At the start of 2021, I took it upon myself to try something I’ve never done: finish as many video games as I could in a span of the year. Finish in this context meant completing a game’s campaign/story. I completed 53 games in 52 weeks, ranging from clockwork puzzlers to post-apocalyptic immersive sims (you can see the full list here).
I would generally play one game at a time; sometimes two if they’re different enough (for example, playing a light puzzle game on the PC is a nice breather from grinding bosses in Final Fantasy 7 Remake). Mind you, no speedrunning was involved in any of these playthroughs. In some games, I tried to maximize how many achievements/trophies I could get in a single playthrough.
Overall, it’s an experience worth trying but it’s one I might not try again. At least not at the pace I did it. While I didn’t rush through any of them, a lot of my time was spent just curating which game to play for the month to avoid feeling burnt out. The process of doing that ironically burnt me out.
With all that out of the way, here are the ten best games that truly struck me out of the 53 I played. It should go without saying that none of these are games from the year.
Like any good hardboiled detective story, Disco Elysium opens with a detective walking up from a drunken stupor, spoken to and chastised by the black abyss of his mind. Disco Elysium seemingly plays like any other old-school CRPG yet breaks the mold with its distinct skill tree and Thought Cabinet system, representing the lead detective Harry DuBuois’ deepest thoughts and personality traits. These mechanics, partnered with the game’s elaborate vision of a dystopian continent, its lavish art style, and startlingly profound whodunnit story, makes it one of the best noir games ever made. It’s a game that sucks you in with its moral and political complexities.
Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain
The concept of an open world with sandbox gameplay has never seen better days than when Hideo Kojima released his magnum opus Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain. In true Kojima fashion, none of the game’s minutiae – narrative and mechanics – have any business working but it all ends up coming together like a perfect storm. The game is rife with truly memorable moments such as the explosive prologue and its many infiltration missions, proudly wearing its many excesses on its sleeve. Even its lackluster second half is made worthwhile just by the scope of the gameplay mechanics. I spent more than 50 hours playing this, still don’t understand a damn thing about the story and that’s okay.
The Last of Us 2
The Last of Us 2 is an oxymoron: it’s fun as hell to shoot zombies and cult members yet it’s also so heavy to play through its narrative. Ellie’s spiraling story of vengeance and isolation held against Abby’s brutal search for her own humanity makes for a gaming experience that’s harrowing as it is engaging. The Last of Us 2 pulls no punches its moment-to-moment gameplay, making every second near-unforgettable, for better or worse. It was a blessing to be able to experience this game untethered from all the vitriol and hate surrounding it as I got to appreciate it for all that it was.
2021 was the year my adult self was ever faced with the prospect of death. Earlier this year, my mom had a near-death experience with COVID-19, to the point where she had said her last goodbyes to me. My mom thankfully survived the ordeal and but I wasn’t in the clear with death yet. Not too long ago, my adopted cat passed from a terminal condition.
It’s only fitting that the last game I played this year was Spiritfarer, a management simulation that is in many ways a study on death and the afterlife. Spiritfarer has all the bells and whistles of a management sim but its soulful premise is what makes it stand out. You play as Stella, a deceased girl tasked with bringing departed souls to the afterlife. The souls you meet throughout the game are people you’ve previously known in the physical world and it’s your job to make sure their trip to the afterlife is as comfortable as it can be.
Spiritfarer is almost a transformative experience for someone going through some form of grief. It’s a study in saying goodbye while also learning to tether one’s self to the things that matter. The game frequently moved me to tears that as soon as the credits rolled, I wept my eyes out. Spiritfarer is one powerful piece of art.
Risk of Rain 2
I’m never been big on roguelikes. I dislike randomness. I don’t like RNG-based mechanics. I like structure in my games. I don’t like to start fresh every playthrough. I like the hours I spend playing to be worthwhile that I can’t afford any of my progress to be temporary. Yet Risk of Rain 2 is my most played game of the year.
It’s hard to argue against a game that offers so much replayability, from the diverse characters with unique load-outs, the builds from the items you amass to the many secrets of the planet Petrichor V. The game also has a soundtrack straight out of the 70s progressive scene. Over a hundred hours in, I still find countless reasons to play the game.
Ori and The Will of the Wisps
Ori and The Will of the Wisps began my love affair with Metroidvanias. I coasted the past 10 years without playing a single one, not knowing what riches the genre offered. Having been aware of the first game, for the most part, it wasn’t until the trailer for Will of the Wisps came out that I got interested.
From the game’s main menu alone, I knew I was in for something special. Gareth Coker‘s score instantly cradles you into this lush yet dangerous world. Much like the creatures in the game, the music is just as much a character in it, evoking a sense of added wonder to this Laika-esque tale of family and friendship. In addition to that, the controls are so precise and kinetic. The level design, dynamic and always exciting.
If Ori and the Will of the Wisps was my gateway drug into the Metroidvania genre, Hollow Knight was my “git gud” rite of passage. I’ve never been more infuriated and enamored with a game simultaneously than Hollow Knight. It’s punishing yet so rewarding. The feeling of painstakingly getting through the White Palace, the hardest video game level I have ever encountered, dying every step of the way and eventually finishing it is a feeling of relief I’ll never get to feel again.
If you ever wondered what it was like to live life as a student by day and as an interdimensional creature collector by night, the Persona franchise is the franchise for you. The fifth installment of the series, puzzlingly titled Persona 5, singlehandedly scratched my annual JRPG itch in a way that Final Fantasy 7 and Final Fantasy 7 Remake could not. Social simulators can’t get any better when you marry them with turn-based dungeon crawling and an anime narrative that’s one for the books. Persona 5’s scope is sprawling, as it offers players so many things to do. It also happens to feature one of the toughest last bosses I’ve ever fought in a JRPG.
If you told me that Yakuza 0, a franchise known for its silly excesses that have generated thousands of memes, would feature one of the most compelling crime stories put to a video game, I would have scoffed. But for all the insanity within Yakuza 0, writer Masayoshi Yokoyama pulls it off in a way that would make any other writer rife with envy. This is a game whose story I definitely enjoyed more than the gameplay.
This game is memorable for being the first game I got to access early as a member of the press but that’s not the sole reason why this makes the list. Eastward is a charming pixel top-down adventure by way of the classic Zelda gems, set in a post-apocalyptic wasteland. The game is mechanically simplistic and is mostly driven by its sprawling, big-brained, sci-fi, JRPG narrative but it all comes together in a really satisfying way. The art style is so mesmerizing as well as the music.