GOTY 2021: The 21 best video games of 2021
We’re at it again, trying to compile subjective opinions into official-looking lists – here are the 21 best video games of 2021, according to Thumbsticks.
We’re at it again, trying to compile subjective opinions into official-looking lists – here are the 21 best video games of 2021, according to Thumbsticks.
It’s that time of year again, folks. Time to arbitrarily list and rank everything that happened in the previous 12 months! So here’s our bumper list of the 21 best video games of 2021, including some honourable mentions and things that didn’t quite make the cut. (And some downright bad stuff we wanted to make fun of.)
Why? Well, mostly because you lot like lists. It’s a good discussion point, if nothing else. But keep in mind that every list like this is very subjective, and if you don’t agree, then you don’t have to yell and stamp your feet and call people names.
(And if you feel really strongly about it, then please write down your complaint, seal it in an envelope, and pop it in our complaints box. Which is any rubbish bin you find. Just write it down, pop it in the trash, and you’ll feel much better.)
Oh, why is it 21 games, you mean? Well, because it’s 2021, of course. We did 20 last year, and 19 the year before that. Yes, that will be a pain to compile in 2093, but we’ll be dead by then, so we won’t have to worry about it.
Also, it’s in alphabetical order, not ranking order. Making a list of 21 games is daft enough as it is without then having to order them, too.
Anyway! Disclaimers dutifully delivered, on with the list.
The 21 best video games of 2021
Chicory: A Colorful Tale
Chicory – or the artist formerly known as Drawdog – is a mostly delightful, sometimes twee adventure, where you (a dog, also a painter) travels the grey world, filling the colour back in as you help its denizens. But unlike ethereal colouring-in platformer Gris, where the colour fills in around you as you progress, you get to pick which numbers you paint by here.
Chicory also features an amazing array of thoughtful accessibility features, which always scores extra marks with Team Thumbsticks.
As a peculiarity of the Bethesda acquisition, Deathloop has the strange distinction of being the first Xbox-published game to be a PlayStation exclusive. That small sideshow aside, though, Arkane has once again proven it is the master of the immersive sim. This one also features a stellar cast and tight presentation, with a natty time loop mechanic to boot. Excellent stuff.
It’s easy to forget about this one as it was released right at the start of the year, but Hitman 3 is more of the same from IO Interactive, and it is glorious for it. Enough said. (But we did say more about it in our review. That’s kind of our job, after all.)
It Takes Two
It Takes Two, from Hazelight Studios, is another co-op only game from the de facto specialist in the area, Josef Fares. Arguably not his best work, perhaps, but its story of co-operation in the midst of a divorce has probably struck a chord for many in the face of endless lockdowns. It also sold brilliantly – once again, vindicating Fares’ insistence that we all play nicely together – and surprised many by scooping the top prize at The Geoff Awards.
You should never judge a book by its cover, obviously, but Lake is one of those games that catches the eye with its stunning visuals. We actually discovered it because we follow the game’s technical environment artist, Jonathan van Immerzeel – AKA Staggart Creations – on social media, and love tinkering with his stuff in Unity. (The games industry is weird. We’ve got favourite environment artists, concept artists, animators; it’s… very strange. Other people are fans of professional athletes and musicians and stuff. It’s good to be different!)
Lake is more than just a pretty face, however, with its rural setting and tale of escapism (via a fairly menial job) drawing parallels with another Thumbsticks favourite, Firewatch.
Life is Strange: True Colors
The supernatural stakes have never been lower for Life is Strange with True Colors, swapping time-bending resurrections and telekinetic border crossings for, erm, super-powered empathy? But this slightly less fantastical approach has birthed a more grounded game – this might be the best the series has been since its breakout debut, developer swap and all.
Speaking of not judging a book by its cover, before you do anything else, go and look at Loop Hero’s website. It’ll only take a minute, or alternatively, you might get lost in the loop for a little while. It’s a very clever vertical slice of an extremely clever game.
Done that? Great. Now imagine the full game version of that. That’s why Loop Hero is one of the 21 best video games of 2021. That’s why Loop Hero is one of the 21 best video games of 2021. That’s why Loop Hero is one of the 21 best video games of 2021. That’s why–
Metroid Dread refreshes Nintendo’s long-dormant series by pivoting away from exploration and into action and combat. It’s an aggressive, propulsive adventure supported by Samus’s newfound athleticism and a challenging bestiary of foes. There are still corners to poke in the hope of discovering power-ups, but it’s the cat-and-mouse E.M.M.I. sequences and exquisitely constructed boss encounters that provide Dread’s true rewards.
Monster Hunter Rise
Monster Hunter Rise continues Capcom’s work in opening up the franchise to new audiences, in part due to its availability on Nintendo Switch. Hunts are full-throated spectacles that deserve to be experienced on a big screen. However, pummeling a Pukei-Pukei takes planning. The ability to idly tinker with the game’s potpourri of crafting and busywork in handheld mode makes this visceral adventure all the more accessible.
No Longer Home
Built as a semi-autobiographical farewell project by the game’s developers, No Longer Home sees a pair of students reminiscing on their shared experiences as they pack up their lives together. With more than a hint of Kentucky Route Zero to its visuals and its diorama settings more grounded than The Gardens Between, this is a mundane slice of life that’s often powerful, painful, and poignant.
Omno is one of those games where, when someone tells you it was a solo developer’s project, you almost reflexively call them a liar. And though that isn’t why it’s included in this list of the best video games of 2021, it’s always worth highlighting just how clever and creative people can be.
Omno is included in this list because, like Sable, it builds on the idea of the open world that we’ve grown so familiar with, but adds in pleasing traversal whilst stripping the world back to its bare essence. Gone is what we’ll uncharitably (but accurately) refer to as the extraneous “Ubisoft noise” – of icons and objectives that have become de rigueur in modern open-world games – replaced instead with exploration, puzzles, and breathing space to enjoy the sumptuous environments. Glorious.
We’re not saying that Double Fine wasn’t a (double) fine publisher of other people’s games, but it’s refreshing to see the team making video games again. In this follow-up to 2005’s Psychonauts, and now a Microsoft-owned studio with all of the budget and bells and whistles that affords them, Tim Schafer and the team have produced a stonking follow-up in Psychonauts 2.
The brain invasion motif has also been sensitively updated for 2021, with riffs on consent and understanding people are wired differently, rather than Raz just blundering in and “fixing” everything. It also features some very nice portals between worlds, which are only somewhat overshadowed by…
Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart
In another life, closer to the console’s release, Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart is a PlayStation 5 tech showcase dressed up as a video game. In a way, with its seamless portals between very disparate universes, it sort of still is. It’s probably the first “next-generation” game (we are well aware that this is now the current generation, hence the air quotes) that actually feels “next generation” in amongst a peer group of games that are obviously graphically impressive, but also, feel like more of the same from last gen.
A brilliant PS5 tech demo, then, but this is Insomniac Games, so it’s also a very good video game. It wouldn’t make it onto this list otherwise.
Resident Evil Village
Yes, Resident Evil Village did mostly give us the big vampire lady in the white dress that everyone thirsted over for months. Then the game came along and <SPOILERS REDACTED> and <SPOILERS REDACTED> and, ultimately <SPOILERS REDACTED>, which was a bit stupid.
But just as the Assassin’s Creed series has been shifting into RPG territory of late, Resident Evil is on a similar journey, from tense horror to full-on farce back to tense horror, again. The sign of good things to come, and a cracking game in isolation.
Returnal is a bit of a divisive one. If you’re not into roguey loops, or Housemarque’s blend of bullet hell shooting, then you might have bounced off this one. (The likelihood of that was much higher before the developer implemented any kind of resume functionality. Roguelike games should be challenging, not needlessly punitive.)
But with a few nips and tucks to how the game works, the already-great Returnal became a much smoother and more generally accessible experience, albeit still a very challenging one. It’s also a testament to how far Housemarque has come, from the likes of Super Stardust and Resogun to the biggest exclusive the PS5 had. (Until Ratchet & Clank came out, obviously.)
With its striking cel-shaded visuals and Breath of the Wild meets Journey (on a hoverbike) conceit, Sable always looked like a success waiting to happen. Then it got picked up and featured all over E3 a few years ago and anticipation has been building ever since. Not everyone warmed to its slower pace on release, but Shedworks’ open-world adventure certainly delivered on its promise of a stunning, sumptuous, combat-free world to get lost in. More like this, please.
It would be unkind to refer to Solar Ash simply as “3D Hyper Light Drifter” but, in some respects, that’s a massive compliment. For Alx Preston and Heart Machine, creator of Hyper Light Drifter, it’s a massive shift in ambition from minimalist 2D ARPG to a massive 3D platformer with ARPG elements. Imagine Jet Set Radio and Breath of the Wild had a weird neon baby (and it was raised by Grasshopper Manufacture) and you’d still only be halfway there.
And even only halfway there, that sounds amazing, right?
Townscaper, from Oskar Stålberg of Bad North fame, is one of those things people will argue isn’t really a game. It’s more of a toy. A construction set. A tinker’s tool. A fidget spinner for the brain. You simply will little buildings into existence, and they appear, with a fizz and a pop, from the water.
But unlike most city builders, where you have to micromanage every element, Townscaper utilises Bad North’s naturalistic grid system and procedural construction to make buildings hop, skip, and jump into existence, and change with every gentle prod. It’s beautiful, meditative stuff, and when the recently-added export feature is (hopefully) a bit more user friendly, expect to see Townscaper powering everything from 3D model making to Dungeons & Dragons to people literally building other games in the streets it generates.
Turnip Boy Commits Tax Evasion
We wouldn’t normally do this. Usually it’s our job to explain to you why a game deserves a spot in our list of the best games of the year. That’s sort of what we’re here for. But in this instance, we’re just going to paste, verbatim, the blurb for Turnip Boy Commits Tax Evasion, and let the game’s premise speak for itself:
Take control of an adorable turnip who happens to be an absolute menace to society. After failing to pay taxes and getting evicted from your home, you must go on an epic quest to pay back your massive debt to Mayor Onion. Garden tools to solve plantastic puzzles, meet eccentric vegetables and fruits, and take on treacherous fights against animals both big and small. Along the journey uncover what’s spoiling this garden community and rise to tear down the corrupt vegetable government!
Tux and Fanny: The Video Game
Shaun proclaimed Tux and Fanny, the weird little webcomic turned video game the “best video game of 2021” back in September. Yep, with three months of the year left to run. Was he right? Unclear. It was a bold strategy. (But he certainly makes a persuasive case.)
If No Longer Home is about looming change and the pain of packing up your life, Unpacking centres on the other end of the process: the possibility of new spaces with existing baggage. As you unpack little dioramas, you’ll have to find a home for each character’s belongings. In rummaging through their stuff you’ll find out more about their lives, in a game without scores or timers, or any wrong answers to its simple, pure form.
This is Tetris, but for the home. This is Tetris, but for the soul. Zen and the Art of Unpacking Cardboard Boxes, indeed.
- 12 Minutes – With its star-studded cast and Annapurna’s recent track record, this looked so promising; then it was released and… yeah, the less said on this absolute horror show, the better
- Anything released by Activision Blizzard – Ditto “the less said on this absolute horror show, the better”
- Age of Empires IV – More of the same beloved franchise is great and all, but sometimes you just need more
- The Artful Escape – Somewhere between SEGA classic NiGHTS and the battle of the bands stuff from Scott Pilgrim
- The Ascent – Murky, interesting run-and-gunner; everything Contra wishes it was in the modern era
- Backbone – Raccoon detective noir; what’s not to love?
- Back 4 Blood – Sad they don’t make Left 4 Dead games anymore? Well, this is for you; derivative, but jolly good fun
- Biomutant – Didn’t fulfil the promise that its pre-release set out, but still a noteworthy AA release
- Boyfriend Dungeon – Kind of great, actually, but parts of its storyline also left a bit of an icky taste for some?
- Circuit Superstars – A dinky racing delight
- Death’s Door – Another cracking ARPG, drenched in polish and underworld cool
- Embr – Madcap firefighting fun that riffs on the gig economy
- Exo One – Like Kena: Bridge of Spirits, Exo One lost out to Omno and Sable also releasing this year; it’s eerily pretty, stirring stuff though (even if we’re not sure what’s going on at any given moment)
- Far Cry 6 – Yet another Ubisoft game that is definitely not political, honest (you can’t just cast Giancarlo Esposito and hope we’ll be too distracted to notice, Ubisoft)
- Forza Horizon 5 – Fast cars, big world, more of the same
- Garden Story – Cutesy ARPG that got bumped from the list proper by Turnip Boy, sorry
- Gas Station Simulator – One of those brilliant boredom simulators that we can’t get enough of
- Halo Infinite – This might be the best Halo game in some time, and the multiplayer release was huge, but it still feels a bit dated
- Inscryption – Inscryption is… a little hard to explain? But it’s definitely one of the most interesting games of the year
- Kena: Bridge of Spirits – A beautiful, sumptuous game, but was bumped off the list proper in comparison to Omno and Sable
- Last Stop – The latest from the Virginia developers is certainly interesting, but doesn’t reach the heights of its forebear
- Little Nightmares II – Ditto “certainly interesting, but doesn’t quite reach the heights of its forebear”
- The Magnificent Trufflepigs – One of those quirky, ambitious indies; well worth a look
- Maquette – Hyper-sharp puzzler in the Superliminal mould
- Mario Golf: Super Rush – Yawn. It’s fine, but how did they make Mario Golf faster and somehow also less interesting?
- Mario Party Superstars – Ditto “somehow also less interesting”
- Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy – Instantly forgettable
- Mini Motorways – Another victim of “more of the same” syndrome; brilliant, but mostly just more Mini Metro
- New Pokémon Snap – An odd blend of remake and remaster that’s enjoyable enough, but never elevated above the source
- New World – Globo megacorp Amazon making a colonialist MMO with 4X elements is a bit on the nose, isn’t it?
- Outriders – Even more instantly forgettable than Guardians of the Galaxy, which is an achievement in itself
- Picross S7 – It barely scraped into 2021, but such is Dan’s love for Picross, it’s going on the list
- Pokémon Brilliant Diamond and Shining Pearl – A comfy pair of slippers for fans of the originals, but another Nintendo remake/remaster that’s nothing groundbreaking
- Powerwash Simulator – Another surprisingly compelling menial task simulator that would be right up there in the main list (if it weren’t in early access)
- Riders Republic – How did they take Steep (the best Ubisoft game) and make it so much worse for the sequel?
- Skatebird – Cute, fun, and definitely trying its best; in that respect, Skatebird lives up to its promise (but never really lives up to its potential)
- Splitgate – Another free-to-play shooter, but this one made a bit of a splash with its “what if Halo, but also, Portal?” premise
- Super Mario 3D World + Bowser’s Fury – Hard to make a case for another Nintendo remake/remaster on the main list, but consider Bowser’s Fury on its own? Its structure feels like a glimpse of Mario’s future, and also, it’s brill
- Teardown – Dennis Gustaffson’s physics wonder would be nailed on for the list if it weren’t still in early access
- Toem – Lovely little photography adventure; reminds us of A Short Hike and Alba
- Valheim – Another surprise smash hit game that would definitely have been on the main list, were it not still in early access
- WarioWare: Get it Together – WarioWare on Nintendo Switch should’ve been perfection? But it’s mostly just OK
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