This was a fantastic year for video games if you knew where to look. It wasn’t until late summer that I’d begun to really dig around and find anything worth a shit that wasn’t already in my backlog. I still do not own a Playstation 5, hasn’t been worth the 200% markup. I still don’t give a shit about popular competitive first person shooters, the last one I enjoyed was Doom (2016). I do not own a Nintendo Switch so there’ll be no Shin Megami Tensei V, I’m sure it is great. I haven’t played Pathfinder: Wrath of the Righteous yet, but will. Most of my time outside of this Top Ten was spent between the early access chapter of Darkest Dungeon II and Magic: The Gathering Arena + many survivor hours on the console version of Dead by Daylight. Also, Space Warlord Organ Trading Simulator.
AGE OF EMPIRES IV — [Relic Entertainment / World’s Edge, PC]
Was the artist designing the cover/layout of this long-awaited sequel to Age of Empires III (2005) trying to make it look as mid-2000’s bad CG render box art as possible? Fuck, that is ugly. We’re here for the classic RTS-lite and historically obsessed action of this series and in that regard Age of Empires IV feels like it was conceived in 2007 and made in the late 2010’s. Real history alongside nostalgic gameplay act as the main draw from my perspective, starting with Norman conflicts and the Hundred Years War campaigns had me hooked within a long evening immersed in the fineries of this game with plenty to learn across the board. AoE gameplay is simple and effective in loop but the ‘meat’ of the experience comes in competitive multi-player. Otherwise the single player campaigns come with detailed educational presentation including small perks like footage of battlefields where the events took place and some rumination on legendary legacy versus reality when conveying the scale and context of the skirmishes involved. Anyhow, the PC Gamer review of this game from Robert Zak is worth reading in full if you’re not sure about what this type of game is all about. For some this is PC strategy for babies compared to Civilization V and VI these days but I find similar value/challenge in each, especially the competitive aspect. This game would have been higher on this list but I have not yet completed all of the main campaigns.
AXIOM VERGE 2 — [Thomas Happ Games, PS4 Pro]
Ever since the first Axiom Verge game released I’d never turned down a chance to criticize its lack of vision beyond a fairly rote metroidvania title hinging on its own cryptic storytelling, glitching gimmick, and a few obnoxious difficulty spikes. That isn’t to say I didn’t like it but that I didn’t understand who the game was for, the hardcore metroidvania nut or the artsy retro ROMhack modder types. Axiom Verge 2 seems to better speak to the exploration and re-exploration key to the sub-genre and include a few minor conveniences beyond the last game. The reality bending implication of an multiversal storyline isn’t too heavily communicated so, just enough is left to the imagination to ponder as its events unfold. More importantly the sections of the game which use a drone are quite fun and the game is mercifully only 5-7 hours long with a bit of trial and error in process. Cleaner art style, much improved enemy animation, better hit detection, and an overall improved balance of soundtrack and ambiance makes for an unexpectedly satisfying yet occasionally difficult metroidvania.
LOOP HERO — [Four Quarters, PC]
If there was a game on this list that’d come close to making my year in games by virtue of its soundtrack alone it’d have to be this one. Blah blah, retro chiptune etc. of course you’re getting a fantastic “easy to pick up, difficult to master” game otherwise which is often misjudged as a tower defense at a glance, which it is not. Loop Hero is technically a roguelite but one that tasks the player with managing risk/reward in placement of both enemies and terrain modifiers, ensuring that you’ll not only manage the threat of high EXP monster generating tiles but also boons to healing per loop, the more you pack into each loop the more in game days each loop takes to complete. I found this puzzling at first and then addictive in daily bursts, not a game I would have imagined myself devoting 3-4 hours to per sitting.
RESIDENT EVIL: VILLAGE — [Capcom, PC]
Resident Evil VIII is the first game I’ve played in the series since I’d thrown Resident Evil 5 in the trash back in 2009, at least if you don’t count the excellent Resident Evil II remake from 2019, which I played in 2020. This is probably the first time I’ve ever watched someone play a game of this type via Twitch (see: LobosJr) before playing the game myself, essentially having the first 4-5 hours of the game spoiled before I decided to play it myself. Of course I bought the console version of it and found the aiming entirely frustrating to start, fell into a personal pit of despair having wasted $59.99 and then waited for any potential sales on Steam and eventually completed the game on PC. I played it at night in the dark and had enough fun with it that I played it twice, I’ll eventually replay it on console since I’d enjoyed it that much. Why no review? I was busy catching up with other things in May/June (then October/November) and didn’t take screenshots or stream any of it. I wanted to wait until I’d had proper screen grabs for a review.
YS IX: MONSTRUM NOX — [Nihon Falcom, PS4 Pro]
The ninth main entry title in this Japanese action RPG franchise is thus far its finest modernization. Ys IX: Monstrum Nox offers a follow up to Ys VIII: Lacrimosa of Dana (2016), not a direct sequel but an entirely new story and setting that iterates upon the general formula and scope of the previous game, expanding upon the mystery (solved via adventure) presented by the plot and simple combat style previous. If I can look beyond direct comparisons, such as the tower defense-esque trials which are key to advancing the story, and appreciate Monstrum Nox for its own story and gameplay experience it is a decidedly easy action JRPG with a fine soundtrack and excellent player control. Yes, it bears an anime-trope infused storyline but one that provides subtle commentary on the nature of war, poverty, grief, racial conflict, nationalism, imprisonment, and beyond — The gist being that conservatism encases societies against progress (or devolution) which is unavoidable, incurring profound suffering upon the less fortunate in most cases. Centering the events of the game within a city in lockdown + a magick curse upon protagonist Adol roots the narrative within exploration of a conflicted, bitterly conquered public approximating a French medieval/high fantasy setting… and if it sounds like I’m piecing together a half-assed lede for a review it is because I’d realized the full review I’d intended for this game was never written despite having finished this game several months ago. Although it isn’t a difficult or particularly profound game it was just too much of a joy to play for the entirety of my ~48 hour sojourn.
CHIVALRY II — [Torn Banner Studios, PC]
Years ago I was heavily involved in the Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim modding community, something I’d worked on ended up on a popular website’s montages of Skyrim steam/nexus community mods and when the game glitched out they’d jokingly fill air time playing matches of Chivalry online. The medieval warfare simulation was known for its modest production values and skill-based, fairly complex control system for melee combat, lending itself to realistic or at least entertaining interactions. You are truly a sack of meat with a blade. Easy to pick up but difficult to master, this was one of my favorite multiplayer games of all time. Well, I played about 400 hours of it over the course of two years before becoming more involved in Dota 2 team play. High player count, subtle strategic movement, and modulating objective oriented gameplay made for an fantastically engrossing competitive experience akin to old school Battlefield back then and… picking up Chivalry II is really no different. Games still feature up to 64 players and this scale is still the main appeal of the experience. The major boon for this sequel is higher fidelity in terms of graphics and optimization, while also featuring larger and more complex environments. The physics make a bit more sense here compared to the first game without dulling the fun of being a meat sack. There wasn’t more fun to be had in multiplayer PC gaming this year as far as I’m concerned and they’ve done a fine job introducing new features and a new mode in the meantime. The only bummer is that these games tend to fall off with players after a couple of years; I’m not looking forward to the day I boot up the game only to find 20+ minute wait times for matches full of disconnects and cheating trolls.
DEATH’S DOOR — [Acid Nerve, PS4 Pro]
Death’s Door is an relatively short isometric action RPG wherein you are a crow with a sword (eh, umbrella to start) tasked with reaping souls in a dark world, not through some epic quest but as part of his normal job. The gameplay itself is most often compared to A Link to the Past but I’d say not necessarily in terms of dungeon or puzzle design. My experience with the game ran about eight hours without being entirely too completionist, what’d kept me engaged was a mix of meditative exploration and fairly agile, admittedly simple combat. Everything worked, the story was excellent, and the soundtrack is ridiculously chill (see also: Hollow Knight). Don’t have much to say about it, I think it’d honestly just blew me away that how complete and well considered the entirety of Death’s Door was.
TALES OF ARISE — [Bandai Namco Studios, PS4 Pro]
Although I grew up playing Japanese RPGs on consoles, starting with Final Fantasy II on the SNES, the medium did not grow up with me. The number of adult stories I’ve engaged with over the years all seem to arrive into empty-headed anime teenagers who never seem to “get” anything ’til the blanket realization that “friendship good, evil bad” sinks in. Bandai Namco have ultimately stepped outside of the box with Tales of Arise, specifically within the storyline which finds a band of unlikely heroes banding together to defeat the racist, murderous oppressors who are essentially farming an entire race of people and the planet itself for their lifeforce (aka astral energy). This isn’t a linear path to conquer, although you take down a couple of horrible tyrants to start soon the grey area of humanism begins to rear its head and sympathizers from the opposing side join the cause. Why is this so profound then? Dialogue. Much like Star Ocean, once you’ve entered a new location, part of the story, or beaten a challenging boss you’ll have taken maybe one step before an alert chimes and suggests there is some character dialogue to witness. These play as if an animated manga strip and generally explore the conflicts, joys and general interactions of the group. This means character development runs deep to the point of a mind-boggling amount of spoken dialogue in the game — In hour one of the game our protagonists were discussing the inequality of the races and the brutal strife endured by the people and by hour 50 of this epic RPG they were still healthily processing not only the change in themselves as freed peoples but pondering the after effects of their actions, processing personality defects and supporting one another. This level of storytelling, outside of endless run-on text boxes in Playstation One era tactical JRPGs, feels unprecedented when it comes time to muse over the journey. The combat is fun, if not somewhat simple Tales of… fare outside of some Star Ocean: Till the End of Time style dodges and counters but the challenge is relegated to boss fights, most of which’ll be a breeze if you are prone to complete all side quests and such. This game alongside Ys IX: Monstrum Nox has convinced me to not quit out on JRPG games.
GRIFTLANDS — [Klei Entertainment, PC]
Griftlands is a deck-building roguelite from Klei Entertainment, the folks responsible for Don’t Starve and the underrated Mark of the Ninja which should initially remind you of 2020’s Slay the Spire in terms of the battles themselves but this is quite a different game beyond the card based combat/deck mechanics. Choice is key in this world wherein your grifting ass isn’t always required to fight to get what he wants. Dialogue, negotiations, and friendship play a key role in progress as interactions with NPCs amount to more than just fights, it is essentially a card battle RPG. Finishing each of the three campaigns is not without its grindy challenge but the available options and strategy is inarguably the best I’d encountered in 2021. Although the art style isn’t entirely my thing and the game can be a brutal timesink if you’ve got the time, a la Darkest Dungeon. A major favorite of the year and my most played game outside of a few open world games.
CYBER SHADOW — [Mechanical Head Studios, PS4 Pro]
Cyber Shadow is the thing you thought The Messenger (2019) was the first time you saw previews of it, a direct expansion of the NES trilogy of Ninja Gaiden games in the late 80’s/early 90’s by way of modern updates a la metroidvania, tributing nostalgia for the challenge of those games with an appropriately stylized approach. Mechanical Head Studios is just one guy whom is largely responsible for the game’s development and they’ve no doubt taken their own masterful hand to this traditional design, ensuring great consistency in art style and progression of environment. Though the game is very difficult it is the right sort challenge, definitely enough to beat me down but short enough to memorize and learn at around 5-6 hours on average. The entire presentation is flawless between the cut-scenes and hands down the best video game soundtrack of the year via Pentadrangle.
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