“2021 was a weird year for games.”
That’s probably a refrain you heard a lot this year when talking to gamers. With a wave of high-profile delays thinning out 2021’s release calendar, we were left with a year that looked a little slimmer than we’re used to. Rather than having tons of spectacular big-budget games to choose from every month, the release calendar felt light when compared to what the year was supposed to look like. No God of War Ragnarok, Horizon Forbidden West, or Elden Ring.
But treating 2021 like a C-list gaming year would be a mistake. It didn’t have as many marquee hits, but there was still plenty to get excited about. We got some truly “next-gen” experiences in games like Forza Horizon 5 and Returnal. RPG fans had an incredible year, with games like Shin Megami Tensei V and Tales of Arise pushing the genre forward. And as always, the indie scene provided players with unforgettable experiences like Before Your Eyes and Inscryption that are bound for long-term cult status. If 2021 felt “weird,” maybe you weren’t playing the right games.
With that in mind, the Digital Trends gaming team put our brains together to pick our top 10 games of 2021. It’s a list that stretches every corner of the gaming world, pulling a little something from across the spectrum. It only scratches the surface when it comes to 2021’s standout releases, but it’s a snapshot that emphatically pushes back at the suggestion that there weren’t any good games this year. That couldn’t be farther from the truth.
Deathloop, in many ways, feels like Arkane Studios’ magnum opus. The gameplay is a sublime refinement of the work done on its previous titles like Dishonored and 2017’s Prey. The intermingling of fantastical powers, tight gunplay, and smooth locomotion result in a game that successfully caters to myriad tastes and rewards creativity. The ability to approach any encounter with stealth, blazing guns, or hit-and-run tactics (to name a few) has often been aspired too, but rarely executed so successfully.
The time loop mechanic at the core of Deathloop, where the same day repeats endlessly, turns the game into a sort of Metroidvania. Rather than accumulating new equipment to advance, the players gain knowledge. Cole and Julianna, the charismatic leads of Deathloop, are brilliantly performed and endlessly entertaining. From the 1960s mod setting to adversarial multiplayer to the power progression system, Deathloop is a shooter that truly fires on all cylinders. ~ Justin Koreis
Read our Deathloop review
9. Hitman 3
On paper, Hitman 3 isn’t much different from its two predecessors. Usually, that might be a knock against a game, but it’s high praise here. IO Interactive created a winning formula with its 2016 Hitman reboot, using deduction and puzzle elements to create a devilishly clever stealth action game. That repeatable framework allowed IO to focus on creating brilliant murder sandboxes for Agent 47 to explore.
And Hitman 3 has the best sandboxes of the trilogy. Players will scale the side of a Dubai skyscraper to assassinate targets at a swanky party. They’ll sneak through a vineyard, trying to gather evidence among rows of grapes. Best of all, they’ll travel to England and find themselves in the middle of a classic whodunit mystery, with Agent 47 playing the role of detective. Each level is entirely different from the others, offering up some of IO’s most creative set pieces to date. The Hitman series was one of gaming’s best-kept secrets, but Hitman 3 took it out of the shadows. ~ Giovanni Colantonio
Read our Hitman 3 review
8. Monster Hunter Rise
Monster Hunter Rise is very important to me as a longtime fan of the Monster Hunter franchise. I finally have an installment that is legitimately approachable to new players. I can hunt with my friends without needing to explain a plethora of complicated systems. Rise streamlines many of the series’ most obtuse parts and focuses on what’s important: Hunting big, old monsters and wearing their skin.
Rise adds exciting wrinkles to the series, like the wirebug and palamute that expand the ability to traverse the hunting grounds. Each new feature doesn’t come at the expense of the intense and nail-biting action that Monster Hunter is known for. With a healthy stream of small updates, it encourages players to always check back and see what has been added. This is the perfect game to start with if you and your friends have been curious about this series — for real, this time. ~ Andrew Zucosky
Read our Monster Hunter Rise review
7. Death’s Door
Death’s Door was this year’s surprise indie title, filling the same role as 2020’s Hades (minus all the lewd characters). The game is a top-down Zelda-style adventure at heart, one that should easily appeal to anyone regardless of their familiarity with the genre. Death’s Door is a simple, accessible game, but one that still manages to be enjoyably difficult.
As a small Crow who reaps souls for a living, players adventure through the game’s colorful world, meet even more colorful characters (shout out to Pothead), and experience some of the best boss fights this year. But by its end, Death’s Door isn’t about boss fights or combat. It’s about letting go. Death, and denial of it, surrounds each antagonist, and the eventual portrayal of its acceptance makes for one of this year’s most touching moments. ~ Otto Kratky
Read our Death’s Door review
Splitgate was a surprise for me. Described as the “thinking player’s FPS,” it’s a mash-up of mechanics from Halo and Portal where players can place portals around arenas and shoot enemies through them. While that sounds like an impossible magic trick, it works better than expected on all fronts. After only a few hours, it became one of my favorite first-person shooters of the year — and that’s saying something, considering I spent most of the year buried in a lot of other shooters.
Put simply, Splitgate is fun. The characters handle well, the guns feel unique and different enough to make shooting consistently engaging, and the variety of modes keep things fresh whether you’re jumping into a matchmade game or setting up a lobby for your friends. It felt like Halo without all the layers of bloat the series has accumulated over the years. If I closed my eyes, I could almost imagine I was back in my high school’s computer lab, playing Combat Evolved with 15 other people. That’s the highest compliment I can give Splitgate. ~ Emily Morrow
Read our Splitgate review
5. Bowser’s Fury
Leave it to Nintendo to completely reinvent one of its franchises via a spinoff game packed in with a rerelease. Bowser’s Fury is a side game that was bundled in with the Nintendo Switch port of Super Mario 3D World, but it’s the main attraction of the package. Building on Super Mario Odyssey, it’s an open-world experiment where platforming challenges are splayed out across a series of islands. Imagine your usual Mario worlds that are split up into levels and then combine them all into one seamlessly traversable space.
Toss in some kaiju-sized showdowns against Bowser and you’ve got one of the freshest Mario experiences in years. Best of all, it’s a compact game compared to most bloated open-world adventures. Clocking in at under 10 hours, players can fully explore every nook and cranny of the world without spending months obsessively logging in. It’s both a new vision for what a Mario game can look like and a time-friendly reimagining of gaming’s most demanding genre. ~ Giovanni Colantonio
4. Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart
For over a decade now, big game studios have tried to bring Hollywood-quality thrills to video games. With Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart, Sony has successfully created an interactive version of the summer blockbuster. Impressive technical feats made possible by PlayStation 5 tech turn it into a pure spectacle on par with the most expensive Marvel movies.
Most notably, it doesn’t sacrifice its own identity as a Ratchet & Clank game to accomplish that. Instead, it takes everything that’s made the long-running series so fun and maxes it out. The set pieces are bigger, turning worlds into full-blown platforming amusement parks. The weapons are unpredictable, making combat into a slapstick comedy routine. Best of all, there’s a strong emphasis on characters as the game tells a lively superhero story about two Lombaxes finding their place in a chaotic universe. ~ Giovanni Colantonio
Read our Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart review
3. Tales of Arise
For fans of Japanese role-playing games, 2021 could easily be dubbed “The Year of the JRPG.” Tales of Arise sits atop that throne, in the sae way that previous entries of the Tales of series have topped their own respective launch year. It’s an RPG that steps even further toward the evolution that Final Fantasy 7 Remake sought. It’s so grand and fun that even someone who’s not into JRPGs can jump in and have a good time straight to the end.
Tales of Arise has so much going for it, and it’s hard to encapsulate it all in a short blurb. The colorful visuals are gorgeous, exploring the large open world feels seamless and immersive, the characters ooze charm, and the combat … my goodness. Even the story, as simple and generic as it is at times, is very smart about topical issues. I could recommend this game to players looking for the next great JRPG, those looking for a deep and creative action game, and even those wanting a good story with fun characters to latch on to. But above all, I’d recommend Tales of Arise to anyone that wants to witness the evolution of a genre that’s recapturing mainstream audiences, just as Final Fantasy 7 did all those years ago. ~ De’Angelo Epps
Read our Tales of Arise review
Returnal probably isn’t the PS5 exclusive you expected to see this far down the list. While the sci-fi shooter got strong reviews at launch, it was overshadowed by Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart and Deathloop, both of which gained out-of-this-world praise from critics and fans alike. And yet, Returnal is the one PS5 exclusive I haven’t stopped thinking about since it came out.
The game is most immediately notable for its hellishly difficult roguelike gameplay, which creatively combines elements of Metroidvanias and “bullet hell” games. It’s also the best showcase of the PS5’s DualSense controller, which makes its alien planet feel real with slimy haptic feedback. But it’s the story that makes it stand out the most. The deeper you get into Returnal, the more it reveals itself as a game about PTSD. Selene, the game’s tortured astronaut hero, isn’t just stuck in an alien timeloop; she’s trapped in her own head, reliving the events of a personal tragedy over and over. That added layer takes Returnal to a much darker place than any big -udget video game dared to go this year, adding thematic weight and justification to its excellent gameplay. ~ Giovanni Colantonio
Read our Returnal review
1. Metroid Dread
It’s still surprising Metroid Dread even came to be at all. What started off as a Metroid Fusion sequel concept in 2005 went through numerous iterations before being placed on the back burner, and then eventually being revived ahead of its 2021 release. Nearly 20 years since the previous 2D entry, a lot was riding on Dread’s success, but thankfully, it not only met expectations, but exceeded them handsomely.
Whether it’s the smart level design, satisfying progression system, eerie sense of ambience, or impressive visuals, Dread has so much to love. Even the name itself — Dread — is spot-on, serving as the perfect way to describe the underlying feeling the game evokes. Even still, that dread isn’t enough to deter the player from progressing, but rather, its a motivation to press on. For that reason, Dread always feels rewarding thanks to the game’s superb design and pacing. ~ Joseph Yaden
Read our Metroid Dread review
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