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Game Developer's Best of 2021: Bryant Francis' top 10 games

Senior editor Bryant Francis looks back at his top 10 games of 2021.

2021 was a heck of a transition year for all of us. Not only did we have to navigate the awkwardness of the vaccine world in the COVID-19 pandemic, we had to grapple with dramatic events in the news and the video game industry that impacted us all.

One big transition in my life was stepping full-time into the role of senior editor for the newly named Game Developer. Assuming this role right as our industry began grappling with one of the biggest labor crises of its history has reshaped how I spend my time and even how I talk to game developers. 

So much of the pandemic shaped how I spent my free time as well. I spent this year desperate to (safely) reconnect with the world, and filled my time with trips, tabletop tournaments, and time at the gym. It's hard to play the millions of wonderful games on Steam when after a long day of work, you really want to get the heck away from your computer (Steam Deck come faster please).

That said, I still found time for five brand-new games this year I wanted to celebrate. These titles swung hard for technical, creative, and artistic innovations, and even if they didn't always stick the landing, they made the journey surprisingly pleasant. 

Here, in no specific order, are my top 10 games.

Deathloop, Arkane Studios


Sleek, snazzy, and playful, Deathloop is yet another great murder playground from the fine folks at Arkane Studios. The company that has spent the last decade promoting open, emergent gameplay and lavish environment design has done it once again, upending many of its design paradigms in this '70s-theme time loop adventure.

Though the finale (and plot twist) left me a little cold, I can't regret any of my time spent looping in Blackreef. Playing through levels felt like strumming songs on a guitar, each new pathway and objective a different collection of the same notes that produced great new moments.

If at first you don't succeed, die, die again, die and get killed by some jerkoff named doglover420, die and try another level, die and find a brilliant new secret you never spotted before, and then, after a few thousand deaths, you'll play the perfect song that wraps it all up.

Marvel's Guardians of the GalaxyEidos Montreal

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I'm hooked on a feeling, and that feeling is that Eidos Montreal massively stepped up their game with Marvel's Guardians of the Galaxy. This game is cool. It's witty. It's funny. It's cosmic. It's what happens when triple-A game production can get over itself and swing for sincerity without sacrificing a sense of adventure.

With game production costs going up, more studios are pushing for titles with deep systems rather than finely-polished setpieces, and it's so good to see that setpiece games can matter in 2021. The shooting is a bit of a shrug, but good design means everything from conversations to anti-gravity rooms to dimensional portals is a different kind of play.

This game surprised the hell out of me this year, and if you've got some free time, you should let it surprise you as well.

Loop HeroFour Quarters


"Oh no," I said sometime around my 4th run of Loop Hero. "I'm hooked."

Pictured: Me, playing Loop Hero

Loop Hero came out of nowhere this summer. Four Quarters did such a good job taking a complicated concept (making a strategy game where you can't directly control the main character) and making a swell-as-hell roguelike out of it.

This game is programming logic brought to life, an invitation to collaborate with the game systems in restoring a monstrous fantasy world. Some stellar writing seals the deal, and makes this one of the most inventive games I played in 2021.

Inscryption, Daniel Mullins Games


Okay but if we're talking about inventive games, we have to talk about Inscryption. And to talk about Inscyrption, I have to spoil Inscryption a little. So keep scrolling if you want to go in fresh.

We good? Okay. Now just what the hell is Inscryption?

Is it a horror-themed card game? A point-and-click mystery that feels like the old Goosebumps games from the '90s? A found footage title? A big card-gathering adventure like the Pokemon Trading Card Game for the Game Boy? It's all of those and maybe more.

But it would be one thing if the game's genre shifted, it's another that developer Daniel Mullins Games built such a great card system that's able to carry the whole game on its back. The trappings the card battles take place in may change, but underneath the mind-bendy bits is just a great, great card game I would have praised if that was the only product being offered.

That we get a love letter to other game genres packed alongside it is a wonderful, wonderful bonus.

Halo Infinite343 Industries


My admiration for Halo Infinite isn't just because they finally cracked how Halo can work in an open-world environment, it's the fact that the people who labored on this game went through a hell of a lot of grief to bring it to life, and they stuck the landing in a big, beautiful way.

Plenty of Halo Infinite's design feels like sinking into a big comfy chair that's been in your house since childhood and scratching the same itch you've been feeling since Halo: Combat Evolved. But blessedly, it's not all that.

There's some real creativity and commitment to new design direction, including some more characterization for your alien enemies (they're not The Covenant anymore, they're The Banished, and if you sit down for my PowerPoint presentation, I will explain the difference) and a grappling hook that feels like a game designer's fever dream (it can interact with everything?!).

Halo Infinite's open world isn't as groundbreaking as The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild was, but it's a pleasant experiment all the same. Halo was not designed with open worlds in mind, and its odd evolution into the space makes it stand out from your Assassin's Creeds-type games.

Dice Legacy, DESTINYbit

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Dice Legacy came and went a bit faster than I expected but this little indie gem did some neat design work with the concept of "citybuilders" that I think deserves attention. DESTINYbit did a great job merging the worker placement board game genre with the always-tantalizing society simulator, and managed to make me very invested in my very abstracted dice workers.

I also love how it beat Halo Infinite out this year for its compelling use of a "ringworld," and nicely used a vertical scrolling mechanic to rewrite how players interact with the game map. That's some good soup.

Metroid Dread, MercurySteam


I despise how MercurySteam did not credit all of the developers who brought this excellent game to life. Because they did such great work, they deserve to be included in the credits! The first proper Metroid title in a long, long time was extremely welcomed, and for all the intense difficulty it claims to possess it's also a marvelously fair game. 

It rewards patience, encourages failure, and uses brilliant pacing and fantastic cutscenes to make success feel all the more sweet. One day I hope Nintendo gives Metroid the Breath of the Wild treatment and lets Samus thrive in a big world oozing with theme, but for now, this will have to do.

Beast Breaker, Vodeo Games


I admire Beast Breakers both for its simple concept (it's Brick Breaker meets Monster Hunter) and its thematic ambition. The team behind this neat little game had a very specific point of view on monster-slaying, heroism, and encounter design. I'm also interested to see if co-founder Asher Vollmer's vision of semi-regular game releases can hold up. 

Is this a model for what will hopefully be a number of stellar double-A games? Maybe. But even if it's not, I'm excited to actually care about Brick Breaker-type games again. 

GriftlandsKlei Entertainment

Klei's reputation for beautiful animation and fantastic worldbuilding collide here with a really strong deckbuilding game that doesn't always mesh with its top-level design, but when it does, you forget that time itself exists. 

This neat deckbuilder uses a really interesting sci-fi universe and multiple ending possibilities to make you hit the grind again, again, and again, and does a great job rewarding your narrative choices with gameplay strategy to make that replayability feel worth it.

Back 4 BloodTurtle Rock

Tossing back drinks and hopping onto Back 4 Blood with cross-country friends is an incredible way to spend a Friday night. Now mind you, that was true for the Left 4 Dead games as well, so what did Turtle Rock do to make this souped-up co-op zombie shooter worth diving into? They came up with a great deckbuilding system, that's what.

There's so much joy, discovery, and experimentation wrapped up in these weird little cards. It's a kind of system that feels unintuitive at first, because this is a zombie shooting game. You're supposed to shoot zombies! Not learn about the heart of the cards. 

But it works. It works so well, and it freshens up a genre I thought I'd grown bored of. Turtle Rock continues to be a bastion of making it fun to play video games with your friends, and dang what a good job they've done with this one.

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