Even with all of the delays, an ongoing pandemic, and a ton of general chaos, 2021 was still full of fantastic games on every modern system. But, as is the case every year, there are some standouts that rank above the rest. Here are ComingSoon’s top 20 games of 2021.
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Last Stop has very few mechanics to speak of, which puts almost all of the burden on its dialogue and story. But thankfully its narrative can withstand such pressure. This delightfully British sci-fi tale is told from three different perspectives with characters that are all dealing with their own paranormal aberrations. Quick, funny dialogue and interesting otherworldly premises mean the story moves at a good clip and is entertaining along the way as it draws players in with its humor and keeps them locked in because of the mystery unpinning it all. That mystery comes to a head in the final act and is a hard swing that works because of all the heavy lifting done in the prior chapters. Last Stop is rough around the edges with its wooden animation and sparse visuals, but the shortcomings sit on the periphery of a compelling story.
Before Your Eyes
Before Your Eyes is not like any other game on this list. Although also playable through clicking the mouse, it’s unique in that it can also be played by blinking. GoodbyeWorld Games uses that unorthodox control method to construct a tale that symbolically uses blinking to reinforce its themes and makes it more than a staring contest with a webcam. It’s a beautiful story that doesn’t overstay its welcome and uses its time to take players on an emotional journey that elegantly marries its control method with its narrative in a way no other game can match.
Far Cry 6
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Far Cry 6 is more Far Cry, but it’s also the smoothest Far Cry. This latest entry takes players into the Cuba-like territory of Yara and gives them the tools to wreak havoc as they burn a trail of destruction across the vast island and kick fascist ass. A lot of this ass-kicking is fairly standard for the open-world genre, yet excels over the other entries in the series because of its stronger upgrade loop, an expanded arsenal, and more refined gunplay. While it ends on a sour note, leads players by the nose too much, and might be one open-world too many for some, it, when compared to its predecessors, has the widest array of tools and the most unique setting; two factors that are crucial for any Far Cry game.
Mario Party Superstars
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A perfect blend of nostalgia and quality of life improvements, Mario Party Superstars is the best the series has ever been. Featuring boards from the classic N64 trilogy and mini-games that span the entirety of Mario Party‘s history, this is the best the series has ever played. Throw in online play that works shockingly well, including the ability to pick up a match where you left off, and you have a package that celebrates its past while showing that the future is bright for Nintendo’s party game.
Dodgeball Academia is much more than the My Hero Academia and Pokémon-esque RPG that it looks like on the surface. Instead, it’s a clever and original spin on the genre that knows how to remind players of what they might already love and infuses it with some original flair.
Fights play out like dodgeball matches where players use their grade-school knowledge of the sport as a base. But the nuance comes in how the game applies its RPG mechanics to those widely known rules. Characters have their own unique stats and skills that give players agency in how they stack and upgrade their party. And, unlike Pokémon, the real-time nature of it all makes it mechanically engaging to participate in as players always have to rely on their timing and reflexes to throw, catch, and dodge dodgeballs. The game also constantly changes and adds rules and variables over its 10-hour runtime, meaning it stays fresh for its satisfyingly well-paced campaign.
Dodgeball Academia doesn’t make the most of its wacky cast of characters and, despite some funny and self-aware dialogue, has a fairly weak story. But regardless of its small weaknesses, it is still simultaneously one of the best traditional Pokémon games, best anime games, and best dodgeball games of the year, which is especially impressive since it had competition in all three of those genres in 2021.
Operation: Tango is one of the best cooperative games to release this year. Similar to Spaceteam and Keep Talking and Nobody Explodes, players will only find success through constant and clear communication. With one spy on the ground and a hacker that is aiding them through a computer, each stage is a blast to replay and see the level from the other perspective. While some of the puzzles can be quite tricky, some laughs and a good time are guaranteed when playing with a friend.
Inscryption is one hell of a deck-building roguelite. Its mechanics are easy to understand yet filled with depth as players figure out the ins and outs of each of the different cards. Players are given control over their builds as they progress down the procedurally-generated path, meaning no two runs are the same.
If Inscryption were judged purely on its gameplay, then it would still be a good game. But it’s so much more than that and all of those extra features are what puts it on a whole other level. Inscryption is a fourth-wall-breaking game bent on pulling the rug from under players and twisting and turning in ways that are as exciting narratively as they are for the gameplay. These surprising gear shifts are always consistent with the game’s ruleset and cunningly put the same systems in a new light without being unfaithful to its foundation. Inscryption keeps players guessing and engages them through its addictive gameplay, and even though it dips a little too far into unfair territory at the end, it’s still a mysterious, unforgettable card game that is way more than it lets on.
Life is Strange: True Colors
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Life is Strange: True Colors does away with the cringeworthy dialogue and stilted animation that has plagued the prior entries and is finally the first Life is Strange game that is able to appeal to those outside of its niche audience. True Colors‘ protagonist, Alex Chen, is able to charm a wider range of people because of her personality that covers the gamut of human emotions, making her more than a bundle of shallow clichés who only talks in dated teen slang. Her powers as an empath also give life to the supporting cast as it lets players see how these characters are feeling, a gameplay mechanic that succeeds in humanizing the many small-town residents.
Its themes of empathy are only strengthened by its incredible and lively facial animation that conveys nuance and subtleties better than many games. It’s disappointing that these powers aren’t more gamified or morally explored and the ending feels sudden for those who haven’t read some of the optional items scattered around, but True Colors is the best installment yet and a sign that the series is in good hands at Deck Nine.
Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart
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Insomniac Games has been making Ratchet & Clank games for 19 years so it’s impressive that the team can still crank out a quality one after all these years. And not only is Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart a great game, but it’s also one of the best in the entire series.
The third-person shooting is as fast and explosive as it has been in the past, but Rift Apart excels because of its unbeatable arsenal. Ratchet’s tools of destruction can’t be matched from its shield gun that intuitively doubles as a shotgun to its sprinkler gun that temporarily turns enemies into plants. Each gives players plenty of options in firefights and the RPG systems infused into each one ensure that there’s always something to upgrade and improve.
Rift Apart gameplay is classic Ratchet, but its presentation is what brings it into the current generation. Rift Apart is a visual showpiece like few other games on the PlayStation 5, with its wonderfully detailed and bustling environments and brilliantly animated characters — something that helps bring new protagonist Rivet to life. The absurdly quick loading is the most cutting edge feature as it warps players around completely unique environments at a moment’s notice, allowing for some impressive set pieces and gameplay opportunities. Rift Apart doesn’t push the series into a new direction or make good on the overarching narrative, but it’s still an excellent entry and one of the PS5’s best exclusives.
Hitman 3 shows that IO Interactive’s whole “World of Assassination” initiative was a great idea worth sticking to. This trilogy-ender retains the comedic, stealth-based core that sees players sleuthing around an open sandbox as they search for inventive ways to execute their targets, meaning it is almost endlessly replayable. That much is expected for a game that also acts as a hub for those previous two titles.
But Hitman 3 goes a step further by tweaking the formula in its suite of memorable levels. The Berlin stage inverts the mechanics of the game and sees Agent 47 as the prey. The mansion in Dartmoor lets users (literally) put on their best detective gear and solve a murder mystery right before they commit a murder of their own. Even though a few of these deviations don’t completely pan out, Hitman 3’s ability to both deliver traditional Hitman gameplay while also experimenting with it speaks volumes about the flexibility and quality of the series that ended on its most brilliant and well-crafted kill.
Released alongside a sped-up port of Super Mario 3D World, Bowser’s Fury is a bite-sized yet incredibly intriguing look at the future of Mario. While its scope and ambition can’t quite compare to Super Mario Odyssey, Bowser’s Fury shows how an open-world Mario game would work. There are plenty of highlights in its relatively short run time, which include kaiju-esque fights against a giant bowser and the return of Cat Mario. It’s the perfect addition to an excellent port that could’ve sold just fine on its own.
9. WarioWare: Get It Together!
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The WarioWare series has always lived on the border of experimental and surreal, but Get It Together! is the biggest shake-up in the series’ history. Rather than changing the way you interact with the microgames like Touched, Twisted, or Smooth Moves, the Switch offering inserts the series’ entertaining cast of characters into the action. Having control over multiple characters adds an additional layer to the puzzle-solving as players have to determine their individual skills on top of figuring out what they need to accomplish, all in a split second. Throw in some great cooperative play and you have a worthy sequel in Nintendo’s most eccentric series.
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The word “accessible” is rarely thrown around when talking about multiplayer online battle arena games, but that’s exactly what makes Pokémon Unite so great. Featuring quick 10-minute matches rather than potentially hour-long skirmishes, Unite simplifies the MOBA formula and takes full advantage of the wide array of pocket monster designs. With a great sports aesthetic, natural use of evolutions, and a compelling gameplay loop, Pokémon Unite was a great free-to-play surprise.
Resident Evil Village
Resident Evil 4 and Resident Evil 7 are two of the best entries in the series so Resident Evil Village split the difference and combined the best elements of both titles. Village has RE4’s pitch-perfect pacing that quickly shifts players from beat to beat as well as its action-focused gameplay that has some survival elements but is more about chaotically blasting away threats. And putting those elements within RE7’s first-person perspective is what evokes that previous horror title that thoughtfully reinvented the series.
Although Village is far more than just a collage of Resident Evil’s finest. Village’s setting and environments are among the most beautiful and unique in the whole franchise and run the gamut from wide-open fields to cramped factories to dark, wet caves. Each of these places even offers its own brand of horror, meaning it doesn’t just rely on one trick or style for the whole game. These constant changes work with the aforementioned pacing to create an experience that is consistently surprising the player with little to no fluff in between; a true rarity in AAA gaming. Even though it mostly applies to the gameplay, the no-fat approach helps the narrative, which is a bizarre and personal tale that is easily one of the strongest stories in the franchise.
Village does stray from the Resident Evil formula in a few ways. But it still keeps enough of its core tenets in tact and results in an entry that feels more like an inventive step forward instead of a misguided spin-off that would be better off with a different name.
Guardians of the Galaxy
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Marvel’s Avengers made it hard to trust Square Enix with another Marvel game, but Eidos-Montréal’s Guardians of the Galaxy more than overcame that stigma. Guardians succeeded in all the places Avengers failed. Its narrative is wonderfully told with goofy, well-acted characters that meaningfully change and grow over the course of the game. And they grow because of the antagonist that pushes them physically as well as emotionally, a telling sign of a great opposing force. All of the silly (and downright hilarious at times) banter is funny in the moment, but bonds players to these characters in the long haul so that they care for the plights of these emotionally distraught heroes. They never shut the flark up, but the dialogue is somehow good enough to keep that from being a problem.
Eidos-Montréal did a wonderful job realizing these broken yet deadly dorks but didn’t slouch in the gameplay department either. After some tweaking, players are treated to a combat system that rewards meter management and synergy, something a possible sequel can further streamline and expand upon. With some gorgeous alien worlds, an ‘80s soundtrack that intelligently relates to the action on screen, and an exceptional story that strikes a wide array of tones, Guardians of the Galaxy is one of the best games under the Marvel banner.
The Forgotten City
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A game based on a Skyrim mod sounds like a recipe for mediocrity. The Forgotten City is not only more than that dour descriptor, it’s also one of the most thoroughly written and engaging narratives of the year. Its premise — a city stuck in a time loop where everyone dies if one person sins — grabs players from the jump and doesn’t let go as its mystery is inherently intriguing.
What starts out as a case that tasks players with finding one sinner in a hidden Ancient Roman city turns into a tale with rich themes and big questions that games hardly ever come close to asking. But it goes far beyond just asking them as it provides thoughtful answers to almost every single topic it brings up, resulting in an unforgettable finale that feels like a boss fight with a philosophy textbook.
It doesn’t just pin all of its ambitions on its ending, either, as its cast of characters provide their own side stories full of intrigue that all cleverly integrate into one another. While obviously not as big as other games, it more than makes up for it in its depth, where its intimate interactions make the city feel alive with characters that actually live with and know one another. The Forgotten City also makes players feel smart by letting them discover all of this by themselves, with subtle hints that guide them without being overbearing. Respecting the player’s intelligence and then rewarding them with a well-woven tale is just one of many of The Forgotten City’s qualities and is hopefully a sign of what’s to come from new developer Modern Storyteller.
It Takes Two
Hazelight Studios has always focused on storytelling from a dual perspective and It Takes Two is its strongest and most refined effort within that category. This co-op title takes a bickering couple on the precipice of a divorce and shrinks them down into a Nintendo-esque platformer; untrodden waters that Nintendo itself would never dare breach.
This more mature setup allows it to explore more interesting topics, but it doesn’t lose its heart. The game is unexpectedly hilarious at times with witty lines and solid performances that more than balance out the sad effects divorce has on a family. Working through a separation makes sense in the mechanics, too, as players are forced to collaborate to progress. Every level gives each player some unique tool that they then must use in conjunction with the other player, which allows for some ingenious platforming challenges that offer a decent challenge for hardcore players and newcomers alike.
It Takes Two is around a dozen hours, but never loses its charm and consistently comes up with brilliantly designed scenarios, some of which are boiled down to competitive mini-games scattered around the levels that intelligently replace collectibles. It once again shows how Hazelight excels at creating amazing cooperative titles that are uniquely built around two players.
Sega’s Ryu Ga Gotoku Studio had an incredibly busy year but Lost Judgment was the crown jewel of its offerings. The sequel to 2019’s Judgment sees detective Takayuki Yagami return for another mystery that spans both Kamurocho and Yokohama, which is where Yakuza: Like A Dragon took place. It manages to outdo its predecessor thanks to several smart additions, such as giving players a skateboard to quickly traverse the map without having to spend money on taxis, and a more focused collection of side content that mostly takes place around a school and its various clubs. Throw in a story that serves as a scathing indictment of Japan’s justice system and you’ve got an action game that isn’t afraid to provide social commentary and a narrative that examines morality in intriguing ways.
Returnal is Housemarque’s coming-out party. Resogun, Super Stardust HD, Nex Machina, and Matterfall were all great games, but the sheer scope and quality of Returnal seemed like a bold and unavoidable declaration of the studio’s talent. This PS5-exclusive title took roguelite conventions and stuck them in a big AAA game, which is not a space the genre typically is associated with.
But it worked. By mixing elements of third-person shooters, roguelites, and bullet hells into one game, Housemarque was able to create a quilt of established genres that felt completely new when stitched together like so. Smooth gunplay and traversal controls and an array of different guns ensure that the shooting and bullet hell portions are satisfying. Unique level layouts, a host of upgrades, and a wealth of perks — the roguelite portions of the formula — provide the necessary dynamic elements that keep the shooting from growing stale and players from growing complacent. Returnal is also a difficult game, but rewarding because it gives players the fluid controls and means they need to succeed.
Returnal’s addictive gameplay is more than enough, yet its narrative is what helps push it into true classic status. The game has a mystifying and multilayered story on a spooky alien world that constantly intrigues the player through a rich and well-paced mystery that unfolds gradually over the campaign and works in tandem with its roguelite nature. It gives players enough to go on without fully revealing itself, leaving it up to multiple interpretations that can vary drastically between players, which is something video games don’t often nail. Returnal knows how to captivate players through its narrative and gameplay, both of which are immensely deep and thrilling for those willing to invest the time and effort.
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The possibility of a new 2D Metroid seemed slim and the onslaught of Metroid-like games that have come out over the past decade would mean that any possible Metroid would have a lot of stiff competition. But despite the obstacles, Metroid Dread is still one of the best entries the genre has seen for quite some time.
The general flow of Dread is familiar — gain power-ups to get access to new places. However, the way in which it presents and polishes that age-old formula is truly spectacular. The path forward is not always spelled out, but subtly implied through incredible design that pushes the player toward the next objective. This waypoint-free approach yields a sense of exploration that’s key to the genre and its sublime layout keeps it from becoming tedious or aimless.
Dread also lives up to its name through the E.M.M.I. robots that chase Samus Aran in certain areas. These Terminator-like beings put the bounty hunter on the defensive and completely change the flow of gameplay in a way the series has never seen. The tension of narrowly avoiding these death bots or hitting a tough counter and escaping their grasp is electrifying every single time. It’s a stark contrast to the other boss fights in the game that are more traditional yet challenging and satisfying in their own ways as they push players to recognize patterns in order to come out victorious.
And while the narrative isn’t the deepest tale of the year, it does contain some truly shocking revelations that are highlights in a game full of them. Samus, however, is the strongest part of the package as she is wonderfully characterized through action in a way like Doom 2016’s iteration of the Doom Slayer. She’s effortlessly badass, performing acrobatic dodges and trick shots that wouldn’t look out of place in an anime series. Between the franchise’s legacy, outside competition, and a sporadic 16-year development cycle, Metroid Dread had a lot to live up to. But it has smashed those expectations and demonstrated why it’s still the queen of the genre it is named after.