With 2021 in the review mirror, it’s time to take a look back at another year of gaming and highlight some of the best and brightest. There were some real bangers this year, and I even managed to snag a PS5, so all in all I’d say from a gaming perspective it was a good year. While I often write about visual novels, I’m going to focus on the other stuff in this piece. If you’re interested in my thoughts on the year in visual novels, I’ll refer you here where my colleagues at Nook Gaming and I wrote about our favorite visual novels of 2021. Without further ado let’s dig into some of the standouts of 2021!
Rhythm Doctor is a rhythm game where you press spacebar on the seventh beat of each musical phrase. One button? How hard could it be? Pretty damn hard it turns out. Rhythm Doctor starts out simple but before long you’re playing multiple lines while trying to keep track of polyrhythms and compound time signatures. Because Rhythm Doctor keeps the mechanical action of pressing spacebar so simple, it’s free to go crazy everywhere else while staying fun rather than frustrating.
Rhythm Doctor’s gungho attitude extends beyond the rhythms to the presentation. The different rhythmic patterns are represented by various characters who dance along to your beats, and you watch cute stories play out among them as you progress through the stages. It’s endearing and gives Rhythm Doctor more heart than your average rhythm game. A few of the stages get quite adventurous with the visual effects. It might not make your job easier, but it’s a fun surprise that complements a standout soundtrack. And once again, because the core mechanics are so simple, all the stimulation never becomes overwhelming. Rhythm Doctor was a 2021 early access release, so there’s not a ton of content yet, but I can’t think of another game that gave me as many goofy smiles this year.
Deathloop begins with Colt Vahn waking up hungover on a beach with strange disembodied text telling him to BREAK. THE. LOOP. The isle of Blackreef is trapped in an eternal loop, living out the same day over and over. Except this time, everyone’s in on it, from the visionaries who lead the sinister AEON Project to their cultist followers who revel in hedonism and debauchery, knowing the consequences will simply be reset tomorrow. The entire island is perfectly happy living in this loop. If Colt wants to break it, he’s going to have to go through all of them.
As fans know from the Dishonored series, Arkane are masters of building playgrounds where you can cause all kinds of chaos (or not), and Deathloop is no exception. You have ample opportunity to make use Colt’s arsenal of powers and guns, whether you want to get in and out like a ghost, run and gun across the rooftops, or kick down the front door guns blazing. Punchy arcade-style gunplay and absurd set pieces are a perfect match for the frenetic action, while the environment and lore hidden in logs and journals lay bare the unsettling insanity of Blackreef.
The coolest part of Deathloop is the way it uses taking information across time as progress. Colt can’t be everywhere at once-except he sort of can. A snippet of conversation here and a note there reveal a trail of breadcrumbs through time and space. And it’s never too late to learn something new. That door that was locked earlier this morning? Learn the combination later that night, and take it with you into tomorrow. After all, tomorrow is another today. To break the loop, Colt will need to master it, manipulating those around him to do what he wants and going in knowing exactly what will happen. Colt might need to stars to align, but he can make his own luck. I had a blast doing just that, and Deathloop is both another resounding success for Arkane and one of my top games of 2021.
Two yellow eyes pierce you from across an unadorned wooden table. The cabin groans as tiny flames flicker in the stagnant air, a few candles the only defense against the ominous darkness that seeps from the very walls. How about a game? It’s been a while. Take a seat. The cards beckon.
To say much more would be to spoil one of the most mind-bending experiences I’ve had in some time. Inscryption is completely crazy in the best possible way, and you should go in as blind as possible. What appears to be another roguelike deckbuilder in the mold of Slay the Spire hides many secrets . . . for those with the wits and courage to look for them. Inscryption isn’t just an evocative aesthetic either. The seemingly simple mechanics offer more variety and strategic depth than you’d assume at first glance. And every time you think you have Inscryption figured out, it pulls the rug out from under you with another deliciously dark surprise. Inscryption had me hooked from start to finish and was one of my favorite games of the year.
After responding to an unknown signal, interplanetary scout Selene crash lands on the alien planet Atropos. With her ship damaged beyond repair, she’ll have to explore, scavenge supplies, and find a way to signal for help. Atropos is a hostile world, filled with dangerous beasts, strange alien ruins, and corpses of . . . herself? Selene wonders if she’s been here before, a proposition complicated when she finds herself trapped in a time loop. Every time she dies, Selene wakes up back at the crash site.
Housemarque’s Returnal is a creative blend of roguelike, third-person shooter, and bullet hell. Sharp controls and finely-tuned gunplay make for a satisfying struggle against a world full of challenging foes, while the environment and sound design (along with haptic feedback) vividly paint Atropos as a relentlessly inhospitable place ready to spit you out again and again. It’s the storytelling though that elevates this already mechanically excellent game to the very top. In fact, it’s some of the boldest and most ambitious storytelling I’ve seen in any game.
Video games are big on direct exposition. There might be a mystery or conspiracy, but eventually some NPC or hidden journal will give the big reveal and explain how it all fits together. And usually the how is the focus. What were the mechanics of the master plan? The why and the emotional experience of doing are often lost. I think this happens when games try too hard to wrap everything up in a neat bow, to give you a clear answer without any holes. Few games trust players to judge the experience for themselves or trust that the holes can be a meaningful part of that experience. Returnal absolutely does, and that’s what makes it special.
Returnal is completely unafraid of challenging you to think and rethink who Selene is and what her journey means. Even the very foundations are at times ambiguous: expressed through symbolism, allusion, and fractured imagery. From the text that displays “Warning: Helios Abandoned” when you leave the wreckage of your ship to the ubiquitous astronaut, every detail harbors deeper meaning. And each time you think you’ve finally unveiled the heart of the matter, there’s another layer staring back at you, calling everything you thought you knew into question. Even after the end credits, I’m left with more questions than answers about some of the fundamental facts of Returnal.
Yet Returnal is gripping from start to finish because you always sense what it’s really about. Every alien image, every garbled monolith, and every fractured memory feed into a visceral understanding of Selene’s mind and emotions. Even when people, places, and events blur, her pain, her fear, her struggle, and her hope shine through and feel so very human. The story and gameplay blend together too, sometimes in subtle ways, and you experience Selene’s journey along with her. Returnal was a game I could not put down. I was absorbed in throwing myself at Atropos again and again to see the end of Selene’s journey. I still recall the haunting feeling of realizing the rabbit hole keeps going down. I still think about all the little details, revising my theories and making new connections. Returnal is not only my Game of the Year, but a one I’ll remember for years to come.