Usually, my Decembers are spent scrambling to catch up on the year's biggest hits and favorite hidden gems, but for once I was able to keep up with the incredible games released in 2021 without needing to play catch up right before ringing in the new year. At least part of that is due to the fact that time has just plain lost its meaning over the last two years, admittedly. Games like Resident Evil 7 and New Pokemon Snap feel like they've been out for ages at this point, but apparently, somehow, they were only released this year?
That being said, I didn't think there was much of a theme to my favorite games of 2021 until I sat down to write this list. But the more I wrote, the more I realized that the games I fell in love with this year were games that offered a comforting sort of nostalgia.
Playing New Pokemon Snap took me back to the day my parents first brought the original game and an N64 home from a particularly lucky rummage sale find, while Psychonauts 2 had me remembering my sister and I passing the controller back and forth as we worked together to track down that oh-so-elusive Milkman or struggled to comprehend the pure horror that was Psychonauts 1's Meat Circus level.
Other games I played like Life is Strange: True Colors, Chicory, or Unpacking offered comfort through empathy, and the thoughtful retelling and understanding of the stories and struggles of everyday folks. Narrowing this year's list down to just a few entries was refreshingly difficult, but I feel like the list below manages to capture the essence of this year for me in the best way possible.
Hitman 3 (IO Interactive)
Another year, another chance for me to heap well-deserved praise on IO Interactive's latest Hitman creation. Hitman 3 concludes the sandbox World of Assassination trilogy, and as such takes many cues structurally from its predecessors. Fortunately, that includes IO's decision to bring each games' levels forward to make them playable in the latest title, complete with Hitman 3's improved visuals and new gadgets. This time around however, IO went a step further to make the entirety of Hitman 3, and therefore Hitman and Hitman 2's content, playable in VR, including with the mechanical changes needed to make that a wholly immersive and enjoyable experience. That's no small undertaking by any means!
As far as gameplay goes, Hitman 3 does follow that same loose structure as Hitman and Hitman 2, but the game notability takes more risks with its level design than earlier games, and at times uses the overarching narrative to move away from its usual "here's your target, do what you will" assignments. Whether those risks paid off depends on who you speak to. Hitman 3's Berlin mission, for example, sees our Agent 47 using environmental cues to identify a small number of possible enemy agents hidden throughout a warehouse rave. On first playthrough, this means most of your time is spent trying to spot and then assassinate these unknown targets, but on future playthroughs you're free to use your prior knowledge to pick which 5 of the 11 agents you'll take out, and route your speediest assassination path accordingly.
I've only recently dipped my toes back into Hitman 3 after a few months away, but the post-launch content has already made for a welcome return. The Seven Deadly Sins DLC themes small missions around each of the seven deadly sins, introducing novel restrictions and goals based on each vice. There's more content coming in 2022 as well, something I'll entirely use as an excuse to include Hitman 3 on next year's GOTY list.
It Takes Two (Hazelight Studios)
There's a charm to couch co-op that you don't get to see often now-a-days, and It Takes Two has that charm in spades. Developed by the practiced couch co-op team at Hazelight Studios, It Takes Two follows the story of divorcing parents May and Cody after their daughter unwittingly turns the two of them into a pair of puppets that must learn to work together to both find their way home and back to their bodies.
The larger-than-life trek follows their journey from a precarious garden shed, through a bee and rodent-ridden backyard, and into the chaos of a child's playroom, with each individual stage granting the pair unique but complementary abilities to help navigate the obstacles peppered throughout the world. In one world for example, Cody can shoot nails into a board to create a path for May to swing across, while another gives May the ability to walk up walls and Cody the power to shrink or enlarge at will. In all case, the dozen or so powers granted to each across the game require teamwork and communication from players in order to move forward.
Each level is more than just the platforming and puzzles needed to progress too; throughout every world are tons and tons of small details, interactive objects, and mini-games that make exploration its own reward, and keep the game feeling fun at every turn.
We'll ignore the fact that May and Cody are arguably bad people who, at one point, decide making their daughter cry is their only way towards freedom, and do so through means that would be exceedingly graphic and violent if the characters weren't puppets. The story is, at times, questionable, but the excellence of the gameplay, the world, and overarching journey more than makes up for this particular shortcoming.
New Pokemon Snap (Nintendo)
New Pokemon Snap was a long time coming. The long-awaited sequel keeps much of what gave the original its charm, and works in new mechanics, settings, and pokemon in order to bring the spirit of the N64 classic to a modern audience familiar with the hundreds upon hundreds of pokemon that have been introduced to the series since that very first 151. I was continually in awe of exactly how much was packed into this game. Like the original, you progress through multiple on-rails stages and snap the best shots of the creatures that inhabit each environment as you go. Hidden pathways are scattered throughout, traversable only if certain subtle conditions are met and occupied by pokemon you might not've seen otherwise.
This time around, the dozen or so unlockable stages come with day and night variants, each with their own hidden discoveries and pokemon to photograph along the way. While the premise of New Pokemon Snap's levels could easily get repetitive as you retread the same path to take better and better photographs, New Pokemon Snap subtly changes each level as the pokemon within become more accustomed to your presence, altering the behavior and actions each little creature takes to both keep the stages feeling fresh and to offer up more opportunities for you to snap the perfect photograph along the way. Most importantly, New Pokemon Snap finally gives Bidoof the spotlight it deserves. That alone is worth a GOTY nod.
Psychonauts 2 (Double Fine Productions)
It's nothing short of remarkable that Double Fine Productions was able to create a sequel to Psychonauts well over a decade later that captures the exact magic and feel of the original game. Psychonauts 2 does take off nearly right where the first game left off, helped along by the VR spinoff Psychonauts in the Rhombus of Ruin released back in 2017. Psychonauts 2 casts players as aspiring psychic Raz, now an official intern for the organization of psychic spies he grew up idolizing. Like the original game from 2005, Raz's journeys see him jumping into the minds of friend and foe alike to explore the labyrinths of their psyches to find information and help them work through issues deeply embedded in their minds.
Despite the 16 years separating Psychonauts and Psychonauts 2, the entire game carries forward the exact humor and spirit that endeared a young me to the first game when I played it with my younger sister ages and ages ago. With current-generational tech, that humor is backed up by stylized and legitimately stunning visuals throughout. Each of the minds you explore feel visually and thematically unique, and bring their own mechanics, challenges, rewards, and stories as you explore them. Remarkably, Psychonauts 2 is yet another game of 2021 that takes an incredibly thoughtful approach to dealing with mental illness and issues throughout, even at one point scolding its protagonist for using his powers to change the way someone's mind works and rewriting parts of their personality without their consent.
Wildermyth (Worldwalker Games)
Worldwalker Games' Wildermyth is a marvel of storytelling, and the rare game that actually manages to capture the magic of playing a tabletop roleplaying game thanks to both its visuals and renowned focus creating heroic stories. Wildermyth itself is merely the tool through which those tales of heroism take form. Players are given freedom to define the traits and decisions their characters make throughout a years-long campaign, and those features weave into the loose overarching narrative to create something truly unique. Your hotheaded goofball warrior may form a lasting rivalry with a party member and see combat bonuses whenever that rival shows them up, or your bookish leader mystic may stumble upon something truly wondrous in the woods and walk away forever changed by the encounter
Despite being a game largely based around making decisions, those decisions rarely offer pure punishment for making any sort of "wrong" choice. Deciding to approach the strange glowing structure in a cave can see your character physically changed, their arm turned to stone and unable to hold their two-handed sword but now serves as a natural, crystalline shield that protects them in combat. Similarly, when a character falls in battle players can either save them by taking a permanent stat debuff or die heroically and deal an additional chunk of damage to nearby foes. Even when these random encounters or events repeat down the line, the stories and personalities you've built up for your characters make each and every decision feel fresh and unique. With all this talk of storytelling, its important to heap praise on the combat as well.
The particular way Worldwalker Games approaches magic in Wildermyth alone deserves praise. Mystics, one of the three playable classes that can evolve down many paths, source their magic from the items scattered around each combat map. Interfusing with a nearby stone, for example, allows them to cast the discus spell and hurl stones at multiple enemies, while others create explosions of wood or leaping whips of fire. It's a system that uniquely complements the grid and turn-based combat of Wildermyth, and brings a deeper level of strategy to the already fun, and often challenging but rewarding combat encounters, ultimately resulting in one of the best games I've had the pleasure of playing.
Chicory: A Colorful Tale is an absolutely incredible game focused on bringing color back to a black and white world by legitimately painting the 2D, Zelda-inspired screens. The brush doubling as a tool for player expression and as their main way to interact with the world is genius, and so far it takes a thoughtful approach to dealing with depression and creative burnout within the colorful and cartoonish world it creates.
Life is Strange: True Colors tells the story of Alex, an empath reunited with her brother after years in the foster care system in a small Colorado town. Her empathy-based powers start off as a curse for her, but as she grows in the community and builds bonds with her friends, she's able to use her abilities to help those around her and uncover a dark truth behind tragedies both recent and long forgotten. The care through which True Colors approaches these stories is notable, and the decisions in the storyline surrounding Eleanor and Riley is something that will stick with me for a long time.
Resident Evil: Village was my first Resident Evil game, and I could hardly put it down. From what I can gather, it's quite the departure from other games in the series but the haunting countryside and the more sinister locales you visit across the duration of the game are simply stunning in every right. I do wish the other "lords" of the game, particularly Donna, had gotten as much time in the spotlight as the striking Lady Dimitrescu, but even with its curious pacing Village was still a fantastic way to meet the world of Resident Evil.
Unpacking is truly a masterclass in storytelling. I came across the game on Twitter years ago, thinking the finished product would simply be a satisfying little game about unloading boxes and organizing shelves. Instead, the full game uses those calming mechanics to tell a story without really writing the exact twist and turns out for you. Every object you unload and where you're able to place it teaches you more and more about the characters and where they're at in their lives. A detail as tiny as not being able to hang a diploma on a wall informs so much about a story and characters you'll never directly meet, and the objects that make it from one residence to the next speak volumes about how those characters grow and evolve across a lifetime.