It’s been an interesting year in video games, with many of the promised big hitters melting away from the calendar after extended, COVID-related delays, leaving some superb indie games to fill the void. And as ever, we were only able to play a tiny fraction of the mountain of games released in a year – September alone saw a deluge of titles that we didn’t even have a hope of getting through. Still, we did manage to play some fantastic games this year, so here we present – in alphabetical order – the AMAP team’s favourite games of 2021.
Animal Crossing: New Horizons – Happy Home Paradise
Matt: Happy Home Paradise is such a meaty and substantive expansion pack that I feel like it’s practically it’s own game. Whereas New Horizons proper is an experience that’s built around making yourself the perfect getaway (and a perfectly timed one for a pandemic at that!), Happy Home Paradise is content with having you stretch your creativity to help others instead. Sure, it’s wistful and low-impact, but there’s something to be said in giving joy to somebody else as a positive feedback loop, even when it’s an anthropomorphic kangaroo or something.
Death’s Door (review)
Lewis: I’ve already banged on about how wonderful Death’s Door is before, but I feel it deserves repeating. This charming game, the work of just a two-person studio, seemingly came out of nowhere and absolutely blew me away.
Loosely based on the Zelda template, your little Grim Reaper crow is limited to simple sword slashes and ranged attacks, but the combat feels amazingly intense thanks to your limited health and the sheer range of enemies, each of which requires a different tactic to beat. And the exploration portion of the game is second to none – the level design is top notch, with secrets and items teased in a wonderfully pleasing way, making you want to come back and comb through each section for hidden surprises. In short, Death’s Door is a joy.
Hell Let Loose (review)
James: If you had told me at the start of the year that I would not only play, but actively enjoy a multiplayer, first-person shooter set in World War II, I would have laughed in your obviously stupid face. However, I would have been wrong to do so; not just morally, but factually as well. The title of that game is Hell Let Loose, and it is actually very good.
Two teams of 50 players try to secure sections of an invariably large map, requiring a prioritisation of teamwork over individual kill/death ratios. There’s a lot to learn for newbies too, with other players using terms that raw newcomers will surely fail to make sense of. Hell Let Loose should be an absolute bin fire, but canny design, excellent audio, and an engaged and (usually) helpful player-base made for a remarkably good time.
Lewis: Really, Hitman 3 is more of a continuation of the previous two games than a proper sequel. There’s very little new stuff here, and Agent 47’s moveset remains largely the same. But those previous two games were so perfectly formed that very little needed to be added – all we needed was a few more glorious murder playgrounds to muck about in.
And what playgrounds Hitman 3 delivers! The Berlin nightclub level is up there with some of the best maps in the series, and the murder mystery level set in an English mansion was an utter delight. Sure, the final level is a bit of a letdown, but otherwise Hitman 3 barely puts a foot wrong – and the ability to import the maps from all the previous games with new challenges added in is the icing on the cake.
James: Daniel Mullins, the developer responsible for Pony Island and The Hex, is really good at making games which are quite hard to define. Often, it’s not even clear if you’re playing the game, or if the game is playing you. In general though, they’re genre-hopping, deeply creepy, and have a narrative which is part mystery, part metaphysical exploration of the consciousness of game characters.
True to form, although Inscryption is nominally a single-player, deck-building card game, it’s also much, much more than that. Locked in a cabin with a shadowy opponent who both plays the game and sets the rules, you’re left to work out what’s happening and why. Prepare to have your expectations subverted.
Mass Effect: Legendary Edition
James: Is the fact that one of my favourite games of this year is essentially a collection of re-released Xbox 360/PS3 era titles a bad thing? In this case, no. That’s because the original Mass Effect trilogy was and is flippin’ brilliant. Three games of scale and ambition, they are among the best action-RPGs ever produced. Mass Effect 2 in particular is outstanding, combining a compelling narrative with an engaging roster of characters and fun action set-pieces.
The Legendary Edition includes all the DLC, except for the Pinnacle Station content for the first game, as the original source code was corrupted. It also makes major improvements to lighting and animation, as well as making a handful of quality-of-life changes. That’s not to say that Mass Effect 1 doesn’t still have its fair share of mechanical jank though (because it does). The overall package is a must have for those who have never played the games, or those who just want to remind themselves of how good this trilogy really was.
Metroid Dread (review)
Lewis: Nineteen years we’ve waited. Nineteen long years since the release of Metroid Fusion, which left Samus’s story on something of a dramatic note, with the bounty hunter being fused with Metroid DNA in an attempt to save her life. Dread picks up where Fusion left off, and it’s fascinating to see where the story goes next, with Samus’s Metroid blood playing a key role.
Mercury Steam did a brilliant job with Metroid: Samus Returns, and Metroid Dread surpasses even that, with some great level design and fantastic bosses. It’s flipping hard as nails, mind – yet the fact that I perserved through the difficulty to eventually nab a 100% items rating tells you all you need to know about how compelling and brilliant Metroid Dread really is.
Monster Hunter Rise
Lewis: I went back to Monster Hunter World recently to finally finish off the Iceborne campaign, and it reminded me of just how many improvements Monster Hunter Rise has made to the formula. In Rise you can zip into a big monster fight almost immediately, with monster locations revealed on the map and your trusty Palamute to gallop straight to where the action is – whereas in World, actually getting to a fight involves lots of plodding, tracking and seemingly interminable loading screens. The Wirebug in Rise is transformative, too, letting you swing up rock faces like Spider-Man and mount monsters with incredible ease.
In short, Rise is a triumph, with the only slight downside being the relatively short story campaign. Yet we have the Sunbreak expansion to look forward to in just a few months, which promises an absolute avalanche of new content – I cannot wait.
Lewis: Years in the making, Sable lives up to the promise of its sublime visuals, inspired as they are by the gorgeous artwork of French comic book legend Moebius. It looks utterly beautiful, like a graphic novel in motion, but thankfully there’s more than enough to do in Sable‘s world to make for a satisfying adventure to accompany the top-notch visuals.
The plot sees a young girl called Sable setting out on a coming of age quest called The Gliding, in which she’s given freedom to explore the world beyong her village and decide who she wants to be as an adult. And exploring the desert outside her home is utterly beguiling, with untold mysteries to uncover – I’m already 13 hours in, and there’s still so much more to find. I love that combat is entirely absent, too – Sable can only talk, climb and ride her seriously cool hover bike, and the game is all the better for it. Seeing what’s around the next corner is joy enough.
Super Mario 3D World + Bowser’s Fury
Matt: Even without including the Wii U’s hidden gem Super Mario 3D World, the game after the “+”, Bowser’s Fury, stands as an interesting experiment for Nintendo and a potential hint at where the portly plumber may go next. The amalgamation of segmented challenges married with a more open-ended world design made for an experience that was both familiar yet refreshingly new at the same time.
TOEM: A Photo Adventure (review)
Lewis: The mark of a truly great game is how often you think of it after the end credits roll, and TOEM has been in my thoughts for months. It’s possible to finish the whole game in an evening, but those few hours are sheer bliss, a taught stretch of joyous game design without an inch of padding or bloat.
And it’s just so lovely. The game’s raison d’etre is simply to help people out by taking photos, and it feels so good. The mechanics themselves generate a certain amount of intimacy – taking a photo of someone is an inherently intimate act, and snapping the denizens of TOEM‘s world generates warmth in the very act of clicking the shutter button. Often I finish games with a sense of relief, perhaps after slogging through a particularly brutal final act, but after TOEM I merely felt a mix of satisfaction and sadness – the same kind you feel when returning home after a holiday. I didn’t want it to end, but I was glad that I’d been away for a while to somewhere magical.
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