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majormitch

Playing FF7 Rebirth is giving me the Bad Thought of replaying other FF games.

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2021: Ranking the Rest

I agree with the general sentiment that 2021 was a “weaker” year for video games in the relative scheme of things. Yet not only did I enjoy the 10 games on my GOTY list, I also think 2021 was a quietly deep year, with interesting and varied games well past my top 10 (psst, every year has good games). I played more than 10 games that were well-made and/or did something interesting, but many of them also missed the mark in some way; hence why they didn't make my top 10. And yes, I also played games that just did not work for me at all. To those ends, this full ranking, which has become one of my favorite annual traditions, gives me space to briefly touch on what I did and didn’t like about every game I played from 2021. I think I was able to hit a good spread of games this last year – pretty much everything I wanted to that's not a time-sink of a RPG – so this full ranking gives a pretty holistic view of my gaming year. One last note: while this is a “ranking,” don’t put a ton of stock in the exact order; it’s a fairly loose ranking. And with that, on with the list, and thanks for reading :)

1-10. See my GOTY 2021 list.

Car game still looks good.
Car game still looks good.

11. Forza Horizon 5. Every year has a tough cut, and this was 2021’s. I’ve been on board with Forza Horizon since 3, and 5 is the kind of solid incremental improvement I’ve come to expect from the series: it’s downright gorgeous, and the world here feels a little more varied and engaging than before. They are slowly perfecting their formula, and I had a whole lot of fun with it yet again. That said, it is very incremental, and the main reason Forza Horizon 5 sits just off my top 10 is that I feel like I’ve done it all before. Playing it also kind of makes me sad we don’t have many (any?) other good arcade racing options any more… ahem, anyway, Forza Horizon 5 is still very good.

12. Ender Lilies: Quietus of the Knights. In this year of Metroidvanias, this is a very solid one; it kind of does all the basics well. I really like the aesthetic and the music. There’s a fun progression of abilities and powers that keeps up throughout the entire game. And I like the combat well enough, especially the boss battles. Ender Lilies only falls short by being very standard, which hurts it even more in a year like this with so many similar games that are more unique and/or ambitious. Its world is also too linear to allow for any meaningful exploration by my tastes, but your mileage may vary there. Still, I had a very good time with Ender Lilies, and it is a very well-made “one of those.”

13. Death’s Door. This is another game that does pretty much everything it tries to do well. It has a fantastic presentation, a wonderful soundtrack, it feels great to play, the progression is smooth, the levels and enemy designs are cool, and so on. Yet, at the risk of sounding like an ass, I think it achieves that in large part by not aiming to do a whole lot, and certainly not a lot new. It’s a very safe but very polished game, which is by no means without merit; exquisite craft is worth praising, and I did have fun with my time with Death’s Door. But for me I needed a few extra surprises for it to truly stand out.

Such a striking art style.
Such a striking art style.

14. Sable. I love parts of this one, and it really nails a vibe and feel that so few games do. It’s perhaps the most visually striking game I played this year, and its story of finding your place in the world is conveyed beautifully through its mechanics and world. It’s a world I got lost and invested in, which makes it such a shame that the whole game is kind of a technical mess. I encountered regular slowdowns and stutters, pathing and clipping issues, and just random bugs throughout. I never had an unhindered session playing it, and it dramatically affected the whole experience. If only it ran well, Sable could have been one of my favorite games of the year.

15. Wildermyth. This is one I really wish I liked more than I do, as I think the idea behind its procedural storytelling is neat. It had the potential to be an XCOM style game with even more memorable characters and personal stories, but the more I played it, the more it ran out of steam. The magic of its storytelling worked for me at first, but once I started seeing repeat events and thus saw the obvious machinery, the spell kind of wore off. And the tactical battles weren’t interesting enough for how many battles you fight by the end of a longer campaign, and the thin strategy layer became rote as well. Wildermyth started out extremely high, and I definitely had fun with it for a time. But the more I played, the more I soured on it.

16. Fights in Tight Spaces. Another game I wish I liked more: I like tactics, I’ve gotten more into deck-building roguelikes in recent years, and I really like the concept and style of this one. And I certainly had fun with it for a couple runs, as it’s super satisfying to wiggle your way out of a tough jam via clever use of your cards. But the more I played the more something felt off, be it the slow progression or your abilities, the lack of real synergy in card options, some objectives feeling strange, or just overall balance. I still can’t quite put my finger on it, but the tactical depth I wanted just wasn’t quite there, which made me not eager to come back for more runs. Also, the runs are just too long.

#ethanshands
#ethanshands

17. Resident Evil Village. I did not like Resident Evil 7 at all, so I originally didn’t plan to play this one. Eventually I decided to give it a shot, and was surprised that I enjoyed it as much as I did. There were definitely hurdles though, especially early on; I think the opening village escape sequence in particular was terrible, and more broadly the somewhat sluggish movement didn’t always work well for more hectic sequences. And the game’s variety naturally means different sections will work better or worse for different people, with my least favorite sections being in the first half. But I enjoyed the game more as it went, as I was able to collect and upgrade weapons, which led to more dynamic combat encounters. It wasn’t always a smooth ride, but in the end I had fun with Resident Evil Village, and I’m glad I got around to it.

18. Subnautica: Below Zero. I greatly enjoyed the original Subnautica, and this sequel captures many of the same joys. In fact, its progression is even tighter, which could make it a more enjoyable experience for some. But overall I came away from Below Zero less impressed, which is primarily due to it hitting the same notes. Subnautica was a captivating and surprising game for me in a way that simply can’t land the same a second time without new surprises. Instead, the tedious aspects became more apparent, while the highs never extended quite as high. I started out being reminded of just how much I liked Subnautica, only to eventually feel like I was going through the motions. Which is kind of a bummer.

Welcome back, Yuffie.
Welcome back, Yuffie.

19. Final Fantasy VII Remake: Episode INTERmission. The dumbest name of the year, but I also had fun with this DLC chapter. Yuffie was fun to play with (if overpowered), and it continues the absurd excess that is Final Fantasy VII Remake. It may be more or less pure fan service, yet for this Final Fantasy VII Remake project, I am apparently on board with that. I even played all of that Fort Condor, which wasn’t even that good. Oh, and the new songs on the soundtrack? Incredible. So I guess I’m in deep. The story got real silly near the end though, huh?

20. Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart. This is another very safe but very polished game on this list. Where it shines brightest is in its technical aspects, which makes sense as one of the first true PlayStation 5 showpieces. It’s truly gorgeous at times, and also runs extremely fluidly throughout – at least on performance mode as I played it (though I did encounter a couple glitches of the disappearing objects variety…). Otherwise it has a solid story, solid level design, solid pacing, solid guns, etc., all without really doing anything that we haven’t seen many, many times before. So for as impressive as it is technically, Rift Apart can sort of feel unimpressive creatively.

21. Before Your Eyes. This is a short and sweet story, with a unique method of interaction and/or gimmick. If you have a camera (as I do), it detects when you blink, and doing so advances time through the game’s story. That means you can only stay in any given moment so long, which connects well with Before Your Eyes’ overall theme of valuing the fleeting life you have. I’m glad I experienced this story, and the use of the camera is clever, but it also didn’t stick with me hard enough to place any higher than this. And given the story is more or less the entire game, everything hinges on that.

So close, and yet so far.
So close, and yet so far.

22. Returnal. I’m of two minds when it comes to this one. On the one hand, it has a fantastic look and style, and an even better feel; the core action in Returnal is buttery smooth and very fun. On the other hand, I have a litany of problems with its structure and balance. The runs are extremely long and repetitive, with precious little enemy and weapon variety filling out runs that can take many hours. This is exacerbated by the fact that you’re incentivized to explore every room on every run, a tedious aspect that lacks any true risk/reward angle. It also seems pretty poorly balanced, with some weapons, items, and upgrades sticking out as significantly better than others (the shotgun is sadly terrible), which drastically limits the number of worthwhile builds and compounds the repetitiveness. It’s such a shame too, as the core action feels so good, which was enough to enjoy it for a time. But I can’t help but compare Returnal to other quality roguelikes (most or all of which are much cheaper), and see a huge deficit in variety and balance. It bums me out.

23. Boomerang X. This is a short and tight action game that I enjoyed playing, but never loved. I liked the boomerang and most of its associated mechanics, and I generally like very focused games that get a lot of mileage out of simple mechanics; Boomerang X nails that aspect. Yet for whatever reason, flying through the air and trying to target certain late-game enemies was more frustrating than fun to me, and by the end I was pretty tired of it, despite how short it is. Kind of hard to put my finger on, but Boomerang X just never clicked for me quite as much as I expected. I also don’t think I like the look or style of it, for what that’s worth.

24. Griftlands. Another one with runs that are too long, which is a complaint I had about a number of roguelikes this year. My first run took me at least six or seven hours, only to die on the final boss, which I probably would have beaten if I knew what to expect. Lo and behold, when I tried again, I won easily. I can enjoy the stakes imparted from the permadeath of roguelikes, but there’s a threshold where if each run is too long, it becomes too tedious. Which is a shame, because I did like a number of Griftlands’ ideas, especially the mechanics of negotiations, as well as the relationship system. I do think having to balance separate decks for negotiations and combat didn’t work that well, and the fact that the final boss is always direct combat kind of stinks; I would like the choice to prioritize my negotiation deck instead.

The grind did me in, but what a cool aesthetic.
The grind did me in, but what a cool aesthetic.

25. Loop Hero. I really wanted to like this one more than I did, more so than any other game I played this year. I absolutely love the aesthetic, and also think the little card interactions you discover as you play can be clever and fun. But the more I played, the more Loop Hero fell off for me. Its idle-but-not-really-idle nature got tedious, as there simultaneously wasn’t enough interesting stuff to engage with during a run, and also just enough important things to pay attention to that prevented me from checking out. Primarily though, I burnt out on the grind. I spent many hours grinding for resources on my way to completing the first act, and the grind showed no signs of slowing down. Loop Hero is a repetitive game by design, and one I decided I wasn’t on board with for the long haul. But I wish I was.

26. ElecHead. This is a short and smart puzzle-platformer. In some ways it feels a little out of time; this was the type of indie game that was all the rage circa 2008-2012. Today I think it’s very clever and well-made, and I enjoyed my brief time with it well enough, but it also didn’t really stand out as anything memorable. I do really like its style and music though, and I think it does a good job of embedding its secrets wordlessly. It just needed something… more to stand out.

I've shot so many grunts in the face over the past 20 years.
I've shot so many grunts in the face over the past 20 years.

27. Halo Infinite. I'm only speaking to the campaign, but this one is kind of baffling to me. You have Xbox’s premiere franchise debuting on its new console, with years of build-up, a core combat system that continues to feel extremely good, and presumably a lot of time and money behind it. Yet Halo Infinite’s open world could not be more bland and rote. It’s a barren world full of very similar activities – where you go to a place and fight the same handful of enemies we’ve been fighting for 20 years – across a single environment that lacks any diversity or meaningful detail. At best, it feels like an old, mid-2000s open world game. At worst, it feels creatively bankrupt, with bad writing no less. I had fun with the combat (and the grappling hook) for a short while, but if the only thing Halo has to offer anymore is the same fights yet again, I might just be done with Halo.

28. Age of Empires IV. In a way, it’s nice to see Age of Empires back after such a long absence. At the same time, this one feels so similar to the older games – specifically Age of Empires II – that it kind of feels perfunctory. Not that it isn’t made well, as it most certainly seems to be. But I would have personally preferred something a little more contemporary that found a fresh way to do a RTS in 2021. As it stands, I almost feel like I could have played Age of Empires II: Definitive Edition instead and gotten the same joys from that. I didn’t really spend much time with Age of Empires IV as a result.

29. Trials of Fire. Say it with me: the runs are too long. That was my main gripe with Trials of Fire, though I also didn’t find the underlying game all that gripping either. In a crowded field of deck-building roguelikes, despite the tactical nature of the battles (which I do like in theory), Trials of Fire doesn’t stand out as one I care to spend my time on over others. It’s hard to quite put my finger on too. Maybe juggling three sets of cards and gear felt too tedious, or maybe the classes didn’t feel all that balanced, or maybe there are simply better games of this type out there. Or maybe the runs are just too damn long.

I found Inscryption kind of... dull?
I found Inscryption kind of... dull?

30. Inscryption. This year’s biggest indie hit (at least in the circles I travel in) didn’t do much for me. The card game wasn’t strategically engaging compared to so many other better card games out there right now, and the pacing was all over the place; the first act was by far the best, while the rest of the game dragged considerably. In fact, if I had known how dull the rest of the game was going to be, I probably would have stopped after that first act. I also did not care for any of the story stuff, especially the meta and/or ARG parts of it; it felt like it was trying too hard to “blow my mind,” despite nothing in it really being that crazy. To be fair, that type of storytelling rarely works for me, and Inscryption didn’t change my mind.

31. Deathloop. At its best, this one is functional at a few things: the action and stealth are serviceable enough, some of the powers can be fun to use, and the art style is neat. But I have a litany of issues with Deathloop that pulled the experience down. The balance and progression feels off, as I had my gear fully decked out before the halfway point. The AI is dumb as bricks in a way that removed most of the stakes. The fact that there is only one way to “break the loop” removes most of the creativity, and makes the convoluted setup and high amount of repetition feel pointless. The story and adolescent writing got more annoying as it went. The more I played Deathloop, the more I tired of it and felt like I was just going through the motions, and worst of all were the technical issues. I experienced multiple crashes and progress-halting glitches, frequent frame-rate dips, pathing and clipping issues, long load times by PlayStation 5 standards (weren’t we supposed to be done with those?), all in a “next-gen only” game that looks like a last-gen game. I came away from Deathloop more frustrated than anything else.

F this book.
F this book.

32. It Takes Two. This is some of the most obnoxious writing and acting I’ve experienced in a game in a long, long time. The platforming is solid enough, and the co-op nature is perfectly functional and occasionally clever; in other words the game part is totally "fine" (aside from some legit pacing issues). The problem is that the characters never shut up, and I hate pretty much everything they say, especially that insufferable book. None of it is funny, most of it feels like it's trying way too hard in a juvenile way, and I think the overall themes and plot are kind of a bad message. And It Takes Two’s gameplay is not nearly good enough to overcome those high hurdles.

33. Cyber Shadow. In theory I should have liked this one more. I generally like side-scrolling action games in this mold, but Cyber Shadow never quite clicked with me. It felt a little too archaic in some spots, especially in the frustratingly lengthy segments between checkpoints. Also, you can’t duck? It’s odd little things like that that add up, and while I by no means think Cyber Shadow is a bad game, I bounced off it faster than expected. It probably doesn’t help that there have been a lot of really great retro action-platformers in recent years, which makes any new one’s shortcomings more glaring.

34. Everhood. For whatever reason, I just didn’t get into this. I tried it somewhat on a whim, and the trailer also suggested some amount of rhythm aspect to the battles, which was appealing. And that’s kind of true? But not really, as you don’t move in any rhythm, instead bouncing around the field reflexively. Anyway, I also didn’t get into the whole vibe, and got bored pretty quickly with almost every aspect of the game. The music is probably neat if I kept playing long enough to hear more of it. But I didn’t.

35. Pac-Man 99. I tried this out since I had it, but didn’t get into it. I like Pac-Man, generally speaking, but clearly not enough to go all eSports with it. The strategy here is also a bit different, and while I admittedly didn’t play it a lot, it seems kind of antithetical to normal Pac-Man strategy? I don’t know, I guess I didn’t really figure it out. Either way, nothing about this compelled me to play more than just giving it a shot.

Yikes.
Yikes.

36. Twelve Minutes. I bounced off this one almost instantly. I was looking forward to it too, as the concept remains great. But everything about the execution just did not work for me. Every little action is painfully tedious to perform, and the solutions needed to progress are incredibly particular and nonsensical. I found myself going through the same series of tedious actions repeatedly in hopes of more or less blindly landing on the right solution, which I found excruciating even after a couple loops. Also, the writing was pretty cringy, and everything I’ve heard about where the story goes from there… yikes. I consider a very tiny number of the games I play “bad.” But in 2021, Twelve Minutes qualifies.

Bonus: Some non-2021 games I played and enjoyed in 2021:

Bug Fables: The Everlasting Sapling. This is a fantastic homage to the OG Paper Mario style of RPG, and one I thoroughly enjoyed this year; I’m glad I was finally able to get around to it. It’s super charming and well-written, with great characters and world-building, and a solid combat system and side quests to boot. When I redid my GOTY 2019 list, I made sure to make a spot for Bug Fables.

Advance Wars- still good!
Advance Wars- still good!

Wargroove and Unravel Two. I played through both of these games with my partner this year (the Double Trouble DLC campaign in Wargroove’s case), and had a very good time with both of them. Wargroove in particular was a treat to return to, as it remains a great tactics game, and the co-op campaign works very well and has some clever ideas. As does Unravel Two; even if it’s a bit simple at times, it mixes up mechanics well, has some clever puzzles, and looks and sounds very nice.

Advance Wars: Days of Ruin. Partially as a follow-up to playing Wargroove again, partially as a “I forget a lot about Days of Ruin” curiosity, and mostly a total spur-of-the-moment thing, I picked up and replayed the entirety of Days of Ruin this year. And despite remembering it as my least favorite Advance Wars game, I had a lot of fun with it this time. Maybe it’s been long enough since I’ve played true Advance Wars, or maybe it feels better when playing it during a weaker year, or maybe Advance Wars, even a “weaker” one, is just very good. Regardless, I had a very good time with this. Oh, and its soundtrack rocks.

The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask and Link’s Awakening. After playing through the 3DS remake of Ocarina of Time at the end of 2020, I carried that Zelda momentum into 2021 with two more remakes. First up was the 3DS version of Majora’s Mask, followed by the Switch version of Link’s Awakening. It’s been a long time since I’ve played the originals of either, and my first time playing their remakes, and I thoroughly enjoyed both. In fact, I probably enjoyed them more than their original versions, thanks in large part due to improved visuals and some needed and modern quality of life improvements. Hot take: Zelda is good.

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