The Best Video Games Of 2021 So Far

The Best Video Games Of 2021 So Far
Image: Square Enix

Let’s get this out of the way: Given all the ~everything~, simply releasing a game in 2021 is nothing short of a miracle. Every single one deserves a round of applause. But some, let’s face it, are better than others. As summer wraps, we thought it’d be fun to shine a light on the games that have excited us, moved us, and kept us going throughout a relentless and challenging year. Maybe you’d like to check them out, too.

We also fully recognise that time is precious, and that there’s no reasonable way you’ll ever be able to play all of these before the calendar strikes 2022 — at which point a whole other raft of excellent-looking games will start to trickle out, clamoring for your free moments. To that end, we’ve provided rough estimates for how long it’d take you to beat each game, citing figures from the eternally helpful howlongtobeat.com.

Here, in no particular order — well, save for Hitman 3 coming in first, obviously — are the best video games of 2021. So far.

This post has been updated since its original publication with more games.

Hitman 3

Image: Hitman 3
Image: Hitman 3
Screenshot: IO Interactive Screenshot: IO Interactive

You might think Hitman 3 is a stealth game, or an action game, or a third-person shooter with delightfully wacky weaponry. You’d be wrong. Hitman 3 is actually a puzzle game — and a brilliant one, at that. Over the course of six wide-open, wanderlust-stoking levels, you’re tasked with taking out a target (or set of targets). From there, the game stops holding your hand. How you score each kill is up to you. Maybe you prefer the old-fashioned way: poison or a sharp blade. Maybe you prefer something fancier, like luring your marks into a grape press. Whatever the solution, cracking the puzzle is always a thrill. Better yet, those who own the first two games in the “World of Assassination” trilogy — 2016’s Hitman and 2018’s Hitman 2 — will get an extra kick out of it: You can import all of your purchased levels into Hitman 3. Yes, they look a whole lot prettier.

Playable On: PS4, PS5, Xbox One, Xbox Series X/S, Nintendo Switch (via streaming), PC

Rough Average Playtime: 10.5 hours

Boyfriend Dungeon

Boyfriend Dungeon is a mix of two genres that don’t sound like they’d go well together: roguelike dungeon-crawling and visual-novel-style dating sim. In practice, the two gel seamlessly. Boyfriend Dungeon casts you as a newcomer to Verona Beach, a fictional but very California-looking town. In Verona Beach, some people can transform into weapons. You then team up with those people/weapons to work your way through progressively more difficult dungeons (“the dunj,” in game parlance) viewed from an isometric perspective. When you lose, you’re sent back to the start, though options to start runs at midway checkpoints reduce the potential for grind. The more often you team up with a person/weapon, the greater your bond will grow, which unlocks new powers and, at higher levels, lets you kiss them (on the lips). Boyfriend Dungeon is a thoroughly delightful game that’ll challenge your dexterity as much as it warms your heart.

Playable On: PC, Switch, Xbox One, Xbox Series X/S

Rough Average Playtime: 8 hours

Psychonauts 2

Image: Psychonauts 2
Image: Psychonauts 2

Psychonauts 2 isn’t just a really good platformer with some great-looking levels and fun combat. It’s also an emotional and moving piece of art that has a lot to say about how people change, how there’s a touch of darkness buried in all of us, and how there’s hope that no one is truly a lost cause, that even the most evil assholes might be worth saving. (Well, maybe.) It’s the kind of game we don’t get very often and it should be played ASAP, even if you only care about jumping and fighting. Because, as mentioned, that part of it is very good too.

Playable On: PC, PS4, Xbox One, Xbox Series X/S

Rough Average Playtime: 20 hours

Opus: Echo of Starsong

Opus: Echo of Starsong is a roughly 10-hour game that feels like a 40-hour game, which is absolutely a compliment. Its lore and characters are so well-written that its world feels a lot larger than it really is. This cinematic space opera puzzle game will have you crying multiple times before you hit the final chapter. The audio-based puzzles are simple and intuitive, and they feel meditative instead of frustrating. The evocative soundtrack toes the line between gorgeous and haunting, too. If you routinely comb over Destiny wikis and you enjoy being emotionally punched in the diaphragm at least five different times, then Opus: Echo of Starsong is the game for you.

Playable On: PC

Rough Average Playtime: 7 hours

No More Heroes 3

No More Heroes 3 is the latest trip from Goichi “Suda51″ Suda, who directed, designed, and wrote the game. The folks at Grasshopper Manufacture inject every game they make with layer upon layer of symbolism, surrealism, and absurdity, and No More Heroes 3 is no different. Aliens have invaded Earth and it’s up to Travis Touchdown to demolish their hierarchy rank-by-rank in an exercise that’s part game, part life-or-death battle. Like previous games, No More Heroes 3 provides a steady barrage of chaotic ultra-violence punctuated with sophomoric, slapstick humor. No More Heroes 3 is bursting with all the creativity one would expect from a Grasshopper Manufacture project thanks to the passion the studio so obviously has for making games. And while not perfect on the technical front, tight combat and aesthetic flourishes make it one of the most engrossing and self-assured releases of the last decade.

Playable On: Switch

Rough Average Playtime: 15 hours

Life is Strange: True Colors

When Deck Nine revealed it would take over the Life is Strange series after Dontnod developed the first two mainline games, many fans were likely concerned whether the latest entry, Life is Strange: True Colors, would live up to the series’s legacy. Well, Life is Strange: True Colors might be the best in the series. It recaptures what its predecessors got right with a compelling story and characters, an excellent soundtrack, and a unique supernatural ability (basically, heightened empathy) that roots its gameplay. But it does each of these things better than the previous games while changing things up. Gone are the months-long waits for episodic releases and the cringe-filled dialogue now associated with the franchise. It’s a short game you can finish in 10 to 15 hours, making it easy to check out. And you definitely should, especially if you loved the first game but were lukewarm on the second.

Playable On: PC, PS4, PS5, Xbox One, Xbox Series X/S

Rough Average Playtime: 11 hours

Deathloop

deathloop
Image: Bethesda / Arkane

Deathloop is a messy first-person shooter with a lot going on—too much perhaps. To say it’s flawed would be an understatement. To just say that it’s only great would be, too. Deathloop is a grindy affair that’s easy to lose your way in but, once you find your footing and overcome the limits of its time-loop concept, there’s no shortage of things to explore, uncover, and marvel at. Arkane’s latest immersive sim deploys stunning art direction and clever world-building, then lets you run amok in it with some weighty, top-notch guns and an even more thrilling array of physical maneuvers and paranormal powers. It’s not the best game out this year, but it is one of the most exhilarating. You’ll keep thinking about it long after you’ve put it down.

Playable On: PC, PS4, PS5

Rough Average Playtime: 17.5 hours

Splitgate

splitgate tips
Image: 1047 Games

Games have tried and failed to bring back the arena shooter vibe, with audiences stubbornly staying to classic franchises like Call of Duty or Halo. But Splitgate is the one game that might actually break the mould, courtesy of how well its design actually works. On the surface, it’s just Halo with portals. In practice, it’s one of the most frenetic and vibrant additions to a multiplayer shooter in years, with enough excellent level design to provide a breath of fresh air the genre has needed for years. Bonus: it’s free-to-play on all platforms. – Alex Walker

Playable on: PC, PS4, PS5, Xbox, Xbox Series S & X

Rough Average Playtime: As long as you want

Monster Hunter Rise

monster hunter rise

There were fears the Monster Hunter series was being “cut down” to be playable on the Switch, considering the vast improvements and expansion the series had seen in Monster Hunter WorldRise showed that wasn’t the case. Sure, the world maps might have been smaller than World, and the quality of textures at times won’t impress graphics nerds. But for people who grew up with Monster Hunter as a handheld franchise, Rise was an out and out triumph. It’s also the most accessible game in the franchise, with some smart reworking of weapons to make them more usable, more concessions for newer players and smart changes to the UI to make it readable on the Switch hardware. Don’t hold off for Rise to come to PC: it’s absolutely brilliant right now. – Alex Walker

Playable On: Switch

Rough Average Playtime: About 20 hours for the “main” story, and anywhere from 60 to 140 hours for the rest

Barotrauma

barotrauma
Image: FakeFish/Undertow Games

It’s still in early access, but Barotrauma‘s combination of underwater horror, Terraria-like inventory management, submarine maintenance that grows on you and slowly drawn out traitor mechanics with freaky clowns is some of the best chaotic entertainment all year. The general idea is to run missions with your sub, reactivating external beacons, searching alien ruins, clearing out underwater nests while constantly dealing with the creaking walls of your hull. There’s just enough complication in the movement and interactions on the sub, and plenty of chaos outside of it, that makes it stick. Plus, a wide mix of multiplayer modes (co-operative or otherwise), some great proximity voice chat and a D&D style campaign offering provides more than enough value. – Alex Walker

Playable On: PC

Average Playable Time: That’s up to you

Returnal

Screenshot: Housemarque / Kotaku Screenshot: Housemarque / Kotaku

The best thing a roguelike can do is make you feel like a badass. Even when you die — and you will die, no question — Returnal drives home the notion that you could single-handedly take on an armada of malevolent glowing tentacle monsters. You probably just need to be a bit more careful next time. Returnal casts you as a wayward interstellar scout and drops you on a shape-shifting planet. Every time you die, you’re zipped back to the room you start in, all of your gear absent. Then, it’s back to the grind, a mixture of shooting, looting, jumping, dashing, and hook-shotting that feels so good you can’t help but kick off one more run, whether it’s 3:00 p.m. or a.m. And that’s to say nothing of the genuinely brain-tickling things it does with the fancy DualSense controller.

Playable On: PS5

Rough Average Playtime: 28 hours

Scarlet Nexus

Screenshot: Bandai Namco / Kotaku Screenshot: Bandai Namco / Kotaku

At first glance, Scarlet Nexus looks a whole lot like it belongs in Bandai Namco’s long-running Tales series. To be sure, the art is similar. As are the overarching themes and even the music. But Scarlet Nexus is more fucked up than anything in the Tales series, thanks to a twist-packed plot full of rival nations and nightmarish mushroom monsters that love nothing more than a warm meal of human brains. And that plot unfolds across a dual storyline, each seen from the perspective of one of two equally compelling characters. In Scarlet Nexus, both plotlines are essential. Plus, the battle cocktail — a dizzying alchemy of hack-and-slash combat, real-time party commands, and thrilling psychokinetic abilities — is so potent that it remains a delight from start to finish.

Playable On: PS4, PS5, Xbox One, Xbox Series X/S, PC

Rough Average Playtime: 31.5 hours

Maquette

Screenshot: Graceful Decay / Kotaku Screenshot: Graceful Decay / Kotaku

The puzzle game Maquette challenges your heart as much as your head. Set in a dreamlike, San Francisco-inspired realm nested between smaller and larger versions of itself, your goal is simply to pick things up and put them down, which is a whole lot more complicated than it sounds. Any changes you make in the “small” world affect the “big” world and the “normal” world, too, turning every puzzle into a multi-pronged spatial problem. Throughout, you’ll get a front-row seat to a narrated yarn about a couple (voiced by IRL couple Bryce Dallas Howard and Seth Gabel) during every stage of their relationship. Yes, Maquette is at its core a love story that strives to say a lot — about how easily a small spark can ignite a roiling romantic fire, how that fire can burn incandescently and nigh indefinitely, how it consumes all the oxygen in the room until, one day, that oxygen’s all used up and the fire goes out, leaving nothing but an unlit space, almost comforting in its cold grace — and succeeds in doing so. Killer soundtrack, too.

Playable On: PS4, PS5, PC

Rough Average Playtime: 4 hours

Resident Evil Village

Screenshot: Capcom Screenshot: Capcom

Resident Evil Village is amazing because it knows exactly what it is. Sure, “what it is” is a hectic, uneven rollercoaster ride involving werewolves, vampires, frankensteins, and (of course) stand-ins for the survival horror series’ requisite zombies, but Capcom leaned so earnestly into those tropes that it’s hard not to respect the chutzpah the devs showed in just Going For It.

It also helps that Resident Evil Village is just an all-around good video game. Ethan learned a thing or two about fighting off monsters since his trip to the swampy Baker homestead, making for an experience that imbues the effectively creepy atmosphere with the best aspects of the series’ action-heavy games. Even if the last few months hadn’t seen such a dearth of releases, we’re sure Resident Evil Village would still stand among the best we’ve seen. — Ian Walker

Playable On: PS4, PS5, Xbox One, Xbox Series X/S, PC

Rough Average Playtime: 11 hours

Highfleet

Screenshot: MicroProse Screenshot: MicroProse

An intentionally brutal mix of fleet strategy and arcade action, Highfleet is what happens when you cross Sid Meier’s Pirates! with the 1992 Dune adventure game. Which is a sentence you probably never thought you’d read, but then Highfleet is unlike any other game you’ve played, either. It’ll kick your arse, and annoy you, and frustrate you at every turn, but you’re being asked to pilot rusty old airships through a desert warzone. That’s just how it goes.

Playable On: PC

Rough Average Playtime: N/A

Cozy Grove

Screenshot: Spry Fox Screenshot: Spry Fox

Cozy Grove is one of the most delightful games out there. It follows in the footsteps of Stardew Valley and Animal Crossing. Like the latter, the game operates in real time, changing as the day turns to night. Cozy Grove invites you to check in each day, but it’s much better about not overwhelming players. There are certain objectives you can do each day, but once that’s done, it’s easier to put the game down rather than sinking hours into it and burning yourself out. The objectives also give the game so much heart. You’re tasked with helping spirits on the island of Cozy Grove, getting to know each of their stories, failures, regrets, and successes. Even snippets of conversation are impactful, and the game keeps a funny wit about it without getting too heavy.

Playable On: PS4, Xbox One, PC, Nintendo Switch, iOS (also via Apple Arcade)

Rough Average Playtime: 72.5 hours

Scarlet Hollow

Screenshot: Black Tabby Games Screenshot: Black Tabby Games

Existing in the barely explored realms that lie between the visual novel, interactive fiction, and RPGs, Scarlet Hollow is a slow-burn horror adventure set in the backwoods of South Carolina. Arriving in town to attend an estranged aunt’s funeral, you slowly find yourself embroiled in a peculiar tale of suspicious locals, family rivalries, and unnerving nighttime creatures. What’s so impressive here isn’t just the stunning writing and meticulous illustration by comic creator Abby Howard, but the degree of variety on offer. How you experience so much of the story is based on the special skills you choose at the start — you might be extremely attractive or strong, “mystical” or able to talk to animals. Then there are all the dialogue choices you make, the way you behave to certain people, and decisions you make that determine if certain characters live or die. Two chapters are out now, from a total of seven that will release between now and 2023. Developers Black Tabby Games are showing Inkle (Sorcery!, Heaven’s Vault) levels of skill here, with a spooky story that’ll pull you deep in.

Playable On: PC

Rough Average Playtime: 2 hours

It Takes Two

Screenshot: Hazelight / EA Screenshot: Hazelight / EA

Would you believe that the co-op game It Takes Two is actually many, many different games in one? Well, it’s true. Sort of. See, what makes this co-op only adventure so much fun is the sheer amount of variety it tosses at you. One moment you’re fighting enemies with nails and hammers, the next you’re flying around a giant tree, then you’re flung into space. It’s a treat to play and, because you have to play with another person (the game doesn’t have a solo option), you get all the benefits of experiencing this wonderful game with someone else. You’ll have stories to tell and inside jokes for days after playing It Takes Two. Just try to ignore some of the uh…darker story moments. Like the part with a bear. *Shivers* That shit was fucked up.

Playable On: PS4, PS5, Xbox One, Xbox Series X/S, PC

Rough Average Playtime: 13 hours

Bravely Default 2

Screenshot: Square Enix / Kotaku Screenshot: Square Enix / Kotaku

Bravely Default 2 is a turn-based RPG that corrals four plucky heroes into saving the world by collecting a bunch of crystals. In other words, yes, it’s made by Square Enix. The high-risk, high-reward battle system of prior entries returns. It’s built out by a Final Fantasy XII-esque job system with more than 20 jobs, each of which features different skills, perks, and weapon affinities, and gels differently across your party. As such, mixing and matching jobs and sub-jobs across characters is a brain-bending game unto itself, particularly for players who tend to obsess over the tiniest differentials in numbers. All told, it feels like a classic JRPG, made in 2021. What is old is new again, and it rules. There’s only one problem, and it’s likely only a problem for some: This game never freakin’ ends.

Playable On: Nintendo Switch

Rough Average Playtime: 67 hours

Ratchet Clank: Rift Apart

Screenshot: Insomniac Screenshot: Insomniac

Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart doesn’t exactly upend Ratchet & Clank fundamentals. But man, are those fundamentals in fine form. It is still, as ever, a rock-solid, light-hearted action platformer with razor-sharp wit. The series’ penchant for creative, out-of-the-box weapons hasn’t gone anywhere. (To wit: A gun that shoots a pair of murder fungus bots, or one that turns all of your foes into plants.) There’s now a rift mechanic, which allows you to zip across battlefields in a literal blink. But best of all, there’s a new character, Rivet, who expertly takes centre stage from the timeless Lombax — and who serves as an easy onboarding for newcomers, a stand-in for those trying to quickly get up to speed on a long-running series.

Playable On: PS5

Rough Average Playtime: 15.5 hours

Loop Hero

Screenshot: Devolver Digital Screenshot: Devolver Digital

Who knew watching a little 8-bit-lookin’ sprite walk around in a circle could be such a thrill? There are a bunch of ways to describe Loop Hero because it borrows from a bunch of different genres, but in isolation none of those descriptors do it justice. It’s a turn-based RPG where you manage risk and reward, a roguelite where random chance breeds long-term success, and a deck-builder that lets you continually create new worlds — and then smash them into bits. It’s also much more than any of those things: a dread-filled, magic-fuelled Rube Goldberg machine where strategic nudges and new discoveries unlock the potential to not just save the world but craft a better one.

Playable On: PC

Rough Average Playtime: 36 hours

Pokémon Unite

Screenshot: Nintendo Screenshot: Nintendo

Pokemon Unite is a toughie. The monetisation, which allows players to buy item upgrades to improve gameplay, sucks. The level cap ensures it’s a temporary problem, but still, it’s there.

But hiding underneath that is a stellar tactics game that takes the most compelling aspects of a MOBA, streamlines them, and makes them fun. Gone are the long and messy matches common to the genre where you feel like you’re staring into the abyss. Teamwork is still crucial to getting the objective, but filling roles is actually awesome. Every Pokemon is compelling to play, so it’s easy to gain a new appreciation for underrated monsters like Eldegoss and Crustle. And TiMi Studio Group seems committed to treating this as a full service game, complete with weekly patches and hotfixes, along with regular additions like characters and cosmetics. Couple all of this with an extensive reward system that helps you unlock new fighters and embellishments, and you’re bound to find a new daily go-to with Discord pals.

Playable On: Nintendo Switch

Rough Average Playtime: Hahahaha

Chicory: A Colourful Tale

Screenshot: Finji Screenshot: Finji

In Chicory: A Colourful Tale, you play as an adorable anthropomorphic dog who suddenly finds themselves shouldered with the responsibility of restoring colour to a colourless world. Using a magic paintbrush that turns the world into your canvas, you can carefully colour within the lines or (way more fun!) splatter the land with big, bold streaks and splotches. In response, the world comes alive. Plants and trees flourish, elevating you to new heights or flinging you to otherwise unreachable areas. Chicory is full of endearing characters to aid and quests to complete, but it’s also a game that revels in the act of creative play for its own sake. The narrative and gameplay mesh perfectly to create a game with surprisingly profound things to say about the subjectivity of art and beauty, and the bravery it takes to trust yourself enough to create something of your own and put it out into the world.

Playable On: PS4, PS5, PC

Rough Average Playtime: 13.5 hours

Death’s Door

Screenshot: Devolver Digital Screenshot: Devolver Digital

Acid Nerve’s minimalist riff on The Legend of Zelda creeps up on you. Death’s Door is slow, lonely, and a hundred shades of grey at first. But then its rich world and the subtle secrets hidden therein begin to unfurl like a carefully wound clock in the way only a small indie game crafted by fewer than a dozen people can. You play as a workaholic crow in a bureaucracy of grim reapers collecting the souls of creatures both big and small until you’ve built up enough of an arsenal to unlock one final door that will shed light on the truth about existence, mortality, and regret. Heavy stuff encased in a beautifully arcade-action wrapper that makes staring into the abyss fun. Lots of games try to do what Death’s Door does, but almost none of them do each individual part as well, or culminate in a maze that’s as rewarding to get lost in as it is to finally escape.

Playable On: Xbox One, Xbox Series X/S, PC

Rough Average Playtime: 10.5 hours

Comments

  • Mass Effect Legendary Edition. Funny that a remaster of a nearly decade old trilogy is one of the best titles released this year.

    • Life is Strange: True Colours is fantastic as well. Really solid experience and definitely vies with LiS/BtS for best of the series.

  • Some of the most fun I have had this year is Godfall. It is one of those times when I was glad I didnt listen to the masses. Sure it came out in November but I have only just started playing since Lightthingie, when I believe the game realised its full potential. Sure the story is like 2/10 but the self-sustaining looter package that can entirely be played offline is easy a 9/10, especially it terms how all the activities feed into each other. Then the combat that feels terrible in the first hours, is like 9.5/10 after you learn the systems and the gear.

  • I’ve actually really enjoyed Psychonauts 2. It’s not GOTY material by any stretch, but it’s a fun single player game that you can just chill out to and enjoy the ride (thanks to various difficulty sliders).

    Embarrassingly, it looks like I’ve actually sunk more hours into Outriders this year than any other game, but that’s mainly due to being in lockdown and it being a good way to catch up with friends and chat..

    • Completely disagree about Psychonauts 2 not being GOTY material. It is easily my current front runner for GOTY. Nothing has come close to its pure creativity and charming writing.

  • I love Tencent Games and TiMi Studio’s Pokemon Unite but rough playtime is no laughing matter this is serious stuff because by competing in battles with you’re chosen Pokemon you’re not only earning Aeos coins to purchase more Pokemon from the Unite Battle Committee you’re also levelling up your trainer to collect Aeos tickets and Aeos coins.
    I’ve already unlocked some Pokemon when the game first got released on Nintendo Switch back in July.
    I have some more Pokemon I need to unlock like the next Pokemon I’m going to unlock is Blastoise and I’ve also unlocked the pirate costume for Cinderace a generation VIII Pokemon that was first introduced when Pokemon Sword and Shield came out back in 2019.
    I’m going to keep playing Pokemon Unite and unlock some more Pokemon and some more Holowear skins for Pokemon before the mobile version of Pokemon Unite comes out later this month on September 22 as I’ve already pre-registered for Pokemon Unite on my Android smartphone to get the festival style skin for Pikachu since the number of pre-registrations for Pokemon Unite have already reached 5 million all I need to do now is complete the online log-in event in the mobile version of Pokemon Unite before the end of October to receive that reward the festival style skin for Pikachu and link the mobile version to the Nintendo Switch to use Zeraora in the mobile version of Pokemon Unite as well.

  • Fans of the Bravely Series hoping for any sort of narrative continuation from Bravely Second (regarding the you-know-what) will be left somewhat disappointed.

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