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Ars Technica’s top 20 video games of 2021

In the world of video games, 2021 may forever be remembered as the year of COVID’s great reckoning. 2020 was already rough, but many of its biggest games were mostly completed in a normal development cycle. Projects slated for the following year weren’t as lucky.

Thus, this year’s gaming news was rich with delays, piping-hot launches, unfinished messes, and game publishers scrambling to fill their schedules with undercooked backup plans. And that says nothing about gamers themselves, wondering if crucial chips and parts might ever be plentiful enough again so they can buy the latest in console and PC gear.

Yet against all odds, fantastic games still crossed 2021’s finish line, ranging from big-budget behemoths to surprising indies. This year, in an effort to reduce ranking-based ire and celebrate every game on our list, we’re removing numbered rankings, with the exception of crowning a formal Ars Technica pick for Best Video Game of 2021 at the list’s very end.

This alphabetical-order list includes everything from breathless praise to caveat-filled considerations, but each game’s ability to crack this 20-strong list is, in our opinion, indication enough that each game merits a second look.

Ars Technica may earn compensation for sales from links on this post through affiliate programs.

Enlarge / Setting xenos on fire is my new favorite way to pass the time.
Cold Iron Studios

Aliens: Fireteam Elite

PC, PS4, PS5, Xbox One, Xbox Series X/S | Buy at: Amazon, Best Buy, PSN, Xbox, Steam

If you’re a regular Ars reader with a decently powerful PC or game console and hot opinions about the convergence of Ridley Scott, HR Giger, and Dan O’Bannon, you’ll likely find something to love about the first truly fun co-op game in the Aliens universe. Fireteam Elite keeps it simple: you and two friends use gadgets and big guns to take out waves of even bigger foes, mostly in the form of xenos but eventually with Working Joes in the mix.

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How does such a simple pitch compete with dozens of other co-op shooters on consoles and PC? AFE lands on this year-end list not because of refreshing new ideas but because of solid execution. Cold Iron Studios strikes a careful balance between twisty battle-arena design, compelling enemy patterns, interesting co-op strategy options, and variable combat pacing, while stringing together a lengthy, varied campaign with increasingly dire stakes that (shocker) Weyland-Yutani has made a mess of. During each campaign mission, momentum rises and falls in a way that perfectly befits leaving your mic on and catching up with your squadmates between intense firefights, while class-specific perks and weapons force teammates to keep tabs on each other and interact meaningfully.

The latter quality stands in stark contrast to the lonely feeling I get in Back 4 Blood, a 2021 co-op combat candidate that struggles to catalyze collaboration between squadmates. I need more reasons to interact with online gaming teammates in 2021, not fewer. AFE gets this right in a nicely executed package, even if its difficulty spikes will likely push your squad to die-and-retry extremes.

—Sam Machkovech, Tech Culture Editor

Cruis’n Blast lifestyle at work.”>
Inscryption launch trailer.

Inscryption

PC | Buy at: GOG, Steam, Humble

Build a deck of virtual playing cards. Use its randomly dealt contents as tools in battle against virtual enemies. Earn more cards, face greater challenges, and adapt with a mix of hard strategy and randomly shuffled luck until you reach the top of a challenge mountain.

We’ve been down this road a lot in recent years, ever since Slay the Spire translated the addictive qualities of Magic: The Gathering into a progression track that makes more sense for single-player video games. While Slay-like clones have proven fun and unique in their own right, I’ve been holding out for something that transforms the concept with both truly revised gameplay and oodles of style. In 2021, this genre finally got its jolt in the form of the gritty, moody Inscryption.

On a mechanical level, Inscryption differentiates itself with a “sacrifice” system at its core. The cards in your deck often demand that your existing cards be temporarily destroyed, which can come in the form of “blood” (remove cards that you’ve already put on the board in order to put a new, stronger one on the board), “bones” (if your opponent killed one of your cards, it becomes a skeleton that can be spent on your future cards), and more. Thus, you must constantly account for a circle of death while populating a small army on a grid-shaped table, primed to attack the cards directly in front of them or, even better, directly attack the person dealing those cards.

But while that sounds Magic-like, the health system is quite different. The object of each match is to tip a series of scales in your favor, which reflect both your health and your opponent’s. Each successful attack dealt directly to your opponent puts stones on their side of the scale, and once the scale touches their side of the table, they die. Same with you. Thus, either player “heals” by reversing the direction the scale is going.

There’s much, much more to how Inscryption mechanically differs from other card-like games, but the other big difference is how the game’s trappings toy with you. You always face off against a glowing-eyed narrator who can transform into different personalities, pull out new cards, and taunt you in new, darkly hilarious ways. Between your card-battling successes, you can get up and explore the room you’re trapped in by walking around in virtual 3D space. This not only tugs away at the plot’s strings but also includes puzzles that open up new gameplay possibilities when solved.

Going any further gets into spoiler territory, but suffice it to say, Inscryption has quickly become an Ars office favorite. It’s the most clever spin on virtual card combat since Slay the Spire shook up the genre, and it comes highly recommended on our year-end list.

—Sam Machkovech, Tech Culture Editor

It Takes Two requires a second player to function, either in person or via playing online, and the game will always show both players’ views on each screen. Here, we see a duo working together with two slightly different types of guns.”>

A simpler version of the Loop Hero map. In this primary “walking around the loop” interface, you’re the white character in the top-right of the loop.

  • A slightly more fleshed-out version of the Loop Hero map in a run that has made greater progress. Tons of landmarks have been placed, and this player has a few more available as “cards,” though they can only be placed in specific zones based on their types.
  • Loop Hero

    PC, Switch | Buy at: GOG, Steam, HumbleNintendo eShop

    After nearly writing off this March 2021 game as another uninspired, lo-fi indie game, I decided—admittedly, upon a colleague’s prodding—to give Loop Hero a spin. Pretty quickly, I discovered a fascinating twist on the “idle” genre—thanks to how it gives players significant choices, secrets, upgrades, and even a compelling narrative. The results won’t be everyone’s cup of barely interactive tea, but if you like the idea of a “second monitor” game with tasteful dashes of tower defense and deckbuilding, you should seriously consider running Loop Hero in the background of your nerdy life.

    To be clear, Loop Hero does require regular check-ins for players to succeed, as opposed to some of the lowest-maintenance idle-genre classics. But that difference makes this a more ideal entry point for anyone who might otherwise shrug their shoulders at the very inactive idle genre.

    Every session I’ve played thus far has vacillated between simple comfort and tense experimentation, since success and failure alike hinge on a tower defense-like system of reacting to new boosts and problems, as attached to a never-ending loop of terrain that the game’s hero marches over. Whenever I alt-tab back to my progress, it’s an opportunity to obsess over whether my current equipped-item loadout is going to work on my current path. Maybe I began one attempt with a Dracula-style loadout, but now that the road has shifted, should I invest in more “vampiric” power to keep my health level stable, or should I keep my fingers crossed that I find other landmark-related ways to stay in the green?

    By the end of a run, after erecting enough landmarks to make a “boss” monster appear, the game takes on a whole new level of last-minute management and second-guessing about how I reached this point. I should’ve combined certain landmarks earlier! I mutter to myself. I should’ve spread out my most dangerous monster encounters! Which is to say: even though the game looks like it plays itself, your choices and reactions throughout a given section are easy to learn and tricky enough to hide serious, gotta-try-again depth. That sensation only grows as you unlock more of the game’s classes, which each demand an entirely new approach to survival.

    If you’ve found that your new work-from-home life has space for a game on a secondary screen, consider Loop Hero a surprisingly engaging option to pick up before you head back to the virtual office next year.

    —Sam Machkovech, Tech Culture Editor

    Metroid Dread is to make sure that doesn’t happen.”>
    Enlarge / Don’t look so smug, the universe is falling apart.

    Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart

    PS5 | Buy at: Amazon, Target, Best Buy, PSN

    If you managed to find a PlayStation 5 this year, you probably noticed that few games take full advantage of the system’s current-gen capabilities right now. Rift Apart stands proud as one of those games, combining the “wow factor” of its warp-through-the-rift gameplay with some compelling action and strong character work.

    Seeing the series’ PS2-era character designs lifted by the high-resolution HDR lighting effects of the PlayStation 5 provides a striking contrast and a stark reminder of just how far console graphics have come. The visuals pop even further when you’re bring out the “Dimensionator” gun to create a hole in the game’s universe, pull yourself through that rift, and land in a new, completely different area instantly. The sheer impact of this effect somehow never gets old over hundreds of repetitions.

    Amid the visual spectacle, Rift Apart also draws a surprising amount of emotional depth from Ratchet’s interactions with Rivet, a female doppelganger who is also his first encounter with another member of his species. I was also drawn in by Kit—Rivet’s mirror-universe version of the robotic Clank—an anxiety-riddled ball of self-loathing that draws more sympathy and pathos than you’d expect from a token “robot sidekick.”

    Taken together, the game’s visual and emotional heft do a lot more to merit its placement on this list than the gameplay, which is, at this point, merely par for the course for a 19-year-old series. (But, hey, it’s a fun action-blasting series, so that’s fine by me.) As a showcase for Sony’s still-young (and still hard-to-find) hardware, you could do much worse.

    —Kyle Orland, Senior Gaming Editor

    Returnal cranks up the polish in the form of engaging exploration and much more intricate worlds—and they’re all randomly generated.”>Unlike Housemarque's earlier games, <em>Returnal</em> cranks up the polish in the form of engaging exploration and much more intricate worlds—and they’re all randomly generated.” src=”https://cdn.arstechnica.net/wp-content/uploads/2021/04/returnal-slasers-980×551.png” width=”980″ height=”551″></a><figcaption class=
    Enlarge / Unlike Housemarque’s earlier games, Returnal cranks up the polish in the form of engaging exploration and much more intricate worlds—and they’re all randomly generated.
    Sony Interactive Entertainment / Housemarque

    Returnal

    PS5 | Buy at: Amazon, Target, Best Buy, PSN

    The PS5-exclusive Returnal combines the pure action of ’80s arcade games with the plot, production value, and world exploration of a full-blown “adventure” game. It’s as if someone at developer Housemarque looked at 1981’s Galaga running next to 2018’s God of War and said, “Can we somehow combine these two?”

    The result feels like a statement game for Housemarque, arguably in the same way that 2019’s Control solidified Remedy Studios’ own reputation. At its best, Returnal delivers the studio’s finest-yet action and tension within a phenomenal 3D-shooting system. (For a company that has staked its reputation on amazing throwback arcade-shooter games, that’s very high praise.) I’ve gone to sleep thinking about the game’s best blasting moments, eager to wake up the next day and return (returnal?) for “one more run.”

    The biggest catch comes from the game’s brutal approach to teaching players how hard Returnal can get. As a roguelike, Returnal can feel punishing when a death forces players to rewind after a long session, losing some (though not all) of their progress. Thankfully, Housemarque has patched this game many times since its April launch in order to make sure that its worst losses are your fault, not that of a PS5 crash. And the longer you play Returnal, the more its remarkable combat aligns with a wild, enjoyable story—as anchored by some of the best boss battles I’ve ever seen in an action game. Returnal won’t go easy on you, but anyone with the stomach for frantic die-and-retry combat should expect a once-in-a-lifetime experience out of Housemarque’s best game ever.

    —Sam Machkovech, Tech Culture Editor

    Unpacking.”>You'd be surprised how much satisfaction and pathos can be derived from unpacking boxes in the simply titled <em>Unpacking</em>.” src=”https://cdn.arstechnica.net/wp-content/uploads/2021/12/unpack-980×551.jpg” width=”980″ height=”551″></a><figcaption class=
    Enlarge / You’d be surprised how much satisfaction and pathos can be derived from unpacking boxes in the simply titled Unpacking.

    Unpacking

    PC, Switch, Xbox One | Buy at: GOG, Steam, Humble, Nintendo eShop, Xbox

    In a bid for the most direct and appropriate game title ever, Unpacking is a game about unpacking boxes. Your only interaction with its colorful, isometric pixel environments is opening cardboard shipping boxes and placing the items that come out (a dish, a teddy bear, a sponge, etc.) around different rooms in a series of homes. The only thing resembling a goal comes when all of a home’s boxes are unpacked, when items placed in “inappropriate” locations flash red until you move them somewhere they “fit.”

    Described so clinically, Unpacking probably sounds like the dullest game ever made. When I first heard about it, the game seemed particularly ill-suited to my mood, since I had just moved to a new home and therefore played the real-world “game” of packing and unpacking my life.

    After a few minutes of testing Unpacking, I fully relented to the zen state of picking a pixellated, thoughtfully drawn knick-knack out of a virtual box and gently moving it around a virtual room to judge its aesthetic charms. Beyond the gentle, Tetris-like puzzle of finding space for everything, Unpacking elicits a feng shui satisfaction after arranging any of its rooms so everything is in its most perfect and harmonious spot. There’s even more satisfaction once the house is done, at which point the game presents a time-lapse-style replay of every item flying out of its box and into place in a matter of seconds.

    Unpacking really sets itself apart in its masterful use of environmental storytelling. With barely an on-screen word, the mere act of unpacking gradually reveals details of the person whose life you’re helping to set and reset. As one spoiler-free example of what you can expect: one sequence, of moving into a tiny, ultra-modern apartment, ends with its walls so covered with brick-a-brack (from an implied new romantic partner) that there’s literally no room to hang your framed diploma, forcing you to squeeze it, unloved, into a drawer.

    After playing a lot of Unpacking, I found myself taking a fresh look at my own physical space and what the items I hold onto say about me and my life. For me, no other game on this list gets close to that level of personal impact.

    —Kyle Orland, Senior Gaming Editor

    Valheim, you and your friends get to make this choice, and many others, over the span of a lengthy, randomly generated adventure.”>Fight it? Or tame it? In <em>Valheim</em>, you and your friends get to make this choice, and many others, over the span of a lengthy, randomly generated adventure.” src=”https://cdn.arstechnica.net/wp-content/uploads/2021/02/Screenshot-597-980×475.png” width=”980″ height=”475″></a><figcaption class=
    Enlarge / Fight it? Or tame it? In Valheim, you and your friends get to make this choice, and many others, over the span of a lengthy, randomly generated adventure.

    Valheim

    PC | Buy at: Humble, Steam

    The year began with Valheim, a Viking-themed survival-adventure game, launching as an out-of-nowhere Steam Early Access sensation. Less than two weeks after its launch, this retro-styled 3D game had racked up 2 million purchases, and even in an apparently “unfinished” state, the game has spent the rest of 2021 racking up accolades, players, and most importantly, updated content.

    Maybe the throwback look of the PS1 engendered interest and adoration. Maybe the phrase “Viking survival simulator” has a certain universal appeal (we sure were tickled by the concept before playing the game even once). Or maybe Valheim filled a much-needed niche after the absolute doldrums of 2020: a virtual world with a ton of entry points that organically fosters a sense of community.

    The game scales neatly to however you want to play it, which pairs with its default co-op multiplayer nature. Surviving and thriving in Valheim requires a mix of building home bases, expanding their operations to increase useful weapon and item production, and scouring a surprise-filled, procedurally generated landscape to discover rare materials and extract magical items from unique creatures and epic bosses. Maybe someone would rather hang back in town and commit to tasks like farming, item production, or manual architecture touch-ups. Maybe someone else would simply like to build and arrange elements in a makeshift town. And still others want nothing to do with those simulation aspects, eager only to solve Valheim‘s built-in mysteries and dig out its satisfying quests with not-so-subtle tools like axes and magic.

    Valheim eagerly nods its helmet-adorned head “yes” to all of those playstyles and more. It’s certainly better as a community-driven co-op game, one worth renting a server for and parking your progress on, and that version of Valheim is the one I vote for as an easy member of Ars’ 2021 gaming list.

    —Sam Machkovech, Tech Culture Editor

    Psychonauts 2.”>Raz is back in the long-awaited sequel <em>Psychonauts 2</em>.” src=”https://cdn.arstechnica.net/wp-content/uploads/2021/08/8-18-2021_11-12-41_PM-ss0zzcf4-980×551.png” width=”980″ height=”551″></a><figcaption class=
    Enlarge / Raz is back in the long-awaited sequel Psychonauts 2.

    Ars Technica’s best game of 2021: Psychonauts 2

    PC, PS4, Xbox One, Xbox Series X/S | Buy at: Amazon, TargetGOG, SteamPSN, Xbox

    Psychonauts 2 is my no-brainer recommendation for a video game made in 2021, and that recommendation transcends my usual caveats about whether someone is experienced enough in the hobby or prefers specific genres.

    The simplest explanation for that is how much humor and heart are packed into this game, since so few action-oriented games get that stuff right. Everything you do in Psychonauts 2 leads to Saturday morning cartoon-caliber whimsy, from formal cut scenes to wacky content tucked into the game’s hidden corners. Typical 3D platformers ask players to comb virtual worlds for collectibles like stars and bonus items, and Psychonauts 2 has some of those. But how often do you explore that way in a video game in search of interstitial dialogue and deeper connections with characters in your main hero’s orbit? And how often does a game constantly tease you into feeling like you earned true laughs or heart for doing so?

    Everything that you do in Psychonauts 2 subtly directs your attention to this joy. Lead hero Rasputin feels easy to control and comes equipped with a diverse suite of useful telekinetic powers. Chaining these moves together opens up your ability to fully explore a series of trippy, cleverly designed levels, which surpass every generic Mario-like archetype you might expect in a cartoony gaming adventure. And your missions regularly take you to the deepest recesses of other characters’ minds, which, as a plot device, Double Fine nails all the more elegantly than in the original 2007 cult classic. You don’t need to know an iota about the original game to understand and care about this sequel’s old and new characters alike, which is greatly appreciated.

    Even if you mash through the game’s spoken dialogue (which I strongly suggest you don’t), its progression and aesthetics do plenty to deliver appropriate amounts of laughs and silliness—which will butter you up for some of the most heartfelt and touching plot conclusions I’ve ever seen in a 3D platformer game. This is the unique stuff of masterfully designed video games. The game fully sells the feeling that you’re a hero whose actions fix problems and solve mysteries.

    Psychonauts 2 understands how a good video game can immerse its player in a story—and builds its virtual world with remarkable depth to make sure we see only its thoughtful revelations and hilarious surprises, not frustrations and glitches. Whether you buy Psychonauts 2 outright or pick it up as a perk in Xbox Game Pass, don’t exit 2021 without letting Rasputin invade your brain and poke around in there. It’s easily legendary designer Tim Schafer’s best game yet.

    —Sam Machkovech, Tech Culture Editor

    Listing image by Aurich Lawson

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