Colin’s Top 10 Video Games of 2021

Photograph of Colin Hemphill taken in his office
Written by Colin Hemphill
January 9, 202212 min read

The views expressed on this blog are my own, and do not necessarily reflect those of my employer.

A gloomy photo of a PlayStation 4 controller with strong shadows and subtle orange and green lighting

I don’t usually purchase many games in the same year that they release, especially not full-priced AAA releases. This past year was a little different, in no small part because I started subscribing to Game Pass for PC, which has provided access to lots of Microsoft platform exclusives that I wouldn’t normally play as a PS5 owner. Game Pass also has tons of great indie games that would be much more affordable to pick up individually, but are part of a saturated market where at some point you have to start being more selective about what you purchase. For the other stuff, my workplace has provided a substantial monthly credit that I’m now allowed to use towards game purchases, which has funded many of the bigger titles.

And so for the first time ever, I feel like I’ve played most of the major yearly releases that could fill out a whole top 10 list. And thus, I feel like I should write down my personal top 10 video games of 2021!

My 2021 in Games

Ever since my job went fully remote, I’ve preferred console gaming since it gets my away from my office and the desk where I spend most of the day working. As such, most of my gaming this year happened on the PlayStation 5, and I filled out the rest on my PC when I had no other option. My Switch didn’t get much attention this year since many of the first-party releases were widely panned, and I’m not personally interested in the 2D Metroid franchise (or really any Metroidvania games). I managed to pick up every giveaway on the Epic Games Store in 2021, so much of what I played also came from that rapidly expanding library.

My Personal Top 10

For what it’s worth, I did not complete every game on this list. However, if it appears on the list I’ve played enough to know that I want to see it through to the end.

#10 Deathloop

I’m typically a fan of immersive sims, including Arkane’s own Dishonored series and Prey, as well as the recent Deus Ex games. Deathloop might be my least favorite of all of them. It has a strong start with fun banter between interesting characters. As it starts to unpack the looping mechanics, what seems like infinite possibility starts to feel like a funnel leading you to a single solution. What initially feels like a big living world starts to feel like little isolated maps with pre-scripted interactions in a few different time intervals. As I started to hear that the story beats and ending were particularly uninteresting, my interest faded somewhat.

#9 Unpacking

Unpacking is a beautiful little game with immersive storytelling that is truly unique. I also have to applaud the folks who worked on the sound design, because I hear that there are over 14,000 foley samples which make ever thump and slide on each surface and for each item feel unique and natural. It’s on Game Pass!

#8 Psychonauts 2

Psychonauts 2 is a pretty long game, so while I haven’t completed it I got invested in their storytelling right out of the gate. I’m not typically a fan of this type of throwback platformer, and I have no nostalgic connection to the original game, but the sequel did a great job of luring me in with interesting world designs, great characters, and meaningful explorations of human personality and mental health. It also has Jack Black. It’s on Game Pass!

#7 Returnal

Returnal was severely hamstrung at launch because it lacked any form of save points for progression in a given run. This meant that if the PS5 crashed or tried to update while the game was suspended, your progress in a very lengthy run would be completely gone. I never felt comfortable leaving the game, so if I didn’t have 2+ hours in a single sitting, I wouldn’t play it.

While the action feels absolutely perfect, and the combat, environments, and subtle storytelling are very neat, I had to put it down as it got more difficult and the risk of losing a run became greater. Since they’ve added saves in the last few months I haven’t had a chance to revisit, but I hope to soon!

#6 Hitman 3

I tried my best to get into the 2016 Hitman reboot. Journalists and reviewers I tend to strongly align with loved it, and continued to love it through Hitman 2. This year when the new one came out, I kept hearing great things. When I heard it described as “Tony Hawk’s Pro Murderer”, I think it finally unlocked what I needed to do to have fun in the game.

There was a bit of a learning curve, but once I started to let loose and get weird with it, Hitman finally clicked for me in a big way. I especially loved some of the maps in Hitman 3 like Dartmoor and Berlin, which add fun twists to the formula. But since Hitman 3 allows you to unlock every map from the previous games, I was able to get back some of what I lost in the years where I wasn’t in love with this series.

#5 Ratchet And Clank: Rift Apart

In contrast, Ratchet and Clank is a series that I have been a fan of since the PS2 years. While Rift Apart doesn’t radically expand on the formula, I think it’s far and away the best Ratchet and Clank game in a very long time, and maybe the best overall. It’s also a fantastic showcase for what the PS5 is capable of in terms of graphical fidelity, fast SSD load times, and the adaptive controller triggers. The new characters were a great addition to the series as well, and elevated the story beyond the childishness that the series can sometimes fall into.

#4 Guardians of the Galaxy

There is no greater surprise on this list than my #4 pick. While I enjoy the Deus Ex games from Eidos Montréal quite a bit, their take on Guardians of the Galaxy looked absolutely terrible right up until the release date. Furthermore, I absolutely despise the whole Marvel thing, and all Disney properties are more or less banned in my house. So here we are in 2021 with all of those journalists I trust raving about Guardians of the Galaxy. Sure enough, this game is great. It has decent action that maybe got a little tiring, but I could not be happier with the storytelling and the character portrayals.

#3 The Forgotten City

This is a short indie game that I’ll probably be thinking about for years. What started as a Skyrim mod years ago still maintains a little bit of that charming jankiness, but they tell a fantastic story with top tier video game writing. The Forgotten City also has the smartest looping mechanics of any game I’ve played (loops were very popular this year), and it’s absolutely loaded with quality-of-life features that make it really enjoyable to engage with those mechanics.

One of the endings can be a little hokey, but even at its most cliché, The Forgotten City offers an emotional ride that is likely the most intriguing story in 2021 games. It’s on Game Pass!

#2 Resident Evil Village

I have no attachment to the Resident Evil franchise, but I really liked the direction they took it with Resident Evil 7. I was happy to hear that reviews of Village were great, and described exactly what I was hoping for in a horror game: a campy romp through different styles of B Movie horror. I’ve played a chunk of this on stream and plan to complete the rest on stream too, but I just keep thinking about how much I don’t necessarily have the energy to stream.

#1 Inscryption

Go play this game. I’m begging you.

Honorable Mentions

Things I Played

  • The Ascent. This was a neat game that has good twin stick shooter combat and a dense cyberpunk world elevated by great music and visuals. Unfortunately, it was also loaded with bugs that eventually caused me to drop off. I’m not sure how much has been patched at this point, but I think it would be very difficult to get back into it. It’s on Game Pass!
  • Kena: Bridge of Spirits. This past year I was absolutely not in the mood for this type of platformer. Mechanically, it’s not too far removed from character action games you would have seen on the PS2. Visually, it’s one of the most beautiful games out this year. I’m looking forward to seeing what else this studio can do now that they’ve taken their animation expertise to the games industry.
  • Forza Horizon 5. While I don’t particularly enjoy the zany energy and enthusiastic “very online” writing of this game, it’s good stupid open-world driving fun even for people like me who don’t care about cars in the slightest. It’s on Game Pass!

Things I Didn’t Play

There are also a number of things that came out this year that I simply haven’t had a chance to touch yet, but I’ve either watched my wife play them or heard good things from reviewers I align with.

  • The Artful Escape. Mechanically it doesn’t seem too interesting, but the art, premise, and voice cast seem wild. It’s on Game Pass!
  • Sable. Great looking atmosphere in a chill game about making deliveries. It’s on Game Pass!
  • Chicory: A Colorful Tale. Awesome soundtrack and fun coloring mechanics, alongside a deep exploration of impostor’s syndrome and feeling like you don’t have any creative energy left.
  • Loop Hero. I just picked this one up for free on Epic Games Store, and am looking forward to trying it out.
  • Halo Infinite. I simply don’t have a PC capable of playing it, and the cloud streaming experience wasn’t great for me. Otherwise I’d be working through the campaign on it! It’s on Game Pass!
  • Solar Ash. I was a big fan of Hyper Light Drifter, and this seems like a cool direction for the studio. A little Jet Set Radio, a little Shadow of the Colossus.
  • Overboard. Another neat time loop where you play as a very murdery lady trying to do more murder to cover up her murder.
  • Guilty Gear Strive. If I were still invested in fighting games, I would have loved to throw down on GG this year.
  • Scarlet Nexus. I tried out the demo, and the combat is very fun. If I can turn off my brain for some weird teen anime nonsense I’ll probably try it out. It’s on Game Pass!
  • Tales of Arise. I simply didn’t have the energy for a lengthy JRPG in 2021.
  • Wildermyth. Unfortunately I will never be able to get past my distaste for the art direction of this game. Despite how many great things I hear, I don’t know if I can see myself ever playing it. It’s shallow, but for now I just have to hope that they do a sequel and invest some time into developing a new art style for it.

Dishonorable Mentions

Maybe better described as “I wish I liked this more”.

  • New Pokémon Snap. A trite and monotonous take on the original N64 game with almost no positive innovations on the formula. What worked at a short length in the original has been overextended and forced into endless repetition in order to pad the length, and the interactions in each map are too involved and too obtuse to be enjoyable.
  • Death’s Door. I felt really good about this game from this start, but grew colder on it as I progressed, completing the game with a fairly sour opinion on it. I was primarily bothered by the world exploration, but also let down by the lack of variety in combat, weapons, and abilities. While I love that adorable little bird, and the art is fantastic, I also found the world and characters to be fairly lifeless and uninteresting.
  • Skatebird. While I’d consider this more on the “toy” side in that it’s a small sandbox experience, I was excited to give it a shot because birds are great. The skateboarding is awful and the bird breeds are simply palette swaps of the same bird model. At least it has a dedicated “screm” button. It’s on Game Pass!
  • Twelve Minutes. I’m begging you to not waste your time. It’s on Game Pass!

Final Thoughts

Unfortunately 2021 was also the year I got into Genshin Impact in a big way, so I spent lots of my free time wrapping up the current story content and grinding away to level characters, weapons, and artifacts. Needless to say, I could have played much more other stuff if I wasn’t still playing Genshin 😅

I also replayed Mass Effect and Mass Effect 2 because of the release of Mass Effect Legendary Edition. I didn’t include that here since it’s all nearly identical to the original releases, but it’s nice to have a console copy with improved visuals and the whole series in one convenient package. I’m still working through a Mass Effect 3 playthrough with that save file.

I also started out Ghost of Tsushima with the release of the PS5 director’s cut this year. While it is a bit of a throwback to old Ubisoft-style open world games, and much of the side stuff feels pretty monotonous, I’m still enjoying it quite a bit.

Is 2022 the year I finally try Death Stranding? Lots of people changed their minds on it in 2021 after Director’s Cut came out 🤔

Video Games