AJ’s Picks: The 12 Best Games of 2021 (Late to the Party Edition)

Well, 2022 is already 2/3rds of the way done, and now that the "new" generation of consoles (that came out nearly two years ago) are finally starting to become easier to obtain at the suggested retail price, it seems that the time is finally right to discuss the best games from the prior year. Assuming you can still remember that far back, 2021 was actually another decent year for gaming. Even though the Xbox Series X and PlayStation 5 remained next to impossible to obtain at sane prices, they both saw the release of some great new titles and even the occasional exclusive (although in the case of the Series X, the term "exclusive" may be somewhat generous). There were also a number of big releases for the Switch and PC as well. Please read on for a list of the best games of 2021, according to myself:

12 No More Heroes III

No More Heroes III was the follow-up to the 2010 second entry in the outlandish series, as well as the 2019 spinoff, Travis Strikes Again. As the creation of acclaimed game designer Suda51, and his studio, Grasshopper Manufacture, the No More Heroes games are famous for their gratuitous violence, plentiful pop culture references, and over-the-top zaniness. Which are the exact things that make the games so incredibly enjoyable.

In an industry where so many releases are either too restrained or way too serious, it's refreshing to have these games that are anything but. While there is a fair amount of newness to be found in the proceedings, some might argue that No More Heroes III doesn't do an awful lot to differentiate itself from the two previous mainline installments. Some might normally see that as a negative, but when you consider just how great this franchise is and how much it differs from most of the other stuff that's out there, it's hard to see that as anything but a touchdown.

11 Persona 5: Strikers

Persona 5: Strikers is a Warriors-style hack and slash spin-off of the outstanding Persona 5 (one of the Best Games of 2017). Co-created by Persona publisher Atlus and Koei Tecmo, the publisher responsible for the Warriors series, Strikers doesn't actually feel like an even split between the two. The game does contain plenty of hack and slash action but it doesn't feel remotely as unpolished as those games often tend to. Quite the opposite, in fact. P5: Strikers actually almost seems like a semi-sequel to Persona 5. It's slick, stylish, and the music and dialogue are absolutely first rate. Any excuse to play more Persona 5 is a good one, and that's one of the main reasons this was such an easy pick for this list.

10 Eastward

Eastward is an indie action RPG that was published by Chucklefish, the creators of the hit game Wargroove (which you may remember occupied a spot on my Best Games of 2019 list). The game follows the post-apocalyptic adventures of a miner named John and his adopted daughter Sam as they leave the safety of their ramshackle underground town and venture out into the dangerous remnants of the world above. Eastward is a lovingly-crafted title with a charming 16-bit style and an excellent soundtrack. The game is a joy to play and somehow manages to feel both fresh and familiar at the same time. Play it and you'll almost certainly agree that it was one of the better games to come out in 2021, indie or otherwise.

09 Returnal

Returnal is a third-person sci-fi/psychological horror roguelike game by Finnish developer Housemarque, previously known for their critically-acclaimed PlayStation 4 launch title, Resogun (among others). As marooned space pilot, Selene Vassos, you must explore the desolate, ever-changing world of Atropos to find the source of a mysterious signal and escape the time loop in which you are caught, all while fighting for your very survival against hostile alien creatures. Returnal is a beautiful yet horrifying mindbender of a game that does a fantastic job revealing itself to the player just a little bit at a time, but enough to make you want to keep delving deeper. The game was already one of the best of the year at release but Housemarque (and new owner Sony) have since seen fit to generously release a free co-op update for the game, making an already stellar title that much better.

08 Metroid Dread

(Best Switch Exclusive)

Metroid: Dread was the (very) long-awaited sequel to 2002's Metroid: Fusion on the Game Boy Advance, the last mainline entry in the franchise. Which makes Metroid: Dread the follow-up to something that came 19 years and 3 handheld generations prior. Despite the extreme delay, Metroid: Dread was arguably worth the wait. That being said, Nintendo did give fans the 2017 enhanced remake of their Game Boy entry, Metroid II: The Return of Samus (aka Samus Returns), as well as a few other 3D installments in the interim.

​At any rate, Metroid: Dread was a return to form for the exact same kind of quality 2D platforming Metroidvania action that fans had been (mostly) forced to go without for so many years. The game looks great, plays well, and has just enough new qualities to keep things fresh and interesting. As one of Nintendo's best and most-overlooked series, any solid new entry should be worthy of substantial praise and attention.

07 Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart

(Best PlayStation 5 Exclusive)

Not counting the 2016 PS4 remake of the original Ratchet & Clank, Rift Apart marked the first new entry for the series since 2013's Into the Nexus for the PlayStation 3. It was also the PS5's first must-play exclusive from Sony's sizable stable of fan-favorite IPs. That made Rift Apart one of the first legitimately compelling reasons for PlayStation aficionados to actually need to upgrade to a PS5 (assuming they could even find/afford one); and compelling, this game certainly is.

​That it's the best-looking series installment to date should come as little surprise, thanks to the considerable graphical capabilities of the PlayStation 5, but Rift Apart also happens to have one of the best storylines as well. Additionally, the game boasts unique new weapons and features such as the novel rift-tethering mechanic and the incredibly well-optimized use of the PS5's adaptive triggers and haptic feedback. Not only is Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart one of the best entries yet, but it's also an outstanding showcase of the features and graphical power of the PlayStation 5, itself.

06 (Marvel) Guardians of the Galaxy

Presumably owing to the success of Insomniac's 2018 Spider-Man game, as well as the popularity of the movies on which it would be largely based, Square Enix apparently decided to get in on the Marvel action with a game of their own, Guardians of the Galaxy. The game was developed by their (then) Eidos Montreal studio, creator of the most recent, mostly-acclaimed Deus Ex titles. Taking inspiration (and their Dawn game engine) from said Deus Ex games, the result was a stellar single-player adventure with a strong focus on dialogue and decision-making.

Eidos managed to create a Guardians of the Galaxy game that is both visually impressive and great fun to play. The real highlights, however, are the fantastic retro soundtrack and the authenticity of the characters. Somehow, despite not featuring a single actor from the movies, their extremely talented voice-doubles (and writers) still managed to make the game feel like a hilarious, brand new interactive Guardians of the Galaxy film. An impressive feat to be sure, and one that put this game squarely among the very best to come out in 2021.

05 Dodgeball Academia

While Dodgeball Academia was strangely enough not the only big dodgeball game to come out in 2021, it was arguably the best, as well as the only Dodgeball-themed action RPG. Published by Humble Games, the publishing division of the popular digital storefront Humble Bundle, Dodgeball Academia follows the exploits of Otto, newly arrived attendee of the titular institution, as he hones his skills to become the very best. The game has a nice visual style and expertly combines great dodgeball action with compelling RPG elements and an entertaining story. The icing on the cake is though is the included multiplayer mode allowing players to go head to head for some exciting dodgeball matches with their friends. As a total package, Dodgeball Academia contains more fun than you can hurl a dodgeball at and was truly one of the most surprisingly satisfying offerings of the year.

04 Psychonauts 2

Developer Double Fine's original 2005 Psychonauts game , despite being a pretty big hit with the critics, unfortunately didn't see the kind of sales numbers it rightly deserved. This, along with the property rights being retained by the game's publisher, put the possibility of a sequel ever seeing the light of day in serious doubt. After eventually reacquiring the rights, however, and continuing to see steady sales of the game on various platforms, Double Fine finally announced Psychonauts 2 in 2015.

Ultimately though, it would still be a long, delay-filled additional 6 years before the game's incredibly long-awaited, release in 2021. While a 16-year gap between installments (not counting the 2017 VR side-project, Rhombus of Ruin) would usually result in a pretty disappointing sequel, thankfully, this was not at all the case. With Psychonauts 2, Double Fine was able to bring the magic once again, delivering a humorous, incredibly charming and, above all, faithful Tim Burton-esque headtrip that absolutely must not be missed by anyone who loves the original, or even simply good games in general.

03 Melty Blood: Type Lumina

Melty Blood: Type Lumina holds the distinction of being the very first entry in the long-running fighter series to appear on Western consoles (though sadly, only digitally), and only the second to be released outside of Japan at all. The first, Melty Blood: Actress Again - Current Code, was only made available on Steam, back in 2016. That release actually came very close to making my 12 Best, but ultimately lost out to that year's excellent Guilty Gear Xrd - Revelator. Ironically, for 2021, the reverse occurred.

​Whereas last year's Guilty Gear - Strive did offer several interesting new changes to the tried and true formula, unfortunately, not all of them were for the better. Additionally, the cast of fighters was still somewhat lacking compared to past editions. While Melty Blood: Type Lumina did also have some regrettable character omissions, nearly everything else about the game was either exactly what fans wanted and/or expected or an improvement to the already outstanding formula. Even though Guilty Gear may have won the fight in 2016, it was Melty Blood: Type Lumina that delivered the knockout in 2021.

02 Deathloop

(Best Multi-Platform Game)

Like the aforementioned Returnal, Deathloop was also a fantastic mindtwister of a sci-fi shooter that revolved around being trapped in an ever-repeating time loop of death (or deathloop, if you will). However, while Returnal was a Housemarque-developed third-person psychological horror shooter about being stranded on an ever-changing alien world, Deathloop is an Arkane-developed first-person stealth shooter that follows security expert turned assassin, Colt Vahn as he sneaks and/or kills his away around a hostile island, trying to survive long enough to take out his former employers and uncover their secrets so he can break the loop and escape. Deathloop offers a flawlessly compelling mix of single-player intrigue and smart multiplayer action that feels like nothing you've played before.

01 Forza Horizon 5

(Best Multi-Platform Xbox Game, Game of the Year)

Arguably the best game to come out in 2021 was the 5th installment to the Xbox's beloved Forza Horizon series. The first entry to be built specifically for the Series X (but thankfully compatible with the One as well), Forza Horizon 5 took the proceedings to beautiful Mexico, with the largest playable map yet created for the franchise. In addition to the new setting and scale, the game also introduced some welcome new modes like the multiplayer-mini-game-oriented Horizon Arcade and the fully customizable EventLab. Lastly, the game offered some truly stunning vistas thanks to some of the best-looking graphics of any Forza game to date. All of these elements, in addition to the same great racing that made the series so popular to begin with, added up to one incredible, not-to-be-missed package.

So that concludes the best of the year list for 2021. Thank you for checking it out. As always, please feel free to agree, disagree, or list your own picks in the comments. 2022's list will likely be coming in a few short months and it's already shaping up pretty nicely.

(This is a repost of an article that originally appeared on 12/12 Games.)

[Images: Arkane, Grasshopper Manufacture, Atlus, Chucklefish, Housemarque, Nintendo, Insomniac Games, Eidos, Humble Games, Double Fine, French-Bread, Playground Games]