Regardless of where it ends up living, putting together my annual game of the year list is always a really rewarding thing to write.
I don’t play as many games as I used to, and I certainly don’t play them in the same way I used to. Still, it’s always really interesting to think about and catalogue the gaming experiences* that meant the most to me.
I use the word experiences* because that’s really the thing that stands the test of time for me. Games don’t exist in a vacuum, and I think it’s insufficient at best and unhelpful at worst to try and think about them in that way. The wider conversation or discourse around a given game or, in the case of multiplayer and tabletop games, the people you’re playing with can really elevate the experience of playing it. Playing the right game at the right time can make all the difference.
Anyway, here are the 10 standout games I played in 2021:
10. Stalker: Shadow of Chernobyl
Stalker: Shadow of Chernobyl is one of those mythic PC gaming titles that I’ve always been meaning to play, but never quite found the time or motivation. With an unexpected sequel on the horizon, I finally decided to investigate the original game— and found it was an absolute treat.
Roaming the overgrown landscapes and dilapidated metropolitan suburbs of The Zone, it was very easy to see how more modern incarnations of this style of open world shooter like Far Cry were directly inspired by Stalker.
As someone who grew up with PC gaming, it was refreshing to play a game that felt so connected to that era and ethos of what gaming could be. What’s more, as someone who visited the real life exclusion zone back in 2020, navigating the various local landmarks depicted throughout Stalker delivered a special nostalgia.
Blurring the lines between shooter, sim and role-playing game, Stalker feels one of a kind. It’s the kind of game that you start, only to later realize that you aren’t just playing a good game. You’re playing a modern classic.
9. Diablo 3: Eternal Edition
I played a lot of Diablo (and Diablo-like experiences) this year. I threw some time into the alpha for the upcoming Diablo Immortal, I revisited the second game in the series through Diablo 2: Resurrected and even dabbled with modern efforts like Wolcen: Lords of Mayhem.
However, it was the serious hours that I sunk into the Nintendo Switch port of Diablo 3 that made me really grappled with just how much I enjoy this particular version of the formula.
Almost a decade after it launched, Diablo 3 still hits the spot for me. If anything, it actually seems to get better every time I play it. It can be as deep or as shallow as I need it to be, with Blizzard’s knack for polish enabling a crisp & modern hack-and-slash experience that often feels almost entirely without friction.
The recent remaster of Diablo 2 was a fun diversion, but more than anything else, it cast new light on the more “radical” changes that the third game in the franchise made to the formula and how much more enjoyment those revisions added to my experience.
Diablo 3 is far from a forever game, but the portability offered by the form-factor of the Switch sometimes makes it feel like a game I could go on playing forever.
I bounced off Griftlands once or twice before I managed to get properly into it, but I’m glad I persevered. Even as someone who plays a lot of card battlers, there’s a real rhythmic quality to the gameplay here.
Griftlands’s unique structure (where you field two decks, one for fights and one for negotiations) does up the cognitive burden required to properly learn and engage with the systems in it, but the rewards are commensurate.
Klei’s penchant for blending together an immediately-striking and stylish aesthetic with subtle worldbuilding is on display in full force.
7. La Mulana 2
The original La Mulana remains one of the best metroidvanias that I struggle to recommend to friends. It’s involved, intimidating and downright indecipherable without a guide. All the same, it’s an incredibly rewarding and charming 2D action-adventure for those willing to put in the time & effort.
The sequel manages to pull of the same trick. The soundtrack slaps, the bosses are memorable, and the structure of the game is impossibly complicated.
La Mulana 2 is a forty-hour odyssey for fans of the genre, but it never once felt like it wasn’t a journey worth seeing through to the end.
6. Psychonauts 2
I don’t back all that many games on Kickstarter anymore because, most of the time, I usually come away disappointed with the results.
Psychonauts 2 is the rare exception to that rule. I backed it via Fig back in 2015, and have been entirely satisfied with the final product.
Psychonauts 2 feels like a game lost in time in the best way. As a game, it comes across as a seamless evolution and continuation of the first game, while bringing plenty of its own charm to the table.
If the first game was a cult-classic, this sequel proves that Double Fine are worth believing in.
5. Dark Souls
I’ve been slowly working my way backwards through the From Software catalogue in the time since I played Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice. This year, I finally got around to playing Dark Souls and I’m a little shocked that it lived up the hype.
I’m nearing the end of my second run through the game, and I anticipate I’ll want to tackle it at least two more times to see how a magic or archery-focused character changes the experience.
More than just the meaty and rewarding combat and character progression, it’s the structure of Dark Souls that really elevates things here. The thrill of a new weapon pales in comparison to the thrill of finding a new shortcut. The journey of isn’t so much one of accumulation as it is one of discovery.
It feels like every aspect of Dark Souls has been finely tuned towards making it rewarding to master, from the evocative level design to the combat systems to the cryptic lore.
Beyond that, it’s the blending of genres here that keeps pulling me back in.
Dark Souls is a single game that combines tense combat and cinematic boss battles of Monster Hunter, the evocative level design of Resident Evil, the structural satisfaction of a good Metroidvania plus the typical thrills that come with min-maxing a character in a roleplaying game like Diablo.
The fact that I can chip away at the game on the go via the Nintendo Switch is just icing on the cake.
4. Borderlands 3
Borderlands 3 was a game I resisted playing for a long time. Even as someone who has played through the original Borderlands something like eight times, I found a lot of the trailers and marketing for the third numbered installment profoundly off-putting.
Nevertheless, along came a sale and several months of lockdown, so I finally decided to jump in and see what Borderlands 3 had to offer.
What I found was probably one of the most satisfying loot-shooter experiences I’ve ever sunk my teeth into. I didn’t just play through Borderlands 3. I sunk eighty hours in, hit the level cap, and tracked down every single achievement.
The storytelling doesn’t quite reach the highs of the Tales series, nor do the game’s antagonists get under your skin in the way that Handsome Jack did in Borderlands 2. All the same, the subtle improvements to the way that game plays make it easier than ever to justify just one more side mission.
I’m done with Borderlands 3 for now, but I know I’m going to come back to it sooner or later.
With almost half of this year spent in various stage of lockdown, I didn’t have much of a chance to play many board games with friends, social deduction-based or otherwise.
Gnosia helped fill this void. At face value, it’s a single-player visual novel in the vein of Zero Escape or Danganrompa. However, rather than tell a scripted narrative, Gnosia opts to emulate the systemic and dynamic social deduction experiences of games like Mafia or Among Us.
Each loop, you wake up on a starship as either a human or an alien. If you’re the former, you’ve got to root out the infiltrators within your crew and sentence them to cryosleep. If you’re in the latter camp, then you want to evade detection and pick away at the crew one by one until your side outnumbers them.
At the same time, you’re looking to learn more about each character on the ship, deciphering their motivations and finding a way to break out of this loop.
Combining wicked writing, vivid visuals and the addictive thrill of social deduction games, Gnosia is a unique cocktail of genres that’s not to overlooked.
I usually include one or two board and tabletop games in my end of year round-up, but the digital adaptation of Gloomhaven filled that void this time around.
Available on PC, I usually describe Gloomhaven to friends as cross between Diablo and Dungeons & Dragons. It’s part tactics game, part RPG and part deckbuilder.
With support for up to three other friends, Gloomhaven lets you take on the role of a group of adventurers tasked with crawling your way through various dungeons. Along the way, you earn new gear, stat modifiers and cards for your deck — which determines your actions each turn.
Gloomhaven is complicated enough that I won’t try to explain it in detail here, but it fits right into the axiom of easy-to-learn, difficult-to-master.
Turn-based cooperative experiences are a rare delicacy, with typical in-game banter giving way to discussions and debates about the best way to make your next move complement the rest of the group.
I’ve spent fifty hours playing this game, and I feel like I’ve barely scratched the surface. I’ve already hit the max level with one character and am well on the way to doing so with my second. I haven’t even started playing the campaign yet.
Flaming Fowl Sutdios’ adaptation of Gloomhaven doesn’t shy away from streamlining the minutia involved, but it doesn’t lose any of the charm either.
1. League of Legends: Wild Rift
Fundamentally, Wild Rift lets me have the experience I want out of a MOBA like League of Legends in a way that’s far more respectful of my time than any of the other options, including regular LoL.
I can jump in, play a match or two and jump out. Even if the skins change and the roster expands, the baseline arc of a match and the mechanical skills I need to succeed in the game don’t.
The only reason I played significantly less Wild Rift in the second half of the year is that I managed physically injure myself from playing so much in the first half.
In many ways, Wild Rift has become a go-to co-op experience for me and my partner. It’s been a joy to watch her go down the rabbit hole of learning how the various champions, roles and systems in the game intersect. I had a ton of fun with Pokemon Unite this year for this same reason, and I am terrified for the toll that my Switch Lite may incur should the console version of this game arrive sooner rather than later.
Last year, I made the case that League of Legends: Wild Rift was the best remake of the year. Even if I’ve fallen in and out of playing Wild Rift over the past twelve months since, the things that hit me about the mobile-first spin-off land just well today as they did at launch.
Wild Rift has let me rediscover and find new joy in a game that I still love, but no longer have the time for. It’s a simple trick on paper, but the myriad smart touches here make this a revision that I expect to be revisiting for years to come.
Honorable mentions: NEO: The World Ends With You, Genshin Impact, The Forgotten City, The Hex, Helltaker, Godfall, Dreamscaper, Metroid Dread, The Solitaire Conspiracy, Monster Hunter: Rise, Deathloop, Legends of Runeterra,