2020 wasn’t a particularly vintage year for games, but 2021 seems to have perked up quite a bit, offering a variety of cracking games no matter what you’re playing on.
The release of the PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X (and S) has heralded the release of some excellent games, as publishers try to get early adopters to splash the cash. While we’re halfway through 2021 – we’ll forgive you for not realising, as time is meaningless now – the best seems yet to come, as we approach a bumper release season over this October and November.
But there’s plenty you can be playing until then. With that in mind, here’s a collection of some of the best games of 2021, with a mix of titles, genres and platforms to make sure you’ll find something interesting to play.
In no particular order, then:
Resident Evil: Village
- Developer: Capcom
- Playable on: PlayStation 4, Xbox One, PlayStation 5, Google Stadia, Xbox Series X and Series S, Microsoft Windows
The longer Resident Evil continues, the more it threatens to swallow itself in self-parody. After so many games with so many absurd turns, straight-faced suspense and survival horror have long since been replaced as its chief concern by a thirst for playful reinvention. The question for a new entry now isn’t so much whether it can shock and scare, but whether it walks the line between winking acknowledgement and outright mockery, finding ways to reignite the past while retaining a measure of respect.
Resident Evil: Village does exactly that. It’s a little conservative to begin with, then a little too silly by the end, but throughout exudes confidence and skilfully runs riot with a best-of list of series tropes. Village‘s only truly frightening sequence is Beneviento House, where protagonist Ethan’s weapons are stripped away, but that’s exactly enough for a game that prefers to keep you on your toes by constantly switching styles. Village is equally happy reliving Resident Evil 7’s spiteful streak, tormenting credulous blank-slate Ethan, swerving towards the action and set pieces of Resident Evil 4, or trapping you in a good old lock-and-key mansion crawl.
The result is a monstrous concoction of characters – the pick of which ultimately isn’t giant vampire Lady Dimitrescu or her colleagues, but slobby salesman the Duke – dizzying tonal shifts and escalating gunplay. And the village? Despite appearing in the title, it’s one of the game’s more lowkey triumphs, spiraling out each time you visit with hidden routes and optional monster hunts. It’s the structural rock reminding us that, underneath the bombast and chaos, Capcom still knows what it’s doing, making this one of the best games of 2021.
By Jon Bailes
- Developer: Housemarque
- Playable on: PlayStation 5
Can a studio best known for short but flashy arcade games turn a mostly indie genre into a full-fat, big-budget blockbuster that justifies the leap to next-gen? From the dazzling visuals and full-throttle of the DualSense haptics alone, Returnal more than answers the call as a true PS5 exclusive. There’s a smorgasbord of cross-pollinating inspirations – a third-person shooter that retains arcade bullet hell mayhem; the sombre mature storytelling of other PlayStation Studio joints but with arthouse sensibilities that’s not afraid go leftfield; and a fiendishly brutal take on the roguelike before subverting it unexpectedly.
Returnal is as challenging as it is conflicting, where you meet the threat of permadeath with defiant speed, where exploration can lead to reward just as much as risky malfunctions, where bosses are impossible only until they’re not. In other words, it pulls you in a lot of directions as it puts you through the wringer until you’ve run the whole gamut of emotions from crushing despair to punching the air in ecstasy. There’s frankly nothing else like it this generation so far. Now that Housemarque is officially part of the PlayStation family, we can only hope it continues to be as daring as this.
By Alan Wen
Super Mario 3D World + Bowser’s Fury
- Developer: Nintendo
- Playable on: Nintendo Switch
After originally falling a bit flat back in 2013, Super Mario 3D World somehow felt like a completely different experience on Nintendo Switch in 2021. A big part of this was having easier access to play with others – namely, everyone I know having a Switch instead of the cold isolation that many of us Wii U owners found during the tumultuous period.
Little tweaks like the increased speed of characters and clearer visuals helped gameplay exceed magnificently. The challenging aspect of the later levels really got its hooks into me nice and good too, making it ever so sweet once I finally crossed Champion’s Road.
Arguably though, my favourite portion of gaming from the year so far has stemmed from Bowser’s Fury, the new single-player addition designed for the Switch. Around 10 hours of colourful, bliss 3D platforming, as Mario must collect 100 Cat Shines all while avoiding a gargantuan kaiju version of his nemesis. I soaked up every minute of it! It was a beautiful blend of Odyssey, Galaxy and Sunshine all wrapped up in one “Catastic” package that never outstayed its welcome. It may also be a tease of what the future of Mario may look like – be that the case, sign me up!
By Matthew Forde
Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart
- Developer: Insomniac Games
- Playable on: PlayStation 5
Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart simultaneously feels like a nostalgic step back to the early days of 3D platformers while still feeling suitably forward thinking thanks to how it takes advantage of the PS5’s technology. Ultimately, it feels like you’re participating in a Pixar movie and how could that not be irresistible? It looks gorgeous, of course, meaning it’s the perfect game to showcase the PlayStation 5 with, but it also has a lot of spirit to it. There’s actually a reasonably emotional story underneath the initially shallow surface. Returning to what a good showcase it is, Rift Apart also uses the controller’s haptic feedback wonderfully to give you more of an immersive experience in every sense of the word.
At heart, this is a charming, if slightly safe, adventure but its ability to make you smile every step of the way goes a long way to helping you ignore how the combat is a little samey and the enemies a little too predictable. Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart might not revolutionise, exactly, but it’s hard to complain when a game is this much fun.
By Jen Allen
- Developer: Consumer Softproducts
- Playable on: PC
Cruelty Squad is a mix of every immersive sim you like, whether that’s Prey, Thief or even Deus Ex, wrapped in a weird package of anti-capitalist messaging and intentional jank.
Despite how it looks, what Cruelty Squad is selling isn’t a shooter, but a possibility space, several compact levels that are dense with opportunity. As you go through the game, you collect the weapons and body modifications that allow you to attempt – and sometimes succeed – a variety of outlandish plans to take down your targets and move to the next level. It’s the perfect way to spend an afternoon, but the experience will sit with you for far longer than that.
By Jake Tucker
- Developer: Greg Lobanov, Alexis Dean-Jones, Lena Raine, Madeline Berger
- Playable on: PlayStation 4, Microsoft Windows, macOS, PlayStation 5, Macintosh operating systems
Chicory did something brave this year, using the forced introspection of lockdown to breathe life into a gorgeous and challenging game. Whirling a virtual paintbrush around a barren monochrome world felt freeing, liberating in a time when it was easy to feel trapped and hopeless.
Alongside being beautiful, cute, and fun, Chicory is an admirable game in how it deals with real issues upfront. The main bosses – angry floating eyes and dopplegangers of otherwise friendly characters – are less a metaphor and more a strong indication of how it feels to be trapped in your own head. The game somehow manages to bring these demons to the forefront without condemning the game into seriousness or gloom, keeping the colour even when all seems lost.
The mix of puzzles, painting, colourful fights, and charming dialogue mingles with an excellent plot about finding strength through doubt, and boosting those around you to do great things.
Chicory is as life-affirming a game as I’ve had the pleasure to play in a long time. The accessibility options are also a major win, with sliders for just about everything you can imagine, meaning you can experience the story at very much your own pace.
So there you have it, those are our best games of 2021 (so far!). Give them a try if you fancy, these titles will definitely hold you over whilst you wait for those big releases at the end of the year.
By Miri Teixera