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Lena Raine’s Top 10 Games of 2021 & Some Fun Bonuses

Lena takes a break from writing chart-topping hits to write about some games from 2021!

Hi! I’m Lena. You’ve probably heard my music in Celeste, or from this year: Minecraft, or Chicory, or Moonglow Bay. Maybe you saw my list from 2020 and just had to know what I thought for 2021. Whatever your reasons for browsing over to this list, hi! I write music & make games. I also have lots of opinions about them.

2021 in games was honestly good to me. People have led a lot of round-up articles talking about how there was no “big standout game” for people to rally around, and honestly I think that’s a wonderful thing. We didn’t, because the gaming space continues to grow more diverse every single year. Instead, we got a lot of really amazing and unexpected gems, some really sick remakes & ports of older games, and the kinda unbridled glee I get from seeing the dominant AAA games being 3D platformers (Ratchet & Psychonauts), a racing game (More Forza Horizon), and a shmup-like 3rd person shooter (Returnal).

None of those games are in my top 10 though, so let’s dig into some specifics on where my gaming tendencies led me in 2021. I played a ton of games. Here’s some of them!

Neat Games I Didn’t Play Enough Of (Yet)

I am an easily distracted person, and sometimes games become a little too strenuous on either my brain or my hands to complete. But I still wanted to give some words of recommendation to these few games that really left a good impression on me.

Metroid Dread

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I really need more fingers for this one. On the surface I absolutely love Metroid Dread. The atmosphere is back. Samus is incredible. The world feels oppressive and beautiful. The tools are familiar and yet reshuffled. It’s so cool!! I love playing Metroid again. I also got really overwhelmed by just how many shoulder button holding and stick clicking and all this stuff required of you to be optimal on a system that is maybe not built for such complex finger-wrangling. I play on a pair of Hori joycons so it’s otherwise way more comfy than the standard set, but ultimately I got to a point playing through where I needed to cool down because all the muscle memory and controller manipulation got to be a bit much for me. I absolutely want to get back to it, however, because it’s just such a cool vibe.

Shin Megami Tensei V

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I’ve been a casual dabbler in the SMT series over the years. I love a good, challenging JRPG. SMTV is, a lot. It’s also got one of the coolest, weirdest soundtracks I’ve heard in ages. However, two things really pulled me out of the experience: the performance on Switch, and the difficulty swings of its bosses. SMT games should be tough. I love trying to optimize my party and overcome a difficulty curve. But something about how steep a roadblock each major boss is felt really unfortunately obtuse to me. I’ll probably come back with an easier difficulty at some point if only to see the game through, but I also really hope that the game sees a release on either improved Switch hardware, or another platform that can handle its Unreal Engine performance better.

Tales of Arise

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I really love this game. I really love Rinwell, one of your party members, and her owl, and all the owls in the game. It’s such a wonderful cast, an interesting story that doesn’t pull punches on a lot of heavy subject matter (even if I have some quibbles with how it handles it, especially compared to other games this year). The soundtrack is Motoi Sakuraba back in full form with a BUDGET, finally able to get some orchestration under his belt. Awesome stuff!! Unfortunately, the game was so good and so intense to play...that I ended up injuring myself playing it. Literally, I was so engrossed that at some point I realized that I had inflicted very bad repetitive stress on my wrists, to the point that I had to stop working for several weeks. This is entirely on me not taking sufficient breaks, or stretching enough, or sitting like a weirdo, but regardless... I hurt myself, and had to stop mere chapters before the end of the game. I’m too busy now to get back to it, but I sure hope I can see it through eventually.

The Great Ace Attorney Chronicles

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These games are so good. I love the Ace Attorney series with a fiery passion (if you’ve played Chicory and done all the side content, you’ve probably picked up on some of that), and these two games included in the set were a bit of a white whale for me ever since they released and showed no signs of coming to the West. Now that they’re here, I’m almost too anxious to speed through them. I’m taking my time, and had to put them on the back burner. I want to relish my time with them, because I have no certainty that the Ace Attorney series will continue in the same way. This may be my last outing, and that’s sad, but my fondness for them outshines that.

Tres-Bashers

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I’m gonna need everyone to take a note about ondydev, because he’s been single-handedly creating some of the most fun and inventive bite-sized games for a hot minute, and doesn’t look like he’s stopping any time soon. This year saw the release of Tres-Bashers, a game where you’re a little mouse tasked with taking down cryptids in a big open school ground. It’s like the platonic ideal of what a Castlevania-like game should feel like, complete with a huge chiptune soundtrack and very tough bosses. Out this coming year is his next game, Wonky Works, so check out Tres-Bashers soon before you’ll have even more to play from ondy!

Dungeon Encounters

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This game is sick! It looks like nonsense and hex codes and was designed in a spreadsheet by ATB system designer Hiroyuki Ito! It has combat music that is rock arrangements of classical music overseen by Nobuo Uematsu! There’s rad designs by Final Fantasy Tactics Advance character artist Ryoma Ito! If your character gets petrified you have to drop them from your party because they become a literal statue, they cannot move! You have to find a shrine to un-petrify them & enter their exact coordinates within the dungeon! Some floors don’t have stairs so you have to use a spell to meld upward or downward to the next floor! Enemies require tactical thinking to defeat! The only story is each character’s 2-3 paragraph backstory in their profile & then you just make stuff up for yourself! It’s rad!! I need to play more in the new year.

Notable Remakes & Remasters

I have a hard time fully considering games that were released before the year I played them to contend for my top 10 list. No particular reason, but it feels like an effort that’s already been made. In some cases they’re games given new life that I’ve never experienced before, in other cases I get to play a favorite all over again. Here’s a few I really adored.

The House in Fata Morgana

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I don’t feel like I have eloquent enough words to talk about this game. It is a very dense visual novel, heavy, pretty often gruesome. But it speaks to a sense of humanity that is both difficult to grasp, and impossible to approach without climbing through hell to get there. There are characters out of time, and reincarnations, and cerebral mindscapes, and one of the most disturbingly beautiful soundtracks I’ve had the chance to experience. It’s hard to talk about. I also loved it, though I didn’t know if I would until I finally reached the conclusion. I had no reason to believe that the eventual endpoint would be one of hope, but it was. And though it’s hard to recommend going through that space to get there, given enough time and patience it is worth it.

NieR Replicant ver.1.22

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I already knew NieR Replicant was an incredible game. It was 11 years ago, and I knew it would be the moment my coworker booted it up at the WB Games offices & everyone around got to hear Kaine cuss out Grimoire Weiss in the now-infamous cold open (no longer present in ver.1.22). The cool stuff in this version, however, is mostly twofold: The full re-arranged soundtrack by members of MONACA, and the brand new post-game denouement. To say anything about the latter would be a massive spoiler, but it gave me just enough new-feeling NieR vibes to successfully tide me over to whatever the team gets up to in the future...I certainly hope that with the success of Automata there will be more coming in some form, and I trust Yoko-san to make it as unexpected as possible.

Famicom Detective Club: The Missing Heir

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Easily lost under everyone’s radar last year was a franchise also headed up by Metroid creator Yoshio Sakamoto & composed by Metroid series composer Kenji Yamamoto. It’s honestly wild to me that these remakes were developed, let alone released in North America! As some of the earliest detective games, they show their age but in a very charming way, telling an exciting story that kept me hooked. Definitely a year for unexpected arrivals of games that never have seen life in English.

Final Fantasy II Pixel Remaster

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I played through both FF1 and FF2 last year, and my grand take-away? I think FF2 is actually an incredible game, beyond its status as a black sheep of the franchise. It builds from the lessons learned in the original game by such a huge degree, dares to experiment with things that make it a wholly different experience, and as a result actually won me over for the pre-ATB Final Fantasy games. Much like any older game making the leap to modern platforms, there’s things that don’t hold up, but the conventions that the game establishes are so exciting to play through for the first time. The quality of life additions that the Pixel Remaster adds also make it a very smooth experience overall.

The Top 10

Wow we’re finally here! These are the 10 games I played this year that I think deserve to be experienced above anything else. Some are huge, some are tiny, all of which had a big impact on me. Let’s go!!

10 - Another Eden / Complex Dream

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Stop me if you’ve heard this one: popular game creator makes an exciting spiritual successor (or literal successor) to their previous work filled with familiar collaborators, but... it’s a mobile gacha game. And the energy sucks out of the room. That’s what happened to me when Another Eden was released in the West back in 2019. Here is a game by one of my favorite creators, Masato Kato (Chrono Trigger/Cross, Xenogears, the underrated Baten Kaitos), working with one of my favorite composers Yasunori Mitsuda and his team at Procyon Studio, and yet...mobile game. I played a little bit of the intro, to the point that it introduced gacha pulls, calmly set it down, and tried to hope that he’d be able to make something else.

Then they released a PC port this year, and released a Chrono Cross spinoff event, and I knew I had to give it another shot. To my huge surprise, the game actually rips. In an age where people are surprised at Genshin Impact being a gacha game that’s fully playable without spending money (it’s not, actually, but it gives that impression), here is an actual turn-based JRPG by Masato Kato that does not require you to spend money. There are no endurance mechanics, there are no annoying things to farm, it is just an actual JRPG that you can make slightly easier if you roll on an overpowered character you can wipe the floor with. I posted about this shortly after revisiting the game, but honestly a huge gacha roster does feel like the inevitable endgame for a scenario writer like Kato who came up with the cast of Chrono Cross. Put all those characters in a modern gacha and no one would bat an eye.

Anyway, the game is really good, has an incredible soundtrack, and is just chill enough for me to sink into it. And then I unlocked the Chrono Cross event ‘Complex Dream’. What already won me over solidified into something I’ll play well into the new year. As one of the few diehard fans of Harle Chronocross, being able to choose her as your primary guest character & experience another story at her side is just, the most any game has done to completely reel me in. This stuff is food to me, thank you Masato Kato.

I still hope you’ll be able to make another game some day, though.

9 - Super Glitter Rush

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Somewhere in the doldrums of 2020 I wrote up a design document for my ideal bite-sized subversive shmup combat design. I won’t go into the specifics because it’s got a lot of things I’m still giving serious thought and may finally make it happen one day. However, it involved the idea of playing a shmup defensively rather than offensive. To use an enemy’s bullet hell against them. I thought I was so cool and smart and I know no idea is truly original, but then I played Super Glitter Rush this year and was taken aback. They actually made it.

Now to be fair Super Glitter Rush isn’t exactly what I had in mind, but what the game IS, frankly, ought to be called out as one of the most exciting shmups I’ve played in years. The concept is super simple: you’re doing 1:1 boss battle duels with a variety of colorful combatants, with a series of unlockable fighters that all put a new spin on the core gameplay. So instead of blasting out an endless stream of bullets, your default character has 2 shots. That’s it. But when you shoot, it carries as many boss bullets it hits back towards your foe. Sometimes, the boss shoots out different-colored bullets you can absorb to recharge your shots. When you hit the boss with the deflected bullets, it rains down more refills. So it becomes this dance between using your limited ammo smartly, picking your shots, and recharging. It feels so cool to figure out each boss and take them down. Each new spin on both your player character and the boss mechanics feels so inventive, that I just marathon’d the entire thing in mostly two sittings while streaming it for friends.

The music is also full of bangers, with one of my new favorite composers to watch, Tsuyomi, creating a handful of bite-sized tracks for each series of bosses. It’s short, concise, and is even on mobile if you can get around the touch controls. But I’d highly recommend playing it on PC. It’s cheap, extremely fun, and worth checking out.

8 - Sunshine Heavy Industries

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I really love the idea of games like FTL where the space of a ship matters and managing resources is important and somehow cool things happen because of them. But that stuff is also really stressful and I end up bowing out because honestly what I’d much rather do is just design the ships themselves. So that’s what Sunshine Heavy Industries is. It’s an incredible low-stakes design game where you just get a spec, a character and a loose story for the reason of their request, and whatever parts you’ve unlocked. The design is totally up to you based on how the parts work together, what the requirements are, and trying to keep it low cost so you can make a profit and keep working. For a long time this year, it became my low-key wind-down game before bed, something to sorta calm me down from the day. You can just sink into designing cool ships to the fantastic ambient soundtrack by Aaron Cherof, and there’s even some cute character interactions to thread it all along. I love my time with these space folks, and I’m definitely gonna keep coming back to it into the new year.

7 - Unpacking

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I think the only negative thing I can say about Unpacking is that I want more. But let me set up why, first.

A bedroom tells so many stories. A kid’s room, specifically, sets the stage. Box by box, a personality is revealed. You don’t have much say in the matter. You’re just here to arrange. And then a bedroom becomes a first flat, a chance to move out and claim your own space. What comes along? What stays behind? A first solo pad, moving in with a significant other, an implied break-up, and the sweetest conclusion. All of these objects, their significance, their travel throughout time, don’t need any words to feel the emotion at each one’s placement across this one person’s life.

Which is to say nothing of its technical achievements: the flawless sound design, the gorgeous PC aesthetic pixel art, the overall ideal feel of interacting with everything.

And so the negative is only in the raw potential there is to tell so many other stories. I want to see even more people and their objects’ travel through time. Like unwrapping presents, there’s such a joy in the implied emotion of opening a box and feeling someone’s emotions come out. I want that for even more people and even more life stories.

6 - Psycholonials

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This is a difficult one to talk about. I think everyone’s experience with fandom is different, depending on where they’re coming from or how they’re interacting with it. The one that is specifically addressed in the story of Psycholonials is the aftermath of Homestuck and how it manifested for that group of people, and for its creator Andrew Hussie. It’s not literally about that, but you can see how it manifests in the themes. I wasn’t really there. I was on the sidelines, kinda observing from a distance. I’d check in later, and the way my career has gone has intersected so criss-crossed with the folks involved in its creation and maintenance. So I felt it was sort of an obligation during the vast span of the pandemic to continue that thread and read through Hussie’s new project.

Whether you connect with the story definitely depends on where you are in relationship to the subject matter, but ultimately it tells a tragic story across a completely obscene situation blown way out of proportion with current day subject matter and lots of clowns. It’s big, messy, and emotional, but the story it tells is still one that means a lot to me. It really drew me in even though I managed to hold off and experience it all at once rather than wait chapter by chapter as it released across 2020 and the start of 2021. It’s a story about now, and how fucked up everything is, and how at least two people manage to deal with the impossibility of existence. For better or worse.

Special mention, too, to the amazing soundtrack by Clark Powell that lifts equal weight with the writing to make the story come to life. Her cello playing in particular, as I mentioned in my soundtrack write-up, is the life blood of its score, and grounds everything despite how weird and out there it gets.

5 - Scarlet Nexus

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Easily my surprise favorite of the year, Scarlet Nexus emerged as something I wasn’t even expecting to get into. A demo for it released, and so we gave it a download. I watched my wife play through and was like okay huh this actually looks sick? So I gave it my own play through and immediately got hooked on the premise of the gameplay, if not the execution in the demo. It felt cool, but I also felt lost. Because the demo was set up to give you everything, all at once, where the actual game ramps up gradually and provides a way better onboarding experience.

What I wasn’t prepared for, even with the demo, was how engrossing the story would be. Like okay, it’s anime as hell, there are plot twists thrown in nearly every chapter, but the hilarious thing is that it works. Like, when you have a game where its core mechanic lets you psychically grab a chandelier off a ceiling, spin it up like a top, and drive it around the room crashing into enemies, the last thing you want is some mundane little plot. No! You want the weirdest, most anime shit imaginable. And they give it to you, by the spoonful.

What I wasn’t expecting, either, was how incredible the soundtrack would be. Scored by a relative newcomer (Hayata Takeda previously did some additional composition and arrangement on World of Final Fantasy), the score goes through every modern electronic genre as it weaves its atmospheres and combat tracks into a tapestry of the sickest sounds I’ve had the pleasure of doing psychic battle to. Just, everything about it had me pausing on multiple occasions to reflect on how wild it was. And it never lets up. Not at the final battle, which bears its JRPG fangs wide and goes on for a full 3 phases and two final forms, with a pounding j-core kick and dramatic strings. And then the extremely “power of friendship” end that is as predictable as it is completely awesome.

Sometimes people are like “lol that’s so anime” but I’m like “THIS IS SO ANIME” with flailing arms. Scarlet Nexus is 100% the latter. I love it.

4 - ElecHead

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Sometimes you see a gif of a game in your twitter feed that just captures people’s excitement so thoroughly that you keep seeing it, for months, over the course of its creation. That was my experience with ElecHead. I’d never followed the game’s creator, Nama Takahashi, but I kept seeing this cute little battery guy platforming with some of the most inventive mechanics. Up until I realised that the tweets were now saying “releasing soon!” So I wishlisted the game, followed the creator, and literally as soon as the game launched I gave it a download to play through.

It’s not a very long game, but it is dense with invention. I beat it within a few sittings, and immediately got on twitter to yell about how much I enjoyed it. I don’t even feel like I have to say much about it other than it’s a rare puzzle platformer that is challenging and yet every time I got stuck, and kept pushing for a solution, the answer to my problem would reveal itself to me and I’d feel like a brain genius. So to give any concrete examples would be to rob you of the enjoyment for yourself. It uses all of its few mechanics so completely and thoroughly that even though it’s short, I think it perfectly exhausted itself in the most concise way. I can’t think of higher praise for a game aiming for that clean, economic design.

3 - DELTARUNE Chapter 2

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The thing about storytelling is that if you have good characters, that’s all you need as a foundation. You can throw them through any ridiculous situation and the fun comes out in how they deal with it. Toby knows how to write characters so well that you can write anecdotes about things that have never happened, and probably won’t, and it’s the most fun thing. So the things that do actually happen to them resonate even more, and it opens the door for the events that do happen to really affect you.

When I started up Deltarune’s surprise chapter 1 release back in 2018 under the guise of a survey program, it felt like a fever dream, a witty invitation to start questioning what it was I was playing. It felt like tripping and falling into my very own isekai situation. The second wild isekai feeling came about when I got the opportunity to directly collaborate with Toby on the second chapter. I always feel like I have to preface talking about it with how little influence I actually had on the end product, but I wouldn’t have had it any other way. I got to work on two little parts of a big machine with next to no information about what exactly I was working on, and so when they popped up in the actual game, I got this huge grin on my face like seeing a full painting after working on a collection of dots.

As a game, it really feels like Toby unleashed. He’s working with some of the most talented indie developers now and you can feel the influence and collaboration in all the joyful little one-off scenes and interactions. Temmie’s art always shines, meshes well with Toby’s designs, and every guest design for the varied enemies is unique and full of reverence for the particular artist’s style. Never before when a game was released was I so happy to see everyone that had worked so hard on it proudly sharing their contributions. It felt like a big party, and the chapter itself, even if it’s one piece among an eventually much larger game, is something really special.

Needless to say, as a collaborator I’m happy to be a part of it behind the scenes, and as a fan I can’t wait to see where it goes.

2 - Eastward

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There’s something about Eastward that doesn’t feel like it could’ve been made today. I joked with a friend as we were both playing through it, that it was actually Mother 4, that we’d somehow come upon a spiritual sequel no one knew about. In terms of the actual game design, it’s nothing like the Mother series. There’s a psychic girl, and a guy wielding a frying pan, but the action as it plays out feels straight out of an era from the Super Famicom days of Link to the Past and Secret of Mana reinvigorating the action RPG. It reminded me a little of Secret of Evermore, a tonally weird game that feels just disconnected from Square’s usual design aesthetics to feel unique.

But there’s still Mother about it. Having played through the beginning of Mother 3 and all of Earthbound within 2021, let alone all the games inspired by its legacy like Undertale, OneShot, Omori... There’s threads of humanity that connect the things that have been touched by the works of Shigesato Itoi & his teams. It’s there in the way that the father-daughter relationship develops between John and Sam despite John’s mute existence. The communities you grow close to over the course of your adventure to the East. The willingness to cling onto hope and faith in others.

There’s also a bit of Xenogears about it. Again, different form factor, different type of setting, but the ways in which it conveys its primary forms of antagonism and existential threat feel akin to the internal and external struggles of Fei and Id, and the late-game feeling of desperation drilled into my soul in the same way it did back in the late 90’s.

Maybe the structure is uneven, maybe it does have an act too many, but I honestly couldn’t get enough of it. Like all of my favorite games, it captured my attention in a way that as long as I kept experiencing more of the world and its characters, I’d be happy to stick with it. I’m excited to return to it again some day, to do a New Game+ and meet everyone all over again, like I’ve done with all of my favorites. I’m glad I’ve got a new one.

1 - Final Fantasy XIV: Endwalker

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(Gentle note that in discussing the plot of Endwalker there will be some vague thematic spoilers.)

In the summer of 2002, I had just graduated high school and was set to begin college in the fall. I also made the decision to import a Japanese copy of Final Fantasy XI, a new MMORPG from SquareSoft. I was giving a serious thought about being a professional musician, but hadn’t fully committed beyond giving music school a chance and seeing where things went. I learned enough Japanese to try becoming part of a community, to play a game I didn’t fully understand, for the fantasy of being a part of something meaningful. For the hope that life did have some meaning.

Nearly 20 years later, I was sitting in my apartment that I share with my wife, moved to tears as we played together through the conclusion of Final Fantasy XIV’s latest expansion Endwalker. I remembered that sentiment from 2002 and couldn’t stop crying.

To say that the worlds and stories created by the developers at Square Enix mean a lot to me would be a gross understatement. They don’t always hit, but when they do... Final Fantasy XIV is one that I wouldn’t see coming for a while. I played the original 1.0 game’s alpha test, having been a life-long FFXI player, ready for something new. It felt rough, but intriguing. I braved the initial launch, despite the general mumbling about how disappointed everyone was with its launch. I was, too, but I still wanted to explore. I had to give the developers the benefit of the doubt. And then news came of Yoshi-P & the 2.0 restructuring. I watched Dalamud get larger every day. I logged in for the final, terrifying day when all you could hear was a voice singing a song I’d spoiled for myself by data mining the soundtrack to listen to outside the game. I was there for the final error message, and the subsequent CG ending cutscene. I knew the game was in good hands.

For a lot of people that’s where FFXIV started. Or maybe it began with a free trial and the award-winning expansion Heavensward. For me it’s a story that stretches back 20 years, not for the in-game world or characters, but for me the person. I’ve changed and become a better person in that time, and I think the maturity of the stories told within the world of Vana’diel and Eorzea have grown alongside me.

So in the final story in FFXIV, for now, it is deeply affecting to think that it feels like a reflection of who I am. Empathy runs through my blood, and it makes every day both a joy and a nightmare in equal turns. The villain of this story is not a megalomaniac bent on world destruction. It is a feeling I share almost every day when I log onto the internet and see what tragedy has continued that day. The pain is deeply affecting, and I also want to scour the universe for answers. To find out if this is really worth it, to know if there is meaning in holding out.

But the plot of FFXIV gives hope. It gives moments of warmth, of friends coming together and sharing a meal. Laughing together, understanding each other. It gives these moments, touchstones to draw back on when presenting its ultimate thesis. That nihilism is not a way to survive. That there is, ultimately, something. It’s a message the Final Fantasy series has been struggling to communicate for years. It tried really hard in FF9, to convey the willingness to persevere even in the face of a final boss that seemed to come out of nowhere yet still reflected the core themes of its story that you are not alone. It tried in FF8 to show that even the darkness of a compressed existence isn’t enough to keep love away. You see those themes over and over in the series, like someone trying again and again to make a point to get through to you. And I think Endwalker is where it finally lands. Finally, over the course of a winding journey filled with anecdotes, examples of ruined worlds, of countless eras of hopelessness that even then, the promise of a flower can kindle the smallest of hopes. And that, despite how corny it sounds on paper, and how often it’s used as a thematic device, our friends are our power. That there is hope, despite everything.