So there we have it. 2021 is done. At the end of every year, we like to look back at the titles that meant the most to us, and talk a little bit about why they were so special. This year, our list is as eclectic as ever, spanning genres, budgets, platforms, and even the spectrum of public opinion. Do you agree with our choices? There's only one way to find out... Keep reading.
You can watch us discuss our picks in the video above, or read the list below.
Forza Horizon 5
If not now, when? Despite rave reviews (the best of any new game this year), Forza Horizon 5 didn't make the cut for Game of the Year at this year's Game Awards. Racing games never get this kind of recognition. It's time to right that wrong.
This game is about refinement, not revolution. The Horizon series was already the pinnacle of arcade open-world racing thanks to the 4th entry in the series, and 5 takes that incredibly solid foundation and builds on it. It doesn't re-invent the wheels, but it gives them the best possible tyres.
As well as being a graphical powerhouse that makes you feel justified in that shiny new console, the core gameplay is finely tuned and incredible fun. It really makes you feel like a driving superstar. The highlight of course is the expansive open-world, which lets you explore a vibrant Mexican landscape. Racing doesn't get much better than this. Viva Horizon! - Adam
For me, declaring "Game of the Year" is almost as harrowing as the bit at our Christmas Party where I have to choose my "Team Member of the Year". Why can't I just love them all equally?! But of course, we demand favourites, and the people need answers, so this year I again concede to the listicle gods by awarding the very important accolade of Dan's Game of the Year to... Unpacking 🎉
In a year of huge releases, from across the globe and across all platforms, this is perhaps a somewhat leftfield choice. Particularly after having spent over 100 hours in other games like Far Cry 6, it's surprising to even me that my mere 4 hours in Unpacking has left such a mark. However, what made Unpacking so special for me, is its originality and timing. I feel it came at a much needed time for many of us, still exhausted from the past couple of years of uncertainty and changes. Whilst not for everyone, the slow, meditative pace and un-losable gameplay made this charming little game a true escape from the hectic whirlwind that was 2021. Just unpack the box and put the stuff somewhere.
It was so approachable, easy and satisfying. But what surprised me most about it was the powerful storytelling that emerged from such a simple, mundane mechanic. I was fully invested in the life journey of the person whose things I was putting away, learning about their own ups and downs, and somehow relating to them in a way I've not done via the medium of videogames before.
Topped-off with a charming pixel art style and super chill sound track, Unpacking lives up to the indie games dream of going somewhere different, and they deserve this coveted recognition of some random guys opinion on the Internet. Well done Witch Beam! - Dan
Tales of Arise
JRPGs have always been a staple of the gaming landscape, with the Tales series a beloved franchise since 1995. Tales of Arise is the latest instalment - and what a game it is. Not only has it received dozens of high review scores but it has also picked up Best Role Playing Game at the Game Awards earlier this month.
Now I'll be completely honest: Tales of Arise is my first ever Tales game, so I didn't have any nostalgia or context when I started playing. However, after my amazing experience with it, I cannot wait to dive into the older games and experience their stories.
The premise of Tales of Arise is fairly simple - the "chosen protagonist" with amnesia discovers that he has incredible powers, and sets off on an adventure to free his oppressed people and discover who he is. The way this story is told however, literally took my breath away (and made me cry on several occasions). While I haven't finished the full game, I have loved my time in it - especially the characters who drive the story. They are flawed yes, in the way that we all are, but their anime-typical optimism in the face of difficulty is such a refreshing lens through which to experience a fairly complex and dark story.
Graphically, mechanically, narratively - everything about Tales of Arise is superb, which is why no other game could come close to taking the spot for me. - Taya
Pathfinder: Wrath of the Righteous
Okay, I lied a little bit - if any game comes close to sharing the number spot for me it's this one. If you asked me: "Taya, if you could only play one genre of game for the rest of your life, what would it be?", I would answer "CRPG" every time. The genre is chock-full of amazing stories, character and gameplay, stemming from the original titles like Baldur's Gate (which I also played for the first time this year but rightfully can't include in a list about 2021 games. Spoiler alert: it's very good).
I love everything about CRPGs - the character building, the stories, the inventory management, the choices - and while I am only a measly 30 hours into PF:WOTR (I've been a busy bee, okay?) I can already tell it's going to be one of the best ones I have ever played.
Based on the Pathfinder TTRPG campaign of the same name and ruleset, PF:WOTR is an epic story of a fight between the forces of good and evil. It has everything a good CRPG should. Comprehensive character building containing 12 races, 25 classes (each with 3 or 4 subclasses), 13 prestige classes, 10 mythic classes, hundreds of spells and abilities and so much more I don't have space to write about. An epic story spanning dozens of territories in an impressive fantasy land. Companions and characters with deep personalities and opinions. Decisions both large and small, that can affect the fates of singular characters or the whole world. A choice between turn-based and real-time-with-pause combat that you can change on the fly. Honestly there's so much cool stuff in this game I could sit here for hours talking about it (please come talk to me about it).
Owlcat Games have taken an already impressive game (Pathfinder: Kingmaker, which you should also play) and have made it even better - an incredible feat for a fairly small team. I am loving every second I spend in this universe, and I will come back for many more playthroughs after I finish my first - even if just to see how much changes when your player character isn't a goody-two shoes. - Taya
Mario Golf: Super Rush
Ahh you can always count on me to bring nostalgia to any conversation about videogames, even a discussion about best new games of the year. I loved Mario Golf: Super Rush for the Ninendo Switch as this was a throwback to one of my favourite games as a kid, Mario Golf, of course for the N64.
However, what was great about this game was it delivered on the nostalgia factor, but it wasn't just a remaster of the old game released on the Switch: It's a natural progression and genuine new title for the Mario Golf series. The game has been updated with new characters, new game modes, and new courses.
My favourite of the new game modes, as the title of the game suggests, is speed golf, where you compete against other players to not only get the lowest score, but also to get the ball in the hole the quickest. It's a kind of fusion between Mario Golf and Mario Kart, just without the karts as all the racing is on foot. That's not to say you don't have powerups, and you can still take out your opponents!
This is a very good family game, can be played solo, and plays great online play too. The controls are simple enough to be accessible to a wide range of ages, but there is enough depth in the game to not just be classified as one for the kids. - Ben J
Playing a new game is a rarity for myself due to an addiction to Rocket League, however Valheim grabbed my attention when released earlier this year. Produced by Sweden-based studio Iron Gate, the game had a huge uptake straight after launch breaking the record for most concurrent players and also selling a whopping 5 million copies within the first month.
Valheim is a multiplayer survival game where your character is dropped in to a mythical, randomly-generated world and must forage, kill, craft, and level up in order to survive and explore more challenging terrains. The game is truly beautiful offering up spectacular views across varied landscapes and changeable weather.
The multiplayer aspect is what really appealed to me, helping each other level up, explore and build a home is truly rewarding and gives a real sense of team spirit during the journey. While player numbers have dwindled since the initial boom, the game is still be actively updated and is technically still in early access on Steam. The game was immensely enjoyable and a huge accomplishment for the small studio behind it. - Pete
Kena: Bridge of Spirits
Taking the platinum spot in PlayStation’s Indie Game of the Year, Kena: Bridge of Spirits is a charming and gorgeous debut title from Ember Lab.
Players take on the role of Kena, a young Spirit Guide, as she travels to an abandoned village in search of the sacred mountain shrine. She struggles to uncover the secrets of this forgotten community, hidden in an overgrown forest where wandering spirits are trapped.
Kena: Bridge of Spirits is a beautiful, linear action game that feels like a Tomb Raider style Zelda mashup, with the ambience of Ghost of Tsushima thrown in for good measure. Whilst the aesthetic of the game may make it seem targeted towards younger players (those charming little spirit companions are so cute), the combat is fast-paced and challenging.
The playtime is relatively short (around 10 hours), but Kena: Bridge of Spirits is a game that everyone should check out and make sure they play in 2022. - Ben G
Another game I really enjoyed this year was Chorus, which was published by our good friends over at Deep Silver and developed by Deep Silver Fishlabs. In Chorus you take the role of Nara, who has broken free from the evil Circle for whom she was once one of their deadliest warriors, and now is determined to take them down.
I've been excited for this game ever since it was announced, as what I heard about the game sounded intriguing, and the key art looked phenomenal. Just managing to sneak into a game of the year for 2021 list by releasing early December, it definitely is a highlight of the year for me. The game looks absolutely stunning, as you fly throughout the galaxy taking on missions and engaging in viscous dog fights against enemy pirates.
It takes a bit of getting used to the controls, which to be fair seems accurate if you're piloting a spacecraft - I doubt you can just jump in one of those and go! However, it's fun getting the hang of flying your ship, and a real sense of achievement when you start to master it. I assume anyway. I'm far from a master, but I'm getting better!
The story is compelling and although all of the gameplay is spaceship based, you can tell a lot of thought has gone into fleshing out Nara as a character which always makes games easier to come back to for more.
I'm looking forward to continuing my mission to hopefully take down The Circle! - Ben J
There was a lot of anticipation leading up to the release of Metroid Dread. It’s been over 10 years since the last entry in the series that wasn’t a remake or a spin-off and at times it’s felt like Nintendo had just forgotten about the franchise altogether. So when it was officially announced earlier this year, people were very excited and expectations were high.
As a huge Metroid fan, I’m glad to say it surpassed all expectations. The Metroid series spawned a whole subgenre of games (known as “Metroidvanias”, a portmanteau of Metroid and Castlevania) – and games like Hollow Knight and Ori and The Blind Forest have all taken inspiration from the series, but Dread has shown that Metroid is still king of it’s own genre.
I’m always amazed when developers are able to create immersive worlds in 2D – to make the player feel like they’re isolated on a huge alien world with treacherous climates and vicious monsters with only two dimensions is seriously impressive. Those monsters make for some really challenging boss fights too, that will not only test your reflexes, but will require you to use your head. Metroid Dread is easily my favourite game of the year, my favourite game on the Switch, and one of the best games I’ve ever played. - Myles
Before Your Eyes
The best games push the boundaries of what we think is possible. Whether that's an AAA title breaking new ground with an expansive world, rich AI and stunning graphics, or an indie title breaking the mould completely and giving us something we've never seen before.
I knew I wanted to make room in this list for the latter: Smaller titles that challenged my ideas about what games could be. For a while I thought this slot was going to The Artful Escape, which was loaded with musicality and felt more like an interactive concept album than a traditional game. But the game that moved me most was Before Your Eyes.
Before Your Eyes has you play as the recently deceased Benjamin Brynn, fished out of the river of souls and recollecting his life. The twist? The game uses your webcam as a method of control. When you blink, the memories of his life skip forward, and his life literally flashes before your eyes.
This design choice proves to be the game's masterstroke, putting you in the cutesy animated shoes of Benny as a baby, and letting your natural eye functions take you on a rich, emotional journey of discovery as he ages. Technology meets storytelling. Code meets art. This is what games can do.
It won't be for everyone, of course. It's short. You won't see it in a box on store shelves, and you don't get to shoot any aliens. Some would say it's not really a game at all, more of an experience or an interactive animated film. But it will remind you, if you're ever in doubt, how unique and poignant this medium can be. - Adam