This is the year that I went from playing games and talking about games to actually making games. I’ve been helping Stray Bombay (the makers of The Anacrusis) with comms, which means I finally understand how the sausage is made. At least for our game. Of course, I also co-host Brad & Will Made a Tech Pod with someone you probably know, and have been streaming PUBG, Returnal, Inscryption, The Anacrusis, and the occasional LEGO build on Twitch. (By the way, The Anacrusis came out in early access on Steam, Xbox Series X|S, Xbox One, the Epic Games Store, and Xbox/PC Game Pass on January 13. You should check it out!)
That’s just a long-winded way of saying I’ve been pretty busy this year. So I don’t have my usual offensively long list of games to run down this year*. What I do have are the 11 games that made a real impact on me this year. I tried to rank them and gave up, because while I love them all for different reasons none of them really stood tall above the rest of the pack. Each of these games brought me joy at different times this year and helped add some much needed variety to what was frankly a pretty depressing year.
As always, I remain very grateful for good, good games.
If you haven’t played Inscryption yet, what are you even doing? Please play Inscryption. The game goes places. Maybe I should have italicized places too. It goes places. Hrmm. Maybe it goes places. Yeah, that’s better.
Inscription is simultaneously a game about the eternal struggle between good and evil, the weird pre-history of videogames, a meta-commentary about the dangerous state of the modern content creator economy, and a stoat.
(As an aside, I had never heard of a stoat before, so I looked them up on the Internet to find out if they were real animals, like elephants, or something made up, like manatees and unicorns. Apparently they’re real, but I remain unconvinced.)
The game opens and closes so strong that I am totally willing to forgive the intentionally obtuse and often frustrating middle act. I’m glad I powered through to the big finish, but for me, the real high point of the game are the first-person head-to-head card battling sequences. The character bits, the occasional horrifying extraction and the, ummm, payoff sequences between acts came together in one of the truly unique games of 2021.
If anyone ever invites you to play in a big game of Eco, stop what you’re doing, take time off work or school, ship your kids off to camp, and jump in. Eco is an early civilization simulator, originally designed to teach school kids about economics and labor, turned into a game/social experiment. I was invited to play on a friend’s server with a bunch of other streamers this spring, and the time spent there turning clay into bricks literally made me appreciate the interconnected nature of modern civilization more.
My job, which I chose mostly because I accidentally set up shop above one of the richest clay mines on the planet, was to make pottery and bricks for the server’s denizens. But what started out as a pastoral, cooperative game quickly devolved into chaos, as cartels and factions formed, governments rose and fell, and alliances formed between titans of business; all while technology marched inexorably forward. While players can choose to create governments and currency and laws, at its core, the main currency in Eco is calories–food that players turn into goods and services.
Ultimately, we came together to save the planet from both an impending meteor strike and ecological catastrophe. But the things I’ll remember more than that are the feud I had with a bad neighbor who wanted to set up an oil refinery in my otherwise pristine backyard, the hours spent making friends while I was mining iron ore, or late game deals we all made to upgrade our infrastructure from simple wood carts and hand tools into gas-powered excavators and bobcats.
I’ve heard that there’s a new game with a lot of the same crew starting this winter, so I’m excited to dip back into that world again.
I love just about everything everything about Metroid Dread. That free-flowing movement, the fights that force you to adapt and learn new techniques before you can progress, the skips that reward you with new cutscenes or easier boss fights, and the over-the-top anime endgame. I even loved the hand cramps I got after spending four hours learning to beat the final boss. Hell, I even liked the damn EMMIs. Sure they’re unjust and unfair, but they actually delivered the dread promised by the game’s title. And after sneaking through their areas over and over again, nothing felt better than killing one of those annoying bastards.
I really hope that Dread sold well enough that I won’t have to wait another 10+ years for the next good Metroid.
I love roguelikes and roguelites but have never really enjoyed bullethell shooters. Which is why I was surprised the first time I saw Housemarque’s Returnal and I was completely smitten. A first-person shooter with roguelite level assembly and weapon distribution? Delicious!
This is quite literally the game I sought out a PS5 for and I’m really disappointed that I’m shit at it. I’m just really bad at the precision and damage avoidance needed to succeed at this game. I’m much more of a barrel into the middle of a fight and mess things up and get messed up at the same time player, and that playstyle does not work for Returnal.
But I really don’t care. I’m trying really hard, and I’m not going to give up. I typically do a run or two to close out the end of most streams these days, and those runs bring me joy. Even when the second boss kicks my ass for the nth time. I’m just hopeful that I’ll get good enough to move to the next biome before I run out of steam.
It’s a board game! Big surprise, I know. Clank! Legacy told a surprisingly affecting story (set in Penny-Arcade’s Acquisitions Inc universe) using a combination of deck building and Legacy board game mechanics. It’s the next best thing to having a really experienced, top-notch DM run a custom game for you.
If you aren’t familiar with Legacy board games, they are board games that change as you play them. In Clank! Legacy, you place and destroy everything from paths and quest rewards to towns and dungeons. At the end of the 10ish games we played in the Legacy campaign, we’d built a couple of worlds, played through a bunch of fantastic stories, built characters that we loved, fought bandits and demons and dragons and more, embroiled the world in mortal peril, saved the world from mortal peril, lived a shadow life, and got a promotion at the end.
All-in-all, it was a wonderful way to spend about a dozen Saturday nights with my partner. Now I just want more Clank! Legacy games.
I love samurai movies, and I love open world games. While I played a bit of Ghost of Tsushima on the PS4 when it launched last year, it didn’t really click with me until I tried the upgraded PS5 version this year.
I’m usually not a fan of a big cinematic feel in games, I like to let games be games and let films be films, but Ghost mixed a flawless cinematic vibe with an open world that is a joy to just inhabit. The combat system layer was the icing on the cake. It feels so good to meet bandits on a path, wait for them to attack first, then defeat them slash-slash-slash with three efficient sword strokes, all while cherry blossoms fall in the wnd around you.
I spent some wonderful Saturday afternoons in Tsushima, living that good samurai life. I keep coming back because at the end of the day, the island is just someplace I love to spend time in.
In the same way that I enjoy just existing in Tsushima, I love picking apart the clockwork worlds of the modern Hitman games. My standout level in Hitman 3 is Dartmoor. A loving tribute to Knives Out, set in a crumbling estate in the middle of a moor? Yes please!
I don’t think most people don’t realize what an incredible technical achievement it is for IO to roll the levels from the two previous Hitman games into this year’s finale. Being able to play a five-year-old level inside a 2021 release is bonkers. Yeah, there were problems with the way the game rolled out on the Epic Store, but it all worked out in the end. That commitment to both pushing the new game forward while holding on to their core franchise’s legacy means I’ll go on whatever ride the folks who made Hitman 3 are willing to take me on in the future. No one else is making games quite like IO, and I can’t wait to see what they do next.
Full disclosure: I haven’t touched Valheim since I beat the (then) final boss in the game this spring. But I’ll be back. After Valheim came out of nowhere this spring, there was a time when I went full Viking. I built a longhouse. Then I built a multi-story fortress. I explored the world. I killed some monsters. I sailed several seas. I was killed by terrifying mosquito monsters, giants, wolves, and more. I crawled a bunch of dungeons. And I did it all with friends on a persistent server that I hosted on a PC in my garage.
There’s nothing more fun than a game about a young child who tries to keep her parents–two people who clearly should not be married to each other–from getting divorced. Except when the parents are unknowingly turned into 6-inch high dolls, it unlocks a mechanically perfect co-op puzzle-platforming game. You can play It Takes Two with almost anyone, its puzzles are often self-correcting, automatically getting easier as less-experienced players fail them. I’ve played through the majority of the game with both my partner and my daughter and had a blast both times, despite the bummer of a story.
It’s a treat to play a multiplayer arena shooter that feels simultaneously true to its roots and also fresh and modern. Halo Infinite has become my go-to game when I have 15 minutes and want to shoot some people in the face. My favorite playlists are Tactical Slayer and Fiesta, but I’ll pop in for a quick game of pretty much anything given the opportunity.
I have complicated feelings about Deathloop. I love Arkane games–their systems-driven clockwork worlds scratch fifteen of my favorite itches simultaneously. I like them so much that I tend to cherish my time in them, limiting myself to one or two levels a week for Dishonored 2 and Prey. Applying Souls-like invasions to the Arkane formula added delicious chaos when I was playing as Cole. The handful of times I played without invaders on were flat and boring by comparison.
I love the idea of an Arkane-developed time loop game, but I do wish that Deathloop diverged from the framework of the genre just a bit more. If I’d stopped after completing Colt’s story, I’d have left thinking the game was a gift wrapped in 50 layers of increasingly elaborate paper that ended up being a bit crap. The multi-stage loop framework of the game, combined with the constant threat of invasion made me as tense as anything since my first few PUBG solos. But even though each loop of Colt’s story builds delicious tension, finishing the game and finding out that there was only one way to complete the loop was a massive let-down.
But then I tried playing as Julianna. Once I took the time to learn the ins and outs of the Julianna game, I realized that Colt’s story is just a 10-hour-long tutorial for the real game: making innocent Colts’ lives miserable. Playing as Colt, you learn the levels, weapons, and objectives. Playing as Julianna, you learn to ruin other player’s days. Invasions were maddening as I was starting out and learning the game. But once I got really into it, I started playing exclusively at times that I knew only the hardcore players would be online–late night on weeknights and early weekday mornings. It’s easy to rack up Julianna wins on Saturday mornings when a bazillions new players are online, but getting a dub at midnight on Tuesday meant you were probably up against someone who really spent some time learning the ins and outs of the game.
*There are a couple of games that I haven’t gotten to spend as much time with as I’d like. To that end, expect to see more about the Outer Wilds DLC and Psychonauts 2 in the future. I’d also add Animal Crossing to this list again, because it was a constant source of fun this year, but I’m still in denial that Nintendo isn’t going to make more content for it and I am frankly not ready to deal with it yet.