2021 obviously wasn’t a particularly great year for games. Usually, by the time we get to writing these, I have a few games vying for my own three spots of best of the year. This year, however, I pretty much knew what all three will be well before December.
In a way, this is good; for something to make such a strong impression that you can’t imagine it being bumped by anything else. On the other hand, though, I would have loved to have that internal struggle, it’s a holiday tradition!
Returnal - PS5
There was very little chance I wasn’t going to like the next game from Housemarque. I have loved almost every modern game the Finnish studio has made. Housemarque has a style of action, speed, presentation and flow that somehow manages to make arcade relevant in the current era.
But I didn’t expect to go to bed thinking about the plot of Returnal. Or work while having its boss themes on loop. But most of all, I didn’t imagine a rouge-like would land anywhere near my favourite games of the year. More than that, though, I didn’t think Returnal would so elegantly achieve what it set out to do.
For such a simple concept, it’s hard to know where to start with Returnal. But the way I think of it is this: what if the bullet hell, arcade-inspired action of Housemarque’s other games was recreated in third-person, while maintaining the visual spectacle and without compromising readability? And what if - since arcade games’ one-life kind of makes them rogue-likes in a sense – that core mechanic became the basis of the entire structure of the game’s world and narrative?
I could go on and on praising Returnal. I am happy to admit it has problems, too. But here’s the thing: no other game has haunted my days and nights like that this year. That’s usually a FromSoftware-exclusive state for me, but Returnal managed it despite my misgivings, and I am that much more grateful for it.
Back 4 Blood – PC, PlayStation, Xbox
Back 4 Blood may not have introduced a revolutionary mechanic, impressed with next-gen tech, or delivered a memorable narrative. But I had more fun with this Left 4 Dead-inspired shooter than I have with most of the games I played this year. That alone would be enough to get it on this list, but Back 4 Blood also deserves a mention for what it doesn’t do.
Back 4 Blood is not a game of overlapping XP bars and myriad progression systems. I don’t log in regularly to play it so I can check off my dalies, or get a disposable hat. I do so because its gameplay is constantly satisfying, and its encounters are memorable. It brought me back to a time when that’s all that mattered for games, before progression became its own mechanic.
It’s rare for a throwback game to nail the classic feel of whatever it’s trying to reinvent, and even rarer for it to do so while making a compelling case for the modern audience. Back 4 Blood does both effortlessly.
Nioh 2 - PC
Nioh 2 could easily end up on any action fan’s Game of the Year list. Its unique, ultra-challenging brand of melee combat is unquestionably its highlight. But somehow, the sequel managed to expand and improve on the original game, of which this is all owed to in a sense.
But none of this is new. Nioh 2 didn’t actually come out in 2021, only the PC version. I even played it on PS4 at launch in 2020, but I didn’t truly understand it until it came to PC. While I appreciate the technical benefits of playing it on PC, I am mainly talking about gameplay here.
I played the first Nioh, and Nioh 2 on PS4 as Souls-likes, not action games. It made much of my time feel miserable, but I kept coming back because no other game offered this brand of action. Whatever happened between then and the PC release, a switch in my head flipped: and I started playing it as an action RPG. Fast forward to about a month later, and all but one DLC have been finished, with multiple characters created to experiment with different weapons and builds.
I’ve always believed that there’s nothing like Nioh, but now that my understanding of what it actually is has grown, it’s a reminder to open up every once in a while and experience games for what they are, not what you think they should be.
Visit the VG247 Game of the Year 2021 page to see the rest of our staff picks for the year. And if you're feeling a little irreverent, why not give our Alternate Game Awards 2021 a look while you're at it?