With 2021 winding down, it’s time to start on my Top Five Lists! First up, my Top Five Video Games Played in 2021. Backlogs being what they are, I’m not limiting myself to only games that released year, but anything I finished in 2021. With many AAA games delayed because of COVID, I found myself playing a lot more indie games, especially thanks to Xbox Game Pass. My total games beaten for the year is 26, plus four expansions (two for THE OUTER WORLDS and two for ASSASSIN’S CREED VALHALLA). That’s an incredibly impressive number considering that my games beaten in 2020 was around 15. It helped quite a bit that many of the games I played clocked in around 10-15 hours to beat, rather than 30-40 (or in AC Valhalla’s case, over 100 – and I still haven’t actually beaten that game). So what stood out for me this year? What pixels filled me with joy, even as they filled me with frustration?
THE OUTER WORLDS: MURDER ON ERIDANOS
While base game THE OUTER WORLDS came out in 2019, the developer has since released two story expansions, including this year’s MURDER ON ERIDANOS. In it, players are invited to a fancy resort to investigate the murder of a famed serial star. Naturally, you soon discover something much more nefarious afoot on the planet.
The thing that makes this so great is how much it integrates your crew into things, whether it’s having a meeting with everyone to discuss the invitation to investigate the murder, or everyone hanging out in the presidential suite (your hub of operations during the investigation instead of your ship). One memorable moment had me return to my suite to discover the entire crew watching in a mixture of consternation and amusement as a frantic individual ransacked my bedroom, making commentary amongst themselves. Plus the murder investigation itself is a lot of fun, complete with a murder board that fills in as you find clues and talk to suspects. I’m very much looking forward to THE OUTER WORLDS 2 when it releases in a few years and hope it continues to play up that “you’re a ship full of idiots traveling about the galaxy” concept.
True to form, my favorite game of 2021 wasn’t actually released in 2021. That honor goes to PREY, a 2017 game I finally got around to playing thanks to the magic of Xbox Game Pass. In it, you play as an individual who wakes up on a space station to find things have gone horribly wrong. You’re trying to find a way off while avoiding monsters and deciding who you can trust (including the helpful AI). It’s incredibly atmospheric and had stuck with me in a way Arkane’s follow up game, DEATHLOOP, has not. I loved all the small details to be found in emails or environmental storytelling, and I simply couldn’t put it down.
From the time I saw the first trailer, I had a feeling DEATH’S DOOR was going to be for me. A Zelda-like dungeon explorer, you play as a crow who is supposed to collect souls who loses his current assignment. In order to track down the wayward soul, you have to explore various lands and defeat powerful beings who somehow have avoided being reaped. It’s a colorful Miyazaki-feeling affair, with weird characters and satisfying combat. It’s got enough secrets to uncover to be satisfying without being overwhelming, and was a great little diversion.
SEKIRO: SHADOWS DIE TWICE
It took me a year and a half to finally beat this game, but boy was it worth it. Hailing from the developers of DARK SOULS, it’s one of those games that demands you “git gud” or die trying. And I did die quite a bit. Honestly, what made this game take so long for me to beat was because I had to be in the right headspace to throw myself against a boss battle over and over and over (and over). But I do really enjoy the process of learning how a boss works and gradually improving my ability to dodge its attacks and knowing when there’s an opening to strike. I do wish these games were a little less obtuse in where to go and how to find things (I’m going to be real, I started making real progress when I just opened a YouTube walkthrough to show me the best path to get all the upgrades). But the satisfaction of a successful parry, and the elation when I killed that final boss earns this game a spot in my Top Five for the year.
KENA: BRIDGE OF SPIRITS
What the game lacks in substantive story, it more than makes up for in pure charm. KENA: BRIDGE OF SPIRITS follows the titular Kena, a spirit guide who has arrived at a forest to reach a nearby temple, only to discover a great curse has made the way forward impassable. Cue a quest to go find and defeat three angry spirits so that the land can begin to heal once more. The combat is fun (though the often talked about difficulty spikes in boss battles can be frustrating) but the real heroes are the adorable little Rot creatures that aid you in a Pikmin like fashion. Full credit to the game designers for the idle animations they gave these little creatures, who materialize around you when you get near an interesting feature or pause for a moment. My heart about died when I crossed a bridge and found my Rot sitting on the edge with their feet dangling, admiring the view. Plus, you can collect and dress the Rot in various hats, and if that wasn’t the true purpose of the game, I don’t know what was. I had a lovely time 100%ing this one and finding all the hidden items, and it’s well worth checking out.
Honorable Mentions: INSCRYPTION, HAVEN, MOONGLOW BAY, ENDER LILIES
And those are my Top Five Video Games of 2021! What games did you play that you absolutely loved?