With 2021 just about out of major game releases and The Game Awards going down tonight, we at AIPT looked at now as good a time as many to share our picks for 2021’s Game of the Year.
Trevor Richardson: Like The Little Mermaid, Peter Pan, and other fairy tales from which Yoko Taro pulls, Nier is a modern fairy tale. Some tell it as a story about a father saving his daughter; others, a brother saving his sister. There’s always a talking book, a swearing swordswoman, a mage monstrous in form but with a heart full of love. Sometimes the tale ends in a reunion, sometimes a goodbye, sometimes a happily ever after. In NieR Replicant ver. 1.22474487139…, we are told this story once more, then again, and again, and once more. As the passing down of tales goes, the story changes. Details from past tellings are woven between threads of context, newer stories, the audience’s hopes, the lessons the teller wants to impart. As with every fairy tale, each listener has their own favorite version and with every game remake comes the baggage of what is changed, why, and why one version is left behind like a tale that refuses to be told any longer. NieR Replicant ver. 1.22… arrives with that baggage, but what makes this version of the tale my favorite is its insistence on taking control of one’s narrative even within sight of the story’s end.
Like many fairy tales, Nier is dark. People die; terrible lessons are learned. But ver. 1.22… looks to the future and the past not to tell yet another JRPG story of characters defying fate to save themselves and the world, but one of a queer found family re-engineering their fates so they can die together rather than apart. It sounds bleak, as all Nier stories do, but the underlying message of these stories is always to find meaning in the face of endlessly recurring oblivion. Whether Gestalts, Replicants, or real marginalized people, we may not have the means to save the world or even ourselves, but like Kainé, we can call fate a ****hog, wrench back what we demand is ours, and jam our heel in its eye. What other story could be my game of the year?
Jordan Richards: Picking the very best of the year for me came down to two choices: Little Nightmares II and Metroid Dread. Ultimately, LM2 fell just a little short due to one notoriously frustrating section while overall, Dread was great. Difficult and challenging, but in a rewarding and understandable way that felt more like you were learning from its challenge rather than simply dying from cheap gameplay. While I’m not the biggest fan of the Metroid franchise, Dread won me over with its tight and intuitive gameplay, exciting fights, and fun, if subtle, characterization. Even its level and world design, as massive as they were, still felt easy to traverse and get a hold of. I can’t think of a single lowp oint with the game, making Metroid Dread something truly special.
Metroid Dread is easily the best game of the year for me… now if only the higher ups would actually credit all of the hard workers on the game itself.
David Brooke: Being someone who really only plays one new game a year — see my 2017 pick of the year — my pick for 2021 is based on the one game I ended up dumping most of my time into: Back 4 Blood. A spiritual third game in the Left 4 Dead franchise and made by the same developer Turtle Rock Games (only this time not under Valve), Back 4 Blood has great graphics, game mechanics, and a new card system to add another layer of randomness to its gameplay experience. As someone who spent 8 hours a day for 10 months playing Left 4 Dead, I can confirm this game is as addictive.
Most people aren’t saying this, but I’m fairly convinced Back 4 Blood is the Bloodborne of shooters. The easiest campaign difficulty — which requires you and three humans join forces — known as rookie isn’t that easy, veteran is nearly impossible, and I haven’t even bothered trying its hardest mode, nightmare. The difficulty is so hard I can safely say I’ve played at least 20 hours of failed missions of the same 5 or so maps. It’s likely an unbalanced game on some level, but it’s still a game I keep trying to beat for bragging rights. Add in the Swarm multiplayer that allows you to drop in and play as zombies then switch off as the humans, and it’s a no-brainer, super fun experience. Plus, you gain credits you can spend to buy new cards, skins, and tags adding value in the grind.
Back 4 Blood is not a perfect game by any means with some unbalanced aspects, too powerful zombies in Swarm, and the game director never letting up in the direst of situations, but it still delivers addictive multiplayer action with crossplay. What more can you want?
Alex Cline: While Dramatical Murder may have released almost a decade ago in Japan, the visual novel by Nitro+chiral didn’t receive an official English language release until this year. Now, new audiences can check out what is easily one of the most memorable and unique games I’ve ever played. Pick almost any genre label or adjective and you could argue DMMD fits that description: Cyberpunk. Neon. Gritty. Romance. Horror. Poppy. Erotic. Funny. It is a game that exists in a lane utterly its own, with a characters that are strong contenders for my favorite video game cast of all time. Take Noiz, the whole-body-pierced Hot Topic shopping rack-clad hacker with attitude. Take Clear, the gas-mask-wearing singer with a mysterious past and a penchant for using umbrellas when it’s sunny outside. Take Ren, who…well, where does one even start?
Virtually every aspect of the game is perfect. The bright, fun color palette is delightful to look at while still fitting the cyberpunk themes in its own way. The execution of dating sim elements with regards to pivotal decisions and branching paths, is creative while still being user-friendly. The soundtrack is full of bops that make even the credits something to never to skip over. Dramatical Murder is extreme in its templates, body horror, eroticism, and sentimentality. DMMD is so many things at once that it should be a disaster — instead, it’s a modern classic.
Dan Berlin: I don’t own an Xbox of any sort. So when Forza Horizon 5 dropped in November and Twitter lit up with screenshots, gameplay videos, and perfect review scores, I admittedly had some FOMO. But I didn’t want to buy an Xbox just to play this one game. Instead I looked into Xbox Game Pass, and more specifically, Xbox Cloud Gaming. For only $1 for my first month I could stream and play games on hardware I already owned. After a little bit of troubleshooting, I was soon playing Forza in Safari on my MacBook with a PlayStation DualSense controller. It’s kind of a miracle.
Once I was actually in the game, Forza Horizon 5 dazzled me with its set-piece opening that gets the player driving right away. Then it introduced the open world, letting me explore and take on challenges at my own pace. Horizon is more than just racing — it’s a celebration! In-game, it is literally a festival, but everything about the moment-to-moment gameplay reiterates that central theme. Just driving from Point A to Point B? Here’s some XP for all the drifting or clean driving you do on the way. Want to plow through a field instead of taking the roads? More XP, regardless of how you want to play. That race was too tough? Bump the difficulty down, no worries!
Forza Horizon 5 wants you to join in its celebration of Mexican history and culture too through its Expeditions that encourage you to slow down and take in the gorgeous scenery. At times Horizon can be a dopamine overload, with new cars, races, and events opening up constantly. But when taken in small doses, racing through Mexico is a breeze. From the fun and engaging races to the take-it-at-your-own-pace attitude towards exploration, Playground Games have crafted one of the finest and most accessible video games of 2021.
Austin Manchester: While 2021 may have had a COVID-delay induced dearth of big time, triple A games, indie games really shone. I loved Death’s Door, and it would have been my game of the year regardless of how many other high-quality games released this year. Devolver Digital’s mix of Zelda-like level design and soulslike challenging gameplay make for a wonderful experience. You play as a nifty and quick crow as he traverses a beautifully designed world in search of large souls to reap. The combat is both fun, challenging, and very addicting. Visually, the game stuns with its vivid colors and quirky character designs. Its soundtrack is one of the best I’ve heard in years. I cannot recommend Death’s Door enough. You can read my full review of the game on AIPT for more information on Death’s Door. I also want to shout out the wonderful Guardians of the Galaxy, which was my frontrunner for GOTY before I booted up Death’s Door.
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