and these are the ones that most stood out by the end of 2021. It’s hard to limit this list to just 10 games, though here goes:

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10. Chicory: A Colorful Tale

This game was love-at-first-sight for my kids at PAX West back in the bygone age of 2019, and I was happy to hear a lot of glowing praise about how it finally turned out. The coloring-book look is really well executed and the paint-themed puzzles and mechanics feel fresh and intriguing. I’m excited to play this more soon and share it with my family.

9. Unsighted

I played the demo for this 16-bit-style top-down action game and thought it was great – tight controls, crisp combat, interesting world-building, the works. I’m also really intrigued by the time pressure built into the design and story, where you’ll find yourself in tough situations where you can’t save all the characters you may care about. It’s amazing that this game was made by a core team of just two people.

8. Age of Empires IV

I got my start as a game developer working on real-time strategy games, so this genre will always have a place in my heart. The classic Age of Empires II also happens to be one of my favorite games in this style, so I was excited to see a new full-on sequel all this time later, launching to what seemed like plenty of acclaim. Real-time strategy games can be very involved and I just haven’t set aside the time to dig into this one yet, though I’m looking forward to doing so, and am heartened to see new entries in this genre making a splash.

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7. Unpacking

While this is presented as a chill, relaxing game about making neat little living spaces, as someone who hasn’t gotten around to unpacking some of my own stuff for years and years, there’s something oddly anxiety-inducing to me about this concept. Nonetheless, I need to play it, as I love whenever games can create narrative experiences without using words. Here, just by taking certain objects out of boxes and trying to put them in the right spots, you start to piece together stories of who might have just moved and why, and I think that’s brilliant.

6. Guilty Gear -Strive-

Arc System Works has long since cemented itself as one of the most talented fighting game developers out there, and if nothing else, the sheer artistry of their games makes them a sight to behold. I played some of the open beta for Strive and followed its development pretty closely, but didn’t get around to playing the finished game just yet, something I’ve been meaning to rectify. This series keeps banging out some of the coolest, most imaginative character designs I’ve ever seen in this genre. Also, fighting games are the best, and I would just play them all day if I could.

5. It Takes Two

In recent years I’ve mostly enjoyed playing games on my own, though I wanted to make an exception for this one, what with the developer’s pedigree and all the awards It Takes Two has already racked up. So, my son and I have been taking the plunge, and it’s been a wild ride so far. I always love a good ‘you shrunk so everything looks huge’ premise, and this one has more going on with the central conflict between a husband and wife at the end of their rope. We’ve been enjoying the inventive co-op mechanics and I’m excited to see where the story goes.

4. Deathloop

While I’ve been pretty shootered-out these past few years and not felt too compelled to get into many of them, Deathloop’s fresh approach and structure that invites experimentation was really interesting. The ‘immersive sim’ subgenre of shooter I think has always struggled with a structure that theoretically invites you to approach situations in many ways, yet in practice punishes you for experimenting. Deathloop alleviates a lot of this by making dying and restarting part of the story and world, and giving you plenty of chances to improvise. I got a good chunk of the way through, though mean to press on.

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3. Guardians of the Galaxy

Just picked this up over the holidays so I’ve only caught a glimpse so far of the great writing and performances from the ensemble cast here, though that’s really all I needed to want to see this story through to the end. Many AAA games are tonally dark, so it’s refreshing to have one that’s a bit more upbeat in its vibe. The ensemble cast is also really interesting to me, as one of the most powerful things games can do is let you inhabit different characters and experience the world from their distinct perspectives.

2. Psychonauts 2

You can just tell this was a labor of love years in the making. I’ve really enjoyed what I’ve played of Psychonauts 2 so far, though it’s one of those things where I got sidetracked and need to come back and finish what I started. The game is packed with wonderfully imaginative art, quirky charm, and funny, heartfelt moments, and took me right back to the 2005 original despite feeling like a wholly modern game. Seeing Raz and some of the other returning cast members again felt like reuniting with old friends.

1. Halo Infinite

Strange to say about a grim, war-torn world like Halo’s, but if Psychonauts 2 felt like reuniting with old friends, Halo Infinite felt like returning to an old favorite hangout. Just running around testing the various weapons or running and gunning against bots is a real treat in this game, thanks in no small part to its meticulously tuned weapons and controls. From getting my feet wet in multiplayer and starting the campaign, it was like experiencing the original all over again. Part of the reason I’ve yet to play more is I was saving it: I just recently was finally able to get an Xbox Series X, and can’t imagine a better game to lose myself in on a fancy new console.

Honorable Mentions: Warhammer 40,000: Battle Sector, Resident Evil Village, The Ascent, Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart, Little Nightmares II, Shin Megami Tensei V, and more...

My Top 10 Games of 2020

Now these here are the games I played either to completion or at least at great-enough depth to where I’m comfortable sticking them on this list. This was an odd year for games for me, where I bounced between lots of different stuff, and kept noticing some new “oh I should play this” thing seemingly more than ever, at least once a week? A few of those I did end up playing really resonated with me, and I only wish I had more hours in the day to play even more.

10. Wildermyth

This fascinating, ambitious game gets closer than ever to delivering the feel of a tabletop role-playing experience with its procedurally generated narrative and solid turn-based combat. The procedural narrative does some really remarkable stuff, with characters that grow and change, living full and complete lives, and ultimately a lasting legacy in the world of your game. Even the cartoony visual style packs a great deal of depth beyond the first impression. Anyone interested in how games can tell stories in unique ways owes it to themselves to check this one out.

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9. Diablo II: Resurrected

Good remakes are rare! The challenge is to take an old but beloved game and make it match the rose-tinted-glasses version in our heads, preserving everything that’s good and making everything feel fresh, all without messing with any of the fundamentals. The king of action RPGs certainly warranted this type of treatment, as while many newer titles have vied for the throne, few have really come close. I really enjoyed delving back into the world of Sanctuary and re-experiencing the iconic character classes, and even the heartbreak of losing a hardcore character to a freak accident. The Blizzard of today has changed a lot and been through even more since Diablo II first launched more than 20 years ago, though a game like this just doesn’t happen if not for a team of extremely talented people with a deep respect for their studio’s legacy, which gives me hope for Blizzard’s brighter days to come.

8. Super Robot Wars 30

This long-running strategy RPG series was doing big-brand crossovers before it was cool, though the licensing of countless iconic anime giant robots and characters was thought to be so impossibly labyrinthine that the series would never make it overseas (at least not officially). Well, Super Robot Wars finally made it, and to Steam no less, and I fell into this game just as hard as some of my favorites I played in years past. While I have only a cursory awareness of some of the newer characters in this game, I really liked the original characters, and loved seeing classic characters from Gundam, Getter Robo, Mazinger-Z, and more, all joining forces and dealing 8-digit damage set to spectacular battle animations.

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7. NieR Replicant

2017’s NieR: Automata was my favorite game of that year, so this year’s NieR: Replicant was a chance for me to take another stab at the 2010 original, which I only played a little and was more than open to revisiting in light of my Automata experience. I didn’t realize the games were so strongly connected, since Automata stands well on its own, and the setting and theme of the original Nier seem quite different on the surface. I’m now really glad to have had the experience, and it made me want to revisit Automata again. I ended up playing Replicant all the way through multiple times until I reached the new ending, which was impressive and ultimately worth the journey. The story has some genuinely moving moments, with great voice performances and wonderful music, and invites self-reflection in a unique way.

6. Metroid Dread

Metroid is my favorite among Nintendo’s classic franchises, so I’m one of those people who’s been holding out hope for a while that Samus would surely be making her big comeback anytime now. In Metroid Dread, I discovered a game that felt tailored to longtime fans like me, offering up a challenging and intricate new installment that lives up to the quality of its predecessors, and twisting the format in some interesting ways. While Metroid Dread in many ways played things pretty safe, it felt great to have a well-crafted new installment, with tons of new power-ups to find and tough new bosses to take on. And its little riffs on the formula – even small stuff like ‘what if the Morph Ball wasn’t your first power-up?’ – were thoughtful and welcome.

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5. Monster Hunter: Rise

If you’re like me, you’ve heard people obsessing over Monster Hunter for years, but struggled to get into it yourself. It’s dense with detail, and has its own very deliberate pace that may seem maddeningly sluggish if you’re expecting what you’re used to in other action games. But with Monster Hunter: Rise, I was determined to take another shot at this series, and sure enough I fell into it, hard. The samurai/ninja theme of this installment was a big part of the draw, as who among us hasn’t fantasized about going toe-to-toe with a T-rex using a significantly oversized katana, right? Monster Hunter has a great simple underlying idea – hunt dangerous monsters and use their parts to become an even better hunter – plus an arsenal of exciting, idiosyncratic weapons to master, and a host of big, ugly-beautiful monsters to use them on. The appeal of this series was never lost on me, but now I don’t just get it, I feel it.

4. Loop Hero

This unique rogue-like game at first seems to play itself, as your character automatically patrols a path and automatically fights monsters along the way. You spend your time changing the character’s gear, plus putting little terrain tiles down that affect your encounters and resources. Sounds simple, but this ends up being an incredibly engrossing process, and the adjustable pace of the game made it perfect for times when I wanted to lose myself in something without the stresses of having to be wide awake and alert in some challenging action game. Some interesting worldbuilding and great crunchy retro-style music and sound FX round out Loop Hero’s personality and cemented it as one of my go-to games throughout 2021, and one of my favorites when I look back.

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3. Returnal

Speaking of games about dying and starting over, Returnal has outstanding action, great sci-fi horror atmosphere, and a structure that made me keep trying to get just a little farther than before (and usually failing!). Developer Housemarque has long been making tightly crafted action games in the spirit of arcade classics, and that expertise results in some really tense, excellent moment-to-moment play in Returnal, a shooter that relies on your situational awareness and gives you lots of powerful tools to traverse the environment and take down hordes of powerful foes. The genuinely alien feel of the world and environment adds so much to the experience, making you share in protagonist Selene’s awe as you delve deeper into new environments, discovering new weapons and systems as you go. Returnal ends up feeling unique among rogue-like games, and certainly has some of the best presentation this genre has yet seen, giving further evidence to how much untapped potential exists in this style of game.

2. Inscryption

This is the most astonishing game I played this year. It’s a triumph of creativity and design, and a tour-de-force for its creator and collaborators. Though, lest all this highfalutin stuff deter you, it’s also super funny and clever. I went into it expecting a quirky, horror-y card combat game, maybe along the lines of Slay the Spire or Monster Train. What I got was something wholly unique in its own right, the sort of game that’s best to go into knowing nothing at all. I was blown away that a small team could have come up with something like this, though a large team definitely couldn’t. I kept wanting to play further to see what else was around the corner, and was consistently delighted by what I found, through to the wonderful conclusion.

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1. Final Fantasy XIV: Endwalker

I never would have expected an old MMO with a new expansion to top my 2021 list, but then, the last couple of years have been prone to throwing us curveballs every so often. This at least was a welcome one. If you’re like me and have enjoyed Final Fantasy games in the past but avoided XIV because it’s a massively multiplayer game, and you struggle to imagine how such a game could possibly have the series’ best qualities such as rich character-driven storytelling and amazing musical scores, know that Final Fantasy XIV somehow achieves this. Indeed, it achieves this better than most other Final Fantasy games.

To be clear, I don’t especially care for the part where it is, in fact, a massively multiplayer game. I’ve played it almost exclusively solo except for the instanced dungeons that automatically group you with other players (all of whom, shockingly, have been friendly-and-welcoming, or silent like I usually am). My time has mostly been spent going through the main story, binging it hard. This story now spans the original game plus four expansions, each of which contain an entire full-size JRPG’s worth of story – and something like three games’ worth of amazing music mostly by series composer Masayoshi Soken, who’s like the second coming of Nobuo Uematsu with plenty of his own virtuosic flair. The story itself springs to life just before Heavensward, the first expansion, which was when I really became invested thanks to some wonderful writing and voice performances, and nuanced characterizations and themes. Some of the story sequences are very moving, and despite not having the most expensive animation by today’s AAA standards, capture small subtle moments between characters well. Sudden flashes of anger, knowing glances between old friends, eyes welling up with tears, those kinds of moments all shine.

The story gradually takes on a genuinely epic quality, yet wisely retains a very personal feel centered on an ensemble cast of characters who grow more and more interesting over time, while plenty of Big Consequential save-the-world stuff keeps percolating in the background. The character writing, voice performances, and music are really the big draw that’s been pulling me forward, and since this is such a big story, it means you get plenty of time to get to know everybody, making their triumphs and setbacks that much more impactful. The other very clever thing this game does is, it finds a way to make your character the hero of the story, which seems hopelessly at odds with a game where you’re surrounded by thousands of other players. But the writers frequently come up with novel ways to tie the MMO nature of the game back into the narrative, while still making your character vital to the narrative.

It’s odd to admit that, as of this writing, I’ve only just begun the actual story of Endwalker, the most recent expansion released this past year. Of course, though, I’ve been benefiting from all the improvements made along the way, including my choice from among the scores of intricately designed characters ‘jobs’ that call back to all the coolest Final Fantasy characters from over the years. But having ravenously played through Heavensward, Stormblood, and Shadowbringers as the lead-up – which all must be played through linearly as one great big story – I’m committed to seeing where it all goes and know some of these characters will stick with me moving forward, alongside many other series favorites.