But the COVID-19 pandemic further spurred this upswing. Millions of adults and children quarantined in their homes rediscovered a high-tech way of entertaining themselves. Video games helped us maintain social contact and collaborative relationships with friends at a time when we could not meet up face to face. Multiple industries faced downturns or outright collapse over the past year, but gaming remained resilient. At times, it thrived.
There was no generational, genre-defining game release this year–along the lines of Red Dead Redemption 2, or Dark Souls, or The Last of Us—but 2021 still had a handful of incredible titles that diverted us from our difficult reality. Here are the 10 best video games of 2021.
20. 'Guilty Gear -Strive-'
Developer: Arc System Works
Platform(s): Windows, PlayStation 5, PlayStation 4
Release date: June 11, 2021
The fighting game community is an insular one, reliant on institutional knowledge that is passed down to each new iteration of a series. Fighting games reward longtime players who practice frame-perfect maneuvers, memorize how to counter and when to punish, and can follow the lore, which gets inevitably tangled and convoluted over the course of multiple entries.
That’s especially true for Guilty Gear –Strive-, the seventh installment in the core series and the 25th title overall. It may take a little while to get accustomed and tuned to this world. But once you do, you’re left with one of the best fighting games to come out in recent years. The series’ trademark “Roman Cancel” mechanic allows a player to bypass the recovery frames at the end of an unsafe move, encouraging a more deliberate, strategic approach to gameplay. And the artwork, which is stylized to look hand-drawn, makes this game beautiful to look at.
18. 'Forza Horizon 5'
Developer: Playground Games
Platform(s): Windows, Microsoft Xbox Series X|S, Xbox One
Release date: Nov. 9, 2021
The Forza series is one of Microsoft’s crown jewels; like Halo, it’s one of those franchises that can sell consoles on its own. The latest installment, Forza Horizon 5, features the biggest open-world map of the franchise. It’s a fanciful take on Mexico, and the racing scenery includes volcanos, a jungle, a beach, city streets, and ancient pyramids.
All of which is to say, Forza Horizon 5 doesn’t break new ground per se or push the series into bold, unexpected new directions. But there’s no sense in fixing what isn’t broken. This game knows its niche, and it delivers a near-flawless experience within that context.
16. 'Resident Evil Village'
Platform(s): Windows, PlayStation 5, PlayStation 4, Xbox Series X|S, Xbox One, Stadia
Release date: May 7, 2021
The Resident Evil franchise has an ongoing identity crisis. Is it atmospheric survival horror? Is it run-and-gun action horror? Is it a House of the Dead-esque shooting gallery? But its current iteration—as a first-person survival horror, where you experience everything through the eyes of your beleaguered hero—might be its most harrowing yet.
Resident Evil Village is the spiritual successor to Resident Evil 4, and accordingly, takes place in a spooky, Eastern European village, where the residents are members of a cult that dabbles in human experimentation. The results of those experiments are the stuff of nightmares: mutated humans, cross-hybrids of mutants and wolves, and quasi-vampires who drain human blood for sustenance.
The game gives you all this, and a sexy, 9-foot-6 woman to step on you. Sounds like a bargain to us.
Developer: Arkane Studios
Platform(s): Windows, PlayStation 5
Release date: Sept. 14, 2021
Nearly all video games are feedback loops of one form or another: stomp the Goomba, hit the ? Block, run up the flagpole, repeat. And this is the reason why games with time loop stories are so engaging; they reinforce the story that the gameplay is already telling. In Deathloop, you play as Cody, an operative who must assassinate eight “Visionaries” in a set amount of time. Failure to complete this mission triggers the loop, and Cody must try again.
The twist is that only two people retain memories of the previous attempts: Cody himself, and one of the Visionaries named Julianna, who is attempting to kill Cody. Deathloop is a single-player narrative, but there is a multiplayer option; another player can intrude on your game and take over Julianna, adding an additional layer of unpredictability to your playthrough. We encourage you to leave this option on to get the best possible experience.
12. 'Hitman 3'
Developer: IO Interactive
Platform(s): Windows, PlayStation 5, PlayStation 4, Xbox Series X|S, Xbox One, Stadia, Nintendo Switch
Release date: Jan. 20, 2021
This is the final game in the critically beloved “World of Assassination” trilogy, which sent Agent 47 into the resplendent spaces of the 1 percent armed with a silenced pistol, piano wire, and a handful of coins. His mission? To assassinate elite targets, and to do so in as quiet a manner as possible. If you could stage it to look like an accident, that was great. If you could carry out the murder and escape without anyone knowing there was a death, that was even better.
Hitman 3 takes you to a skyscraper in the UAE, a nightclub in Germany, a winery in Argentina, and more. You can purchase and replay Hitman and Hitman 2 levels, now upgraded to include the quality-of-life improvements from the final game. And IO Interactive continues to support this game today, with new Elusive Targets, weapons, and clothes. The fanbase may be smaller than that of your average blockbuster game, but the loyalty and dedication of the fanbase is fervent. After playing Hitman 3, you’ll understand why.
10. 'Psychonauts 2'
Developer: Double Fine
Platform(s): Windows, PlayStation 4, Xbox Series X|S, Xbox One, Linux, macOS
Release date: Aug. 25, 2021
The original Psychonauts (2005) was beloved by critics, but it didn’t sell well, which seemingly ruled out any chance of a sequel. But a decade later, the game had developed a cult following. And in response, the developers announced a sequel in 2015, which finally launched in 2021.
Psychonauts 2 stars Raz. He is a member of the Psychonauts, a peacekeeping organization that uses its members’ psychic abilities for the forces of good. Raz can levitate, create fire, and infiltrate people’s brains. He can also lift and throw things with his mind, which is useful when the enemies start ganging up on you. You learn additional, upgradeable abilities along the way, and you use them to solve puzzles. Psychonauts 2 is constant fun, and it also has some grown-up things to say about mental health and empathy.
8. 'Metroid Dread'
Developer: MercurySteam / Nintendo EPD
Platform(s): Nintendo Switch
Release date: Oct. 8, 2021
At long last, the original “Metroidvania” that started it all has returned. Metroid Dread stars intergalactic bounty hunter Samus Aran. It is the first wholly original 2D Metroid game in close to two decades; Nintendo released Metroid Fusion for the Game Boy Advance in 2002.
Anyone concerned that the Metroid franchise would lose a step in those intervening years did not need to worry. The map is a wild maze of open and blocked routes; get the right upgrades to your armored suit, and these blocked paths become accessible, and Samus can backtrack to acquire more resources. And you’re going to need those resources because this game does not hold your hand. You defeat a series of increasingly difficult bosses through practice and perfect timing. And for most of the game, you are stalked by a series of uncanny robots, which perform a near-guaranteed instant kill if they catch you. It’s best to go in quietly and only get loud as a last resort.
Platform(s): PlayStation 5
Release date: April 30, 2021
Perhaps years from now, when we’re desensitized to its cutting-edge visuals and haptic feedback, this will drop in our rankings. But we’re living in the present, and the time loop-driven Returnal is simply transcendent; a perfect union of responsive controls, difficult (but fair) obstacles, and an exceptional aesthetic presentation.
You play as Selene, an explorer who has crash-landed on a planet called Atropos. Whenever she dies, she loops back to the moment she crashed, but with the upgrades she acquired during her prior lives. Along the way, she comes across corpses for herself, implying that she has been stuck in this loop for quite some time. There is a thrill to getting a new upgrade–to defeat a monster that was once impossible.
Returnal relies on its next-gen visuals to depict the existential horror of Selene’s life. Atropos is a paradox; everything looks alive, but ancient. We see overgrowth layered upon the remnants of a civilization. Vines and moss carpet every rock. Everything looks wet, like you’re under a rainforest canopy or in a deep, dark cave with a self-sustaining ecosystem. When Selene’s weapons discharge, the glow of their energy reflects off the planet’s surfaces.
Just make sure you set aside some time—a single run can take upward of two hours.
4. 'Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart'
Developer: Insomniac Games
Platform(s): PlayStation 5
Release date: June 11, 2021
Two alternate dimensions collide–one in which the bad guy lost, and another in which the bad guy won. Ratchet, the lombax from the former dimension, must team up with Rivet, his female lombax counterpart from the latter dimension, to make things right. The developers tell this story through an art style that is Pixar-level in its attention to detail. The game is funny in a family-friendly sort of way (even the villain has comedic charm), and there are some genuinely affecting plot twists in the game’s back half. By the end, I cared about these characters and wanted to know that they all made it out OK.
From a gameplay standpoint, Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart is wonderful. When you press a button, your character does what he or she is supposed to do. It’s such a simple, yet difficult metric for any game to hit, but Ratchet & Clank always made me feel in control.
The weapons have a well-designed haptic feedback to them, and take full advantage of the PlayStation 5 DualSense controller. The shotgun has a strong kickback. Your rocket shoes make your controller rumble with a low-level vibration. Every action has a corresponding feedback to it, implying weight and consequence.
Most of the game is platforming and gunning, but there are also several puzzle levels, where you have to turn levers and manipulate time and space to unlock doors. They provide a reprieve and a variety to the combat-heavy sequences, which are pretty diverse in their own right
As we said in our review, there’s nothing in Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart that hasn’t been done before. But it’s rarely been done all at the same time, to this level of polish and success.
2. 'It Takes Two'
Developer: Hazelight Studios
Platform(s): Windows, PlayStation 5, PlayStation 4, Xbox Series X|S, Xbox One
Release date: March 26, 2021
Game director Josef Fares is a genius–someone who has used his personal life and trauma to tell worthy stories, themed around duality and reliance.
He first came to prominence with Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons, in which you played one brother with the left thumbstick, and the other with the right thumbstick; you coordinated their movements to overcome obstacles on an epic journey. He followed that up with A Way Out, a game where co-op was a must and couch co-op was encouraged; you and a partner played as two prisoners, who had to work together to escape from captivity.
And now, Fares presents It Takes Two, which continues this collaborative ethos; there is no single-player mode. You and a partner play as a husband and wife who are going through a divorce. Their souls transfer to a pair of handmade dolls that their daughter created. To regain their human bodies, they must traverse the now-giant world of their backyard and house, which forces them to cooperate.
The game is innovative in ways both big and small. Each level has a different sort of gimmick, in which each character receives a different ability, and must work together to achieve synchronicity. In the shed, for example, one character acquires a hammer, which she uses to break glass bottles and hook onto things like a grapple. The other character gets a set of nails, which he can throw javelin-style to keep things in place or open pathways for his partner.
But there is another, more figurative meaning underlying this all—about the importance of communication in relationships, about missing the things we sacrifice as individuals in pursuit of a union and wrestling with the effects of our dysfunction upon others. The game communicates this all through its gameplay and a childish melancholy that pervades every frame.
It Takes Two has smaller stakes than the fate of the universe, but that’s also what makes it so intimate and charming. If you haven’t played it and you’re understandably skeptical, give it a chance.