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GOTY 2021

Here we are once again, looking at the year that was. And it was a year, or so they say. I'll spare myself from trying to write out any high level thoughts here about the year, other than to say: I liked the video games below quite a bit!


Honorable Mentions: Life is Strange: True Colors, Metroid Dread

List items

  • When I was getting started in Unsighted and saw how the real-time mechanic works, I was worried about how that would feel in a style of game that also has a big world to explore. I wasn’t sure if I wanted the stress of worrying about losing NPCs forever because I spent too long on a puzzle, or got sidetracked combing an area for secrets. While the developers (smartly) provide an option to disable the time mechanic entirely, I decided to leave it on and just see what happens. By the end of the game I was stressed, as expected. And it made the whole game work for me on a level I didn’t anticipate.

    The main character Alma is one of the last androids, created to be a powerful warrior to help secure android liberation. She failed her mission. Much of Unsighted’s narrative is about Alma grappling with her past mistakes and relationships as she re-enters the increasingly desperate struggle for android survival. As counters ticked down towards oblivion for every character in the game, I had to balance who to save and who to risk. Where to search for the rare resource that could allow me to extend more timers, versus what parts of the world would likely be more time wasted than gained. I started optimizing my playstyle and character build to be faster, more aggressive. I got very good at landing leaping axe strikes for maximum damage, and parrying every enemy attack to follow up with a powerful counter. No time to waste. It all ended in a desperate sprint to the end as multiple characters counted down their last minutes and seconds. They weren’t all able to hold on long enough. Maybe, if I had been more time conscious earlier in the game, things could have been different for them.

    What made Unsighted special to me this year was this specific interaction between the narrative and mechanics. The complete alignment of how I was feeling - how the game system had pushed me to feel - and how the character I was controlling felt. This married with the excellent action gameplay, RPG progression, and world design makes Unsighted truly spectacular, and my favorite game of 2021.

  • Boomerang X is exactly one thing, and it does it perfectly. It isn’t too long and doesn’t try to step outside of its lane, instead offering a dozen or so well constructed action challenges that ramp up in difficulty and complexity. This was an experience that put me 100% in the game, gripping the mouse and staying tuned in to every second. I love the visuals as well, with standout enemy designs that are recognizable even at a blistering pace or from a distance, but are all cohesive as part of a giant swarm that you weave through while cutting them down. No other game this year gave me the kind of focused adrenaline rush that Boomerang X offered. No other game in recent memory has made me feel this style of complete control and domination in an overwhelming situation.

  • If you’re tired of the terms metroidvania and soulslike being applied to most games, then this one probably grated on your nerves whenever you heard about it. Ender Lilies is absolutely a grab bag of modern game design trends, with a moody and depressing atmosphere and a blend of exploration based abilities mixed with action RPG gameplay. Some of the words in this paragraph still have meaning, I think.

    The really great thing about Ender Lilies is that it basically nails what it’s going for, even if it’s been done before. It’s incredibly satisfying to play moment to moment and new abilities and upgrades come often. Enemy and level design work together to challenge you, and then allow you to dominate the world later on. It feels like a tight experience (despite being a fairly big game) full of great encounters and boss designs, and has multiple instances where a new ability made me grin with excitement. Ender Lilies is one of the best recent examples of a rich and complex game where I just purely enjoyed every moment of playing it.

  • Like a painting in motion, Sable was the game this year that I can’t get enough of looking at. This is one of the few games where I took a whole collection of screenshots while playing, and those moments of angling the camera and positioning Sable to get the shot I wanted were a real part of the experience for me. The colors used in Sable are striking, both muted and bold, and sometimes transitioning between as the world spins on. I found a similar feeling in the exploration focused gameplay and the narrative of Sable as well: a game that doesn’t meet you with harshness, but with freedom, and vibrancy, and vitality. A world that you might rightfully expect to be dangerous, alien, and depressing is instead incredibly familiar and comforting, but with undeniable majesty. Sable’s journey is so small, so personal, and yet I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was a co-writer in a story of momentous importance. Sable’s journey mattered to me, but not in a way that was based on fear or bombast, and I found that pretty special.

  • If there’s a game from 2021 that felt like it “almost had it”, it has to be Returnal for me. Despite its many flaws and stumbles, playing Returnal is just too darn fun for me to ignore. Before getting around to Boomerang X, this was my favorite action game of the year - I really love the way the core gameplay feels. Returnal is dizzying at the outset in its difficulty, in the lushness of its world, and in the mysteries it presents. After pushing through the trials of the first 3 areas, slowly chipping away at how to best progress against each new enemy type, overcoming complex bullet-hell boss fights, Returnal hits you with a mid game reset that is… bold to say the least. The sequence that plays out narratively between the two halves is legitimately one of my favorite moments from any game this year - I was stunned at how simple and audacious it was. Even if the second half didn’t keep up the momentum, I do appreciate the shift that happened: from a desperate struggle to make progress to something that looks more like confident mastery.

  • Bringing the World of Assassination trilogy to a close, this entry in IOI’s recent Hitman reboot is a resounding success. Hitman 3’s maps are all either a further showcase of what the series is best at, or a new idea to shake things up, and both sides work well to make this a tremendous game. The tower in Dubai reaching up into the clouds offers a standard Hitman map full of layers to unravel to reintroduce you to Agent 47’s skills. The aristocratic estate of Dartmoor houses a murder mystery and a family boiling over with grudges and secrets. The night club in Berlin completely upends the normal style of mission objectives in favor of a thrilling game of cat and mouse. The rain soaked neon of Chongqing shows mundanity mixed with technological and bureaucratic monsters, and gives you the tools to tear them down. The winery in Mendoza is perhaps one of the best traditional Hitman maps in the series (and has a hilariously lengthy speech from 47 about a particularly rare bottle of wine). And finally, a moving train through the Carpathian Mountains is a burst of violence to send off the series. It all just works, and I couldn’t be happier with the trilogy and this fitting end.

  • A roguelite “idle” game with automated combat, a pile of stats and randomized loot to consider, a deckbuilding component, and persistent upgrades through building a town from the resources gathered during runs. If that doesn’t sound like a mess of a fever dream, I don’t know what does. And yet, Loop Hero works better than the sum of its parts. Its success is partly because it isn’t shy about leaning in to all of the design ideas it is interested in and running with the best components, but also because it is just a very well made package. Information is presented clearly when you need it, things that are intentionally hidden are a joy to uncover, the game looks and sounds absolutely incredible, and there’s even a compelling enough narrative that kept me intrigued through hours of play. Loop Hero has a very specific vibe, and is unlike anything else I’ve played.

  • What a delightfully surprising follow up to a 15 year old cult classic. Psychonauts 2 skillfully manages to be a throwback 3D platformer with discrete environments full of collectibles, and an effective tale about trauma, family, and responsibility. I was often surprised by how much fun I had searching areas for those last few figments, or by a line of dialogue or visual gag that made me truly laugh. This game runs on pure creativity and charm, beamed to you the player through the relentless curiosity and wit of the terrific protagonist Raz. And while Raz is great, he’s effortlessly matched or exceeded by at least a dozen other well defined, distinct characters who all have a whole story to tell. Psychonauts 2 feels so well realized, like it is exactly the thing Double Fine wanted to make, and is a nearly perfect sequel to the first game.

  • In a year of time loop games, in an era of roguelikes and roguelites, The Forgotten City creates a narratively satisfying example of repetition with variation. It feels familiar with its cast of easily understandable characters and dialogue trees and its detailed 3D environment to explore, but fresh in the challenges presented and how you can freely poke at the world to enact change. The Forgotten City definitely wouldn’t work if it wasn’t fun to just try things out. Ironically, the freedom from consequences that your character enjoys due to the time loop is in direct contrast to the suffocating rule that the rest of the city lives under, but it is absolutely essential to making the game fun to play and I think that tension adds something special to the feel of the game. The other core pillar that makes The Forgotten City great is its strong writing and clear characters. The abundant dialogue does just what it is supposed to do - present you with interesting information, and ask questions or get you to ask questions. Sure, you might make someone not talk to you anymore because you pushed their buttons in the wrong way, but you probably learned something from them. They won’t remember in the next loop anyway.

  • Inscryption starts from a place of having your Stoat card animate and talk to you while you try to figure out what is going on, and it doesn’t stop trying to escalate things from there. The moody, dangerous atmosphere of the cabin - and the card game you are playing with a mysterious figure - is all setup for what comes next, and what follows after that, again and again. By the time Inscryption has shown you everything it has, the experience wraps back around on itself, like a narrative Ouroboros, in a smart and satisfying way. It feels very whole and cohesive in spite of the many dangling threads and questions, which feels pretty rare to me in today’s media landscape. This is an experience that constantly undermines its own (pretty fun) card game because it wants to tell you a layered, winding story instead, and the result is pretty unique.