My 2021 In Games
Stand tall… but remember to take a breather.
Where do I start? 2021 was an incredibly difficult year for me. There were some materialistic highs (getting a PS5, Xbox Series X, and OLED Nintendo Switch all in the same year) but also some deep personal lows (which are out of scope for here). Looking back, I am still processing everything and I wonder how I will view 2021 as time moves on.
Much like in 2019, I’ve opted to chronicle my 2021 through the video games I’ve played. Looking at my catalog, I played 20 games, beating most of the ones that can be beaten. I’ll share my top 10+ a few noteworthy honorable mentions.
I purchased very few games this year and those that I did, I played through immediately afterwards! It’s a good feeling! These games are unranked but can essentially all be considered tied for 11.
Hyrule Warriors: Age of Calamity (Nintendo Switch, 2020)
Most Disappointing, Longest Load Times
I don’t play many 無双 (muso) games and was hopeful that Hyrule Warriors: Age of Calamity would do enough to keep me engaged with its gameplay while exploring a timeline I was deeply interested in. The prequel to Breath of the Wild takes place during the war against the Calamity Ganon – the result of which is the backdrop for BotW. I was so ready to see how Link failed and in late January of 2021, I completed the last few side missions and unlocked all the characters.
I put roughly 40 hours into the game and felt that, while I definitely got my money’s worth in terms of playtime, it was not the satisfying prequel I was hoping it would be. While I appreciated the varying gameplay mechanics of the different characters, load times and plot (no spoilers here) soured my experience. Ultimately, it wasn’t what I wanted out of Age of Calamity. I felt the gameplay was fine so maybe I’ll take a look at the next Fire Emblems 無双 game – at least from a safe distance.
Devil May Cry 5: Special Edition (Playstation 5, 2020)
Most Irreverant, Most Confusing
My first Playstation 5 experience came in the form of Capcom’s Devil May Cry 5: Special Edition. This was my first DMC experience and while gameplay was fun, I found myself constantly trying to keep up with a plot that made very little sense to me despite watching the “Story So Far” video included in the game.
I remember being very impressed with the game’s graphics and performance. On the PS5, the load times and high, consistent, frame rate (in performance mode) made me buy into the power of the PS5. It really gels well with the fast pace of the game.
It was really refreshing playing Devil May Cry 5. Its irreverence was confusing at first but grew on me over time . The over-the-top nature actually helped get me into the game early on but it wasn’t able to help answer many of my questions. I felt if I started with the series back when it was younger, maybe I’d have gotten more out of the game.
I will never-not-love reading emo poetry as a special attack.
Hitman III (Playstation 5, 2021)
Best Game to Ironman, Darkest Humor
Hitman III came out in the US in January but actually didn’t arrive in Japan until the fall. I really enjoyed Hitman I and Hitman II and was delighted that those levels were playable within the Hitman III engine (as long as you’re willing to pay).
The gameplay continued to evolve in Hitman III with the main objectives in each location changing from the old “go here, kill this target” of the initial game. Story Missions in the game offered streamlined approaches that contextualized and built on the (light) stories of each location. When you add the self-imposed restriction of not saving your progress mid-mission, you really find yourself exploring and exploiting what rules you know. Figuring out how to work within and bend the game’s rules can make for intense and hilarious moments (look up the home-targeting briefcase when you get the chance).
Final Fantasy VII Remake Integrade Episode: INTERMission (Playstation 5, 2021)
Most Testuya Nomura, Most Good Looking-est
2021 saw the release of the Playstation 5 (and PC) version of Final Fantasy VII Remake named something straight out of Kingdom Hearts. The PS4-excluded DLC, Episode: INTERMission (or is that EPISODE: INTERMission) came out this year. I put this in my honorable mentions because, while I adored the DLC, I just couldn’t motivate myself to replay the full game with the new, fantastic, enhancements. That feeling has since stuck with me as I write this.
I felt Episode: INTERMission is a welcome addition to the base game and the right kind of teaser for part 2 of the remake. The materia system returned unchanged and satiated the lizard part of my brain that wants numbers to go up. Yuffie’s ability to cover both physical and magical damage depending on her stance was really satisfying once I figured out the synergies. I couldn’t quite master her partnership with Sonon but I appreciated that Square Enix was willing to test out new mechanics.
Plot wise, they have started leaning into more of the expanded Compendium of Final Fantasy VII plot points which is… worrying.
10. FIFA 22 (Playstation 5, 2021)
Best Sports RPG, Easiest Way to Lose Three Hours
First, let’s address this upfront: FIFA Ultimate Team is the one of the worst things to happen in Video Game History. Even if it’s not gambling, FUT is close enough to the spirit of gambling, that I mentally round it up. I’ve never opened a single pack and have zero intention to touch that mode ever. Still with me?
I haven’t played a soccer game since FIFA 16 but this year (probably because of the Euros) I got the itch. I was really surprised (and satisfied) by how many RPG trappings that were added to the Player Career. Games came thick and fast (lasting only 10 minutes) so I got experience points and started leveling up relatively quickly. Each time I leveled up, I got points to put into (ir)relevant categories reminding me of World of Warcraft’s talent tree. I really liked the system and hope it gets some more refinements in EA Football FC 2023.
On a technical level, FIFA will never be where I want it and this game was no different. The game’s menus were slow-to-respond, animations looked wooden, minor bugs constantly peppered my experience. At least once every two or three weeks I got a major bug that meant I had to reboot the game including a tournament final. For these reasons alone, I can’t rate it higher than 10 as they negatively impact the overall experience.
I am a Soccer nerd. I’ve read most of Inverting the Pyramid by Jonathon Wilson and listen to Football Weekly and Totally Football every week because I am a sucker for “Sports Narratives.” That’s how I’m able to enjoy FIFA 22 so much. When I fall into bad form, I start to feel pressure to improve. When the Champions’s League draw comes out, I look at my group and start wondering about if I can qualify for the knockout stage. And while it’s not a 38 week journey, spending 10 days to win the league title can be a nail biting experience when other results need to go my way.
9. Demon’s Souls (Playstation 5, 2020)
Most Opaque, Best Magic
It turns out Nioh was the wrong game for me to appreciate the “Soulsborne” genre. Back in the summer, I felt like playing an RPG – I wanted to dump stats into a character sheet, upgrade armor, and otherwise level up. I opted for the PS5 remake of Demon’s Souls and, well, I can see why these games are popular now.
For years, I’ve been of the belief that shoulder buttons should not be your attack buttons. It led me to outright dismiss any games like this and had Nioh 2 not let me use a different layout, I would not have bothered. Now, I get it and I’m almost used to it. I still don’t like it. But I get it.
The lack of clear exposition definitely helps make the world feel larger but I was surprised that there really wasn’t that much I missed. After beating the game, I began watching videos, reading breakdowns, and generally processed as much as I could. It turned out, there weren’t that many dots for me to connect.
Once I beat the game with my first character (a not-so-good strength build because I didn’t know what to do with stats), I dipped into magic and had a brilliant time. It was so liberating to just stand at a distance and just get revenge with a soulful ZAP!
8. Pokémon Unite (Nintendo Switch, 2021)
Best Surprise, Best Dunks
Pokémon Unite, the Pokémon MOBA (multiplayer online battle arena), had ZERO reason to be this good. Announced last year, two teams of five Pokémon work together to score as many points as they can in the opponent’s half of the field and the team with the most points after 10 minutes wins the match. I had very low expectations but Unite exceeded every single one. It’s a MOBA through and through both in the good sense and the bad.
The game is free to play with all the tropes that come with it. Unite is full of various currencies and grindy time sinks including the ultimate time sink: Ranked mode. It’s a long, arduous, frustrating grind to Master that had me questioning myself and my teammates. Scoring the game winning dunk is triumphant. Losing at Zapdos can be crushing. Winning is so much fun and most losses are usually satisfying.
I’m really streaky on Unite. I find myself not touching it for two weeks and then doing nothing but playing it for three. It’s just a plain old good time and with arguably my favorite “scoring” system. This game has the best dunks. Even in 2022, I keep telling myself “stop learning this game” but that call to Master rank is so tempting!
7. Metriod Dread (Nintendo Switch, 2021)
Most Fun to go Fast, Best Moment of the Year
Metroid Dread is only my third Metroid (Prime (GCN), Samus Returns (3DS)) game but it’s easily my favorite. Made by MercurySteam, a lot of the DNA from Samus Returns on the 3DS is here in Dread but it’s more refined.
Despite the name, Dread was not that dreadful. The levels were very alien with really eerie music contributing to the game’s aesthetic. I found getting lost was more frustrating than the game’s pursuing enemies since their stakes in the game are relatively low (a quick Game Over and a very generous checkpoint).
Dread was fun to learn. It was one of the few games in 2021 that I wanted to start a new game as soon as I beat it. As I got more familiar with the routes, it was really fun to shave time off my clear times. It also sports two of my favorite gaming moments of the year. They’re plot-heavy so just know I was grinning ear-to-ear each time!
6. Apex: Legends (Playstation 4, 2019)
Best First-Person Shooter, Tightest Controls
I remember playing PLAYER UNKNOWN’S Battlegrounds for a hot minute in 2018 but haven’t really touched the genre since. When Apex: Legends came out on Nintendo Switch this year, I gave the team-based Battle Royale game a shot. When I realized how much fun I was having, I installed it on my PS5 and didn’t look back. Apex became my go-to FPS game in 2021 and will probably continue to be for the foreseeable future.
Controls are extremely customizable so they’re essentially perfect (once you find what works for you). Sprinting, sliding, and jumping all feel great to the point where I instinctively tried sliding in other games (like Monster Hunter). Putting in the time to learn various guns is so rewarding when your bullet trails effectively look like a garden hose!
While matches vary widely, Apex has consistently provided me with lots of good (and bad) moments. A big part of that has been the battle pass system which I use to explore characters and weapons that I tend to neglect. Sometimes you forget how effective a weapon can be until the daily challenge reminds you! Whether it was reaching Platinum for the first time or even costing the team a win, my time this year with Apex has been time well spent.
I’ve definitely cooled off as the year went on – I only have so much patience for hot-drops and leavers. Ranked is essentially a different game that demands patience and coordination to perform well. Finding that middle-ground in between is rare for me since I am mostly a solo player. That said, I enjoy my time in Apex and regularly keep an eye on it.
5. Returnal (Playstation 5, 2021)
Most Sweaty Hands, Most Atmospheric
Returnal is pretty good. It’s arguably the most edge-of-my-seat game I played this year earning Now It’s Awkward’s lauded (and some would say most prestigious) “Most Sweaty Hands” award. Housemarque’s 3D rogue-like started strong and its creepy, almost “itchy” atmosphere kept pushing me to find out more about the “White Shadow.”
Running, jumping, and shooting felt great but I definitely misfired a lot due to the game’s odd choice of using the Dualsense controllers for both aiming (partial press) and alt-fire (full press). Getting a weapon with modifications I liked created such a rush of relief and empowerment that was second to none this year. Taking chances on malignant chests and doors, or getting the right combination of parasites to buff my health to ridiculous levels felt great. Even when it felt like the game was conspiring against me, I always felt like a new weapon or artifact was all I needed to get back on track.
The music was on-point for this game. Creepy and atmospheric while exploring; booming and heart-pounding for combat. It always felt alien was exactly what the game needed.
“Almost” is the best way to sum-up my feelings on the story. I did not care for the method to unlock the “secret” ending, one too many important character beats were behind audio logs, and while I dig me some cosmic horror, Returnal leaves a little too much open-ended for interpretation diluting what could potentially be a compelling story (if they only nudged us a bit more)!
I found my time with Returnal enjoyable but I did not feel compelled to unlock additional guns, or complete the game’s database. Incidentally, when getting the screenshot for this section, I ended up playing the game for two unplanned hours. It’s a testament to how well put together the game was.
4. Monster Hunter: Rise (Nintendo Switch, 2021)
Favorite Switch Game, Best With Friends
I’ve liked the_ Monster Hunter_ series since Monster Hunter 3 Ultimate for the Wii U and my time with Monster Hunter World was a top five experience in its own right. I was grateful that my faith in the series continued to be rewarded with Monster Hunter Rise.
The formula has not changed much over the years but Rise’s new elements – mainly the Wirebug and Switch skills, add a lot more layers into an already rich combat system. While most people like to focus on pure damage, the Switch skills added to the game can offer incredible utility and had me debating internally what was the right choice for upcoming hunts. Not to mention I had incredible amounts of fun using the Wirebugs to swing around the maps.
I still have some reservations about my experience. The maps are not great at explaining their verticality and the game at release relied too heavily on randomness in order to complete certain weapon builds. And, true to the series, Monster Hunter Rise continues to onboard first-time players terribly.
While rare for me, some of my favorite parts were playing with friends. In a year I got to (digitally) meet Adam Aevanko, more commonly known by his twitter handle @GaijinHunter, Rise was basically the only game I played in the Spring. I look forward to the Sunbreak expansion.
3. NieR Replicant ver.1.22474487139… (Playstation 4, 2021)
Most Cries, Biggest Potty Mouth
Full disclosure: I helped out the English Localization company 8-4 with some small audio work for this game and ended up receiving a credit.
My time with Replicant was initially mixed. Truth be told, I almost gave up on the game because it has such a slow start. Sidequests are optional and while monetarily rewarding, they can be emotionally draining (if not flat out boring). And while they explained it, I never was able to get past Kainé’s character design. That didn’t stop her from earning Now It’s Awkard’s Biggest Potty Mouth for 2021 (she’s literally bleeped in Japanese). Something felt “off” about the plot (in a good way) and that curiosity is what kept me going and was ultimately rewarded.
I remember how emotional the game made me feel both positively and negatively. By roughly the halfway point, I realized what a special game I was playing and saw it through to the end with zero regrets. I have yet to see the final semi-secret ending despite knowing how to get it. It’s not because the game is bad, it’s just such an emotionally draining experience that I don’t think I have the heart to deal with that one depressing boss fight again… And that other boss fight that also had me in tears… And there was also the one that made me a nihilist for an evening… Maybe in 2022. Maybe.
2. Bloodborne (Playstation 4, 2014)
Best Level Design, Most Satisfying Platinum
I am so sorry, Bloodborne. You were literally number 1 on my list until mid-December. Have you ever earned a platinum trophy in a game and then kept playing it for another 15 or so hours? That was my experience delving into Bloodborne this year. Admittedly, none of this would have been possible had I not first played Demon’s Souls beforehand, but between the two, Bloodborne was the better experience for me.
I am a sucker for Cosmic Horror and I had no idea what I was getting into with Bloodborne. The reveals in the game were slow, sneaky, and skillful. I’ve often felt that Demon’s Souls was interesting but the actual game’s plot was fairly shallow. Bloodborne, on the other hand, took the same style of worldbuilding and storytelling and executed it to near-perfection. When recapping Bloodborne lore videos, I constantly felt “Oh man, I can’t believe I missed that!”
I never thought I’d be able to accept R1 and R2 as attack buttons (preferring Square and X) but here I am, over 100 hours later, fully soaked in the kool-aid. The controls were so responsive that, once focussed and “in the zone”, it was as if my controller was an extension of my thoughts! The diverse weapon variety also made exploring weapons and attack patterns really engaging (akin to exploring a new character in a fighting game). I also found it oddly fair that hesitation could be as punishing as impatience.
I’m just so sorry, Bloodborne. You’re really good and I’m glad I didn’t wait for a remaster or remake or anything like that. If there ever is a rerelease of some kind, that will probably be your year!
1. Final Fantasy XIV: Endwalker (Playstation 5, 2021)
Best Music, Game of the Year
It’s generally hard for me to recommend MMOs to people. The gameplay can be very hard to adapt to and, for the uninitiated, the UX looks like something out of an airplane dashboard. Not to mention, some people just don’t like forced multiplayer (or the inverse: playing an MMO as a singleplayer game). Taking that into account, it’s very hard to describe how monumental it felt clearing the story of Final Fantasy XIV: Endwalker mid-December but they pulled it off. The culmination of a ten-year journey (that I have been part of for roughly four years). And they did it!
At times the story felt a bit indulgent, feeling more like I was watching a play than engaging with a game, but the exposition was critical to enjoying the “punchy” parts where the game and its story pick up. Even I admit, if not for the music, it may have been hard to sit through. Masayoshi Soken composed a remarkable soundtrack – doubly-so when you factor in that he was likely writing the music while undergoing chemotherapy. The presentation, while still bound to the mechanics of an MMO, is one of the best executions that I have experienced.
It’d be easy for me to say that Endwalker ended up as my number one because it was the conclusion of a multi-year endeavor storyline spanning 5 expansions. While Endwalker stuck the landing extremely well, I do think it can stand on its own merits. It earns every single plaudit it gets.
I do see myself winding down on FFXIV in general. I am personally content with how things concluded and beyond getting max level jobs, don’t see myself playing many of the cutting-edge raids and dungeons. With “season 1” complete, it feels like the right time to slow things down and put aside the game for a while.