Pete’s 10 best games of 2021

Games of 2021

I’ve been looking forward to sharing my best games of 2021.

It’s easy to be cynical about the state of modern gaming, particularly around this time of year when we’re subject to holiday marketing campaigns, The Game Awards and all manner of stuff like that. But one thing we constantly strive to achieve here at Rice Digital is to highlight the fact that it’s not all bad — there are still plenty of independent and smaller-scale developers and publishers putting out fantastic games year on year.

Games that aren’t riddled with microtransactions; games that aren’t patched every other week; games that provide a completely enjoyable experience right out of the box without any DLC; games that aren’t resorting to fucking NFTs in a desperate attempt to latch on to the latest stupid fad.

2021 has been no exception. And while not everything I’m going to list below necessarily released in 2021 — my list, much like Trent’s, is based on things I actually played this year, or which I finally acquired a copy of this year — it’s hard to deny that there’s been a bumper crop of great stuff to enjoy over the last 12 months. And with the world still firmly in the grip of COVID-19, that’s just as well — we all need some quality indoor entertainment right now!

All right. Let’s get into it. And be sure to check out Trent’s and Lilia’s picks too — Isaac’s and Conor’s are coming soon as I type this!

Waifu Discovered 2: Medieval Fantasy

Best games of 2021: Waifu Discovered 2: Medieval Fantasy

It would doubtless be easy for many, at first glance, to write off Waifu Uncovered and its new sequel Waifu Discovered 2: Medieval Fantasy as the sort of low-budget shovelware crap that floods Steam on a daily basis — but let me assure you that this is far from the truth.

Waifu Discovered 2: Medieval Fantasy takes the formula established in Waifu Uncovered (itself borrowed from another indie shooter known as Vortex Attack and builds on it to great effect, adding a variety of playable ships, a hugely customisable upgrade system and some really satisfying shoot ’em up action. Couple all that with some fine art on the titular waifus and some banging music and you have one of my best games of 2021. Now, howsabout another uncensored boxed release, FunBox Media?

Astalon: Tears of the Earth

Best games of 2021: Astalon - Tears of the Earth

Retro-style indie platformers are ten-a-penny these days, so it takes something truly special to stand out. And Astalon: Tears of the Earth absolutely has that required magic. Taking heavy inspiration from the NES era for its presentation but not being afraid to incorporate modern game design principles, this is an outstanding open-structure exploration-centric platform game filled with challenging combat, satisfying traversal puzzles and an intriguing storyline.

This is another digital-only release (at present, anyway) that I would happily jump on the moment it got a boxed release — so hopefully that will happen at some point in the new year. It deserves to be proudly displayed on our game shelves — and in the meantime I will happily hold it up as a fine example of one of the best games of 2021.

Clockwork Aquario

Even if the end product didn’t end up being all that good, I’d have to put Clockwork Aquario on this list purely for what an amazing feat of “game restoration” it is — thankfully, it also ended up being a highly enjoyable game that I keep coming back to time and time again, so that’s all good; I can declare it one of the best games of 2021 with confidence.

We talk a lot about game preservation these days, but the effort put in by Strictly Limited Games, ININ Games and Westone on this one is on another level; it’s not often you see a game that was thought completely lost brought back to its full glory like this, so not only is this an excellent arcade-style platformer, it’s also a genuine milestone in gaming history.

Root Film

Best games of 2021: Root Film

Root Letter is one of my favourite Japanese-style adventure games, so I was intrigued by the prospect of a sequel — particularly as it took a lot of the things that were good about the original, such as the real-world setting of Shimane Prefecture, and combined them with some new twists.

Its stylised character art is particularly appealing, making every scene really “pop” with colour and vibrancy — but it’s the story that really shines here, taking you through a variety of intriguing murder mysteries that culminate in a greater truth. It’s a game that will keep you guessing from start to finish, and there’s plenty of good humour and wonderful interplay between the characters as you make your way towards those revelations. Definitely one of my best games of 2021, for sure.

Neptunia x Senran Kagura: Ninja Wars

The way in which the Neptunia series has spread its wings and broadened beyond its original RPG remit has been really fun to watch over the last decade. While some longstanding fans wish that the series would get back to its roots and progress its “main narrative” — if such a thing even exists — the core appeal of Neptunia has always been in its ensemble cast getting up to all manner of mischief in a variety of different satirical situations.

Pretty much all of the above can also be said about Senran Kagura, and so it was natural for the two franchises to cross over at some point. The result is a really entertaining action RPG with some excellent character progression, satisfying combat and enough things to do to make you feel like you’ve got your money’s worth without the game overstaying its welcome. This is, without a doubt, the best “action Neptunia” yet — though Cyberdimension Neptunia: 4 Goddesses Online is still a close second — and one of the best games of 2021 for me.

Gal*Gun Returns

So first there was Gal*Gun, right, and that never came out in the west. Then the second game was called Gal*Gun Double Peace, and that did come out in the west on PlayStation 4 and Vita. Then the third game was called Gal*Gun 2, and that came out in the west too. Then the first game got revamped and remade for Nintendo Switch and was called Gal*Gun Returns, and that’s what this is. And just to confuse matters, Gal*Gun Double Peace, the first game to come out in the west but actually the second in the series (but not called Gal*Gun 2, because that’s the third one) is now coming to Switch, too.

If that makes your head hurt, don’t worry — Gal*Gun Returns is a great place to start with the series, as well as being one of the best games of 2021. And while it lacks some of the deeper mechanics that give Double Peace in particular such formidable longevity, there’s still plenty to enjoy as you try and get the best endings with the delightful ensemble cast here. If you’re new to Gal*Gun, consider nabbing the Ultimate Horny Trinity edition of the new Switch port of Double Peace, which actually comes with all three Gal*Gun games in one convenient package.

Mario Golf: Super Rush

Best games of 2021: Mario Golf - Super Rush

I was a little wary of Mario Golf: Super Rush; while its predecessor Mario Tennis Aces was fun for the single player, its complex mechanics made it all but impossible to play casual multiplayer sessions with friends. Thankfully, Nintendo and Camelot learned from their mistakes and made one of the most accessible “Mario Sports” games to date; Mario Golf: Super Rush features easy to learn but hard to master mechanics, snappy gameplay and some genuine innovations.

While Speed Golf and its variations might seem like a stupid gimmick the first time you give it a try, after playing a few rounds you’ll realise that this really is a highly enjoyable way to play golf, either against computer-controlled opponents or a friend. With a substantial single-player mode and some admirable post-launch support to really flesh the game out — though it would have been nice if all that was on the cart to begin with — Mario Golf: Super Rush is a solid addition to any Switch library, and one of my best games of 2021.

Tormented Souls

Best games of 2021: Tormented Souls

Any time a developer claims to be bringing back a defunct genre, it’s easy to be skeptical — but Tormented Souls absolutely nails (no pun intended) the classic-style fixed camera angle survival horror thing. With an intriguing narrative, some genuinely satisfying puzzles to solve and an excellent balance between adventuring and combat, Tormented Souls will make anyone who misses the “good old days” of Resident Evil very happy indeed.

In fact, I can pay the game no higher compliment than recounting what my wife said when she saw me playing it: “is that Creepy Door Game?” Creepy Door Game, of course, being the early Resident Evil games, what with their famous “door opening” load screens. It is not only an excellent example of classic survival horror done right, it is one of the best games of 2021, no question.

Atelier Firis DX

Best games of 2021: Atelier Firis DX

As my own personal project in my own free time, I’ve been playing through all of Gust’s Atelier games back-to-back — though I must confess the next entry on this list temporarily derailed me from that for a little while. One thing that has struck me is how different they all are from each other, even within the same subseries. This keeps the series feeling fresh and interesting, despite it enjoying annual installments for many years at this point.

For me, a real highlight of the series as a whole is Atelier Firis: The Alchemist and the Mysterious Journey, which got a revamped “DX” release earlier this year. This transplants the classic Atelier formula into an open-world format — and it really, really works. Before Blue Reflection came along, this was absolutely the top of the heap in my list of the best games of 2021. But, well…

Blue Reflection: Second Light

I loved the original Blue Reflection, but it’s hard to deny that Blue Reflection: Second Light is a massive improvement in every possible way. A sprawling, ambitious narrative that combines personal, intimate character stories with an exceedingly dramatic overarching plot; one of the best RPG combat systems I’ve had the pleasure to engage with for years; an absolutely fantastic cast of characters — including one of the best heel-face turns I’ve seen for a long time (though you need to have watched the Blue Reflection Ray anime to really appreciate this one); and, as with the original, an amazing soundtrack… I could go on.

Truly, I have absolutely no hesitation in not only declaring Blue Reflection: Second Light one of my best games of 2021, but one of my favourite games of all time. This is an absolute masterpiece of a video game, and it absolutely, definitely deserves more attention and recognition than it’s ever going to get from the more mainstream end of the press. So it’s up to folks like us to shout about it! Play Blue Reflection: Second Light!

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Pete Davison
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