toatali’s best games of 2021

I was finally in the position earlier this year to get my hands on a PS5, finally making me a true “next-gen” gamer. Only one game exclusive to that console actually ended up making my list though – mostly I used it to play old PS4 games or surf Netflix. Instead, the Switch made a surprising comeback as probably my most used system this year to play new games. This has been one of the best years for Nintendo’s console since 2017, making that jump into the next console generation seem even more pointless than it normally is. Eventually, the PS5 or Xbox Series S/X will be must-have systems, but even now, at the end of 2021, that doesn’t seem to be the case.

This of course, doesn’t really mean anything in terms of the actual games – this year’s list is relatively short, but each of the games on here is worth playing and most would make the best of the year list even in a bumper year.

As in previous years, the lists are not ranked – instead, all the runners up are listed alphabetically and there is one overall “Best of the Year” – the aim of this is to preserve an element of competition without having to compare apples and oranges.

With all that said, here are my best games of 2021.

Demon’s Souls

In last year’s list, I warned that PS5 exclusives from that year would end up on this list, and here we go. I finally got my hands on Sony’s latest device earlier this year after being drunk enough to be up at 3am when new stock dropped, and of course drunk enough to drop £500 on a system just to play Demon’s Souls, a remake of From Software’s PS3 classic and the game that preceded Dark Souls.

Luckily, I can say that this was a worthwhile purchase; Demon’s Souls isn’t just another great From Software game, it’s one of the best From Software games the company has ever produced, lovingly restored by Bluepoint Games. Playing Demon’s Souls, it’s incredible to see just how much Hidetaka Miyazaki got right about the formula so quickly.

Where it diverges from the Dark Souls layout is that Demon’s Souls is more level-based. But this isn’t really a problem. While Lordran, Lothric or Yarnham all have worlds that make sense geographically and atmospherically, the use of separate levels in Demon’s Souls allows each of them to have architecture and ambience that differentiates them all to stunning effect. To make the Tower of Latria and the Shrine of Storms exist within the same game may have been more difficult in Dark Souls, but here Miyazaki’s team is allowed to tailor every part of the typically sprawling levels to match what seems like a separate mini-Souls game in each level.

Because of a bigger emphasis on the use of magic, Demon’s Souls can be a fair bit easier than some of the later games in the series, but for me the level of challenge is just right. With the exception of one or two areas that seem to lean on being more infuriating or time-consuming than challenging (the run to the Tower Knight and the second level in the swamp spring immediately to mind), the game’s difficulty is exceptionally well-tuned. It also means that this game is probably the best entryway into the series; my girlfriend played through Demon’s Souls after me and despite it being the first console game she’d ever played, was able to get through it without much trouble.

Most impressively for me, however, Demon’s Souls is one of the best in the series at crafting moments of environmental and gameplay-based storytelling. I also played through Dark Souls 3 this year, a game which includes a far higher number of engaging and dramatic boss fights against large creatures and powerful swordsmen. Looked at in this way, Demon’s Souls, with only a few really tough, gimmick-free fights, might seem the lesser game. But nothing in Dark Souls 3 quite comes close to moments like the fight against Garl Vinland and Maiden Astrea, or the intriguing and rich lore of Latria, or even the dramatic beauty of the fight against the Storm King. Sometimes these kinds of unique encounters are worth far more than other possessed swordsman to roll around.

When I first went to play Demon’s Souls, a part of me did look at it like a curiosity; a rare look into a proto-Dark Souls game that would never really live up to the genuine article. By the end of Demon’s Souls, the game had already shot up near the top of my Souls ranking, supplanting some of the highest regarded games ever made. I would never recommend buying a console for a single game, but if you’re going to, it might as well be one as great as Demon’s Souls.

Metroid Dread

The last Metroid game, Samus Returns, made my best of the year list when it released in 2017, although I criticised it slightly for being an imperfect remake of the GameBoy original. In hindsight, developer MercurySteam’s first attempt at taking over the reigns of Nintendo’s classic sci-fi franchise feels more like a proof of concept following the release of Metroid Dread.

The first brand new 2D Metroid game to release since Metroid Fusion all the way back in 2002, Metroid Dread continues the story from that game. Once again, Samus Aran is sent to a planet to eradicate a bioweapon; this time, instead of the Metroids, she’s hunting the X Parasite, which was introduced in Fusion, and replicates the DNA of the host to create an exact replica. In Fusion, this was used to chilling effect by introducing a malevolent clone of Samus, known as the SA-X, which would stalk the player in a series of mostly scripted chases.

In Metroid Dread, the big new addition feels like an expansion of the SA-X. Now, Samus is stalked through the planet ZDR by robots known as E.M.M.I, who are invulnerable to most attacks, and must be hidden from as you comb through their zones – one touch from one of these robots will cause an instant game over. These sequences are the only ones that really deliver on MercurySteam’s promise that the game will have more horror leanings – a sense of “dread”. They are indeed tense, especially early on into the game. But these are limited sections – the real joy of Metroid Dread comes from the sections that aren’t hinted at in the title – how the developers reimagine classic Metroid gameplay for the Switch era.

In Samus Returns, Samus was granted a far more fluid and expansive move set, with 360 degree aiming, faster run speeds and a melee counter move that allowed you to parry enemy attacks with the right timing. The problem was that this fluidity was bolted onto a game built for the original GameBoy, and so only really ever worked properly in boss fights that weren’t in the 1991 version.

Finally, in Dread, then, is the promise of all these new mechanics delivered on. Samus’s fluidity seems custom built for all the areas – a new reworking of the melee counter makes it faster and less interruptive, and each of the game’s challenging boss fights is a pure joy to learn and conquer. Dread is so good as an action game that calling it “Dread” seems like a complete misnomer – the joy of this new game is just how tight it all feels – the animations are as fine-tuned as a From Software game and the speed is exhilarating, even when the game is in “Metroidvania” exploration mode.

Metroid Dread isn’t really a long game, but I’ve never been more glad to see a game know when (and how) to end. This is a superbly controlled experience – a full throttle action game that is still stuffed with secrets in each block of its intricately designed world. Like the best thrillers, the minute-to-minute pulls you along, but there’s more than enough depth to want to go back time and time again.

Pokemon Brilliant Diamond

“In Greek, nostalgia literally means ‘the pain from an old wound”, claims Don Draper in the first season finale of Mad Men. Pokemon Brilliant Diamond trades heavier on this kind of pain than almost every other game in this franchise – one that already makes most of its money on the back of its past successes. Although Pokemon Sapphire is the first video game I ever played, the original Pokemon Diamond, which released in 2007, is the first video game I remember being excited for. The pain that Don refers to here is that longing for simpler times – and while the word nostalgia originally referred to the heartache, now it seems to refer to the balm; evoking childhood memories as a way to sell products.

Don Draper employs talk of nostalgia when he’s pitching a new ad campaign to sell a Kodak slide projector, which he names the “Kodak Carousel”. Brilliant Diamond is almost painfully indebted to the work of the advertisers who first capitalised on nostalgia as a sales technique. While other remakes of older Pokemon games would reconfigure them enough to pass off the remake as something “new”, wrapping old game design in the cloth of recent innovations, Brilliant Diamond remains stuck in 2007. It even foregoes the innovations of the 2009 re-release of Diamond and Pearl; Pokemon Platinum, which introduced a number of great changes to the 2007 versions, almost all of which left by the wayside by the developers of Brilliant Diamond.

What is new is a couple of quality of life features, mainly borrowed from Sword and Shield, clumsily retrofitted onto Diamond, as well as a new art-style that has been controversial for a good reason; it occasionally evokes the tilt-shift toy aesthetic that the Link’s Awakening remake so skilfully deployed, but more often than not looks like a suspiciously shiny knock-off of that game, turning the sprite-based suggestions of a world into something that appears uncanny when turned literal.

The problem with this is that it now creates a situation where there is no longer a definitive way to experience the Sinnoh Pokemon games. Whereas before I could easily recommend Platinum as the ultimate Sinnoh experience, now… I would still recommend Platinum, but with caveats that Brilliant Diamond does do a few things better than that game, and is easier to get a hold of (at least legally).

So why would a game like this make it onto my list of the best this year? Well, one reason is that Pokemon Diamond is a very good game; in fact, probably one of the best Pokemon games every released. In 2007, Pokemon was more concerned with iterating than innovating, which lends Diamond a relaxing simplicity that is aided by the lessons learned from four previous generations. Playing it next to a more recent game like Pokemon Shield and the value of this kind of simplicity and refinement is made starkly clear.

The other reason is, of course, nostalgia. Although it seems like the easiest option, pandering to nostalgia isn’t always as easy as it seems. No movie meant more to child me than the 1984 comedy Ghostbusters but watching the new sequel Ghostbusters Afterlife this year left me feeling nothing more than that it wasn’t all that great a film; no matter how often they threw in a Twinkie wrapper or a Bill Murray cameo. Pokemon Brilliant Diamond gets it right by refusing, sometimes to a bafflingly obtuse level, to mess with the original 2007 game. To its credit, or perhaps to the credit of the original developers, this game isn’t just fantastic, it’s a perfect balm to that nostalgic twinge – providing you remember the original.

The Great Ace Attorney Chronicles

I’ve already written a thesis length post on The Great Ace Attorney Chronicles, so let me keep this as brief as possible, because I’ve basically exhausted every opinion I have on this game.

Shu Takumi’s return to the Ace Attorney series was long-awaited, and that wait became even longer when the game failed to materialise outside of Japan after its initial release in 2015. Now, finally, here it is, and it’s difficult to say it wasn’t worth the wait. As big and bloated as anything the series has done in the time since Takumi leaving, while being anchored with the charm and wit that is expected from the series creator, The Great Ace Attorney Chronicles is the closest the series will likely ever come to recreating the feeling and scope of a historical epic, and while there are missteps along the way, it’s impressive how well this game commits to, and how often it succeeds at, creating a game about lawyers that has this much going on within.

Originally released over the span of two separate games, and with an almost daunting playtime of roughly 70 hours, Takumi’s latest spans the course of two years in its protagonist Ryunosuke Naruhodo’s life, from his life as a put-up English student in Meiji-period Japan, to his travels as a fledgling lawyer into Victorian Britain, where he crosses paths with none other than the most famous detective of all time, Sherlock Holmes Herlock Sholmes. In doing so, the game tackles themes of racism, imperialism, morality and class struggles in a way its more limited scope had often failed to tackle beforehand, while still keeping the lightness of touch and fun character interactions that the series is known for.

There may be better ways to get into the series (the original trilogy, which I maintain is the best, is coming to your smart fridge and pocket calculator next year), but The Great Ace Attorney Chronicles sometimes feels like a game that’s a treat for fans while also being perfect for newcomers. It never strays too far from the beaten path, but it often does Ace Attorney better than any other game has.  

Resident Evil Village

I think the unifying theme for all the games I liked this year is how restrained they are. Demon’s Souls packs the open worlds of later games into smaller, more refined levels, Metroid Dread is a tighter, more controlled experience than many other Metroidvanias, and Pokemon Diamond harkens back to the simpler days of Pokemon, where extraneous details were kept to a minimum. It seems odd to call Resident Evil Village, a game that finds it nearly impossible to keep still, “restrained”, but hear me out. The restraint in Village comes not from its content, but from its pacing.

Resident Evil Village, which follows on from 2017’s Resident Evil 7, continues the story of Ethan Winters, now living in Romania. When his wife is shot and his daughter kidnapped by former series protagonist Chris Redfield, he finds himself exploring a mysterious village where the residents have turned into werewolves, vampires and other creatures from the annals of horror history.

While it lacks some of the focus of 7, what makes Village stand out is that refusal to commit to one unifying tone. Instead, the developers at CAPCOM take a whistle-stop tour through the series’ history, incorporating all the different kinds of horror films and games the series has pioneered and borrowed from over the years. Watch in awe as the game effortlessly segues from an intense action horror set-piece where you run from werewolves to a genuinely disturbing psychological horror sequence where you have no choice but to run and hide from one of the scariest creatures ever put to screen.

Never content to rest on its laurels, Village’s “greatest hits” approach to sequel making is admirable, but above all it’s extremely fun to play. On a first playthrough especially, the element of surprise makes the whole thing a joy, especially towards the end of the game when the writers throw twist after twist at the player, each one giddily increasing the surreality and bombast of the game’s story.

It’s perhaps easy to see why Resident Evil Village was considered something of a disappointment compared to its direct predecessor. 7 was unlike anything else the series had seen before; both a return to the Spencer Mansion style survival gameplay of the first game, but with a brand-new perspective and setting. The first half seemed destined to appeal to those who disliked the direction the series was heading in during games like 5 and 6. But even by the end of 7, you could feel the game bursting at the seams, as it transfers its action to a tanker that has somehow ended up in a bayou, and gives the player more and more firepower to dispose of threats with.

Village, then, is just the natural culmination of all the series has been leading up to. Resident Evil is nothing if not experimental. Like the Zelda series, each entry keeps some things – a cheesy B-movie tone, references to Umbrella – and plays around with others. In Resident Evil Village, the game finally becomes the series in microcosm – an experimental, playful and tightly controlled rollercoaster of horror.

Thanks for reading! You can read my full thoughts on Resident Evil Village here, follow me on twitter or support me on patreon. Or do none of those things.

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