GameCentral rates the best games of the outgoing year, from the biggest budget blockbusters to tiny indie games.
Considering everything that’s been going on with the pandemic this year, the first half of 2021 was surprisingly good for video games – above average even. It was only in the second half of the year that the coronavirus really began to bite, with multiple delays and several games launching that probably should’ve waited till next year. There was nothing quite as bad as Cyberpunk 2077 but GTA: The Trilogy – The Definitive Edition and Battlefield 2042 certainly should have known better.
For us, deciding the best game of the year was relatively easy, with Returnal and Metroid Dread being the two clear frontrunners. We’ve seen already that the likes of Deathloop, Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart, and Resident Evil: Village have been nominated by others, but for us all three are too flawed to deserve a place in the top 20 – even if they’re still relatively good games in their own right.
Thanks to the pandemic, for the first time the majority of games in our chart are indie titles, from Wildermyth to The Eternal Cylinder. Some are well known and some not but if you disagree with any of our selections (which purposefully exclude remakes and remasters) then, as usual, we’ll open voting for the Reader’s Top 20 at the end of January.
GameCentral Top 20 – 2021
1. Returnal (PS5)
There are lots of arguments over which is the best exclusive on the PlayStation 5 but for us the answer is definitely Returnal. From a technical perspective it probably could’ve been a PlayStation 4 game, but it still manages to convey a wonderfully forbidding atmosphere, of constant danger and cosmic horror. A mix between a third person Metroid Prime and a bullet hell shooter (developer Housemarque were previously famous for the likes of Stardust and Resogun) this is a superb action adventure that also blends in elements of roguelikes and some of the best boss battles and sound design of this and many previous years.
2. Metroid Dread (NS)
2021 has been an extremely quiet one for Nintendo, although when it came to their first new Metroid game in 11 years it was a case of quality over quantity. When it was first announced, few expected a 2D entry to cause much excitement, but Spanish developer MercurySteam have excelled themselves with a game that captures everything that is great about the original series while still adding in plenty of modern touches – most obviously the E.M.M.I. robots that stalk you around like a survival horror.
3. Wildermyth (PC)
Indie developers have been just as badly hit by the pandemic as anyone else, so there aren’t necessarily more of them this year, just even less AAA titles. As usual, many great games have been largely ignored, including what is the best narrative driven game of the year. While big budget games still equate storytelling with trying to look like a movie, and being just as uninteractive, Wildermyth shows how much more interesting video games can be when you’re truly in charge of the story, with its procedurally generated content being far more compelling than any number of staid cut scenes.
4. Forza Horizon 5 (XO/XSX/PC)
Microsoft’s year started slowly but by the end it had picked up enough to be regarded as their most successful since the Xbox 360 era. Undoubtedly their best game of the year was the fifth entry in the Forza Horizon series, which has quickly become their most consistent first party franchise. The Mexican setting looks fantastic, even on Xbox One, and while the lack of proper crashes is a shame there’s barely a single other fault you could level at the game.
5. Monster Hunter Rise (NS)
Although Monster Hunter has always had great success on portables few expected that this new Nintendo Switch entry would be able to hold up in comparison to Monster Hunter: World, let alone exceed it. The two entries are relatively similar, which is impressive enough given the Switch’s modest abilities, but Rise adds in a host of new features including a grapple hook, animal (and monster) mounts, and the Tower Defence style rampage mode – all of which makes it arguably the best Monster Hunter ever.
6. The Forgotten City (XO/PS4/NS/XSX/PS5/PC)
Another zero budget indie game that makes a mockery of AAA games’ attempts at storytelling, The Forgotten City started off as a mod for Skyrim but now has essentially no connection to the game. Instead, you find yourself transported to a mysterious underground city in Ancient Rome where everyone lives under the protection of the gods but with the understanding that they never commit a ‘sin’. The time loop gameplay and insightful characterisation is expertly handled, and even though there’s little real action the whole thing is impressively compelling from beginning to end.
7. Inscryption (PC)
Every good indie games know how to use its low budget to its advantage and Inscryption, from the creator of Pony Island, is the perfect example of how low-tech graphics can actually add to the atmosphere, and encourage new styles of gameplay. Both a mockery and celebration of collectible cards games, Inscryption is also a surprisingly effective horror game at times, with some clever twists in both the story and gameplay.
8. Chicory: A Colorful Tale (PS4/NS/PS5/PC)
Taken at face value this is a cute little Zelda style adventure that uses the relatively familiar idea of colourising a black and white world. Once you start to get into the game though you realise that its storytelling is a lot more nuanced than it first appears, as it tackles issues of self-doubt, being a workaholic, and coping with criticism. It is still a great action adventure game, with some enjoyably clever puzzles, but the fact that veterans of both Celeste and Night In The Woods are involved will give some inkling as to the quality of its narrative.
9. Marvel’s Guardians Of The Galaxy (XO/PS4/NS/XSX/PS5/PC)
Probably the most surprising inclusion in our top 10, since we’re sure most people expected it to be a failure on the scale of Square Enix’s Avengers game. In actual fact, it’s an extremely competent third person action game with some of the best storytelling of the year. Only playing as Star-Lord seems peculiar at first, but think of this as a less serious version of Mass Effect and the whole set-up quickly begins to make sense. It doesn’t seem to have been much of a hit, but it absolutely deserves to be, with some bombastic action and impressively ambitious story elements.
10. Loop Hero (NS/PC)
Although undoubtedly one of the ugliest games of the year, Loop Hero is also one of the cleverest and most addictive. It’s a deconstruction of old school role-playing games, a roguelite where grinding to level up, in order to take on ever tougher enemies, becomes a literal gameplay loop that you won’t want to escape from. The game’s not as perverse as it sounds (or looks) though and the deck-building and camp expansion elements add an impressive amount of variety to what could’ve been a very one note experience.
11. Psychonauts 2 (XO/PS4/XSX/PC)
Although the platforming in Pyschonauts 2 is perfectly serviceable, developer Double Fine still isn’t particularly good when it comes to gameplay mechanics. In terms of storytelling in an action game though, they’re amongst the very best. Pyschonauts 2 neatly avoids the mistake of many long-awaited sequels and doesn’t just repeat the set pieces and story beats of the original, but instead creates an entirely new adventure whose plot is throwaway but features several touching romances and subjects ranging from mental health to why it’s important to keep bowling ball shoes clean.
12. Guilty Gear Strive (PS4/PS5/PC)
With photorealistic graphics becoming easier and easier to approximate it becomes ever more important to have games that express themselves as something more than just an attempt to replicate reality. Instead, what Guilty Gear Strive is trying to mimic is anime, with some of the most extraordinary cartoon style imagery ever seen in a video game. It also happens to be a fantastic one-on-one fighter, but then you’d assume nothing else given Arc System Works’ experience with the genre.
13. Dungeon Encounters (PS4/NS/PC)
Ordinarily, you’d expect a new game by the director of Final Fantasy, 6, 9, and 12 and legendary musician Nobuo Uematsu to be one of the most heavily promoted games of the year, but Dungeon Encounters slipped out almost unmentioned. That becomes more understandable when you see its minimalist graphics but not when you play what is one of the most enjoyable role-playing games of the year. The combat and levelling system is full of depth and while in many ways it is incredibly old school it’s modern enough not to be too infuriating or unfair.
14. Halo Infinite (XO/XSX/PC)
By all rights this should have been a disaster, given how many options are missing – to be added next year as DLC – and how the campaign is a clumsy mixture of open world and linear levels that struggles to tell a compelling story or offer any real variety or innovation. However, Microsoft made the very wise decision to release the multiplayer ahead of time as a free-to-play download and it is easily the best online shooter of the year – well ahead of either Call Of Duty or Battlefield.
15. It Takes Two (XO/PS4/XSX/PS5/PC)
The creator of Brothers: A Tale Of Two Sons and A Way Out returned this year with a new two-player only adventure about bickering parents trying to work together for the sake of their child. Couch co-op is becoming worrying rare nowadays, but It Takes Two proves how short-sighted that it is. While its pleasures are dependent on the other player co-operating properly, if they do then the experience is sublime. It’s a shame the script isn’t quite as clever or funny as it thinks it is, and seems to have trouble maintaining a consistent tone, but even so it’s still one of the best games of the year.
16. Genesis Noir (XO/NS/PC)
An existential love story involving the creation of the universe and a 1950s jazz band may sound like self-indulgent nonsense, but this wonderfully surreal indie game is exactly the sort of imaginative oddity that’s the perfect antidote to yearly sequels and endless online battles. In gameplay terms it can vaguely be described as a point ‘n’ click adventure, as you attempt to prevent the murder of your love, but it’s impossible to pigeonhole completely. Handily, it’s free to play on Game Pass, so as weird as this all sounds you can try it out for yourself at no extra cost.
17. New Pokémon Snap (NS)
This year’s remakes of Diamond and Pearl were extremely disappointed, but they were balanced out by the long-awaited sequel to Pokémon Snap. It’s a mystery why it’s taken this long, as the concept of an on-rails action game where you’re shooting film instead of bullets still works wonderfully well, and there’s enough variety in the environments and pokémon, along with some light puzzle elements, to keep you coming back again and again.
18. Little Nightmares 2 (XO/PS4/NS/XSX/PS5/PC)
Indie games have a strange curse where sequels never seem to do as well as the original, no matter how well they review. Sadly, that seems to have been the case with Little Nightmares 2, even though it’s better than the original, with improved platforming and puzzles and an even more disturbing, nightmare atmosphere that isn’t exactly a survival horror but still manages to be terrifying and thought provoking in equal measure.
19. Death’s Door (XO/PS4/NS/XSX/PS5/PC)
Although it probably would’ve been largely ignored if it hadn’t started out on Game Pass, this enjoyable mix of Dark Souls and Zelda went on to become one of the most popular indie games of the year. It’s with good reason too, as the top-down action is pitched so that it’s challenging but still within the grasp of people that are usually turned off by overly difficult games. The understated art design is also perfectly judged for the tone of the game and the otherwise low-tech graphics.
20. The Eternal Cylinder (XO/PS4/PC)
The award for the weirdest game of the year is always hotly contended but the winner in 2021 is pretty clear cut. The Eternal Cylinder in question is a giant, planet-sized rolling pin that’s destroying everything in its path, for reasons unknown, and you have to take control of a worryingly defenceless alien whose only recourse is to absorb other lifeforms and evolve itself a way to escape. The survival elements are a little undercooked but otherwise this is a wonderfully bizarre action adventure that always makes it impossible to guess what’s coming next.
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