The 18 Best Video Games of 2021
Marvel’s 'Guardians of the Galaxy' and Capcom’s 'Resident Evil Village' are just some of the titles that rank among this year’s best button mashers.
Ah, another year in the books, and another new one to look forward to. You're probably heading into 2022 with an open mind—surely, everything everywhere can't keep getting worse all the time? At least, that's the hope. But we're here to remind you that it isn't all bad; after all, 2021 saw the releases of plenty of absolutely stellar video games.
Age-old classics got surprisingly great sequels, and old games were re-released with sumptuous extras packed in to sweeten the deal. Some of gaming's biggest franchises made triumphant comebacks, while fledgling indie developers crafted games that should be hung on museum walls for future generations to appreciate. New series that we're sure to see more of were begun, and some of the year's biggest hits came from unexpected places.
And that's all to be expected when it comes to the games we love. They may surprise us, but they never disappoint. And if there's one thing the past decade has taught us, it's that when the world stops making sense, we still have video games. So here are the 18 best games of 2021.
The Artful Escape
Release date: September 9 (XB1, XBS/X, PC)
The PS5 had a great first year on the market, and the same can be said for the brand-new Xbox Series S/X. In addition to massive franchise tentpoles like Halo Infinite, the Xbox/PC platform saw plenty of incredible indie games this year—not least among them Annapurna Interactive and developer Beethoven & Dinosaur's The Artful Escape.
Just watching the trailers for this game presents a visual and aural smorgasbord, and the game never disappoints in the aesthetic department, with a hand-drawn graphical quality, acid-trip visuals, and shredding soundtrack that never lets up. The gameplay may be relatively simple, but The Artful Escape's levels are infused with beautiful music at a molecular level, and the story is every bit as heartfelt and hopeful as we needed this year.
Release date: September 14 (PS5, PC)
From the makers of Victorian steampunk assassin simulation series Dishonored comes Deathloop, yet another take on the endless time-loop genre that's become popular in recent years (there are three on this list alone). But Deathloop sets itself apart with the intricacy of its world and its confidently stylized presentation.
You play as Colt Vahn, a hapless but capable fighter who finds himself trapped in a never-ending cycle of violence at the hands of his psychopathic associates. The game opens with Colt's death—after which he wakes up on a beach, only to be killed again, and so on. Breaking the loop means outfitting him with ever more powerful guns and abilities, while progressing involves navigating increasingly complex levels filled with opportunities for stealth and carnage. It feels familiar if you've played Arkane's previous offerings, but everything here is polished to a previously unseen degree, from the outstanding writing and voice acting to the slick way the game helps you track your leads through a story that unfolds like a delicious blooming onion.
The Forgotten City
Release date: July 28 (PS4, PS5, XB1, XBS/X, Switch, PC)
The Forgotten City began life, rather famously, as a player-created mod for The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. Adapted into its own full-fledged release by its makers, three-person developer Modern Storyteller, The Forgotten City is one of 2021's most unusual success stories.
The game sends players hurtling backward in time to the site of a lost city buried underground, the sun peeking through an enormous, unreachable chasm opening high above. The city's residents live under the oppressive thumb of The Golden Rule: if any of them commits a sin, each of them will be killed. Who created this tyrannical law? What constitutes a sin? Is there any way out? Through exploration and conversation, players explore those questions and more—with a mind-blowing ending for those willing to put in the work. It may not be particularly pretty—it very much looks and plays like a 10-year-old game—but The Forgotten City wins out with its stellar writing, complex time-looping story, and impressive sandbox in which to play.
Release date: November 15 (multiplayer) / December 8 (campaign) (XBS/X, PC)
For a once-pinnacle game series, Halo has had a rocky journey in recent years. Ever since Microsoft-owned developer 343 Industries took over stewardship of the franchise from Bungie back in 2007, they've struggled to reach the games' previous highs, facing lukewarm receptions to Halo 4 and Halo 5.
Enter Halo Infinite, which is as close to a fresh start as fans could have hoped for. The game's multiplayer offerings launched by surprise in November, and players were delighted to discover competitive bouts filled with distinctive weapons, game-changing new abilities, rip-roaring vehicular combat, and funky physics that cause chaos and joy in nearly every match. Add to that a brand-new campaign with a more open world than the series has yet seen, and Halo Infinite is looking like the Master Chief's second coming.
Release date: January 20 (PS4, PS5, XB1, XBS/X, Switch, PC, Stadia)
You'd think a game series about pulling off dangerous jobs as the world's most elite and secretive hitman would be violent, disturbing, and filled with action. The modern Hitman games are all those things—but none of that is wherein lies their primary appeal. No, those who love Hitman understand one thing above all else: These are some of the funniest games that have ever existed. The real appeal lies not just in pulling off the perfect hit, but in doing so in as hilarious, slapstick, and chaotic a way as possible.
And Hitman 3 really is the ultimate package. It pulls together everything offered by the previous two games, plus a whole host of new levels and challenges, with every feature fans have come to love from the series and more, like an expansive VR mode. Each level is a sandbox of endless amusement, with countless ways to take out each target, from infiltrating Bollywood film sets to interrupting F1 races with some well-timed explosives. If you can think up a creative assassination, there's probably a way to pull it off—and then there are dozens more that you'd never dream of without the game subtly nudging you toward its zaniest methods.
Release date: October 19 (PC)
Inscryption is difficult to describe—and to delve into details beyond its first act would constitute spoilers. It's a hybrid between a card-battling game (think digital Magic: The Gathering) and an escape room, all tinged with a unique and extremely spooky brand of horror; held prisoner by a mysterious and shadowed game master, you're forced to play a clearly homemade (although decently complex) card game involving animal sacrifice and gruesome imagery.
At the same time, you're free to stand up from the game board and poke around in your captor's dimly lit room full of trinkets and puzzles. Is there any way to escape the game? Are the cards really speaking to you, or are you just beginning to lose it? Will your life be snuffed out with the candle flames that represent your triumphs and failures? And, folks, that's just Act I of a much larger, and endlessly surprising, experience.
Marvel's Guardians of the Galaxy
Release date: October 26 (PS4, PS5, XB1, XBS/X, Switch, PC)
The Guardians of the Galaxy, including Star-Lord, Gamora, Drax, Rocket, and Groot, seemed an unlikely team to join the (then, at least) relatively grounded Marvel Cinematic Universe back in 2014. But they quickly became a fan favorite, thanks largely to a lovable cast and James Gunn's strong, authorial direction. But how well could that formula possibly translate into a video game? The fraught relationship between movies and games—no matter in which direction they're being adapted—is the stuff of legend at this point.
But Square Enix and Eidos-Montreal's Guardians of the Galaxy game was more than well received. The Guardians may operate as a team, but the game puts players squarely in control of Peter Quill, AKA Star-Lord. You explore faraway planets and interact with your teammates, and control Star-Lord in combat while giving orders to the other characters. They aren't exactly the same Guardians as the MCU versions, but they're familiar enough that fans of either the movies or the comics will feel at home with them. Most importantly, the developers nailed the writing, and the best thing about this game is simply getting to accompany Star-Lord and the gang on their unusual adventures. It’s no wonder it took home the trophy for Best Narrative at this year’s Game Awards.
Release date: October 8 (Switch)
Much as many players love the Metroid Prime games, which changed up the classic series' formula with first-person gameplay and massive 3D worlds, fans have long awaited a genuine new 2D, side-scrolling adventure starring Samus (everyone's favorite space bounty hunter whose name isn't Spike Spiegel). With Metroid Dread, Nintendo finally delivered.
The game sees players once again assume the role of Samus, bringing the series back to its two-dimensional roots—but with plenty of modern flavors and twists, not to mention a souped-up difficulty that caused no small amount of debate this year. The unshakeable Metroid structure remains the same as it ever was; you explore and gain updates through combat and discovery, defeating the occasional boss. And it remains as compelling as always.
Minecraft: The Caves and Cliffs Update
Release date: November 30 (PS4, PS5, XB1, XBS/X, Switch, iOS, Android, PC)
The fundamentals of Minecraft haven't changed much over the decade-and-change that it's been available: You spawn in a unique world all your own, where monsters appear at night, and you mine resources so you can craft better tools and mine better resources, building a base, discovering diamonds, and maybe even slaying a dragon in the end. But Minecraft, which has been owned by Microsoft since 2014, has received steady updates for years—expansions that have revamped its oceans and the Nether, added animals and monsters, and vastly expanded what's possible in gaming's greatest sandbox.
This year, developer Mojang changed things up so significantly that Minecraft is practically a brand-new game. The Caves and Cliffs update, which arrived in two parts throughout 2021, added new creatures (like adorable axolotls), materials (like copper and amethyst), and tools (like the looking glass). But more crucially, Minecraft's blocky worlds are suddenly much, much larger. The designers have perfected their world-generating algorithms, and Minecraft's landscapes are suddenly filled with sky-scraping mountain ranges and endlessly spelunkable caves. If your 2011 self, huddled in a cobblestone hut on the surface of a flat, shallow world, could see Minecraft now, their mind would be blown to blocky bits.
Release date: August 25 (PS4, XB1, XBS/X, PC)
Fans awaited Double Fine's Psychonauts 2 for a very long time. The original was released way back in 2005 and hopes for a sequel dwindled over the intervening years between then and now. But in 2021, the storied developer finally delivered, and luckily for fans of Raz's psychic summer camp hijinks, the sequel did not disappoint.
Like its predecessor, Psychonauts 2 has players take control of Raz, a psychic teenager in an upside-down world filled with unique characters and powers. Each level takes place inside a character's head, and the visuals and platforming challenges start at surreal and escalate to mind-melting before the end. Of course, the writing is still excellent, filled with humor and heart, and most of all, it's simply a blast to revisit Raz's world after so long away.
Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart
Release date: June 11 (PS5)
The first year of any new console's launch is generally filled with disappointing launch titles, plus a handful of decent games that don't fully take advantage of the new hardware's capabilities. The real masterpieces usually come later. With two Sony exclusives on this list, the PS5 didn't follow that standard during 2020 and 2021. Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart isn't just the best entry in the series in years—it's also one of the best games of the year.
The latest entry in the long-running series from developer Insomniac, Rift Apart sees players once again taking control of Ratchet, along with his sidekick Clank, doing battle with an arsenal of outlandish weapons and exploring cartoony, sci-fi locales, many of which are familiar to longtime series fans. The gameplay is as solid as ever, while a new playable character, fun new traversal options, a zany story, and visuals that take full advantage of the PS5 make Rift Apart stand out. With this latest offering, Ratchet & Clank may be single-handedly keeping the 3D action-platformer genre alive—and we're thankful for that.
Resident Evil Village
Release date: May 1, 2021 (PS4, PS5, XB1, XBS/X, PC, Stadia)
The Resident Evil series is one of the most celebrated in gaming history, but it hit a major slump somewhere around the fifth and sixth entries. That changed drastically with Resident Evil 7, a comeback of terrifying proportions that altered the games' perspective to first-person while trimming the ill-fitting action movie fat of previous recent entries, leaving a rock-solid core of dread-filled survival horror.
With a new formula established, Resident Evil 8—known as RE Village—was preceded by high expectations. Luckily, it did not disappoint. The game tugs at threads from RE7's story but turns things on its head in the opening act, ultimately pitting players against much more than just the memed-to-undeath vampiress Lady Dimitrescu. It strikes the right balance of horror and action and takes place across a significantly larger world than its predecessor, though it still manages to clock in at a reasonable nine or ten hours to complete—the perfect length for a horror game, some might say. Ultimately, if this is the future direction of the Resident Evil series, then those disappointing middle entries will go down in history as the exception to RE's rule, rather than the other way around.
Release date: April 30 (PS5)
Returnal may have a goofy portmanteau for a title, but you had better take it seriously. One of three time-loop games on this list, it's also undeniably the toughest, with fast-paced combat and punishing mechanics that make every run a white-knuckled challenge. On top of that, as a PS5 exclusive, it takes full advantage of the console's strengths, with jaw-dropping sci-fi visuals and unique uses for the DualSense controller.
The game sees protagonist Selene crash-land on a lush alien planet. As she explores, things grow increasingly surreal; as if stumbling across her own corpse in the otherworldly jungle isn't bad enough, her entire house from back on Earth mysteriously materializes over and over.
Of course, all of that is ultimately narrative set-dressing for Returnal's tense, sensory-overloading combat. With a variety of ever-more-powerful weapons and tools in her arsenal, Selene delves as far as she can through the planet's strange landscape before inevitably succumbing to death—and subsequently re-awakening at the site of her crash. Elements of gaming subgenres like roguelikes and bullet-hell shooters keep things fresh, while the player is faced with tough decisions, like whether to equip upgrades that will also impart a random negative effect. Each run is different, but they all have one thing in common: They'll test your mettle to the breaking point.
Rocket League Sideswipe
Release date: November 15 (iOS, Android)
Many mobile games that are tied to existing franchises wind up being cheap cash grabs designed to part players from their money via in-app microtransactions. Rocket League Sideswipe, on the other hand, is the exact opposite. In fact, a month after its launch, it remains totally free, without an in-app purchase in sight.
Based on Psyonix's popular rocket-car-battle-soccer franchise, Rocket League Sideswipe capably translates the series to mobile platforms. The action's been pared down for smaller screens, with shorter matches and a two-dimensional field on which to compete. But it just feels so darn polished and fun to play. Like its namesake, Sideswipe is deceptively simple but mechanically deep, with weighty, physics-based gameplay that will keep you tapping the "find match" button for just one more bout time after time.
Release date: September 23 (XB1, XBS/X, PC)
Sable is one of those games that immediately grabs your attention. If it's not the vibrant, minimalistic visuals drawing your eye, then it's definitely the earwormy soundtrack from artist Michelle Zauner of indie band Japanese Breakfast. Sable simply looks and sounds unlike any other game, a feast for the senses.
But it takes more than just sumptuous aesthetic qualities to be one of 2021's best games. Sable is also filled with heartfelt and emotional writing, a coming-of-age story set in a fantasy world. Players take control of the titular protagonist on her day of Gliding, when she receives her nomadic tribe's signature magical ability, is gifted a sleek new sand-traversing hoverbike, and sets out into a great big, gorgeous world to find out who she is. That framework provides ample room for exploration and adventure, like Breath of the Wild's open world and simple puzzles without all that messy combat. Sable's welcoming desert begs to be explored, and every minute spent with this game is a joy.
Subnautica: Below Zero
Release date: May 14 (PS4, PS5, XB1, XBS/X, Switch, PC, OSX)
The original Subnautica straddled several genres. As you explored its alien ocean, teeming with strange life, ranging ever deeper and farther from the welcoming shallows, you encountered larger and more terrifying creatures. The more you played, the scarier things grew. All the while, you crafted better equipment and more capable vehicles, while uncovering bits of story in fragments left behind by the otherworldly beings who'd preceded you.
This year's follow-up, Below Zero, is somewhere between an expansion and a sequel. It builds on the ideas from its predecessor, while also offering a pared down, more focused experience. It features a ton of small improvements, while also expanding the breadth of its narrative. Its icy ocean is relatively compact, with fewer biomes to explore, but it changes up the gameplay in interesting ways. Most importantly, it's simply more Subnautica; you'll relish the feeling of smallness that its vast seas impart.
Super Mario 3D World + Bowser's Fury
Release date: February 12 (Switch)
Super Mario 3D World was originally released for the Wii U back in 2013. As a Wii U exclusive, it was seemingly played by almost nobody (Nintendo's successor to the Wii was an infamous dud of a console). But 3D World is easily one of the best Super Mario games to date, so its re-release on the much more successful Nintendo Switch represents a welcome opportunity for more players to experience its unique worlds, which combine elements of 2D and 3D Mario games to form something exciting and new.
But if that isn't enough, the Switch release also came bundled with something brand new—Bowser's Fury, a spin-off unlike any other Mario game. The gameplay is based on 3D World, but also incorporates elements from the more recent Super Mario Odyssey. Most notably, it feels weirdly experimental, with a demonic Bowser regularly turning levels into flaming hellscapes that change up the gameplay and environments in unpredictable ways. It's always notable when Nintendo does something this weird instead of playing it safe with its most beloved franchises, so even if you already played 3D World eight years ago on Wii U, this package is worth picking up for Bowser's Fury alone.
Release date: November 2 (XB1, Switch, PC)
Unpacking is described on its official site as "a zen puzzle game about unpacking a life." While in real life, there are few activities less fun than packing up, moving, and unpacking all your worldly possessions, in game form it works surprisingly well.
From developer Witch Beam and published by Humble Bundle, Unpacking sees players clicking on cardboard boxes to extract the items inside, then figuring out exactly where those items should go in lovingly rendered interior environments of increasing complexity as the game goes on. There are stickers to collect, and nostalgic Easter eggs to spot for players who grew up in a certain era. And that's it! It may sound simple, but there's much to be said for a game so confident in knowing exactly what it is and executing perfectly on an idea so good that you're probably mad you didn't think of it yourself. Playing Unpacking is something like the digital equivalent of popping bubble wrap—an activity at once mundane and satisfying.