This year, in addition to our regular game of the year awards, we put our heads together to pick out the top 10 games of 2021, unranked, and each took a crack at explaining why we loved them so much. Below are the 10 best games of the past year beginning with our Game of the Year, so make sure to play these games if you didn’t get to them this year! Click on any of the titles below to see the full rundown on why you can’t miss them!
Gameluster’s 2021 Game of the Year Is…
Toylogic & Square Enix/Square Enix
Since I picked it up (and couldn’t put it down) in 2017, NieR: Automata has remained one of my favorite games of all time. It’s one of those that has stuck with me in a way that I don’t think I’ll ever grow out of, nor do I think I will I ever quite understand the depth of its impact on who I am and what I value. I had always thought about going back to NieR (or NieR Replicant, or NieR Gestalt, or whatever) to see where it all began, but every consensus I saw was that it was too clunky and unpolished to be worth revisiting.
Over time, I think that has proved to be true; so when Yoko Taro, the game’s director, announced the remake, I nearly wept with excitement. NieR Replicant Ver. 1.22 drifted closer and closer to the top of my hype list as we approached the release. You know that all too familiar feeling when you hype up a game beyond anything it could ever conceivably achieve and then are inevitably disappointed? That did not happen. NieR Replicant exceeded my expectations, drove me to madness, pulled me back from the brink, and left me a changed man.
NieR Replicant Ver. 1.22 is probably not going to win a lot of Game of the Year awards, and that’s okay. It is tedious at times, and doesn’t respect the player’s time ocassionally, and moves the plot along very slowly. This is a story about finding what it means to be human. Our inexplicable ability to let down the walls around our hearts with the knowledge that we will be hurt someday — this is what it means to love, and that is what it means to be human. The magic of it is in finding you’ve fallen in love with these characters, watching them fight for what they love, and having your own heart ripped apart and stitched back together alongside them.
Replicant overall has a few more flaws than Automata, but I still feel good calling it a bona fide masterpiece – and strangely I enjoyed it more. In fact, after finishing this game, I was so emotionally affected that I did not play another video game for nearly seven weeks. Every time I picked up a controller I thought of Kaine, Emil, Weiss… and I genuinely missed them, like real friends I’d never see again. I implore you to give this game a try. I understand it may not be for everyone, but if it is for you… well, I hope you can feel what I felt. Now get to it, hussy.
Runner-Ups (In No Order)
I’m comfortable saying now this is the most innovative co op game I’ve ever played. It takes two is made to be played with a close friend or significant other, and that makes it all the more powerful when you and your partner truly synergize. The game does a phenomenal job of teaching you to work together and use your individual skills for the common good to progress, and it’s just focused on fun 100% of the time. I have never seen a game push the theme of collaboration so well and so thoroughly. Every action must be supported by your partner’s actions, and vice versa. Hazelight’s masterpiece is the pinnacle of thematic consistency, and that theme is simply this: it takes two. We have a new bar set for co-op games, and I’m eager to see more games of this type spring up after its win at The Game Awards.
Perfection, in any game, is impossible. Returnal is no exception, certainly when it first came out. Trying to get a “perfect run” while also collecting various artifacts, lore chunks, and unlocking Selene’s memories requires patience bordering on masochism. Particularly when you consider that you couldn’t leave the game in the middle of a run until fairly recently. And there’s just so much ground to cover, you’re not going to be moving quickly by any stretch of the imagination, whether it’s traversing large stretches of road or getting lost in the wonder of alien ruins. For a game that isn’t perfect, Returnal comes closer than most, and a lot of that comes down to the intricate environments, the easy-to-pick-up mechanics, and the adrenaline-fueled boss fights.
Arkane Studios/Bethesda Softworks
Although DEATHLOOP didn’t give me quite what I wanted from an Arkane Studios game, it’s still pretty fantastic. It has some of the best feeling gun play since Destiny 2, it’s exhilarating action, thorough and rewarding detective work, and an excellent intro to the world of immersive sims. I didn’t get the satisfaction of carefully planning a heist and seeing things go exactly the way I wanted, because they always went the way I wanted no matter what I did. DEATHLOOP is a fantastic game, and even with it not quite matching what I wanted from my favorite studio it is still indisputably one of the best games of the year. All that being said, it’s going to be a wild ride different from the other AAA offerings this year, and for that reason alone you should make sure to pick it up.
Insomniac Games/Playstation Studios
Ratchet’s arsenal this time around features a number of recognisable weapons, each with some fun twist. With the Dualsense controller, though, they’re elevated to a whole new level. Adaptive triggers and enhanced haptics offer a world of sensory possibilities, and Insomniac takes full advantage of this. With its use of new audiovisual tech, Rift Apart is a lovingly woven blanket, welcoming you into its immersive embrace. As I flipped, double jumped, and blasted my way through every encounter, I grew only more enamoured with Insomniac’s latest adventure. The fun didn’t stop, and it felt better than it ever has. The PS5 has arrived, and Ratchet and Clank: Rift Apart is its herald.
Acid Nerve/Devolver Digital
Just an hour into this game, which I found exceedingly difficult (I know others did not), I was absolutely vibing. Coupled with the amazing music, the gorgeous art, the whimsical characters, the Ghibli-inspired monsters – everything came together for me. In the most cheesy way possible, Death’s Door brought out the gamer spirit in a way no other game has ever managed. Those hours I spent crouched over my PC, sweat filtering through the rubberized grip on my controller, eyes wide, thumbs aching – those were some of the best hours of gaming I had this year. I don’t know what it is about Death’s Door, but developers Acid Nerve achieved the impossible this year – they made me want to unironically git gud. And git gud I did.
Iron Gate AB/Coffee Stain Publishing
While everybody was “ooohing” and “ahhing” (and “booing” and “hissing”) over Assassin’s Creed Valhalla, there was another Viking themed game which came out. It had little fanfare, being an Early Access indie title on Steam, but it quickly attracted a following. And from there, a fanbase. Regardless of what Geoff Keighley and his ilk ultimately crown, 2021 was (for me) the year of Valheim. During a time where our opportunities to get out in the world were drastically constrained, Valheim delivered a whole new world for us to explore. A chance to gather friends together and make memories, which become stories, which in turn become our own sagas. It was just what we, as gamers and as ordinary folks, needed and when we needed it the most.