With only hours left of 2021, it’s time to look back on the best games of the year.
Despite the struggles faced by the industry brought about by the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, 2021 has been a surprisingly good year for games. We’ve had some fantastic AAA games, showcasing the power of PS5 and Xbox Series X with gusto. We’ve also had some truly innovative indie games, giving us unforgettable experiences that will stick with us for a long time.
Our top 10 games of 2021 is a varied list, covering the best of all corners of the industry. We’ve got tiny independent games and huge blockbusters, and just about everything in between. In our opinion, these titles represent the very best games to come out of 2021. And if you’re yet to play any of these, we’d recommend you do so.
So: happy new year, and here’s to an excellent 2022. Until then, let’s celebrate the best things to come out of 2021 with the ten best games from the year.
10Persona 5 Strikers
- Release date: 23rd February 2021
- Formats: PS4, Switch, PC
- Developer: Omega Force, P-Studio
- Publisher: SEGA
While this action RPG – co-developed by Omega Force and P-Studio – was originally released in 2020 in Japan, it didn’t make its way to the west until February of this year. And the fact that it entertained us so much means we just had to include it in this list.
Reuniting players with the Phantom Thieves, Persona 5 Strikers presents a new mystery for them to unravel. And while playing the original Persona 5 beforehand pays dividends, it’s not necessary to enjoy this wonderful blend of typical Persona elements with more action-based combat.
In the real world, the Phantom Thieves gather evidence and discuss their actions going forward. Then, jumping into the metaverse, it’s time to put their skills into action. Stealth can be employed, taking out enemies roaming environments without any fuss. Combat is inevitable, however, and here it’s chaotic, with you sometimes facing off against tens of enemies at the same time. It’s not just all about bashing buttons, though; to succeed you need to make effective use of skills to exploit weaknesses, and develop strong Personas.
Dismissed by many as “just another Warriors game”, Persona 5 Strikers is actually so much more. With an excellent story, and enjoyable, multi-faceted gameplay, if you have any love for the Persona series or even just action RPGs in general, this is a must-play.
- Release date: 17th September 2021
- Formats: PS5, Switch, PC
- Developer/publisher: Something We Made
Games are very rarely as sweet as Toem. This cute, photography-based adventure has stuck with us long after its credits rolled, earning it a much-deserved place on our list of best games of 2021. Perhaps an unconventional choice; after all, it’s in black and white. And you’ll likely be finished with the game in a matter of hours. And yet, we’ve barely stopped thinking about it since we played it back in September.
Toem sees you explore a small but character-packed world, taking photos and solving clue-based puzzles along the way. Playing as a young adult setting out on an expedition to reach the top of a mountain – a place that rewards travellers with a very special view, and something that’s a bit of a coming-of-age moment – you’ll pass through various towns on your way, each with sights to see and people to meet. With your trusty camera, you’ll capture the world around you, fulfilling requests from townspeople and helping them with their problems.
Toem proves that a game doesn’t have to have cutting-edge visuals to be remarkable. Its hand-drawn monochromatic visuals are striking, its narrative is heart-warming, and its gameplay is satisfying in the sort of wholesome way that we very much needed in 2021. Our only problem with Toem was that it had to come to an end. We could have continued exploring its world forever.
88. The Forgotten City
- Release date: 28th July 2021
- Formats: PS4, PS5, Xbox One, Xbox Series X/S, Switch, PC
- Developer: Modern Storyteller
- Publisher: Dear Villagers
The Forgotten City is one of the finest mysteries to grace any platform. It weaves an absolutely wonderful tale, which is near impossible to praise without dropping the tiniest spoilers. It employs a time-loop mechanic which, in direct contrast to 12 Minutes, never becomes a bore.
Every time you reappear in the city, your head is awash with wonders and, if you’re lucky, a helpful item or two. Forget Columbo; you’ve got the ultimate detective’s edge, and the secrets you glean bring you one step to solving the “big” mystery. But there are so many diversions, so many hidden agendas, that you’ll be loathe for it to end. Undoubtedly, The Forgotten City‘s Roman setting gives the game a big boost, but it’s the sharp writing that truly sets it apart; it’s so good that even if it took place in modern-day Slough it’d be nearly as big a joy.
But above all, The Forgotten City is the best ‘smug git’ simulator you’ll ever play. Confronting people with knowledge you couldn’t possibly have will give you a grin a mile wide, particularly when you know they’ve been up to no good. Groundhog Day‘s Phil Connors never had it so good.
- Release date: 14th September 2021
- Formats: PS5, PC
- Developer: Arkane Studios
- Publisher: Bethesda
You probably haven’t played anything quite as stylish as Deathloop. From the second you start playing, waking up as Colt on an abandoned beach, you’ll be hooked. Mysterious words appear in the sky as you try to piece together what’s happening. You can’t remember exactly who you are, and you have no idea where you are or why. But slowly, you’ll start to make sense of the world around you. It turns out you’re stuck in a time loop. And unless you take out a number of targets, you’re destined to keep reliving the same day over and over again. Not ideal.
By exploring Deathloop‘s world – the gorgeous, retro-futuristic island of Blackreef – you’ll begin to gather intel. You’ll learn routines, know where a particular person will be at a certain time, and figure out some of their secrets. Thankfully, it’s all information you’ll retain the next time you wake up and so, over time, you can use all of that intel to break the loop. It won’t be easy, but it will be oh-so fun. Few games are as satisfying to play as Deathloop; there’s a nice balance of stealth and action, and taking out enemies with guns or superpowers – yes, you have a few of those too – never gets old.
6Life is Strange: True Colors
- Release date: 9th September 2021
- Formats: PS4, PS5, Xbox One, Xbox Series X/S, PC, Switch
- Developer: Deck Nine
- Publisher: Square Enix
The fourth game to release in the Life is Strange series is undoubtedly the best – at least, in our opinion. We instantly fell in love with protagonist Alex and the gorgeous setting of Haven Springs in Colorado. Like previous Life is Strange games, Alex’s story centres around a ‘supernatural’ power. Though while Life is Strange‘s Max could manipulate time and Life is Strange 2‘s Daniel has telekinetic powers, Alex’s empath abilities feel much more grounded. She can ‘see’ a person’s mood which manifests in an aura around them, and she can personally feel their strongest emotions.
After experiencing a terrible tragedy, our time with Alex in Life is Strange: True Colors is spent coming to terms with her new life. There’s also a healthy dose of detective work to be done, uncovering the real reason the tragedy happened in the first place. It’s an altogether more grounded game than others in the series, which is one of the reasons we loved it so much.
This is a true study of character, with True Colors‘ intimate narrative being excellently written, allowing us to get to know Alex and the rest of the cast on a deeper level. It also has some of the best facial animations we’ve ever seen in a game. Coupled with excellent acting from the cast involved, this is one game we’re not forgetting in a hurry.
- Release date: 21st September 2021
- Formats: PS4, PS5, Xbox One, Xbox Series X/S
- Developer: Ryu Ga Gotoku Studio
- Publisher: SEGA
Yakuza spin-off Judgment introduced players to lawyer-turned-private detective Takayuki Yagami in 2018. It proved to be quite a hit, fusing the combat and narrative structure the series is known for with investigative elements. Those investigative elements weren’t the game’s strong point, however, and overall it felt a bit strung out and repetitive at times. Thankfully this year’s follow-up, Lost Judgment, took aim at these issues.
With a dark story that’s gripping from beginning to end, and countless gameplay improvements, Lost Judgment gives us hope that the series continues in the vein of Yakuza. The investigate elements are refined and reigned in a little, the combat is tighter and more dynamic, and there’s much more to see and do, thanks in part to Yokohama being a new location to explore.
Whether you push on with the main story or delve into the vast amount of side content, which includes school stories and optional cases to take on, Lost Judgment proves to be engrossing from start to finish. Full English voice acting and high production values are just the icing on the cake, making a story with more twists and turns than a soap opera even more attention-grabbing.
Whether or not you’re familiar with the Yakuza series or Judgment, we can’t recommend Lost Judgment highly enough. It’s so good it deserves to give the series mainstream recognition, offering a generous amount of content while skilfully blending multiple genres to great effect. We can’t wait to see where this series goes next.
4Kena: Bridge of Spirits
- Release date: 21st September 2021
- Formats: PS4, PS5, PC
- Developer/publisher: Ember Lab
Perhaps the most impressive thing about Kena: Bridge of Spirits is that it’s the first game made by developer Ember Lab. Before Kena, the studio was known for digital animation. But by applying that expertise to video game development, Ember Lab has been able to create something so visually stunning that it rivals the very best in the industry.
But it’s not just Kena: Bridge of Spirits‘ visuals that wowed us. Sure, there’s no denying that the gorgeous Rot – the black creatures that assist the titular Kena in her journey – and the world, brought to life with luscious colour and foliage – make for a feast for the eyes. But we were also enamoured with the gameplay, the combat and the narrative that unfolds as you play. Kena: Bridge of Spirits undoubtedly sports an old-school 3D platforming vibe, but one with an unrivalled level of polish. It draws inspiration from classics of the genre but ultimately builds on them to create something altogether new and exciting.
Whether it be the beautiful world, its engaging and surprisingly tough combat, its moving story or the fantastic character animations, there’s a lot to love about Kena: Bridge of Spirits. This is adventure platforming at its finest, and considering this is the first game from Ember Lab, we’re very excited to see what else the team is capable of.
3It Takes Two
- Release date: 26th March 2021
- Formats: PS4, PS5, Xbox One, Xbox Series X/S, PC
- Developer: Hazelight Studios
- Publisher: EA
We weren’t sure how Hazelight Studios could beat the excellent A Way Out, but it has. A Way Out was special in that it could only be played in co-op. Either online or locally, you’d need a friend to team up with to complete its gripping, action-packed story. It Takes Two follows in its footsteps. In this two-player-only game, one of you must take on the role of May while another takes control of her husband, Cody. Things haven’t been good for the married couple recently, and while wishing for them not to get divorced, their daughter inadvertently turns them into a pair of dolls.
What ensues over the next 12-or-so hours of It Takes Two is a glorious, colourful, action-packed adventure that’s worthy of Disney movie treatment. Two small characters in a huge world, Cody and May are faced with a range of problems to overcome. After all, simply traversing their own garden while they’re so small comes with many problems. Both players will need to work together to solve a range of puzzles, engage in combat and traverse It Takes Two‘s beautiful world. There’s no player 2 syndrome here; each character is just as important as the next.
Co-op-only games remain rare, but Hazelight Studios has once again shown us how special they can be with It Takes Two. Developing a truly enjoyable two-player game – heck, even a two-player mode – isn’t an easy feat to pull off, but Hazelight makes it look effortless. Not only is this one of the best co-op games we’ve ever played, but it’s one of the best games to come out of 2021.
2Forza Horizon 5
- Release date: 4th November 2021
- Formats: Xbox One, Xbox Series X/S, PC
- Developer: Playground Games
- Publisher: Xbox Game Studios
After the phenomenal Forza Horizon 4, our expectations were high for Forza Horizon 5. Perhaps that’s why we were a little disappointed when we found it to be more like an expansion than a true sequel.
Aside from a new, expansive map, there’s little that feels genuinely new in Forza Horizon 5. With the Horizon festival winding up in the UK, it’s time to redeploy it in Mexico. That means there are more races to compete in, more PR stunts to complete, and more stories to play through. Along with gameplay features such as Forzathon events and the Eliminator making a return, it’s pretty much more of the same, with new features such as completing your car collection and completing accolades adding a bit more depth.
Ultimately though, more of the same isn’t an issue when it comes to Forza Horizon, especially when you consider the map that’s been delivered here. Forza Horizon 5‘s depiction of Mexico is sublime, offering multiple biomes across the largest map the series has seen yet. Even better, the season feature returns too, changing the world on a weekly basis.
With new challenges to complete every week for worthwhile rewards, and new content being added on a regular basis, Forza Horizon 5 is going to be a game we keep returning to for years. And that’s despite already putting tens of hours into it already. More than just a racing game, Forza Horizon 5 is a game for everyone, offering a hearty portion of vehicle-based fun irrespective of your knowledge of cars and/or skill level.
- Release date: 30th April 2021
- Formats: PS5
- Developer: Housemarque
- Publisher: Sony
Housemarque has delivered some excellent arcade-style shooters over the years, and so it was disappointing when it announced it would be moving away from them in the future. Then Returnal was released, and all was forgotten.
It’s crazy to think that Returnal is Housemarque’s first attempt at a bigger, more fleshed-out, AAA-quality game. Putting players in control of an astronaut named Selene who’s crash landed on an alien planet, it blends intense third-person shooter action with rogue-like elements, all the while weaving a compelling narrative that alludes to the idea that things may not exactly what they seem.
A challenging game, Returnal presents players with multiple biomes to make their way through. But it does offer some useful crutches. Die, for example, and while you’ll undoubtedly lose some progress, you won’t be right back at square one. Weapons can be upgraded, and a handful of permanent skills can be obtained, allowing you to access some handy shortcuts.
Ultimately though, the combat is so fast-paced and exhilarating here that you won’t mind entering the fray once again after suffering defeat, especially when you also factor in the randomness of everything. Returnal may play out like a third-person shooter, but Housemarque’s arcade shooter DNA shines through, requiring you to keep on the move, prioritise your targets and play with skill. Things come to a head when you tackle the game’s bosses, which throw out so many projectiles you’ll feel like you’re playing a bullet-hell shooter.
Further improved since launched with a suspend game feature, photo mode and more, there’s no doubt in our minds that Returnal is the best game of 2021. And with its success, we can’t wait to see what Housemarque cooks up next.