2021 was a year when the best games I played were the ones I never even saw coming. I emerge from my third hour of sleep playing Far Cry 6 (it felt like thirty hours) and there are all these other fantastic indie games – games that challenge you and reward you – banging a giant cymbal over my head.
In a year of rehashes and remakes, I found that I’m honestly a bit tired of eating last night’s reheated baked potato. My top 10 games this year are Bloody Marys, scrambled eggs on toast, a delicious bowl of Greek Yogurt. You know – the good shit.
Gritty Vikings and surprisingly beautiful landscapes cement Valheim as one of my favourite games of 2021, especially in those sleepy quarantine early hours where nothing really meant anything except for hanging out with your friends in a virtual Valhalla. The weather in February is shit. The pandemic was at a worrying height. And along came this quirky little Viking game. The ideal game for sitting in your pants in a dark room on a Friday night. Drink four cans of Stella and your mate getting crushed by the Elder is ten times funnier. Valheim pretty much redeemed the first few months of the year for me and kickstarted my leap into writing about games full-time. I’m always a bit ‘on the axe’ about dropping Early Access games into a GOTY list, but this one deserves a spot.
I’m a Slay The Spire kinda guy, which means I love Griftlands. This seems like a reductive statement for what is one of the best deck-builders of the year, but it’s a testament to Griftlands’ quality that it can be compared to the giant of the genre. While it’s not infinitely replayable like Slay, Griftlands presents you with a deep, twisting narrative that plays like an RPG having a late lunch with a visual novel. It has to be a late lunch because both genres are a bit tipsy on Mimosas and suddenly there’s a giant talking llama. You don’t just bash your opponents over the head with cards in this game: you lie, cheat, and persuade. It takes everything you know about deck-building roguelikes and shakes them into an exotic cocktail.
8. Halo Infinite Multiplayer
Halo Infinite is the most Halo game so far. It’s dripping with Halo. In the gaming landscape of remakes, remasters, and re-releases, should I even be surprised? Well, yes, because Halo Infinite might be one of the best remasters, remakes, re-releases I’ve seen this year. The competition hasn’t been outstanding, mind. GTA was a mess and Skyrim added fishing. But still, a serious amount of time and effort has been put into this game. The guns are balanced, the maps are as warm and nostalgic as your family home at Christmas, and everything, so far, is pretty smooth. Yes, the battle pass sucks and the cheaters are already popping their annoying little zit-like heads up on PC, but overall, the experience is exactly what I expected.
7. Cruelty Squad
Cruelty Squad is the only game I’ve ever played that felt like it wanted me to well and truly fuck-right-off. This game doesn’t want you to play it. It mocks you for playing. Much of it feels impenetrable. The story is utterly miserable and nothing anyone wants to go through after the past couple of years. Your eardrums will suffer from the jarring soundtrack, with the first track on the OST aptly titled Depression Nap. Eyeballs wince at the cacophony of reds and greens on the screen. And yet… Cruelty Squad is a masterpiece. You can use your intestines as a grappling hook. Assassinate and fight your way through corporate losers. Change the face of the horrible, vile, sewer world you live in. You sink into this game like a giant oozy bath. It’s warm. Welcoming. And totally disgusting.
Wildermyth took me by surprise. Its unassuming cut-out art style instantly reminded me of the games I used to play when I was a kid, drawing these little characters and taking them on adventures around my messy bedroom. Wildermyth is pretty much exactly that, except with the violent imagination of a narrative overlord who turns your characters into werewolves and encourages them to cheat on their partners. No two playthroughs of the game will ever be exactly the same (procedural generation guarantees this), and yet there are matching threads, twists, and turns that you can begin to predict, allowing you to shape your band of adventurers and progress further into the story. You will fall in love with your paper cut-out characters – I guarantee it.
5. Death's Door
A crow that harvests souls for a low-paid corporate role? Oh, sign me up. Death’s Door is simply perfect. I knew from the moment that I saw Pothead that this game would find its way onto my GOTY list. It’s not the sort of game that I saw myself ever playing for more than an hour, and in retrospect, there’s no denying that many of its principles and gameplay designs are quite rudimentary. Its combat and puzzles aren’t exactly groundbreaking, for example. You might even call it a bit childish. But as a total package, I’m hard-pressed to think of another game this year that delivers so succinctly on its promise of being a short, sharp, enjoyable game to play. Death’s Door flies high with character and charm and is polished to the point of perfection. It’s impossible to be disappointed with this one. Except the missing map. It really could have used a map.
4. The Artful Escape
I had to be convinced to play The Artful Escape, but I’m so glad I did. It’s gorgeous, has an excellent soundtrack, and made me laugh out loud on several different occasions. Games aren’t usually that funny, but Artful had me (and my housemates that got sucked into watching it on the big telly) giggling. A TRIUMPH OF THE HUMAN SPIRIT! I was a bit worried the game might have some cheesy dialogue but, instead, the game embraces its weirdness fully, and the writing and voice acting are superb. I’m just not going to listen to another electric guitar for the rest of the year.
3. Forza Horizon 5
As the year began with drinking Viking grog and exploring rolling hills in Valheim, so it ended with racing through the gorgeous wildernesses of Mexico. Forza Horizon 5 is outstanding. The first time I and my buddies loaded it up (on whatever Microsoft platform we damn pleased, thank you, thank you, more games should have crossplay) we were all a bit silent, just taking it in. Then we bought and customized some little bangers and took off on an hour-long race across the country. I don’t even like cars. But Horizon eases you into it. “Cars are cool,” I mumble to my friends in an Xbox party at 4 am. Playground Games has outdone itself, and it's great to see this long-running series get some of the praise it deserves. I can’t wait to see what the studio does next with Fable.
Inscryption never quite turns out as you expect it to. Its first third is a deck-building roguelike with mechanics that could stand very well on its own as a full release, but by the final act of the game, those cards are but a distant memory. It constantly challenges you, shocks you, and sometimes, even gives you serious shivers. Inscryption isn’t a horror game but I still didn’t want to play it in the dark. I had no clue whether the game would continue to hum on in its quiet, dark way, or decide it was time to make me jump out of my chair and collapse over my desk. This is a must-play game, even if you hate cards, being scared, or Escape Rooms. It’s unlike anything else I’ve played this year.
1. Loop Hero
Loop Hero is the perfect game to summarize two years of isolation. This is why it earns my GOTY spot. It arrived precisely when it needed to. The protagonist’s plight of treading the same looping path over and over again hits hard. I looped around my flat, making sense of the same posters, teacups, and beer cans in the exact same way that the character recreates their world. Add in the incredible OST (also my favourite OST of the year), captivating style, and addictive gameplay, and you have a game that takes the top spot. I played it for 100 hours and will play it for 100 more. I cannot escape the loop.
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