The time has come once again to look back on the games we played in 2021 and divine our favourite Australian games of 2021. After hours of deliberation in the Kotaku Australia slack, here are the ten games from Australia and New Zealand that made the cut in 2021.
And truly, what a year in Aussie games. 2021 saw the release of some of the greatest games both nations have ever produced. Below are the games that resonated with us, and the ones that brought us back again and again. They’re the ones that left us thinking about them when we weren’t playing them, and the ones that made us want to talk to the people who made them. These are our Australian games of the year. Let’s get into it.
10. Fantasy Town Regional Manager
Fantasy Town Regional Manager is a low-fi city builder that blends management genre tropes with collectible-card game mechanics. Cards along the bottom edge of your screen will show you which buildings you can construct, and how much they’ll cost. A greater variety of buildings attracts people to your town, and with new arrivals comes a skilled workforce. Skilled townspeople include arcanists, brawlers, outsiders, performers and diviners, each with their own skills. The more of them you have in your town, the greater the benefits they provide. Consider also that your town has a defence score. That number provides an at-a-glance view of your readiness to repel invaders. This is a lovely little game with clear stakes and a well-tuned learning curve. Well worth checking out. — David Smith
Fantasy Town Regional Manager is available now on Windows PC, Mac OS, and Linux.
9. Grow: Song of the Evertree
Grow: Song Of The Evertree comes from Brisbane-based studio Prideful Sloth and has been a heartwarming and beautiful addition to the Australian-made game library this year. The cartoonish graphics are lovely to see, with the in-game camera allowing you to capture it all in its glory. While the gameplay is meaty and there’s plenty to do, the game has go-at-your-own-pace energy that encourages you to get things done in your own time. The music, composed by Kevin Penkin who also worked on previous Australian game of the year contenders Florence, Necrobarista, and various anime soundtracks, is absolutely gorgeous and compliments the game in a really special way. It’s a game about taking care of the world around you and showing love and compassion to the flora and fauna of the land. Really something else. — Ruby Innes
Editor’s note: Ruby asked me to include this picture of her avatar and her cool in-game dog. Here it is. —David.
Grow: Song of the Evertree is available now on Windows PC, Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, and Xbox One.
8. Hell Let Loose
In a year already awash in major military shooters, Black Matter’s Hell Let Loose set itself apart by taking a hard, almost-simulation level to World War II combat. 50 v 50 teams are released onto large maps across the European theatre. Each team is broken down into smaller troop detachments. Detachments include six-person rifle squads, three-person armoured squads, or two-person recon squads. From there, it’s about properly fulfilling your role, working with your detachment, and securing your objectives. In Warfare mode, either team must secure and control the entire map to claim victory. In Offense mode, a conquered map is handed to one of the two teams and must be defended against the other. Where Call of Duty Vanguard and Battlefield 2042 have been met with gripes from their communities for various issues, fans of the genre are enamoured with Hell Let Loose. They love its more realistic approach, and its tactical, slow-burn pace. To relegate this to the “just another military shooter” pile is to do it a tremendous disservice. If you’re interested in the genre at all, please make time for Hell Let Loose. This doesn’t just rank highly among the Australian games of 2021, it’s going to be in a lot of GOTY lists worldwide. — David Smith
Hell Let Loose is available now on Windows PC, PlayStation 5, and Xbox Series X|S.
7. Trigger Witch
A pitch: what if A Link to the Past got mashed up with Enter the Gungeon? Interest piqued? You should try Trigger Witch from Auckland developer Rainbite. This is a fast, enjoyable twin-stick shooter that evokes classic SNES RPG visuals with the shmup-inspired gameplay of Gungeon. Fight your way from dungeon to dungeon as its wailing rock soundtrack spurs you ever onward. Better yet, it also has cooperative play so you can murder your way across its adorable fantasy world with a friend! As a genre-melting pot, Trigger Witch is all about breaking the mould. If the idea of deconstructing the SNES-era RPG this way grates, that’s almost certainly the point. It’s a bit like slashing a timeless piece of art — you recoil at first, but is there not also inherent artistic value in that slashed canvas? Perhaps. Anyway, here’s a magic shotgun. — David Smith
Trigger Witch is available now on PlayStation 5, Xbox Series X|S, Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, and Xbox One.
6. Umurangi Generation (Switch)
Before you head into the comments to complain, yes, we know that Umurangi Generation is technically a 2020 title. The reason we’re including it on our 2021 list is that it got a release on Switch this year that brought a lot of new players to it and, to us, that counts. The other reason for including it here is that some of you still might not have heard of it, and frankly, that won’t do. A first-person photography game by Origame Digital, set in Tauranga, Aotearoa, Umurangi Generation depicts a near-future New Zealand. You are a Māori courier for the Tauranga Express, delivering packages and taking photos amid an escalating national crisis. Aliens that resemble bluebottle jellyfish are invading cities around the nation. These cities are being walled off to protect their citizens, and the United Nations has deployed giant mecha to stop the aliens for good. I won’t spoil any more than that because you owe it to yourself to play it and watch the game unfurl its beautiful, haunting story before you. Gorgeous work from a team to keep an eye on. — David Smith
Umurangi Generation is available now on Windows PC and Nintendo Switch.
5. The Artful Escape
The Artful Escape was an incredible work of passion from Melbourne-based studio Beethoven & Dinosaur and another absolute banger from publisher Annapurna Interactive. Following the nephew of a country music legend, you embark on a journey of not just self-discovery but also self-actualisation, giving you a guitar and platforming levels to rock out in. Controls-wise the game is a bit of a walking sim, but its sound design is incredible, its universe is densely packed and its characters are very heartfelt. It also carries a strong message about living up and standing up to the legacy of those who came before you. — Zac Kelly
The Artful Escape is available now on Windows PC, Xbox Series X|S, Xbox One, iOS, Mac OS, and Linux.
4. Base One
Base One is a game doing a lot of different things. It’s a space station builder, but it’s also a hardcore survival game. It’s also an RPG. I know. That’s doing a lot at once, but hear me out: it’s really good. Developed by Pixfroze and published by Blowfish, Base One makes an immediate impression. Its unique genre blend seems like it may be hard to get your head around at first, but this collapses as you begin to play. The core of the experience, the building of your space station, is the most important aspect. Expanding your station to fill your space efficiently, while ensuring you have the correct amenities to keep your people alive is a juggling act. Just know that when it all goes wrong, and your playthrough will go wrong eventually, you’ll feel about as stressed as you’ve ever felt. And always be cautious around ships that want to dock with your station. One of the year’s sweetest surprises. — David Smith
Base One is available on Windows PC and Mac OS. PlayStation, Xbox, and Nintendo Switch versions are on the way.
3. Heavenly Bodies
Heavenly Bodies is a game that marries the delicate task of maintaining space station components with the unwieldy ragdolling of games like KWOP. You are an astronaut aboard a space station in high orbit. Your job is to don a spacesuit, build the necessary components the station requires, and install them where required.
Developer 2pt Interactive perfectly captures the awkwardness of zero gravity inertia as you continually reorient yourself to better tackle the task at hand. As you progress, the jobs become more complex, and the physics of solving them more intricate.
If we can take a moment to shout out the way the game animates your astronaut too? The way they shift their weight when catching a ledge, or heaving themselves around to head off an escaping part is so … human. It’s hard to describe the workmanlike way this little person moves. It’s a feeling, you can feel their blue-collar I’m So Done With This expression right through their opaque visor. Fun. Inventive. Play it. —David Smith
Heavenly Bodies is available on Windows PC, PlayStation 5, PlayStation 4, and Mac OS.
2. The Forgotten City
2021 was the year of the time loop game. When the market is suddenly packed with interesting riffs on your concept, you have to work that much harder to stand out. The Forgotten City doesn’t merely stand out, it leaves a mark on you.
Transported into an underground Ancient Roman city lost to time, it’s up to you to figure out how to escape. The rules for surviving in this forgotten city are clear: Don’t break the law. Breaking the law will result in the instant, cataclysmic destruction of the entire city. Instant, cataclysmic destruction will end your run and you will have to start again.
As with most time loop games, each run arms you with an ever-greater pool of knowledge to draw from. You never actually fail, you just accrue more knowledge for next time, and knowledge is power.
Created by Melbourne’s Modern Storyteller from their popular Skyrim mod of the same name, The Forgotten City is a remarkable debut game from a developer to watch. — David Smith
The Forgotten City is available on PlayStation 5, Xbox, Windows PC via Steam, Nintendo Switch, and PlayStation 4.
When I started asking around the office about our favourite Australia games of 2021, Unpacking was the unanimous pick.
Unpacking is a game that stole hearts and minds from the moment people heard about it. Brisbane’s Witch Beam has created one of the year’s best narrative games, cloaking it in the trappings of a zen puzzle game. Players inhabit the game’s protagonist in the aftermath of numerous, tumultuous life moments. The game’s primary mechanic, opening moving boxes, unpacking their contents, and arranging everything just so, is cleverly used to communicate life developments. Which belongings survived each successive move? Which haven’t?
If you’ve played Unpacking already, you’ll be familiar with its numerous narrative punches — some sweet, some utterly devastating. Its most skilful trick is giving the player everything they need to put the ups and downs of its story together without ever saying a word. I said in my review that I felt Unpacking and its approach to narrative design would be used in future game dev courses and I stand by that.
All this, and we haven’t even touched on the game’s stellar pixel artwork or its gorgeous, breathing score by Jeff van Dyck.
Unpacking is extraordinary work from a small team with big ideas and even greater talent. It not only has something important to say, but it finds a way to say it we’d never seen before.
That’s why Unpacking is Kotaku Australia’s ANZ Game of the Year for 2021. — David Smith
Unpacking is available on PC via Steam, Xbox, and Nintendo Switch.