Thanks for everything 2021, we’ll call you. Just like that, another year is in the books and, despite there being plenty of trials and tribulations around the world, it was a hell of a time to be playing video games. We’ve already announced the winners of the WellPlayed Game Awards 2021, but we wanted to take a moment and let each member of the crew walk through their top three games of the year. Resident Evil Village took the top spot overall, but there’s plenty more that we’d like to celebrate.
With that said, here are our personal top three games of 2021:
The Artful Escape
In another piece I called it a “celebration in video game creativity,” which is exactly what The Artful Escape is. From the fantastic cast and voice acting to the colourful and eccentric visuals and incredible sound design, everything about this game is totally wild and downright excellent. Most of all, it let me fulfil my dream of being a rock star. A one-of-a-kind experience and my favourite game of the year.
Resident Evil Village
My most anticipated game of the year, Resident Evil Village gave me pretty much everything I wanted from it. With a compelling setting, a new cast of intriguing characters and a gameplay experience that blended elements of Resident Evil 4 and Resident Evil 7: biohazard, Village proved that long-time fans can look forward to the series’ future instead of always wishing for the good old days to return.
Tails of Iron
A game that had been on my radar for a while thanks to its Redwall-esque setting and beautiful hand-drawn visuals, Tails of Iron‘s Souls-like combat was always going to be the clincher though. Thankfully I rose to the challenge, and I’m glad I did because Tails of Iron’s combat is extremely satisfying. Moreover, the story is narrated by none other than Doug Cockle (voice of Geralt of Rivia), which helped elevate this action-adventure to new heights. A worthy experience for any fan of Souls-like titles or those looking to dip their toes in for the first time.
Ratchet and Clank: Rift Apart
I haven’t played a Ratchet and Clank game since the original and was keen to see how the hardware upgrades of the PS5 transformed gameplay. After playing I can tell you that its phenomenal visuals, seamless transitions and nanosecond load times squeezed all the juice out of the new hardware in spectacular ways. It was such a joy to play and I absolutely loved it. To top it off, it featured my favourite voice actor – Jennifer Hale (Femshep from Mass Effect) as Rivet, who was superb.
Arkane has developed some of my favourite games, and I was interested to see how they combined abilities with actual gunplay, pretty much a first for them. Deathloop made me really think about how I was going to attempt different scenarios and even allowed for several different ways of attempting each kill. The art design was superb and the two lead voice actors really bounced off each other and made it feel genuine.
It Takes Two
As a huuuuuge co-op fan, I was actually a little late to the party on this one (mainly due to my co-op partner being unavailable). Although I had seemingly high expectations for this one after being captivated by its developer’s predecessor A Way Out, Hazelight Studios really know how to capture the co-op experience and make it stick. It Takes Two was full of fun minigames and featured an engaging story that just made it a thoroughly enjoyable experience. With so many great games released this year, I was a bit surprised that It Takes Two won Game of the Year at the Game Awards, marking the first time a purely co-op game has won GOTY since Overwatch in 2016. To those who love co-op as much as I do, It Takes Two is a definite one to play.
I almost scooted through this year on indie releases alone – not for lack of interest in the AAA titles being released, just purely circumstances that put me and these killer independent experiences on the same path. Death’s Door really set the tone for the year, swinging right out the gate with a gorgeous world and charming characters for days. A little crow! With a sword! And his job is collecting souls! Everything about the game just sang to me. And even now, I am still recommending it to anyone who hasn’t played it yet. Say…have YOU played Death’s Door…?
Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy
Maaaan, wasn’t Square Enix’ Avengers a hot turd. From the get-go, it rubbed me the wrong way, and it managed to convince me to do the unthinkable – avoid a Marvel property. It also left a pretty sour fart lingering in the air for other interactive media with a comic book flair. Thank God I managed to get through that foul stench and eventually sit down with Guardians. What a ripper time – a beautiful story full of heart, laughs and the occasional heavy metal cover moments, this game lives in my head rent-free and it can stay as long as it likes.
Now, this was nearly a disaster. I was invited to try a preview of the title, and the initial trailer and details provided to me painted a picture of a game that I did not want to play. Not because it was impossibly dark, or spooky – purely that it was a strategy card game. I was terrified I’d reveal my dark secret that I am strategically challenged, and I’d be the laughing stock of gaming journalism – my very own Cuphead tutorial laid bare for the world to laugh at. However, what I found was a dark world that was so engaging I was prepared to drag myself through tactical hell to explore it all. I bathed in the darkness, and was moulded by it – and emerged a true Scrybe of Inscryption. The game will subvert your expectations time and time again, and when it is finished you’ll have more questions than answers, but I guarantee you’ll enjoy every second of it.
My most anticipated game of the year did not disappoint. Deathloop is everything that Arkane have learnt since dropping Dishonored all those years ago and then some, seamlessly combining the best gunplay of any title this year with clever gadgets, intelligent world design and plenty of dark humour. There’s an immense sense of satisfaction to each solved puzzle, linking events from one time period to another, all the while having Julianna quipping in your ear and gunning for your ass. It should come as no surprise that Arkane nailed everything they promised, right down to the enjoyable (and some may say underrated) versus mode.
The indies this year were on fire. I could go on and on about the likes of Solar Ash, Genesis Noir or Loop Hero among many others, but if I had to choose only one it’s got to be my umbrella-loving, death-dealing crow. Death’s Door captured my heart with its Zelda-inspired world and I’m happily playing it again all these months later. Those last few boss fights stand as some of my favourite moments of the year, perhaps ever, and that’s testament to how well crafted the entire experience was. I’m with Ash, if you haven’t played Death’s Door, you really should.
To be fair, I have so many other games I could be talking about, so many titles that I genuinely enjoyed in 2021, but I’m here to give Agent 47 some much-deserved love. Hitman 3 wrapped up an impressive trilogy of titles that set a new standard for the stealth genre, mixing things up with a murder mystery amongst the best collection of levels to date. Better still, IO just confirmed a whole new season of updates across 2022, meaning there are plenty more elusive targets and ridiculous ‘accidents’ to come.
After a seemingly endless barrage of roguelike games in recent years, I had a great degree of cynicism about a big-budget system seller tackling this exhausted genre. Developers Housemarque surprised on every level, bringing their shmup expertise to the forefront in PlayStation 5’s best year one title. Returnal knows what it is and slowly reveals a system-dense and faithful (yet approachable) roguelike that ditches gimmicks and dazzles players with alien sights and sounds. For your best experience, I highly recommend playing with the PlayStation Pulse headset and as little plot context as possible.
Resident Evil: Village
Resident Evil Village is in many ways the quintessential Resident Evil experience, a melting pot of the best elements of the franchise that further tightens the mechanics and ratchets up the camp factor. It effortlessly mutates the thematic core of Biohazard, giving us a sequel that while tonally mismatched to its predecessor, does ultimately reinforce the ideas behind the quasi-rebooted games. A homage to both American and Japanese hammer horror, Village ensures the series longevity by honouring what came before and gleefully celebrating what lies ahead.
Final Fantasy XIV: Endwalker
I’m not sure I’ve ever needed a home away from home more than over the past two years. As our lives have been entirely subsumed by a pandemic that shows no signs of going away anytime soon, we’ve all needed far off places to retreat to. Final Fantasy XIV’s sprawling worlds were mine. A game so popular this year they had to shut down sales to maintain servers, XIV is both a fantastic social experience as an MMO but more importantly, it spins one of the best narratives in gaming with its absurd, hopeful RPG story. 2021 content updates saw the end of Shadowbringers, a series of quests that blend mechanics and storytelling in profound ways and offered me a refuge amid an otherwise exhausting year.
Yeah, yeah, I know. Admittedly this game is only here because you don’t need another one of us fawning over Death’s Door, brilliant though it may be. Biomutant is my scrappy favourite from 2021, a game that feels ripped from the now-extinct AA game space we used to enjoy during the Xbox 360/PS3 era. It’s frayed at the edges and overstuffed with ideas but it has heart and grit. A thoroughly enjoyable beat-em-up with fantastic character customisation and a stunning open world to explore. Its attempts at a game-arching narration were awkward but admirable, and its smaller size forced a more refined open world, a standout concept in a genre overstuffed with games that are too big for their own good.
Final Fantasy XIV: Endwalker
FFXIV was always in a good position for this kind of recognition. It has such a well-written story with a fantastic cast of characters that range from the loveable (most characters) to despisable (Lalafels). The story has been on a singular overarching plot since A Realm Reborn all the way until now, with Endwalker bringing a close to this massive story. I am currently working on my review for it, but it easily tops my GOTY shortlist. It wonderfully closes an adventure that I have been a part of for thousands of hours (this is no hyperbole, I have over 3000 hours on just my main character), and it is probably the only game that I can think of in recent memory that has genuinely made me cry. To put it bluntly, Endwalker is phenomenal and I highly recommend going through all of FFXIV’s stories.
Monster Hunter: Rise
It’s no surpRise that a Monster Hunter game is rated so highly. While I am not particularly fond of the endgame, MH Rise represents a new age in the Monster Hunter franchise. Catering to a wider audience, a vast number of QoL improvements see themselves introduced and new mechanics like the Wirebug are significantly better permutations of mechanics introduced in prior titles. It brought the best of classic MH and new MH into one neat little package, and this package is being made all the sweeter with the PC release in January and the Sunbreak DLC later in the year.
Now, I’m not really going to spend long on the campaign, because I truly believe it kind of sucks outside of being just a platform for the sandbox and nothing more. What I am talking about here is multiplayer. I haven’t really been able to truly enjoy Halo in a long time because every release made by 343 Industries has had some wildly questionable design choices. Halo 4 had an okay campaign and a bad multiplayer. Halo 5: Guardians was a travesty with a garbage campaign and gameplay design choices that made even its well-supported multiplayer feel like a Call of Duty spinoff. Halo: The Master Chief Collection was nigh unplayable on launch and is still mired by design choices that interrupt the flow of its campaigns. 343i hasn’t really carried the Halo name very well but even as much as I dislike the campaign, Infinite is far and above what I expected. On a pure gameplay basis, it is the strongest the series has ever been and this could not be translated better than in its multiplayer. It’s nice to enjoy Halo again. It’s nice to be able to boot up this classic arena shooter and spend time with my friends without questioning why we are playing it. 343i has unequivocally nailed how Halo should feel in a gameplay sense, so much so that you are willing to forgive the single-player’s glaring faults and shallow design. I didn’t really play much else this year, sadly. This whole human malware stuff kind of just took it out of me.
I always expected to enjoy Returnal, having played and loved most of Housemarque’s previous titles, but I never thought that my admittedly high expectations would be shattered as they were. The near-perfect combat and addictive gameplay loop would be enough to keep me invested for hours upon hours, but Returnal is far more than just a roguelike. An audio-visual masterpiece in every sense, this game has an identity that’s completely its own and it’s enthralling and chilling in equal measure. This would all be enough to earn its spot as my favourite game of 2021, but it also provides a genuinely affecting narrative that stayed with me long after the credits rolled, with a mid-game revelation that legitimately kept me up at night. Returnal not only manages to be a AAA roguelike, it’s a modern-day classic.
Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart
Having a nostalgic connection to a franchise is a bit of a double-edged sword at times. It can elevate a mediocre experience as you look through rose-tinted glasses, or it can tarnish a good experience as you ignore innovation because it changes what you loved about the original game. Rift Apart is the perfect example of what can be achieved when a developer takes what made previous entries great while injecting new ideas into the formula. A technical marvel and a fun as hell ride, the latest adventure of the Lombax and robot duo is easily their best.
Resident Evil Village
Resident Evil 7 changing to a first-person perspective was divisive, to say the least, but it was worth it, solely for the fact that it corrected the course for the series and returned it to its survival horror roots. Village, much like Resident Evil 4 before it, has come along and slightly altered that course, but only in positive ways. The variety of experiences on offer within the eerie, titular village is exceptional, providing many different ways for me and other horror fans to enjoy being scared. It might not appeal to every Resi fan, but I can safely say that I enjoyed every moment and was sad to see the credits roll.
It’s safe to say that 2021 was a cracker of a year for games, but 2022 looks like it’ll be even better. There’s a whole lot on the horizon and you can be certain that all of us here at WellPlayed will be here to cover it. Thank you for all of your support throughout 2021, we all greatly appreciate it and we look forward to what’s to come in this new year.