By sombre 1 Comments
2021 was a weird year. I hate to open with such an extraordinarily cliched term, but hell, it was. We went through the back end of a pandemic, which as of writing, is ramping up again (Over a million cases in the UK right now, of which I am one of them). Personally, it’s been a great year. Well, most of it was great. I left my job in December 2020 to move across the world to teach English in Japan. That January departure date got pushed to March. Then it got pushed to July. That got pushed to September, and I realised I was done with it. I’d put my life on hold for almost 18 months, and I was no closer to being in Japan than I was when I applied for the process. Infact, with the way that Japan were militarising their immigration policy, I think I ended up FURTHER away from being in Japan than I was when I got that acceptance e-mail.
But then on the other hand, I started a relationship with the most amazing person I’ve ever met. We’d been friends for about a year ahead of time, which went from talking in a group chat sometimes, to talking privately sometimes, to talking every day, to talking in any spare minute we had. We realised we had feelings for each other, and just went for it. I can now safely say that, almost a year later (2 weeks!), I’m in the best, most secure relationship ever. This blog post isn’t about my partner, but I’d be remiss to not mention how incredible she is, and how she’s made this year the best year of my life, no questions asked.
Anyway, I played some games in 2021. This was probably the least varied I’d ever been with my gaming selection ever. As I got into my thirties, I’ve realised that my choices were becoming more weird and insular than ever. For all of my harumph and frooferall about how much I hate that all modern games were essentially open world games with RPG elements, I couldn’t help throw myself into them. I came to realise that was my bread and butter for gaming time. However, I couldn’t help notice how little I’d come to play games this year. I keep a meticulous spreadsheet like a huge nerd so I can see EXACTLY how I’m dividing my spare time, and this actually came up with some surprising results. I probably played a hundred hours of games in the entire year, a statistic which I actually found really weird. Back….5/6 years ago, I could easily do that in two weeks, but as I’ve gotten older, I just find less and less comfort in the escapism of games. I guess in a way, this is part of a larger problem, in that it’s not really a problem, but more of just having healthier habits in my real life. Back when I was a troubled teen, I would spend all my free hours playing the hottest and latest J-RPG. They were story driven epics, where the protagonist was largely a self-insert, and often had a romance at the head of the story. I found a lot of solace in the Final Fantasy and Persona games, because they were, at their core, pure examples of escapism.
As I got older, I came to value gameplay over story, and invariably ended up playing a wider swath of games, but I still had a soft spot for the story driven RPG. Particular stands outs include Divinity: Original Sin 2 and Pathfinder: Kingmaker. Anyway, to belabour a point, I think I needed to escape into fantasy less and less, because my real life was just better. I had a lot of friends, my aforementioned partner, I had my life on track, and I ended up playing games less and less. I would still occasionally dip my toe in, as I’ll explain momentarily, but gaming became a luxury, rather than a necessity for me.
I played 12 games last year, all with varying levels of interest. In no particular order (Apart from my GOTY), here’s a few thoughs about the games I played.
Assassins Creed: Origins
A game squarely at the front of the Open world RPG train to which I was a season ticket holder, AC:O was a game that never really hit for me. I suspect that, if I played it at launch, when it was new, I would have found a lot to like about it. But by the time I played Origins, I’d already sunk 50+ hours into Odyssey the year before, and this honestly felt like a downgrade. Now, all the parts of Origins appealed to me. Ancient Egypt was a unique, interesting setting that I don’t think I’ve seen in a game since the EXCELLENT Pharaoh games on Windows 98. It was about the secret cults that lurked in the shadows, so….it should have been everything I wanted in a game. Sadly, it was just kind of...middling. I found myself laboured with those crappy sidequests like “Find ten crocodile skins” and “Find my tools” and “Clear out this camp of bandits in the South East”. It was just everything I’d done before. One of my good friends swears up and down that this is a great game, and arguably the best modern “One of these”, but I couldn’t bring myself to get past the first 5 or so hours to get to the “good stuff”. It was FF13’s Gran Pulse all over again, on a much smaller scale.
3 stars out of 5.
Halo Infinite (Campaign)
I’d never really been a huge Halo fan. That is to say, I enjoyed it on the periphery. I played Halo 3 Legendary edition, which was a horrible experience, and I played the first one on the Xbox when it came out. I also remember quite enjoying Reach for telling an interesting story, and the “SURVIVE” ending was really cool.
So when it came to playing Infinite, I was skeptically excited. It started great. I think. I remember thinking “This REALLY feels like a Halo game” in the initial missions, but the more I played it, the more it felt played out. It was as though they took Combat Evolved, stuck a new coat of paint on it, added a grappling hook, and said “This is what you want, right?” The very definition of a game that wasn’t quite the sum of its parts. If the gun play had that classic Halo feel, it might have felt a little bit more fun to play. But I felt like I was constantly chopping and changing my loadout. It never really let one particular gun “breathe”. You couldn’t really have a favourite weapon, cause you could never use it for longer than 5 minutes. The enemies also had some weird, hivemind like AI, where, once you hit ONE OF THEM in a camp of enemies, the ENTIRE CAMP knew exactly where you were straight away. It if was explained that they had a Flood-like, hive-mind, that would have been fine. But at the time of playing, it just felt like a videogame-ass videogame.
Oh, and it was another open world, complete these tasks and quests style game that really felt like a departure from Halo. If this was “Farcry in Space”, it would have felt TOTALLY bang on, but for a Halo game? Not as much.
3 stars out of 5
Star Wars: Fallen Order
I’ll barely talk about this as, I hardly played it. It was okay. It felt like Uncharted with a lightsaber. I found the story confusing and confounding, to the extent where all I remember is that you’re a dock worker with a laser sword. The environments were cool, and I get that they were going for the whole “Souls Wars” aesthetic, but it never really clicked. My favourite Star Wars game was Jedi Academy, so the whole “Build your saber” thing was cool, but it never really got off the ground running. Part of this was my lack of attention, but the little I played was just whatver. Didn’t stand out at all.
3 stars out of 5.
Unpacking was strange. I heard so much buzz and hype on various podcasts (Fire Escape and Nextlander) that it was a love letter to the 90s/00s, and a real nostalgia bomb. I thought I would have loved it. Instead, I just found myself getting frustrated at trying to put a book on a shelf, but not the right shelf and I ended up just brute forcing my way through things. It had a lot of heart, but just wasn’t what I needed at the time I played it.
3 stars out of 5.
Yakuza: Like A Dragon
I went into LAD full of fervor and excitement. I really, REALLY liked Zero in 2018 I think, and I was promised that this was a lot of what made that good, but removing the kinda crappy fighting game mechanics. The game starts off so well, like all Yakuza games do. It tells a story full of intrigue and mystery, and really leaves you wanting more. However, once that initial stint is over, it almost falls into No More Heroes territory of open world games. I know that might be contentious, but I really felt like I was just exposed into this world of absolute nothing. A tale of sound and fury, told by an idiot, signifying nothing.
The characters were, admittedly, great. Ichiban was a great MC, and really brought a lot to the role. But, and I probably should have known this going in, the open world just felt destitute. It’s like going to a party and feeling alone, despite being surrounded by people. For all of the model car racing, and playing Space Harrier, and side stories about grown men dressing like babies, I just found myself grinding through that fluff to get to the drip feed of the main story.
My main problem with LAD is the quantity over quality argument that I feel surrounds a lot of modern videogames. (Later on in this blog, I’ll be completely at odds with this when I talk about my game of the year, so yes, I am aware of the irony). I don’t need a 30 hour game stretched into a 100 hour game because of all the crap they feel they need to put in to satisfy the “I want to play a game for 6 months” nerds out there. LAD has a lot to enjoy. I just wish they’d streamline it a bit more
3 stars out of 5.
This was the first game I played on my Series X this year. I went in, remembering my glory days of playing Gears on the 360 when I was at University and thinking “Alright, more Gears” but ended my time with it thinking “Oh no, more Gears”.
I’m sure if this was your first Gears game, it would be great. But the gameplay felt like it hadn’t evolved in 2 generations. It was the same run and gun, crouch behind a low wall game it was back on the Xbox 360
And the story was dumb as a bag of rocks
2 stars out of 5
Assassins Creed Valhalla
They ruined the combat flow.
2 stars out of 5.
Binding of Isaac: Rebirth
What a return to form. The king of the modern rogue like really came to fruition. Now, I’m not sure if this came out this year, but that’s when I played it.
It was really fun! The new characters and combinations brought a lot of fun to an already existing game. A lot of fun play-styles and item combinations meant an already great game was made even better somehow. I can’t quite give it a 5, as it doesn’t quite reach the top bar, but it’s still a great little romp into a gross, disgusting world.
I enjoyed watching CobaltStreak stream it on Twitch more than I enjoyed playing it.
4 stars out of 5
Runner up Game of the Year: Resident Evil 2 Remake
I actually didn’t expect to love this as much as I did. It’s weird. I always kinda thought that the RE games were kinda crap. Yeah, I played RE4 like everyone else on earth, and I thought it was alright, but I largely attributed the RE fandom to those weird kids at school who were into Atreyu and Slayer, and used to call it “Resi” for short.
Now, I’ll preface by saying I only played one campaign, and it was Claire, but I felt that my time with it was so special that I didn’t feel the need to play the Leon campaign too. I enjoyed playing as Claire a lot. The Zombies felt great, the bosses were good, the levels absolutely OOZED atmosphere, the Mr X stuff was interesting, and I had never seen such an amazing looking game on the PS4. It looked stunning. Now, I will admit: It’s certainly not a perfect game. I think they front load the best bit (The police station) and once you leave, it goes downhill more and more. And to add to that, I think the Sewers were downright miserable. I would have easily given this my coveted 5 star rating, but the Sewers single handedly brought it down to a 4.
Saying that, the game is brilliant. It really felt scary, and it was refined down to a razor fine point. I think I finished it in 8 hours, and none of it really felt like fluff. It was pretty much all killer, no filler. A good example of a game not overstaying its welcome.
4 stars out of 5
Game of the Year: Ghost of Tsushima
This is the part where I become a huge hypocrite, so I’ll address that at the forefront of this micro-review. I got the Platinum on Tsushima, which was a huge slog. I ended up pretty much playing with a guide in front of me to find all the Haiku spots/Fox Dens etc, and I spent a good 15 hours basically running across the map to fill out ticks on my map. I spent so much time going for all the outfits/upgrades/weapons/stances/moves that I am fully aware I am going back on my words of all open world games being the same.
However, saying that, Tsushima was the best game I played all year, hands down.
When I played it at first, I wasn’t really sure what I thought of it. It had that mix of Tenchu/Bushido Blade that was really intriguing, but also SUPER tough. I actually had to turn the difficulty down to easy near the beginning, because I was getting cut to ribbons by even the most basic enemy. But I think, once you get even a few upgrades, the game starts to flow a bit more. Once you get the second combat stance, and a Ghost weapon or two, the game opens up in such a remarkable way. I found myself doing what I imagine most BOTW players were doing at the time, or what most Elden Ring players are doing right now, and just absolutely losing myself in the world. I would just pick a direction to go in, and go that way. Sometimes I’d find a hot spring to escape from the relentlessness of the Mongol invasion, or a Haiku spot to write some poetry, or sometimes, just a big old batch of baddies to have my way with. It felt like, no matter where I looked, I could always find something to do that I enjoyed. The story is interesting and nuanced, and, as many other more lucid people before me have said, the dichotomy between Ghost and Samurai had me hooked the entire playthrough. I will admit, I would have liked it if the game TRULY gave you the option of going Ghost or Samurai in more meaningful ways, but I appreciate that they had to make Jin dishonorable to show the juxtaposition between his moral code and his desire to save his homeland.
It helped that I played this on the Pro, on a 4K TV. I have never seen such a stunning looking game in my 30 plus years playing games. It was breathtaking.
I actually think, looking back, that Tsushima wasn’t just my game of the year, but more my game of the entire generation. I couldn’t wait to finish work, come home, and just lose myself in the world of Feudal Japan.
5 stars out of 5.
So, that was my 2021 through the scope of gaming.
And I largely suspect that this will be my last proper year of gaming for a long time. Since playing these games last year, I sold my Switch/PS4 Pro/Xbox Series X and my gaming PC to fund more interesting avenues in my real life. I think the sun has set on gaming being my main hobby. I might still dip into Stardew Valley/FTL on my work laptop here and there, but I think that I’m kinda done with playing games as a hobby.
This is a problem with how I perceive games to be going as we go into the 2020’s, but also with me as a person. When I got into games on the NES as a kid, everything felt fun, and new, and interesting. It was good to pick up a game, put it in my console, and play it start to end. That’s very different to how it is now.
Now, it feels like every game is trying to monopolise your time in a really sleazy way. With the vast majority of games being “Live games” or “Games as a service”, it’s just not what I fell in love with all those years ago. I don’t want a game to come out, and on release day, see the “Roadmap” extend for the next 2 years about what they’re going to be adding to the game over the next half decade. I don’t have the time and energy to play a single game for 3 years anymore. I just don’t. I got into games for interesting, soulful little pieces of entertainment that were made lovingly by a tight knit team with a direction. Nowadays, it just feels like I’m the “Consumer”, and that all the big game companies want nothing more than to find a faster way to my wallet.
I understand that not every game is like this, sure. There’s been some great single player games in the last couple of years. But I just get sad when I see people playing the same game for 10 years, when there’s so much good stuff out there that gets buried by the fact that hundreds of games come out every day.
Games are still great, for the most part.
They’re just not for me anymore.