It’s been a strange year for video games.
There’s no way for any of us to know just how much release schedules were impacted by the pandemic, but there’s no doubt whatsoever that changes had to be made. A nixxed feature here, a shifted release date there. The year-plus spent at the mercy of COVID was an inescapable chaos agent.
Despite that, or perhaps in some cases because of it, 2021 dished out a rollercoaster of dark horses and unexpectedly god-tier releases. Again and again, games that no one saw coming or which had been written off for whatever reason defied expectations.
It’s been an unanticipated delight, but it also made the job of whittling down a list of our 10 favorites that much harder. Truth be told, there’s no rhyme or reason to this list. We’re presenting them in a reverse order counting down, but there’s really no distance between the 10th pick and the first pick. Every one of these is a winner that’s worthy of your time.
Just to drive home the idea that there’s practically zero distance between 10 and one, let’s start with a clear Game of the Year candidate in many people’s minds: Deathloop.
This time-twisting sandbox feels like a mash-up of all the best ideas from developer Arkane, the studio behind the Dishonored series and 2017’s Prey reboot. As Colt, players clash with a hostile cult on the island of Blackreef, a curious stretch of land where time loops back on itself every 24 hours. Colt’s only hope for escape is killing off every one of the cult’s Visionaries during a single loop.
That’s easier said than done. Players wield a mix of traditional firearms and significantly-less-than-traditional superpowers as they explore Blackreef and hunt for clues leading to the so-called “golden path” of carefully timed bloody ends for each Visionary. It all plays like a first-person shooter a lot of the time, but in actuality it’s an enormous, violent puzzle box. Structurally unique and filled with clever ideas that come to life in Blackreef’s intoxicating sandbox, Deathloop is Arkane’s strongest effort to date.
9. Life is Strange
Credit: deck nine / square enix
Life is Strange has always been a video game series that not only sees the best in people but in its own medium as well. More than any installment before it, though, True Colors is a mature, nuanced exploration of embodied empathy, both as an IRL phenomenon and a staple of video game narratives.
Protagonist Alex Chen’s superpowered empathy is like a hypersensitive vibe check detector, allowing her to tap into the strong emotional states emanating from people’s colorful auras. It’s a brilliant narrative device for a medium that struggles so much with finding organic ways to explore characters’ interiority, and it’s much more engaging than the diaries or journals that tend to try to fill this role in other games.
As we continue to wrestle with the ongoing, collective grief of the global pandemic, we need art that reflects the brutal reality of not only loss but of feeling way too much all the time. Maybe, just maybe, we can even learn a thing or two from Alex about how it really does take a village to recover from shared traumas. —Jess Joho, Staff Writer
8. Hitman III
Yes, Hitman III is a 2021 release, it dropped on Jan. 20. And yes it’s totally OK if you forgot, because what is time anymore?
For a guy like Agent 47, star of the Hitman series, time is precious. Hitman III is fundamentally a puzzle game, just like its predecessors. The puzzle is always the same: Figure out how to kill a target without getting caught. The solution, on the other hand, is limited only by the tools before you and your creativity in making them work for you.
Hitman III is the best example of the series to date, with developer IO Interactive roping everything it learned from the previous two games in its now-concluded trilogy to deliver a collection of targets and hit locations that push the series’ core premise to its limits. One assignment deposits 47 in a map with multiple targets that all need to be identified in the field. Another flips the script on how the series works and turns everyone into a target. Again and again, Hitman III defies expectations by breaking its own rules.
There is no greater and less controllable source of stress in life than time. Despite its apparent abundance on a grand scale, as individuals we never have enough of it and making more time for one person almost always means taking it away from another. Therein lies the genius of Unsighted, one of the year’s best and most under-discussed games: You never have enough time for everyone, until you do.
The product of a two-woman team in Brazil called Studio Pixel Punk (Editor’s note: Publisher Humble Games and Mashable are both subsidiaries of the same parent company.), Unsighted stars Alma, an android woman with hazy memories and a killer sword swing. She must traverse a futuristic city in ruins from an overhead perspective to stop the process of her and all her robot friends slowly losing the sentience that was bestowed upon them by a meteor crash years before the start of the game.
It’s easy to call Unsighted a combo of 2D Legend of Zelda-style exploration and puzzle solving and Dark Souls-like stamina-based combat, but the secret sauce is a universal time limit. Alma and every other friendly NPC you encounter have a timer showing how long they have left before they go unsighted, losing sentience and becoming functionally dead.
Time is always ticking, whether you’re solving puzzles in a dungeon, crafting items, or fighting one of the game’s several excellent bosses. This might sound like a nightmare, but Unsighted is so intrinsically fun to play that you learn to live with it. Snappy, reflexive combat with surprisingly deep customization is met with overhead platforming — which is often a recipe for disaster — that feels way better than it should. To top it all off, the game’s crafting system and world design are intentionally designed to facilitate speedruns, letting knowledgeable players create puzzle-solving items from scratch and find literal backdoors to each dungeon right from the start of the game.
You definitely won’t be able to save everyone in your first playthrough. Play intelligently and skillfully afterward, however, and you definitely can. It’s so immaculately designed and satisfying as hell to play that you’ll be itching for a second playthrough before long. —Alex Perry, Tech Reporter
6. Riders Republic
This one’s technically a twofer because we couldn’t decide on just one. Riders Republic from Ubisoft and Forza Horizon 5 from Playground Games are simpatico experiences that both embrace a philosophy of setting players loose in a massive open world and allowing them to chart their own path through the game.
In Riders, this takes the form of an anything-goes lineup of extreme sports, from snowboarding to mountain biking to wingsuit flights. It embraces a generous attitude toward failure, largely in the name of letting players go really, really fast as often as they want. As Mashable’s own Alex Perry said in our review, that makes for some delicious comedy.
Forza Horizon 5 is pretty much the same deal, but for cars. It lacks the inherent comedy you get from Riders‘ over-the-top spills, but it makes up for that by showering players with a steady, nearly relentless stream of new cars to play with. There are jumps, there are straightaways, there are drift courses and offroad rally tracks. All of it unfolds inside a beautifully rendered, geographically diverse video game take on Mexico that you’re free to explore at your own pace.
5. Psychonauts 2
Credit: double fine / xbox
Psychonauts 2 is one of the year’s must-play experiences: It’s a thoughtful, digestible, empathetic handling of human emotions that renders the inner life of different characters as mental worlds where Raz, the game’s hero, helps others fight whatever is plaguing their mind. Its colorful and frequently comedic execution exemplifies how we can talk about mental health with a sense of levity, absent of any and all judgment.
Most of the people you set out to help are struggling with all-too-familiar challenges of their own. Like a lot of emotional distress, these challenges are often invisible until you peek inside their psyches to see what’s up. You might find a man who’s consumed with feelings of abandonment, or a woman who has changed her personality to fill so many different roles that she doesn’t recognize herself anymore.
Psychonauts 2 doesn’t preach to you. It doesn’t judge your knowledge of the intricacies of mental health and emotional intelligence, or lack thereof. It just presents you with the tools to build on your understanding and do the work yourself, so that you can ideally use them when you finally do put the controller down. —Dylan Haas, Shopping Reporter
My first experience with Unpacking was watching someone else play it. Once they explained the premise of the game — unpack moving boxes for a nameless protagonist and find space for her stuff in the various places she’s lived — they showed me which level they were working on. The apartment was modern, glassy, and kind of sterile in that fancy high-rise sort of way. I thought it meant the protagonist was doing well for herself. Then I saw the closet.
The closet was stuffed with men’s clothing and each drawer was occupied with a few pairs of briefs. Whoever the protagonist was moving in with didn’t want to give up any of his closet space. He also didn’t compromise on the bathroom storage or condense his obnoxious coffee set to make space for his girlfriend’s stuff in the kitchen. The final straw came when the protagonist’s precious sketchpad could only fit stuffed in a drawer. “He’s stifling her, they’re wildly incompatible, and she needs to dump his ass,” I said.
All that from a handful of boxes.
Unpacking is a game of personal archaeology. The puzzle element of finding out where everything goes is only part of the experience; what the unpacked objects say about the protagonist’s life is what matters most. The story emerges over time and in the details — the slow decay of a stuffed animal as she brings it from place to place, her growing collection of coffee mugs, and, yes, the lack of storage space in her crappy boyfriend’s fancy apartment. Some of its most subtle revelations are also its most impactful. As a game, Unpacking is short but memorable. Good things do, after all, come in small packages. —Alexis Nedd, Senior Entertainment Reporter
3. Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy
If you want to talk about the surprises of 2021, Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy sure did pop in out of nowhere. The story-driven adventure with Marvel’s premiere cosmic superhero squad takes some character cues from the MCU, but its deep-diving story is much more heavily rooted in names, locations, and situations from Marvel Comics.
It’s got an unusual approach to combat, mixing action and tactics as players directly control Star-Lord while issuing orders to the rest of the team. Both pieces are necessary, as Star-Lord is an ineffectual fighter on his own in most cases. The net result is a somewhat clunky but nonetheless thematically appropriate handling of action that forces players to think about their team at all times.
The real standout, however, is Guardians‘ reverence for comic book lore and the tack-sharp story that’s built on top of it. This is a deeply rewarding journey for players willing to invest in listening to and learning about the main cast. It’s funny, heartfelt, devastating, and thrilling in equal measure. Thanks to a wide array of difficulty sliders and accessibility options, pretty much anyone can pick up Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy and have a good time, beginning to end.
2. The Artful Escape
Credit: beethoven & dinosaur / annapurna interactive
The Artful Escape is simple on its face. All you really do for the length of its five- to six-hour playtime is walk from left to right, occasionally pausing to tackle very simple, very forgiving Simon Says-like button match challenges. You’re armed with a sweet electric guitar that you can shred with at the press of a button. And shred you will as Francis Vendetti, our protagonist and nephew to a Bob Dylan-esque music legend.
Also, you’re in outer space. Francis is a budding musician himself who’s grown frustrated with the shadow cast by his late uncle, and the expectations that shadow places on his shoulders. One evening, just before a big show, Francis meets a music-making spaceman who whisks him off on a deeply psychedelic adventure that involves bringing music to alien worlds.
What The Artful Escape lacks in traditional definitions of challenge it more than makes up for in personality and story execution. Francis embarks on his journey intent on escaping his dreary life, but the lessons he learns along the way about family, legacy, and finding one’s own voice are powerfully resonant, and propelled by an absolutely killer space-rock soundtrack.
We started on a timeloop and we’re ending on a timeloop. Returnal, from developer Housemarque, is a tough game to play in 2021 as a PlayStation 5 exclusive, given the Sony console’s scarcity. It’s also a wrenchingly challenging and unforgiving game that plays like a mash-up of Hades and Geometry Wars. So even if you have the right hardware, there’s no guarantee you’ll be able to finish.
It’s worth the effort, however. In the realm of roguelikes, or games that lean heavily on repetition and running players through a randomly generated (yet somewhat predictable) combat gauntlet, Returnal stands out. It’s not just the arsenal that feels great, or the pile-up of tools that help you subvert traditional roguelike rules that reset progress every time you die. It’s also the story.
Returnal‘s plot is a constant surprise. It gets very unexpectedly meta more than once, and nearly every attempt to conquer its gauntlet rewards players with new shreds of story or clues that further clear up the mystery. In the end, everything you read, listen to, and puzzle over is just as engaging as the action, if not moreso.
All of the games listed here are superb experiences, but if I’m personally narrowing the field down to one? Returnal is it. We’re lucky to have it.
Honorable Mention: Halo Infinite
A late 2021 arrival that surely won’t be overlooked; it’s Halo, after all. But Master Chief’s latest adventure, and his first since 2015, isn’t simply a case of “more Halo.” Halo Infinite is developer 343 Industries, which took over for series creator Bungie in 2012, confidently putting its own stamp on the series.
This is still the Chief’s story, picking up after the events of 2015’s Halo 5 and going as hard on Halo history and lore as any other game in the series. Structurally, however, this is like no game in the series before. The Zeta Halo setting is a wide open space for exploration and mischief-making, and it ramps up the tactical possibilities in Halo‘s so-called “30 seconds of fun” to an incalculable degree. Plus, there’s a grappling hook now and it rules.
Then there’s the multiplayer. For the first time in its history, Halo is a free-to-play game. The popular PvP mode in Halo Infinite has felt its share of growing pains as it becomes a free game, but it’s almost all technical issues and purely superficial elements. The foundation of moment-to-moment gameplay is absolutely thrilling and near-perfectly balanced. This is the best Halo has been in almost a decade.