Putting a Top 10 Games of 2021 piece together this year was as hard as it’s ever been. With so many new games launching every year, it’s harder than ever to keep up let alone drop enough time into each individual game. To whittle them down to just ten titles I loved the most has this year felt like a nearly insurmountable task.
I’ve spent time these last few weeks dipping back into the list of games I’d selected as my Top 10 Games of 2021 candidates. Slowly, surely, sometimes painfully, I’ve whittled down the list until I could confidently say that these are the ten games that brought me the most joy throughout the year.
I’ve made the decision to present them in no particular order. I decided to do this because enumerating them might cause my skull to cave in, so highly do I regard each game.
Below my personal top ten, you’ll find my runners up, a collection of games that just missed the top 10 for one reason or another.
When IO Interactive’s Hitman 3 launched last year, it closed the book on a game design vision that spanned an entire hardware generation. IO had not only created the most intricately designed puzzle-box this series has ever had, but it also united both previous series titles under a single heading. This is a series that survived an initial episodic model, an ousting by a major publisher, and IO’s decision to become an independent studio. Despite all the hurdles, the most important arc in the Hitman franchise’s 21-year history is complete.
While its story didn’t quite stick the landing, it made up for it the most detailed world of assassination the series has ever seen. Players could feed all of the content from Hitman and Hitman 2 into Hitman 3 to create a single, massive spy thriller with hours of replayability. Better still, older levels would be upgraded to work in newer systems added in Hitman 3 to create a single, cohesive experience. A magnum opus two decades in the making.
Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart
If Nintendo remains the masters of the 3D platformer, Insomniac must then be the masters of the 3D character action game. Fresh from the success of 2020’s Spider-Man: Miles Morales, Insomniac’s next move was to return to an old stand-by. By turns cartoonish, explosive and surprisingly affecting, Rift Apart was somehow both more of the same for the series, and a bold departure from the norm. Two playable characters, a host of new weapons, and a portal mechanic that remained shocking fluid even as it bounced players from world to world in real-time made this one of the best first-year titles for a new console ever made.
The Forgotten City
Much like the denizens of The Forgotten City‘s lost Roman metropolis, I wish I could flush my memories of having played this game so I could enjoy it again for the first time. Modern Storyteller’s world-beating Skyrim mod became a fully-fledged game, and the result is a time loop game that stands out in a year packed with them.
The city lives under the yoke of The Golden Rule — if any one person sins, no matter how small, it will result in the city’s immediate destruction and every citizen will be turned into gold statues. The thing is, no one seems able to say with any certainty what constitutes a sin and what doesn’t. Contradictions abound, and some events that seem like a slam dunk sin go curiously unpunished. It’s up to you to piece all the information together and escape The Forgotten City yourself. If you stuff it all up and destroy the city, no problem you can always try again, armed with new information gleaned from each successive run. A brilliant game from a team based right here in Australia.
More time loops! Housemarque’s final game before becoming a first-party PlayStation studio, Returnal is a moody sci-fi thriller about an astro scout named Selene. Stranded on a strange planet, Selene embarks on a hunt for the White Shadow and inadvertently finds herself stuck in a time loop. With each death, she is resurrected and begins her journey anew.
Returnal‘s major hook is that it is a third-person shooter with a decidedly arcade mechanical sensibility. Enemy fire comes in waves and patterns similar to that of an arcade shmup. Given the game hinges a large part of its design on procedurally generated levels and randomised enemy encounters, memorising their attack patterns is one of your best defences.
Double Fine has always felt, to me at least, like a studio that struggled to execute on its most exciting ideas. All of its games are so clever and creative in terms of character, narrative, and art design, but always struggled to tie them to satisfying gameplay. The original Psychonauts was a wildly inventive character platformer that took mental health seriously but battled against wobbly controls. Brutal Legend remains one of my favourite video game concepts ever, but its abrupt and unannounced pivot to a clunky real-time strategy brought the thing down. Broken Age is a beautiful coming-of-age story that starts strong, but comes apart at the seams in its second act.
Psychonauts 2 feels like the game Double Fine has been trying to make for years. With the time, the creative room, and, perhaps crucially, budget to push itself above and beyond its station as a premiere AA studio, Psychonauts 2 finally cracks DF’s gameplay problem. As heartfelt, funny, and whip-smart as Double Fine has ever been, Psychonauts 2‘s real triumph is that it combines a serious and sympathetic look at mental illness with adventure gameplay that signs. It’s a triumph and one that’s been a long time coming for Double Fine.
More time loops! If you’ve followed by writing for any length of time, you might know that I’ve not historically been a huge fan of Arkane’s games. I know. Heretical in the modern age. I thought Prey was fine but Dishonored never clicked for me. Deathloop is the first of Arkane’s modern slate to win me over. A soaring combination of exploitation pulp, run-to-run knowledge gain, great character work, and a multiplayer hook that had me on permanent tenterhooks, Deathloop drew me in quickly and held me in its grip until I blasted through an exhilarating final run and rolled credits.
I loved Deathloop for many of the reasons I’ve come to adore IO’s Hitman. There’s no serious punishment for failure, and you can always try again. The game’s very nature encourages experimentation and rewards a willingness to get off the golden path to poke at its dark and murky edges. Brilliant stuff.
Getting to place the triumphant return of 2D Metroid on my Top 10 Games of 2021 list is a special treat. In a market drenched in high-quality spins on the Metroidvania genre, it’s comforting to know that it’s still hard to beat the real thing. Metroid Dread is canonically the fifth game in the series, with 2002’s Metroid Fusion considered its direct predecessor. The Galactic Federation discovers that dangerous X parasites had survived Fusion‘s finale, catching sight of one on the planet ZDR. Bounty hunter Samus Aran is sent to investigate.
What follows is premium, top-tier classic Metroid. Dread by name and dread by nature, it evokes a sense of simmering fear throughout. Metroid is a game that thrives on exploration, rewarding players that push boldly into new areas. Dread deliberately pushes back on that, hounding the player with hunter-killer EMMI robots and more. To see the Metroid franchise mount such a strong comeback after so many years on the bench does my heart good. When Nintendo leaves things long enough, you start to worry they might not ever return, and I couldn’t be more pleased to have this franchise safe and sound.
One of the best games of 2021, Unpacking by Brisbane studio Witch Beam took social media by storm. A masterclass in the storytelling conceit of “show, don’t tell”, Unpacking gives the player everything they need to figure the story out but remains quiet until the end of each level. In this way, it allows the player to come to its most poignant and affecting beats on their own, heightening their impact. Its pixel art aesthetic is clear and readable, and its lilting, gentle score communicates the Fresh Start feeling of moving into a new home. Inspired, thoughtful design from a local studio to watch.
Forza Horizon 5
Xbox rounded out 2021 with a pair of high profile titles, signalling that its dog days are finally over. Forza Horizon 5 slotted into what would have traditionally been the Forza Motorsport franchise’s year with what is easily its best entry since Forza Horizon 2. FH5‘s Mexico is a gorgeous playground, rewarding exploration and the joy of the test drive every bit as much as controlled racecraft.
Though wheelspin rewards are still present and front-loaded with useless avatar ephemera, they feel like they’ve been tweaked to reward cars and cash more often, and that makes all the difference. The heart of the Forza Horizon experience is taking beautiful cars on a reckless joyride. FH5 recommits itself to that ideal and is a far greater game for it.
Considering how recently its campaign arrived, it might feel a bit strange to be including Halo Infinite in my Top 10 Games of 2021, but I truly believe it deserves its spot.
The second of Xbox’s year-end blockbusters sees 343 Industries finally find its footing with the Halo franchise. Though the campaign moves to an open-world design, the moment-to-moment combat remains as kinetic and satisfying as ever. The campaign feels like the first time 343 has nailed down the Halo formula since taking the reigns on Halo 4. Movement, enemies, the arenas and little combat theatres, even changes like the grappling hook, all work in concert to create something that feels authentically Halo in ways its predecessors have struggled with.
Its multiplayer, beyond the ill-conceived battle pass, displays equally strong fundamentals and will stay in my regular games night rotation as new content finds its way in. To have a chunky, old-school FPS multiplayer in a world of insta-kill shooters like CoD or Battlefield feels great. May it only grow.
Top Games of 2021 Runners Up:
There were quite a few games that narrowly missed getting into this list. Because the holidays are upon me, I’ve run out of time to write about them all but here they are, also in no particular order: