My Favourite Games of 2021
Sable is janky as hell. It’s also frankly amazing how many elements it copy-pasted directly from Breath of the Wild. At its worst, it feels like a BotW tribute cobbled together with love and skill, but with a lack of resources. If that was all it was, I might have still enjoyed it, since there’s not really a ton of games to scratch the same itch as BotW.
Luckily, that’s not all Sable is. At its best, it breathes life into a strange and rich universe. Even though its landscape lacks the bold landmarks and iconicity of BotW, Sable offers some stunning sights, from simply watching a sunrise from atop a mountain peak, to gargantuan structures like the Whale, which not only dominate the horizon but are genuinely fascinating places to explore from the inside. Its stark comic book aesthetic, its dreamy soundtrack, and its coming-of-age story about finding yourself and your place in the desert all make Sable something special.
An absolute joy. There’s so much to love here, I don’t know where to start. It’s one of those games that show the love and care and skill that have been poured into them in each and every second. It approaches the minds and psychological struggles of its sympathetic characters with so much imagination, whimsy, understanding and empathy that it’s very easy to become invested.
There are some very funny games. There are some very sad games. But how many games are there that can claim to be both? Psychonauts 2 manages to be both heart-breaking and laugh-out-loud funny in a thoughtful and thought-provoking way. The only game that comes to mind which also fits that description is Disco Elysium. And you probably know what I think of Disco Elysium.
The Forgotten City
My opinions on time loop games are conflicted. The basic idea is intriguing, but actually playing them quickly becomes a chore for me as I end up repeating the same actions over and over to reach a point in the loop that allows me to try another option.
Up until a while ago, Outer Wilds would have been my example of a game that does time loops well. Now I have another example. Technically, The Forgotten City is a puzzle or adventure game about investigating a cursed Roman community and its many secrets. What sets it apart both from other adventure games as well as time loop games is its focus on the rules that govern its small yet multi-layered world. There are several AHA moments throughout the game that often change the way you think about the game and how it works, opening up new possibilities and avenues of exploration. It feels like a wonderful marriage of immersive sim and puzzle game.
God I’m glad this game exists, somehow. A hand-drawn, black-and-white survival folk horror game rooted in Swiss folklore? With talking, decapitated goat heads? Murderous beekeepers that can only be fought with smoke from your pipe? It’s one of the best horror games in recent years because it not only manages to bring the creepy facets of folklore to life, but also never shies away from the deep weirdness of these stories. And even though it definitely is a creepy game, it is its rich imagination and playful experimentation that makes it a great, even joyful experience.
I’ve played Quake for the first time this year and yes, it’s as good as people say it is. It’s amazing how this game from 1996 not only still holds up, but also makes most modern shooters look dull.
For my money the best of Daniel Mullins’ games so far. While Pony Island and The Hex were fun to play mostly because all the wild surprises they had to offer, Inscryption has at its core a genuinely compelling and intricate trading card game that’s fun to learn and master, in addition to all the vertigo-inducing rug-pulling and meta commentaries you expect from a Mullins’ game.
The worst thing that can be said about Inscryption is that it begins strong and loses some steam and focus in the course of its fairly long playtime. The first act is sensational; atmospheric, mysterious and wonderfully creepy. There are plenty of great ideas in the later acts and the trading card game becomes more and more complex, but I found myself missing the focus of the first act. Still, a wonderful and inventive game that’s like nothing else you ever played.
This might be my favourite game of the year. It can be hard to explain why. Cruelty Squad is a nasty, offensively ugly, wilfully obtuse, hard-as-nails, incoherent and often infuriating thing. And that’s exactly why I love it so much. It’s amazing how many sacred rules of game design it just throws in the shredder wholesale. And yet, it still somehow works. It works so well.
Playing (trying to play?) it feels like being stranded in the dying mind of a murderously mad AI from a 90s sci-fi movie while tripping on a cocktail of psychedelic drugs. In the capitalist, corporate-ruled hellscape of Cruelty Squad, this cruel, nihilist fever-dream is just another day on the job for our hitman protagonist selling his soul and body. It’s not only compelling, but also one of the best and most vicious satires on capitalism and corporatism in games.
Procedural games can often feel a bit soulless and empty. The biggest achievement of Wildermyth is that nothing could be further from the truth here. Your party members might be randomly thrown together from countless traits, and yet Wildermyth’s story engine manages to imbue them with personality and character. A lot of this success is due to the witty and charming writing featured in the game’s countless storylets, which often is a genuine joy to read and stands heads and shoulders above most game writing.
The campaigns, the RPG mechanics and the turn-based battles are fun enough. What made me include it here is that it somehow has more personality than many hand-crafted RPGs.
The Eternal Cylinder
Weirdness is often menacing or even disturbing. And while some of the strange creatures in The Eternal Cylinder definitely fit that description, there’s also a lot of colour, beauty and even cuteness in its weirdness. Its gorgeous world is without a doubt one of the most imaginative virtual places I’ve ever seen, alive with alien beings inhabiting an ecosystem whose rules you gradually discover through play and experimentation. Its clunky controls and physics make it awkward to play at times, but these frustrations were rarely enough to put me off for long.
Journey meets 2001: A Space Odyssey. Exo One is a minimalist and mysterious journey through space and time, with a focus on expansive otherworldly landscapes and movement. It’s not enough that it features some of the most jaw-dropping sights I’ve ever seen; it also makes navigating through them a joy. Its controls are tricky to wrap your head around and even harder to master, partly because its gravity-based mechanics are genuinely novel, but once you get the hang of it, the momentum grabs you and makes it hard to stop playing.
Toem is a tiny gem, a few hours of absolute delight. Its combination of photography, diorama worlds, exploration and hidden object game is simple but incredibly enjoyable. It has a lot in common with games like Alba or I am Dead, but I found it somehow even more charming than either of those games.