It’s that time of the year again! The 2021 Manatees Game of the Year podcast is live on Make Me A Gamer, which means it’s time for the written section where I list out my top 10 games of the year! No more preamble, it’s time to buckle up and hear about some games!!
Honorable Mention #1: Guardians of the Galaxy
I, like most of the gaming community, was gun-shy on GotG due to how big a disappointment Avengers was. While GotG is not from the same development team, it is still from Square Enix and as such I was very skeptical from the outset. But I’m glad I gave the game a shot because it’s actually a very strong narrative game and has some of the best chatter dialogue in recent memory.
The game is definitely influenced by the MCU’s version of the Guardians, but this iteration of the team still has their own identities and backstories that differ from their movie counterparts. Gamora feels a lot more autonomous and not treated as a love interest, Rocket is a lot more aggressively contrary as a team member, and Drax has much deeper and complex motivations than the comedic relief that Dave Bautista’s role turned into. While it’s very story-driven, it still feels like the choices you make as Star-Lord have enough influence to make your story yours and that’s invaluable in a single-player game.
I haven’t had a chance to finish this one which is why it’s only getting an honorable mention, but I’m probably about halfway through it and plan on finishing it because it’s definitely worth it.
Honorable Mention #2: Psychonauts 2
I’m pretty much surprised as everyone else that this game wasn’t higher on my list, especially since it was one of my most anticipated games for this year. It’s another one that I didn’t get a chance to finish but thoroughly enjoyed my time with. When I started playing Psychonauts 2, I was instantly transported back into the world – it picked up exactly where it had left off, and I was immediately in love again. It’s like I never left the original Psychonauts world – every character felt the same.
I think the biggest disappointment was the lack of the camp vibe that the first one had. Talking with all the other kids and getting updates on their side stories was a key part of the first game and this one felt driven by the adult characters a lot more. Not that anything was bad about their stories, but it really felt like it was missing something in the world when you weren’t advancing the main story. The humor was still on point, though, as I found myself laughing out loud many times over the course of playing.
I’m not sure why this didn’t click with me overall. I played it in bits and pieces and will probably finish it eventually, but the plot never reached that hook to make me want to keep playing and finish it out.
There are only two honorable mentions this year, so let’s hit the top 10!
10. Resident Evil Village
Look, I was never on the Lady Dimitrescu train that some people were. I get that a lot of the buildup to Village was having the hots for the giant vampire lady. But that wasn’t me. That being said, her part of the game was probably my favorite section as it played a lot like previous Resident Evils – trying to navigate a claustrophobic place while unstoppable beings hunt you. She ended up being one of the most memorable parts of the game.
The other memorable part was House Beneviento, which on the first time through was absolutely stellar at building up terror without actually having any monsters. It was psychologically horrifying to progress through and wonder when the other shoe was going to drop (and when it did it was disgusting!).
Village managed to balance action and horror perfectly for me and it probably ranks in my top 3 of the series (with RE4 and RE2Make) overall. I’m not the craziest fan of the series and I didn’t play 7, but Ethan as a protagonist in this one worked for me. It was the right length as well – it didn’t end up overstaying its welcome even if it falls apart a little at the end like most Resident Evils end up doing. Regardless of my opinion of the entire franchise, this one hit the mark and was well worth the asking price.
9. The Dark Pictures Anthology: House of Ashes
Once again, Supermassive’s yearly entry in the horror genre finds its way into my top ten. This year’s iteration is definitely the best game they’ve put out since Until Dawn. Did I say that last year? Perhaps. But it’s true again. They’ve truly perfected the multiplayer in House of Ashes and the story content is fantastic.
House of Ashes has the best characters since Until Dawn as well – Salim and Jason are probably my two favorite protagonists out of all of the Supermassive games. And that’s saying something since I hated Jason at first! The game isn’t as reliant on a twist as the previous anthology entries, which allows them to build up the horror of the actual monsters. That isn’t to say there aren’t swerves in the storytelling, but it doesn’t feel like they’re building to a twist/mystery answer the whole time. Instead it embraces the horror of surviving against unbeatable odds very early on and lets that dread infect you as you creep around the caverns.
This one is definitely the one to pick up if you’re a pure horror fan – and it’s especially fun with a co-op buddy.
8. Shin Megami Tensei V
So this one not cracking my top five is another big shock. Going into this year, SMTV was my most anticipated game and I’ve been hella hyped for it since it was announced several years ago. And for all intents and purposes, it delivered. It’s great! The music fucking slaps (Exhibit A and Exhibit B), the new demon designs are outstanding, the old demons look amazing in 3D, and the story delivers the typical apocalyptic ennui that an SMT game usually has.
So why is it not higher up? Well, because I haven’t finished it yet. In fact it’s the only game in my top 10 that I didn’t complete, and yet it still ranks here at 8 because I like it that much. When I get around to finishing it, it will probably rank much higher on my all-time list than this ranking might indicate.
Unfortunately, it delivers the “one mistake and you’re dead” difficulty that mainline SMT games are famous for. One too many deaths in a row when I started the third area got me to put down the game and take a break for a bit. While I appreciate the challenge, sometimes I just want to play something casually fun on my Switch while in bed and not be gritting my teeth on the same demon fight five times in a row. But I’ll be back, SMT. I don’t plan on abandoning you.
7. Metroid Dread
Look, friends, we got a new Metroid game in 2021.
It was a Metroid-ass Metroid game.
The series that basically spawned an entire genre with the help of Castlevania, got a new entry in 2021.
Of COURSE it’s in my top 10.
Is it kinda hard? Sure. But it’s also super forgiving with checkpoints. Are some of the bosses total pieces of shit? Sure. But also when you get all the timings down you feel like a rock star. Are the speed boost puzzles kinda annoying? Sure. But you don’t have to do them!
Do you like Metroid? Then Metroid Dread will be up your alley. That’s all there is to it. It doesn’t reinvent the wheel or make strides in genre-changing like something like Breath of the Wild. It just knocks it out of the park exactly how you’d expect it to.
6. Monster Hunter Rise
I enjoyed hunting monsters solo in Rise, but at some point the game became a cathartic multiplayer experience for me. Getting together and riding with my crew of monster hunters made this game come alive for me. Especially since I tended to disappear from the actual hunt we were on and then come crashing into the fight like a wrecking ball riding another giant monster in the area.
Are we fighting a Zinogre? I’m jumping onto this Mizutsune and riding it into battle. Is the Nargacuga our foe? You better believe I’m putting the rodeo moves on a Bishaten and pegging it in the face with some fruit. I did this so often that whenever my friends couldn’t find me they just expected me to come barrelling in at any moment on the back of a completely different monster and start fucking shit up.
It was an absolute blast to play and the main reason I put so many hours into this game as opposed to World. Yeah, sure, revving up my Switch Axe and taking on Magnamalo was fun by itself, but getting a few friends involving and doing damage as a group was always better. I can’t wait for Sunbreak so we can all bust out our weapons and go hunting some more.
5. Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart
If there was going to be a game that sold me on the PS5, Rift Apart was going to be it. I love the Ratchet & Clank series and this game was no exception. It had some of my favorite weapons (the Topiary Sprinkler is an ingenious idea) and the mixing of open areas and delineated setpieces really worked for the game.
Of course, the best addition is Rivet as a counterpart to Ratchet. Rivet as a new character injects life into the franchise and pushes to the forefront the story of how Ratchet is the last Lombax in his universe and what that means to him. The story is filled with both the goofiness and heart that Insomniac has always been so good at. Rift Apart easily sailed into one of my favorite games of the franchise.
I also just have to commend the graphics – I’m not usually one to care too much about how shiny the game looks, but the 60fps mode in Rift Apart was just bananas. Everything looked gorgeous and I can’t wait to see future entries in this franchise on the PS5 and beyond.
If you told me that a game involving paper cutout aesthetic would be in my top 5 games this year and it would have nothing to do with Paper Mario, I would have been flabbergasted. But the art style just works in Wildermyth because of how every run you make is unique and tells its own story. Every action your characters take is proceeded by procedurally generated events that end up telling tales that fit the vibe created by the art.
I had one game that was made up of only Final Fantasy 6 characters. I had another run that was made up of entirely women, except for one lone guy who happened to be the son of a character from another run. (He became their unofficial mascot and retired happily towards the end of the campaign.) Each character I’ve created in this game now has a story and a personality unique to them and when they show up to guest star in new campaigns it’s always like seeing a familiar friend again.
I haven’t even gone into the tactical strategy of the actual gameplay. This game is perfect for XCOM lovers like me who also love customizing units and having their own stories. AND it’s co-op if you want! Just wonderful.
3. Persona 5 Strikers
For nearly the whole year, Persona 5 Strikers was my game of the year. I played it early in February and no other game reached the heights it did until nearly November. I love Persona 5 and this was a direct continuation. I loved catching up with all the Phantom Thieves and getting to go on a road trip with them. It was like getting to see a group of friends you haven’t hung out with in a long time and just getting to chill and smile as they interacted with each other.
The music is phenomenal and fits right into the Persona style (Exhibit A, Exhibit B, and Exhibit C). The dungeon designs are fantastic and the twist they put on the Phantom Thieves heists from the first game is great. On top of that, they blend musou style combat with the RPG strength and weakness mechanics of the mainline games and it turns the game into a really fun action RPG that holds its own.
It’s rare to get meaningful sequels to anthology RPGs – usually it’s alternate universe teamups or lesser efforts that gloss over the characters. This one scratched the itch of more Persona 5 while also delivering a phenomenally fun game on top of it. I’m really glad it exists and while it’s a long shot, I hope there’s more games like it in the future.
I almost passed on Inscryption – the initial trailer went for a horror vibe and that’s not really my area. However, I caught a little bit of it on a stream and I was absolutely hooked by the atmosphere and the card game itself. And then it went places I didn’t expect at ALL.
It’s hard to talk about Inscryption because it’s one of those games that I’d rather have people experience themselves. If you like Magic: The Gathering or Slay the Spire or any of the myriad of other CCG and deckbuilding games that are out there, you owe it to yourself to try Inscryption. It’s unbelievably layered and you might think it’s just a card game with a spooky setting but it ends up being so, so much more than that.
1. Final Fantasy XIV: Endwalker
I started playing the base game of FFXIV in July of this year and it slowly consumed all my gaming time, to the point that I was blasting through Shadowbringers content in November with the hope that I’d complete it in time to play Endwalker with the rest of the community when it released. I made it and God I’m glad I did. Endwalker is a perfect ending to what happened to be a ten-year MMO saga. And yes, I burned through that saga in five months but having Endwalker be an end cap on 2021 was perfect for me.
I can’t quite put into words how Final Fantasy XIV saved me this year. I went through a lot of personal ups and downs and the constant of Eorzea always being there for me to jump in if I needed to get away (despite being stuck inside at my computer) was a much needed reprieve. It was a welcome escape that was filled with friendly people who just made my day better even if they were random, anonymous friends for only a few minutes.
And then Endwalker showed up with its themes of nihilism, questions about the meaning of life, and what to do when everything you’ve worked for turned out to be for nothing, and I cried. It was powerful in its messages that spoke directly to me and the bad brain weasels that had filled my thoughts over the course of a significantly depressing year. While many times over the course of playing FFXIV I was bored by the MMO trappings and started to zone out during exceedingly trivial filler quests, every part of Endwalker kept my rapt attention. Every area spoke to me, every beast tribe and NPC felt meaningful, every song that played felt expertly crafted for the emotions I was feeling.
Final Fantasy XIV happened at just the right time for me and Endwalker was a perfect way to end my year of playing it. I don’t know what the future will bring for my time with this MMO, but for 2021? It was perfect.