With relatively few AAA games gracing my list this year, I think that it’s safe to say that my heart firmly belongs to the indies. The list is in no particular order, since they’re all my fave titles of the year.
Kena: Bridge of Spirits – Ember Labs
Kena: Bridge of Spirits was one of my most hotly anticipated games of the year (and not just because it looked like Pixar had invaded). Even though it had suffered a minor release delay, Kena was well-worth the wait from announcement to release. It’s genuinely the best modern PlayStation 2 game I could have asked for — no, really!
Corruption has run rampant, and Kena is tasked to restore the world to its former majesty, finally sending the spirits to their resting place. Along the way, Kena picks up adorable little spirit friends called Rot to help her defeat enemies, solve puzzles, and reach unreachable places in the world. It’s a challenging experience, especially with the game’s bosses and minibosses.
Ember Labs’ first foray into gaming certainly doesn’t feel like a first. The merging of the team’s exquisite animation sensibilities (in collaboration with Sparx in Vietnam) and many years of application development resulted in a love letter to the heyday of action-adventure games.
Forza Horizon 5 – Playground Games, published by Xbox Game Studios
I’ve always loved racing games, but it wasn’t until Forza Horizon 4 that I finally found a modern arcade racer that spoke to me. I figured that it couldn’t get any better than FH4.
I was wrong.
When I cracked into Forza Horizon 5 a few days before it was available on Xbox Game Pass for PC, it was unmitigated joy. Dropping into the Horizon Festival from a plane and racing to meet up with the various race organizers was a rush of excitement that I just wasn’t able to contain, even on stream. Sure, I was wretched with the controls until I got the hang of taking corners effectively. (And then I got myself a wheel and pedals… which made it that much more difficult to get the hang of it. You’d think I’d never driven a vehicle in my life.)
Forza Horizon 5 blows the previous entry in the series out of the water, especially with regards to the emphasis on accessibility features, further cementing Xbox as an industry leader for inclusion in gaming. There’s even more to come, including the ability to switch on American Sign Language, which is a first in a video game.
After many, many years of the original Gran Turismo and Need for Speed II topping my list for racing games, Forza Horizon 5 has unseated them both (yes, even as an arcade racer). I’m very excited to experience the future of racing games with FH5 setting the bar as high as it has.
Loop Hero – Four Quarters, published by Devolver Digital
I figured that I wouldn’t like Loop Hero when I first saw it. I didn’t quite get it and it looked a little too close to an auto-battler game, which I still don’t have much interest in. But honestly what kept me going back to Loop Hero was the discovery element of the game — finding out what came next and how to learn even more about what would come after that, too.
Loop Hero is an apocalyptic tale that takes place at the end of the world. The Hero, who starts off as a Warrior, has to put the world back together little pieces at a time, first by completing dungeon crawl “loops” and then by taking those resources back to a barely existent village in order to give shape to the rest of existence. The Hero eventually learns to become a Thief and a Necromancer.
Fun story: I gave myself a minor injury playing this game during Hit Save’s first big fundraiser. I ended up playing it almost 12 hours straight and, as it turns out, clicking my mouse fairly consistently during that time gave me tendonitis in my right index finger.
(Yes, I’m healed. Yes, it was very silly. No, I won’t be doing it again… but I might still pick this game up on Switch.)
Loop Hero once again proves that Devolver does not miss.
Monster Hunter Stories 2: Wings of Ruin – Capcom
Monster Hunter eluded me as a series until I met Mike and started playing Monster Hunter World. After that, I was hooked. At the time, there wasn’t much else that I wanted to play in that universe until Mike told me about Monster Hunter Stories on the Nintendo DS.
Monster Hunter is built around hunting monsters (either to kill or capture). Monster Hunter Stories, on the other hand, is all about befriending the monsters so that they become your “monster besties” (or Monsties). Monster Hunter Stories takes all of the delightful world-building in Monster Hunter and makes it, well, kawaii.
I thought that perhaps MonHun Stories would be the only entry in that series, since it was fairly niche even without Monster Hunter’s franchise. But with the success of Monster Hunter World, Capcom clearly realized that they could extend their hits to incorporate Monsties and their Riders.
What I love about Monster Hunter Stories 2: Wings of Ruin is that it’s the kind of game that always feels good to come back to, even if I’ve been away for a while. The systems are familiar, since they’re the ones that I’m used to from both World and 2021’s Rise. Monsties are a joy to hatch from eggs and the story is actually both coherent and enjoyable (which is not always the case with Monster Hunter games). I genuinely love this game and will keep coming back to it.
Lake – Gamious, published by White Thorn Digital
Delivering the mail doesn’t seem like it should be an interesting concept for a game. It’s too quaint, too cutesy, too outmoded for today’s modern setting where no one knows their postal service worker by name. But pop that concept into 1986 in a small town in Oregon and you’ve got yourself a winning experience.
What drew me to Lake, and what ultimately made me fall in love with Meredith and her hometown of Providence Oaks, was the treatment of the characters themselves. I got to peek inside what Meredith’s life was before she moved away to start her fancy life, in addition to fanning the flames of romance. Providence Oaks is like any small town — it moves slowly, changing only when necessary. It’s unyielding to return to. Taking over her dad’s mail route while her parents were vacationing in Florida was Meredith’s vehicle for reconnection with her roots.
Meredith and I have had similar trajectories in that we both left our hometowns and haven’t done much looking back since then. Rediscovering my roots as an immigrant and as a mother left me in a particularly tender spot that Lake gently prodded at, a beautiful unfurling that I won’t soon forget.
New World – Amazon Game Studios
New World isn’t a great game, friends. Let me just acknowledge that up front. I know that there are significant issues with the game’s economy and underpinning infrastructure that it is entirely disqualified from being a “best of.”
But hear me out.
Even though New World isn’t a great game, if you can overlook its many shortcomings, there’s a very interesting MMORPG lurking under the surface. The last time that I played an MMORPG with this much spirit and character, it was The Secret World (2012). It’s been almost a decade since I’ve been intrigued by a new kind of MMO, even though Final Fantasy XIV has certainly given me snippets of that during A Realm Reborn.
What New World does well isn’t in its underlying systems, it’s in the combat. Swapping between two different styles of play, whether that’s going from a bow to a spear (as I do) or two different magical implements (as my husband does), is satisfying as heck. Even though the crafting and writing leaves a ton to be desired, New World brought the disparate pieces of my family together while being thousands of kilometers apart.
I’ll always cherish that.
And honestly, Amazon Game Studios needed a win, however small. The queues were exasperating during launch week. These days, New World is relatively empty, which is a bummer for PvP lovers, but it’s kind of all the same for me. We’ll see what will happen with the game in 2022.
Unpacking – Witchbeam, published by Humble Bundle
I used to move on an annual basis. Packing and unpacking had become important markers of a year for me, depending on where I was and what I was doing. Nothing ever felt right for me until we made our Big Family and started a life with the eight of us.
Discovering the magic of Unpacking was like finding myself in a box I’d forgotten in our basement.
More than simply putting things away, Unpacking challenges the player to better understand the person (and people) inhabiting the space through the simple act of unwrapping a box and putting its contents in a coherent place. The environment told me stories without there being any explicit narrative at all. I couldn’t fail at putting things away, even if my approach was different than anyone else’s.
Unpacking was soothing and beautiful, creating connections between people and spaces and memories that mere text couldn’t accomplish. 2021 had an abundance of non-violent indie games to experience and Unpacking is one of the very best.
Boyfriend Dungeon – Kitfox Games
I waited for a lifetime for this game, it feels. I remember when Boyfriend Dungeon was first announced and even then, it felt like waiting more than a few months for the game was going to be torturous.
It was. And then it took another few years.
At any rate, Boyfriend Dungeon is a visual novel, dating simulator, rogue-like dungeon crawler that is equal parts adorable and infuriating. The dating-sim/visual novel part of the game is particularly divisive among critics for reasons that I don’t need to get into, but it was my favourite part of the game. All of the characters are well-written (though not all of them are lovely), even if I didn’t vibe with all of them. I was quite fond of Isaac and Valeria.
The dungeon crawling piece of the experience was interesting, but there wasn’t nearly enough there for me to say that it was what kept me coming back. I did like that there was a ton of variety in enemies to defeat and that those enemies were tied to my character’s psyche and fears. But I didn’t get to spend a ton of time fighting baddies. I hope that if Kitfox goes back to this game in the future, they’ll be able to give me just a little bit more.
Boyfriend Dungeon is “everything but the kitchen sink” in the best way. I adored this experience, despite some of its rougher spots, almost all the way through.
The Ascent – Neon Giant, published by Curve Digital
“Manda, which game pushed you over the edge in getting a new gaming rig?”
“Oh, just this indie cyberpunk game called The Ascent.”
No, for real, The Ascent was the game that pushed me to get a new PC. It’s not particularly well optimized on PC for performance, so it kept hitching and having issues, despite tuning the settings to work well on my hardware. After I got a new PC, it turned out that the game was quite beautiful!
All of that aside, The Ascent is a gritty third-person action-RPG set in a cyberpunk dystopia that can be played solo or with friends. I opted to play through the entire game with my dad and Mike during my After Dark stream on Twitch. Players take their characters through some of the gnarliest (and the most glorious) cyberpunk places that I’ve had the opportunity to explore in a video game.
CDPR wishes that they would have had the creativity and wherewithal to explore the themes of transhumanism and corporate fuckery through the violent, tech-tinted lens that The Ascent did. I’m glad to see cyberpunk as a genre being explored with more aplomb and sincerity. I hope that it continues.
Life is Strange: True Colors – Deck Nine, published by Square Enix
Life is Strange has always been a series dear to me. There aren’t many games out there exploring emotion and consequence using teenagers (especially teenage girls) as vehicles for connection and expression. But Life is Strange? It hits and it hits hard.
Life is Strange: True Colors takes the LiS formula and perfects it. Truly and completely. Alex is an empath, which means that she feels not only her only feelings at full blast, she feels the feelings of the people around her. She struggles to channel those feelings into anything other than overwhelm. Given her past, though? Understandable. Alex comes to this small town, Haven Springs, where her brother has made a life for himself and has made a number of excellent friends that happen to like Alex, too. Of course, it doesn’t stay perfect, but it sure tugs at those heartstrings.
For the first time, Life is Strange: True Colors is a full experience. You can play through it from start to finish without waiting for the next episode, which is a revolution for Life is Strange. There’s still a standalone chapter, mind you, where you get to play through a LARP (live-action roleplay) with many of the town’s inhabitants. It’s so damn joyful and extremely meta. I hope that we see more of Life is Strange: True Colors’ calibre out of Deck Nine in the future.
Bonus points for Alex Chen feeling like she was cribbed from my journal. (Seriously, just ask Mike.)
Neo: The World Ends With You
Anyone that knows me knows that The World Ends With You is one of my favourite games of all time, right up there with Baldur’s Gate, Icewind Dale, Final Fantasy Tactics, and Fallout. It sunk its teeth into me on the original DS and has never really let go.
Although The World Ends With You had a re-release on the Nintendo Switch, it was never quite the same as the original experience. Sure, the story and aesthetics were the same, but the gameplay could never quite reach the level that I wanted it to outside of the original platform. (Also, motion controls will be the end of me.)
Neo: The World Ends With You puts a fresh coat of paint on a world that’s already one of my favourite places to be, including new characters and interesting stories to tell. I haven’t finished the game, but I’m excited to go back.
13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim
Not a 2021 release, so it didn’t make it into the top 10, but Vanillaware’s 13 Sentinels absolutely slays. It has everything that a gal could want: mechs, strategy, visual novels, adventure, time loops, mayhem, love… truly a collection of beautiful things that I could not get enough of.
Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy
I just started this game. No, really. I know that it came out in the fall of last year, but I’ve been busy! I have four kids! And a business! (And also because I was terrified that it was going to be Bad, Actually.)
Guardians is Good, Actually.
I’m not far enough into it to give it more of a critique than that, but it’s under my damn skin. And I like it.