We kicked off 2021 expecting a dry year for video-game releases, finally giving us all the time to chip away at our backlogs. But it’s now December, and I, at least, am once again hopelessly behind. Huge triple-A releases like Age of Empires IV, Forza Horizon 5, and Halo Infinite just made landfall, and indie studios continue to keep pace with Inscryption, The Artful Escape, and Sable. I haven’t had time to play most of them. Same as it ever was. In a year in which the calendar was unclogged by various COVID-related delays, we’re all still underwater. Peering over the edge into 2022, we’re already bracing for the absolute gauntlet in January and February. Horizon Forbidden West and Elden Ring both come out in the same week! How will any of us survive?
Cataloguing our favorites of the year, we were again reminded of how the evacuation of certain canonical, discourse-sparking games afforded other, smaller players in the industry the chance to thrive. This year did not contain anything major from Rockstar or Naughty Dog or Nintendo. Instead, we watched as the community circled around the oddball underbelly of the Steam charts — inventive shooters; wistful RPGs; a dodgeball game, of all things — stuff that would’ve been beaten into submission if a new Breath of the Wild were hanging over us. Will 2021 be remembered as one of the great years for video games? Probably not, but it might go down as one of the most memorable.
Scarlet Nexus (PC, PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Xbox One, Xbox Series S/X)
I am hopelessly incapable of explaining the Scarlet Nexus plotline. It has something to do with our brains, the encroaching authoritarianism of personal tech, and the macabre corporations that may or may not be turning people into horrific Escherian abominations beyond the city walls. There is definitely some time-travel stuff in there, and I think the moon is important somehow. Oh, also, the story is divided up into two different, hefty, crisscrossing campaigns, starring dueling protagonists who both need to be completed in full before achieving even the faintest grasp of the narrative.
I am usually not a huge fan of the cutscene-heavy JRPG, with a cast of teenage weirdos who spout dialogue that is entirely composed of elliptical exposition, but Scarlet Nexus is so brazen in its attempt to create a new multiverse-filled, Attack on Titan–like empire that I couldn’t help but give myself over. The combat is bananas; our psionic freedom fighters fling massive payloads of rubble toward apartment-size monsters before diving in with their deadly cyber-katanas. Eventually, my character unlocked an ability called, hilariously, “brain drive,” which might be the single most impressive visual feat I saw all year: The world melts away into a sublime synth wave of euphoria, replete with ludicrous damage boons. Afterward, we all head back to base and engage in quiet, soul-searching coffee dates with our new friends, which bring to mind the filler episodes I endured back in my heaviest Toonami days. I desperately hope Scarlet Nexus sparks a fandom and earns a sequel, because seriously — I would really like to know what’s going on.
Arkane Studios has been trying to create its masterpiece for decades, and it almost pulled it off with Deathloop. We take control of a hit man adrift in a sumptuous burnt-orange pleasure palace — burnished with linty wallpaper, psychedelic chandeliers, and fluorescent dive bars — and quickly discover that we’re waking up on the same beach, on the same day, over and over again. To break the time loop, we’ll need to assassinate eight targets in a single 24-hour period. Deathloop shines as we slowly uncover the subliminal logistics of this cursed clockwork island — all of our accumulated heuristic knowledge folding on top of itself until we’re outside the Matrix. (If you sabotage those fireworks in the morning, surely one of our targets is going to accidentally detonate himself in the evening.) It’s a brilliant premise, buttressed by some indelible world-building, but when I was finally ready to topple all the pieces like dominoes, I felt a little unsatisfied. For a game that often feels so dynamic and unpredictable, there is only one critical pathway to escape groundhog day. All of these infinite possibilities, filtered to an oddly constrictive endgame. Still, Arkane is one of the most ambitious voices in gaming, and Deathloop’s journey is abound with so much enticing astral espionage, so many creative ways to mangle best-laid plans, that it resembles a Coen brothers–esque allegory on how much a life can change between sunrise and sunset. Here is a paradise; bring it to its knees.
The two greatest strategy games in industry history are Crusader Kings and Civilization. This year, designer Soren Johnson married both of those traditions together. All of the action in Old World takes place on a dusty map that spans from the kingdoms of the Mediterranean to the deserts of Mesopotamia. You will wrest control of one of the ancient era’s prime regents in order to orchestrate troop movements, broker alliances, and harvest the cereals and ores resting within your borders. This all plays out like a classic 4X PC game — the Civ strain — but Johnson cleverly melds in a dose of juicy throne-room drama, which gives Old World its vicious swagger. The barons on the field are no longer nondescript scions carrying out orders, because as history dictates, sometimes our vassals are petty, brainless, or vindictive. Maybe you retch in horror as the prince-in-waiting demonstrates a psychopathic Joffrey streak; maybe you’ve created an exemplar philosopher-queen, superior in all qualities, only to be taken unceremoniously by cholera. Plenty of strategy games let us witness the grand unfurling of human development, but few let us take a peek at the grubby politics hiding underneath.
You could make the argument that no game in the history of the hobby has been more influential than The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past. So Death’s Door, with its quaint top-down perspective, shrewd puzzles, and chunky mêlée combat, is honoring a tiresome altar. But the two-person team at Acid Nerve revealed a cockeyed, Miyazaki-ish verve that caught me off guard from the jump. We are not controlling a Hero of Time or a Chosen Undead. No, our protagonist is a lowly bureaucrat of the Grim Reaper, carrying out the busywork of the stodgy underworld. The first boss is hyped as an ancient leviathan; when you enter its chambers, you instead find a very large, very angry grandmother. It goes to show how anyone can absorb Nintendo’s game-design chops while still putting their own spin on the company’s frustratingly pensive takes on the adventures of Link and Zelda. Let’s hope Death’s Door rubs off on the mother ship.
One of my favorite sensations in gaming is the subtle, unspoken vernacular between two rivals in a multiplayer match. You read their slight twitches of the analog stick, feints, hesitations, footwork, identifying the barest possible soft spot before diving in for the kill. I did not expect those crafty gambits to be so beautifully replicated in a freaking dodgeball game. And yet Knockout City absolutely mesmerized me over the summer. The game takes place in a pastel taurine-soaked paradise — a utopian future in which dodgeball has become the most prestigious bloodsport on the planet — and mechanically, you’ll immediately be transported back to middle school PE. The basics are exactly what you expect; chuck a ball at the other team, and hope nobody catches it. As more players developed their strategies, Knockout City quickly transformed into a nervy fighting game full of baits, counters, and knee-buckling pump fakes. So many other sports games abstract their core concepts into mushy blandness. Madden has as much in common with a third-person shooter as it does with football, but Knockout City actually resembles dodgeball. Who knew how fun that could be?
It feels like everyone in the country is playing Halo Infinite right now, likely a result of Microsoft’s bold move to make the game’s multiplayer portion completely free for all comers. All of our favorite toys are right in place: You can puncture shields with the plasma pistol and switch to the battle rifle for a head shot, which is the exact combo I’ve relied on since roughly 2004. But honestly, Infinite’s miraculous renaissance likely has nothing to do with its gameplay bona fides. This is more or less the same Halo we’ve been playing for decades, but after the franchise was derailed by middling releases, development troubles, and an extended period of wounded soul-searching, it’s strangely liberating to watch our once-and-future Spartans ascend to the throne once more. Members of the Halo generation are now in their 30s and 40s, and once we’re off our shift and the kids are in bed, we’re still crowding around the Xbox like teenagers. The name is spot on; Halo truly is infinite.
In the tutorial for Chivalry 2, as you’re learning about the parries and ripostes necessary for victory in high medieval combat, the game also specifically identifies the “Battlecry” button. You are encouraged to press Battlecry as often as possible — summoning a repressed, emasculated yelp out of our hero — as you charge into the fold. It is one of the few moments in which Chivalry 2 tips its hand and admits that, underneath all of the legitimately adroit combat, this is an extremely stupid video game. Two massive armies clash under vague circumstances, and together they replicate the Black Knight scene until one team eclipses the victory threshold. Your head will be chopped off by a claymore; your enemy will try to punch you to death with their right arm after you removed the left; you will engage in tense martial duels — both sides expertly neutralizing each other’s offense — until one player shrugs and chucks their sword directly at the rival noble’s head. It is possible to become outrageously good at Chivalry 2. I’ve seen people play this game on an astonishing e-sports-adjacent level. But that’s not what you’re here for. That’s not what anyone is here for.
Cruelty Squad is a living thing. No game this year, or maybe ever, cashes in on such a profoundly upsetting clarity of vision. Cruelty Squad is Rainbow Six left to fester for decades in the Joker vat. Its color palette is all puke yellow and critical-error red. The world is composed of apocalypse malls, blackened apartment complexes, and peyote-flecked suburban neighborhoods — all rendered through a septic, lo-fi veneer that brings to mind the ugliest PS One days. Yes, there is a video game here; you complete a mission by bagging a bounty and returning to base, but the magic of Cruelty Squad is most often found in its interstitial horrors: a room made of Funko Pop! dolls, a grappling hook that rockets out of your appendix, a churning stock market that happily processes reclaimed organs. Cruelty Squad needs to be seen to be believed — and then never spoken of again.
It’s so good to see Turtle Rock Studios at the peak of its powers again. The developer spent years in the wilderness following the miraculous success of 2008’s Left 4 Dead, and after a clumsy streak of failed experiments and irrelevant VR ventures, the humbled company returned to its bread and butter. Here is a gigantic map besieged by zombies; try to make it to the next safe house with most of your body intact. Back 4 Blood doesn’t iterate much on the Left 4 Dead formula. Instead, it almost feels like a consecration of a series that lingered for far too long in absentia. A huge arsenal, gobs of viscera, and the indelible cocktail of panic and laughter as one of your friends is hopelessly overwhelmed by the horde. This is a homecoming.
Video games are not supposed to be capable of what Wildermyth accomplishes. The six-person team at Worldwalker Games wanted to adapt the ethereal, interpersonal magic of pen-and-paper RPGs like Dungeons & Dragons to code. You could argue that this has been the true north of the industry since the floppy-disk era — a litany of classics such as Might and Magic, Baldur’s Gate, and Ultima were birthed directly from 20-sided dice and grease-stained character sheets. But there was always a hard limit to the possibilities of that ambition. Tabletop RPGs are special because everyone around the table is filling in small pieces of the fable in front of us. Video games, on the other hand, can usually only tell one story.
Wildermyth is one of the few exceptions to that rule. This is a tactical, turn-based strategy game — we move a small party of adventurers from tile to tile and take aim at encroaching villains — and it excels in those functions. But what makes Wildermyth special is the untold number of plotlines, side quests, and character moments simmering underneath the hood. All of them aim to simulate a cozy, fireside D&D session. You’ll start a Wildermyth campaign with a randomized party of lost souls equipped with brawn, brains, and a few personality quirks. With an art style that resembles the watercolor composition of the mid-2000s webcomic golden age, we watch as they grow and change alongside the challenges ahead. In my first Wildermyth tale, my mage and my ranger fell in love and had a child. Ten years later, the ranger was cursed by an eldritch god, making her more reserved and less buoyant, putting a strain on their relationship. The pair worked past it, though; later on, their eldest daughter joined my team for the final battle. These moments don’t feel skin-deep or algorithmic — everything in Wildermyth is absurdly bespoke, as if the team wrote a million little narrative elements that miraculously fuse together in perfect, thoughtful combinations. It’s the most exciting game of the year, and it may just bring us one step closer to total singularity.
This was a shocker. The MCU’s early foibles with video games have been spotty at best. Last year’s Avengers packed a decent combat system and a compelling narrative into an absurdly dull grind — embodying all of the worst instincts of triple-A development. Publisher Square Enix was still licking its wounds when it unveiled Guardians of the Galaxy, once again recruiting an ersatz cast of not-quite-Hollywood actors to fill the roles of Star-Lord, Rocket Raccoon, Groot, Gamora, and Drax. I expected the worst, and what I found was a genuinely moving single-player narrative that seemed desperate to atone for the sins of its forebearer. The combat is mediocre, and I endured a ton of technical issues during my playthrough on PC, but Guardians contains an intimacy that is rare for the medium. Rocket is afraid of water due to some long-standing phobias; unfortunately, there’s only one way across the river. Gamora is embarrassed about her action-figure collection, and it’s up to Star-Lord if he wants to be a dick about it. The Guardians films thrive when the stakes are small, and Square Enix mirrors the magic brilliantly.
As the world turns, more people are coming around to a noble truth; Metroid was always better in 2-D than 3-D. Yes, plenty of people loved the Metroid Prime trilogy on the GameCube and Wii — the less said about Other M, the better — and I’m sure we’ll get that endlessly delayed sequel sometime this millennium. But the masses have spoken: Give us Samus Aran in an oozing, purple corridor, where she can shrink down into a ball and snake through a wormy crevice. That’s the only thing we’ve ever really needed. The Metroid Dread name existed all the way back in the mid-2000s, so unsurprisingly, the design feels like it has fermented deep within Nintendo’s coffers. As always, Ms. Aran is marooned on a carnivorous planet and fending off translucent, brain-sucking parasites. But this time, there’s a greater threat than the aliens afoot. Porcelain-white mechas, known as the EMMIs, are on the prowl, and they’re capable of one-shotting our poor bounty hunter. This gives Metroid a perverse element of cat-and-mouse covertness — suddenly, we’re no longer the most powerful being in the galaxy. The game is called Dread for a reason.