Here Are The Best Video Games Of 2021
Horrifying bosses, twisted card games, and a kid named Raz - 2021 was full of surprises.
2021 has been a hell of a year. Decades from now — provided we all live that long — we’ll look back on this year as… a tad challenging, perhaps?
But guess what helped shine some light into our lives? Guess which art form provided much-needed distraction? Gaming. It was a damn fine year for gaming.
Haven’t had time to sink your teeth into much in the way of games? That’s OK. I’ve gone and rounded up the best 2021 has had to offer. And guess what? Each of them gets a special award! No numbered lists here, folks!
Most Unexpected Treat: Kid A Mnesia: Exhibition
As a game, this is a weird one. But as an interactive, immersive experience, it’s top-notch — basically, this is a MOMA-style traipse through a fractured, surrealist art installation. Radiohead recently released Kid A Mnesia, a remastered re-release of Kid A and Amnesiac, complete with unreleased tracks and fantastic behind-the-scenes goodness, so fusing it all into something you can walk around inside is a brilliant idea.
Available for free on the Epic Games Store, this is an absolute must if you’re a Radiohead fan who digs their artier stuff.
Best Expansion: Sea of Thieves: A Pirate’s Life
Sea of Thieves is, frankly, one of the best games of the past few years. Upon its initial release, it was a fun, immersive but largely empty experience, but after successive content rollouts and updates, it’s an absolute kick in the pants — a barn-burner of a gaming experience, allowing even the most cynical player to coast along the waves and feel like a legit pirate.
This year saw the release of A Pirate’s Life, a truly huge officially licensed crossover expansion with the Pirates of the Caribbean universe. Acting as a sequel to the five films, it not only manages to capture the magic of the films but somehow repair and smooth over the damage the fifth film did to the tone and continuity of the series. If your inner child slash swashbuckler is in need of a pick-me-up, do not sleep on this one.
Best Use Of Music: The Artful Escape
It’s best not to give too much away about The Artful Escape, a frothy, colourful indie teeming with surprises, but the elevator pitch is this: you’re the nephew of a beloved folk music icon (think Dylan). You’re back in your hometown to perform at the annual day dedicated to your uncle’s musical prowess. Struggling with your identity and the notion of how to live up to such a legacy, something really, really weird and awesome happens.
The voice cast is stellar: Michael Johnston (Teen Wolf), Caroline Kinley (Love Is Blue, Love Is Yellow), Lena Headey (Game of Thrones), Jason Schwartzman (Scott Pilgrim vs the World), Mark Strong (Kingsman: The Secret Service) and Carl Weathers (Rocky) to name a few. Also it’s an Australian-developed title! Treat yourself and grab it as soon as possible.
Most Charming Game: The Good Life
The Good Life is another charming and deeply eccentric outing from Swery, the maverick behind Deadly Premonition. Basically, you’re a snide, irritable journalist drowning in debt. Forced to take any job you can to stay afloat, you accept a gig that sees you sent to a small hamlet in the UK. The twist? Every night, the villagers transform into cats and dogs.
Swery’s biggest appeal as a developer is, for me, his tendency to pour his focus into systems that don’t necessarily need that much attention paid; it’s a mystery game, but there’s a detailed photography game nestled within. There’s gardening. Fashion. In short, there’s no godly reason to have fleshed out such minute aspects of life in this village, but it’s that passion for the minutia which makes The Good Life so damned special.
Best Horror Game: Resident Evil Village
The sequel to Resident Evil 7: Biohazard, Resident Evil Village is absolutely fantastic. While the feature films have spent years fumbling in B-movie territory, the games have become carefully crafted, artisanal horror gaming experiences, far, far smarter than they have any right to be.
This time, you’ll find yourself trapped in a creepy-as-hell village, nestled in the shadow of a looming gothic castle. The level design is top-shelf, the intelligent design of the encounters will have you running to the bathroom, and the most prominent villain, Lady Dimitrescu, will have you begging to be stepped on.
Best Sequel: Metroid Dread
Never played a Metroid game? For once, it’s completely OK to dive in cold, thanks to the superb job Nintendo have done crafting the most polished game of the genre in recent memory.
On paper, you play a spacefaring armoured bounty hunter named Samus Aran, pelting around a side-scrolling platformer. In reality, this is a game wherein the world gradually opens up like a complex puzzle box. Sure, you’re called to a mysterious planet thanks to a shady, garbled transmission, but while you’re there you’ll find yourself gaining new skills which will allow you to traverse increasingly terrifying areas, meaning you’re constantly refining your skills and pushing yourself to explore. There’s a reason the Metroid games have such a cult following, and frankly, this might be up there with the best of the series yet.
Most Relaxing Game: Sable
Combining the open-world wanderings of Breath of the Wild with the art style of a Moebius comic, Sable is an absolute dream. You play a young girl coming of age in a nomadic tribe on a vast, gorgeous desert planet. Tasked with going off on your own and finding out what you want to be when you grow up is an extremely relatable experience, but in Sable, everything about that journey takes on an almost magical, otherworldly quality.
You’ll find yourself coasting, climbing and leaping your way across countless bizarre, haunting locations, but you’ll also find yourself chilling the hell out. Sable is an incredible achievement.
Best Licensed Spin-Off: Cobra Kai: The Karate Kid Saga Continues
Look, it’s no secret that I’m a Cobra Kai and Karate Kid devotee, but the Cobra Kai game that dropped this year managed to capture the spirit of the franchise. How? Well, it’s a Double Dragon-style beat-em-up, which means it captures the gaming essence of an eighties arcade cabinet very cleanly.
But more than that? It has the bulk of the cast from the show voicing their onscreen counterparts. It has the same dudes who do the music for the show turning out a classic eighties game score, and it even has unlockable abilities and a story that develops over time, making you pick a dojo and experience events from their perspective. In short, Cobra Kai: The Karate Kid Saga Continues is far better than it has any right to be.
Most Addictive Game: Loop Hero
Look, I hate to use the word “addictive” as a positive, but in the case of Loop Hero, it’s apt. Basically, your character exists in the void after a reality-destroying event, and you find yourself walking around cyclical maps trying to fend off bad guys and scavenge supplies. You hit “go” and everything plays out automatically, but you can pause whenever you want outside of combat to change gear, upgrade abilities and generally try to prepare your little hero for what’s to come. This truly is the Pringles of gaming: moreish as hell.
Best Re-Release: Disco Elysium: The Final Cut
The only reason Disco Elysium: The Final Cut isn’t Game of the Year in this list? Technically, it came out before 2021. But this refurbished re-release, complete with new story content, belongs on the greatest games of all-time list.
It’s a point-and-click detective adventure, but it’s also a mind-bending treatise on grief, mental illness and entropy. Everyone who sinks their teeth into this game ends up raving about it, and until we get a sequel (please, please give us a sequel) this is the definitive edition. If plot is what you crave in games, you simply won’t find anything better than this out there.
The Pocket-Rocket Award: Overboard
Overboard plays like an interactive novel. You’re a woman on an ocean liner who has just murdered her awful husband, and it’s up to you to try and get away with it somehow. Full of tense, witty, brilliant branching dialogue, Overboard is a wonderfully twisty (and twisted) outing from Inkle, the team that made the criminally underrated Pendragon, and the justifiably lauded Heaven’s Vault.
Weirdest Game: Inscryption
A Russian nesting doll of reveals, Inscryption truly is served best if you know nothing about it going in. Nothing. I mean, it’s a card game, sure, but it’s not really a card game. It’s a game about a game, hiding within a game about a card game, which is also secretly about something else.
Even telling you to go in cold seems like a spoiler, as it implies twists and turns, which are best experienced absolutely cold. I know I’m asking you to take a leap here, but set aside an evening. Turn the lights off, and play Inscryption for a couple of hours uninterrupted, and you’ll thank me later. I promise. Inscryption is… a revelation.
Game Of The Year: Psychonauts 2
Part Calvin and Hobbes, part The Incredibles, Psychonauts 2 is a gut-punch of a game. Suire, it’s a family-friendly spy thriller about a covert group of psychics who fight crime. Sure, the hero is a kid named Raz, fresh off a stint at psychic summer camp. But every single aspect of Psychonauts 2 is just so incomparably smart, and polished, and passionate… this is a game that deals with loss, anger, depression, coming out of the closet, PTSD, and how therapy can help people heal.
The cartoonishness is a stylistic feint; Tim Schafer and the team at Double Fine have made a work of art hiding in a chewy, delicious confectionary shell. It’s also ambitious on an almost galaxy-brain level — some of the setpieces will leave you breathless. You don’t have to have played the first one (though I’d recommend it), but whatever you do, don’t ignore Psychonauts 2. It’s sublime.
Paul F. Verhoeven is an author, broadcaster and TV presenter. His books Electric Blue and Loose Units are out now through Penguin, and he hosts the podcasts Dish Island and Loose Units.