While 2021 hasn’t been the best year for the world at large, gamers have had a lot to keep them busy – it’s been a solid year for interactive entertainment. 2020’s pandemic saw lots of games delayed into 2021, making this year a bumper crop for AAA entries, even if it’s been a bit of hit and miss year for the return of your favourite franchises.
Christmas approaches, and with it hopefully a little free time to dive into something other than your musty backlog, so why not take something new for a spin? There are 20 games here that’ll expand your video game horizons, written about by some of NME’s most frequent video games contributors.
Let’s address the elephant in the room here, too. Halo Infinite is bloody brilliant, but it hasn’t yet been released so wasn’t able to be included in the scientific method to discover our writers favourite games for the year. It’s the best shooter, personally, I’ve played since Titanfall 2 but we’re all about the process here. Consider this an honourable mention for 343’s stellar shooter.
Jake Tucker, commissioning editor (video games)
List chosen by: Aaron Potter, Adam Cook, Alan Martin, Alan Wen, Demi Williams, Dom Peppiatt, Dominic Preston, Jake Tucker, James Law, Jen Allen, Jon Bailes,Matt Kamen, Michael Weber, Oisin Kuhnke, Vikki Blake and Will Nelson.
20. Chicory: A Colorful Tale
Platforms: PS4, PS5, PC
In a nutshell: As a cute dog and aspiring artist, wield a magical paintbrush to restore colour to the world and discover what happened to the previous Wielder, Chicory.
Chicory takes inspiration from some of Nintendo’s most beloved games – the top-down adventures of classic Legend Of Zelda, the homey feeling of calling your parents in Earthbound, and painting mechanics that recall both Splatoon and Paper Mario: Color Splash – but finds its own voice through the act of painting. It’s a game about making art and it makes you feel great about it even if you think you don’t have an artistic bone in your body. Beneath the cosy aesthetics it’s also not afraid to confront the dark thoughts that come with self-doubt or impostor syndrome. A joyously colourful game that will give you all kinds of feels. Alan Wen
Best bit: The song sung by Chicory and your character on the mountain top – later performed by Emi Evans.
19. Persona 5: Strikers
Platforms: Nintendo Switch, PS4, PS5, PC
In a nutshell: A triumphant example of how the best IPs can bend and mould into any gameplay system without sacrificing their core identity.
The Phantom Thieves are back to once again prove that the Persona franchise is one of the best swiss army knife franchises on the market. Addictive, engaging and frenetic combat helps the Phantom Thieves win out in a struggle across Japan in this smart spin-off.
Persona 5: Strikers manages to expertly walk the line between a spin-off and a sequel in a way few games can. Though I would strongly recommend playing through Persona 5: Royal before embarking on another journey with the Phantom Thieves, Persona 5: Striker’s move toward the hack ‘n slash Musou combat system is elegant and helps it stand out against its genre-defining predecessor whilst maintaining Persona 5’s art style, sonic identity and overall aesthetic. Few video game series can effortlessly switch their fundamentals this well without shattering the overall experience. But with Persona 5: Strikers, Atlus have once again proved that this IP is among the very top echelons of video game franchises. Michael Weber
Best bit: Roadtripping with The Phantom Thieves across Japan.
18. Loop Hero
Platforms: PC, Nintendo Switch
In a nutshell: Performance, feedback, revision.
Loop Hero is just one of several time-travelling games released this year, because apparently it’s all about doing the time warp again in 2021.
Loop Hero however offers less in the way of experimentation and is more about self-improvement. Not yours, but that of the tiny adventurer walking around the loop you create again and again, fighting monsters and growing stronger and stronger as time passes. It is, ultimately, a game about parenting, if parenting involved setting up a lone hero to battle a series of world-shattering evils.
Part deckbuilder, part infinite runner, Loop Hero is compelling from the first second. Jake Tucker
Best bit: Every bit of hard-won progress as a loop ends in success.
17. Dark Pictures: House Of Ashes
Platforms: PS4, PS5, Xbox One, Xbox Series X|S, PC
In a nutshell: US Marines reenact Aliens in a creature feature set during the 2003 Iraq war.
If you read the above one-liner and didn’t think House Of Ashes might be the game for you, I don’t know what to tell you. House Of Ashes is the latest in the Dark Pictures series, but rather than the schlocky B-movie feel of them, this feels like a 2003 action-thriller, as shit goes incredibly sideways and your characters desperately try to make the night.
The masterful part of House Of Ashes is the way it leads you into a horror movie with you as the main star. Characters will often die and it’ll feel unfair, but you won’t be tempted to go back through for that “perfect” ending, because every one of the Dark Pictures series feels like a complete movie, even if it occasionally means you’ll murder someone because you were eating a chocolate digestive during a quick-time event. Jake Tucker
Best bit: Accidentally creating a frosty atmosphere in online co-op as each of you gets to control a participant in a failing marriage during crucial scenes. Awkward bliss.
16. Scarlet Nexus
Platforms: PS4, PS5, Xbox One, Xbox Series X|S, PC
In a nutshell: Hectically inventive close combat wrapped in a convoluted Anime plot.
The mashup of influences in Bandai Namco’s sci-fi action game doesn’t quite make sense. On one hand, it’s got the kind of furious, stylish combat you’d usually find in a Devil May Cry or Bayonetta. On the other, it follows Atlus’ Persona series into verbose Anime theatre, complete with awkward relationship building and a plot with more twists than a Grand Prix circuit. Learn to accept the bizarre contrivances, however, and it’s an entertaining story. Plus the combat really is very good, mainly thanks to a suite of telekinetic powers that see you slow time, set your weapons on fire or finish a combo by hurling a bus, and some brilliantly surreal enemies arranged from body parts, bits of machinery and bursts of shrubbery. Sometimes it’s more fun when things don’t make sense. Jon Bailes
Best bit: Smashing an enemy with a spinning chandelier.
15. Mario 3D World: Bowser’s Fury
Platforms: Nintendo Switch
In a nutshell: A bonus game packed up with Super Mario 3D World’s switch re-release might be better than the whole thing.
Nintendo would have been forgiven for just releasing Super Mario 3D World out on Switch, unchanged and at full price. One of the best Wii U games around, it never found its audience because even the best Wii U games are still Wii U games.
Still, let’s thank our lucky stars (or Shines?) that instead they threw in Bowser’s Fury, a manic hybrid of 3D World and Odyssey that perhaps points to the plumber’s future: an Ubisoft-style open world dotted with collectibles, challenges, and, for whatever reason, cats. Throw in the occasional kaiju-scale fight with Fury Bowser and you have a worthy, albeit slight, member of the Mario pantheon. Dominic Preston
Best bit: Giant Cat Mario vs Fury Bowser in the Godzilla movie that never was.
In a nutshell: Time looping cosmic horror from the masters of arcade shooters.
Finnish studio Housemarque has a long reputation for making slick, explosive shoot ’em ups, so it was hardly a surprise when the Resogun and Nex Machina creators served up another this year. Yet with the backing of Sony as a publisher, they moved well outside their comfort zone. Returnal marks a seamless transition to three dimensions from the two of previous games, successfully delivers a Roguelike structure packed with meaningful risk-reward decisions, and makes good use of the PS5’s haptic feedback and 3D sound capabilities to boot. If that wasn’t enough, it also manages to weave a complex tale of family trauma, guilt and sci-fi horror around the action with extraordinary sophistication. It’s not often an indie developer gets to be so ambitious, but if this is the result, it needs to happen more. Jon Bailes
Best bit: The Hyperion battle and its ‘Don’t fear the reaper’ motif.
13. Death’s Door
Platforms: PC, PS4, PS5, Nintendo Switch, Xbox One, Xbox Series X|S
In a nutshell: The Legend Of Zelda meets Dark Souls. With crows.
What do you do when things refuse to die at their allotted time? Send in tiny crows with scythes doing their best bit of Grim Reaper cosplay, that’s what. Death’s Door is Acid Nerve’s second console game after Titan Souls, and once again a clear debt is owed to both The Legend Of Zelda and Dark Souls, both in the wonderful intricate world design and the punishing difficulty level that seldom crosses over into “unfair”. Add in a charming sense of humour and stylish isometric look, and you’ve got a game that’s the very definition of “short and sweet”. Alan Martin
Best bit: Taking down the King of the Swamp, despite his many titles.
12. Monster Hunter Rise
Platforms: Nintendo Switch
In a nutshell: Defend your town from rampaging monsters by suiting up, sharpening your weapons and heading into battle with… a cat and a dog?
You’ve just shot an angry bear in the stomach with a long-range harpoon. Your mate is rushing in to bonk it on the head with a massive hammer (probably made from its dad), and another friend is playing a guitar made out of some frogs or something. Welcome to Monster Hunter Rise; it only gets more chaotic from here.
Capcom’s latest take on the 17-year-old Monster Hunter formula lowers the barrier to entry, letting newcomers on the Nintendo Switch swing their glaives and swords for easier kills and quicker routes to all the best armour. But does the de-escalation of difficulty take anything away? Nah, if anything, it makes the slapstick chaos of this tight, satisfying action game even more compelling. Dom Peppiatt
Best bit: Nailing your first Apex Monster with a slither of your health left, and harvesting its body parts for armour.
11. It Takes Two
Platforms: PS4, PS5, Xbox One, Xbox Series X|S, PC
In a nutshell: Co-op by design, not as an afterthought.
Hazelight Studios’ last co-op only outing, A Way Out, was innovative but – bluntly – had by-the-numbers gameplay that could help an insomniac get some shut eye. It Takes Two puts that right in style: an action adventure designed for two players which requires cooperation at every turn. Better still, it keeps reinventing itself, with new gameplay mechanics on every level, all requiring both players to constantly stay in communication. Yes, the married protagonists are so irritating that you don’t blame either of them for wanting out of their marriage and the story can’t really decide if it’s for children or adults, but It Takes Two is the best co-op game we’ve seen since Portal 2. Alan Martin
Best bit: The joy of finding out the new mechanic for each chapter.
10. Life Is Strange: True Colors
Platforms: PS4, PS5, Xbox Series X|S, Xbox One, PC, Google Stadia
In a nutshell: An emotional, heart-wrenching, yet beautiful game about loss.
This unexpected favourite of the year manages to impress with its authentic storytelling and relationships all while introducing one of the best protagonists in the Life Is Strange franchise yet. True Colors excels in its core gameplay mechanics that the series is best known for, but it also managed to bring fresh ideas to the table.
The cast of characters along the way are as compelling as the main character, Alex Chen, are each performed expertly. True Colors also brings a level of maturity to the series with its beautifully written dialogue that has been sorely absent. More games should aspire to this level of care with their characters. Demi Williams
Best bit: True Colors includes one of the coolest game sequences in the series in the form of a LARP session!
9. Hitman 3
Platforms: PC, PS4, PS5, Xbox One, Xbox Series X|S, Google Stadia, Nintendo Switch
In a nutshell: The ultimate stealth playground just keeps getting better.
Hitman 3 is a game about being the world’s greatest assassin. It’s brilliance isn’t in those assassinations, the game’s gunplay or even the brutal executions you’ll perform while getting in close to the target.
It’s the world you inhabit, and the way that the game lays out a detailed slice of life for you to manipulate, giving you threads to pull and secrets to find. Perhaps you’ll kill your target in a bomb-proof bunker, or kick them off a mountainside during a yoga retreat – one thing is for sure, you’ll rarely be bored, and as Hitman 3 includes the content from both of the earlier entries in the trilogy, it’s the best stealth package out there. Jake Tucker
Best bit: Solving a Poirot-esque murder mystery in an English manor before performing one of your own.
8. Tales Of Arise
Platforms: PS4, PS5, Xbox Series X|S, Xbox One, PC
In a nutshell: Two characters from different worlds strike an unlikely alliance to overthrow the lords who have colonised and enslaved the people of Dahna for 300 years.
The Unreal glow-up certainly helps make Tales Of Arise one of the best looking JRPGs around, but what makes it outstanding is its story. Instantly in classic JRPG territory – evil empire, amnesiac hero, core items to seek across the world – while also going hard on themes of colonialism and systemic oppression, makes its anime fantasy resonate close with reality. Coupled with terrific, fast, and flashy combat and a diverse set of characters fleshed out through the series trademark Skits, Arise reinvigorates the 20-year old franchise as not just its best entry in years but arguably one that deserves to be spoken about in the same breath as Final Fantasy or Persona. Alan Wen
Best bit: The public execution of Mahag Saar’s lord, and the shocking twist that occurs.
Platforms: PC, Nintendo Switch, Xbox One
In a nutshell: Part block-fitting puzzle, part home decoration, Unpacking is a big-hearted game full of little surprises and tender moments.
Can you think back two decades to all the different houses you’ve lived in? Can you remember the stress of packing your entire life into little boxes then undoing it all at the other side? Can you feel the cortisol in your blood just from thinking about it? It’s hard to believe that’s the conceit of 2021’s chillest, most humbling game.
Unpacking doesn’t say anything – there’s barely 100 words in the whole experience. Instead, you knit together a story from the things you unpack; art supplies, a stuffed pig, a diploma… seemingly innocuous items become heavy, pregnant with meaning. Especially when they show up time and time again. For a game with barely no text, it says an awful lot. Dom Peppiatt
Best bit: Finally getting your hard-earned diploma where it bloody well should be.
6. Psychonauts 2
Platforms: PS4, Xbox One, Xbox Series X|S, PC, PS5
In a nutshell: Intern Raz traverses various mindscapes to uncover the secrets of the Psychonauts organisation and his own family’s history.
It’s been a phenomenal year for 3D platformers, but if Ratchet & Clank delivers next-gen spectacle and Mario nails the feel of platforming perfection, then Psychonauts 2 has the heart in its mindful storytelling and characters that ensures you’ll be remembering it for years to come.
The fact it’s taken 16 years for a sequel to emerge and possibly its last shot of continuing the story feels like an excuse for Tim Schafer and Double Fine to cram in as many ideas as possible. The result is an absolutely delightful game with constantly inventive mechanics and level design, and where the jokes (be prepared for lots of puns) are only matched by warm and empathic writing. Alan Wen
Best bit: The psychedelic music festival inside the brain of Helmut Fullbear (brilliantly played by Jack Black).
5. Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart
In a nutshell: Everyone’s favourite space fox and robot duo return in a fun and family friendly PS5 exclusive.
Developer Insomniac firmly cemented its PS5 prowess this year by swiftly following up Spider-Man: Miles Morales with the witty, stylish, and immensely creative Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart. PlayStation’s premier platforming pair have never looked nor played as well as this, jumping into another intergalactic adventure that takes full advantage of the next-gen hardware by seamlessly letting you bounce between dimensions. Gameplay-wise this allowed for an ideal blend between the old and new, as each planet you visit dictates you regularly switch between platforming, rail grinding and shooting.
Speaking of which, the gamut of guns in Rift Apart are some of the best in the series. From the bombastic Wreckochet that lets you ping pong a ball between enemies to the grenade-summoning Bombadier, all feel great to unleash thanks to the excellent haptic feedback offered by the Dualsense. Rounding out the journey was the addition of female Lombax Rivet, who easily holds her own up against Ratchet as a new playable protagonist. Overall, Rift Apart is a crowd-pleasing space romp. Aaron Potter
Best bit: Seeing Clank’s parallel version, Kit, reconcile with her past and return to help the team take down Emperor Nefarious.
Platforms: PS5, PC
In a nutshell: Genius gameplay and the finest world-building wrapped in a thrilling mystery.
Arkane Studios’ latest title is just as impressive as its library of hits. Deathloop thrives because of its addictive gameplay loop, finding the player repeating the same day in order to solve a bigger plot. It’s exhilarating, like its combat, and set in a ’60s-themed environment that encourages the player to explore every crevice. This game takes stealth and action gameplay to the next level, introducing some of the most unique ways to take on multiple objectives at once.
It’s an Arkane game, so of course there’s the stylish artstyle, colourful backdrops, and subtle, yet brilliant, world-building in the form of environmental storytelling that just makes the island of Blackreef come alive.
Deathloop deserves the recognition as one of the best games of 2021. Although, it’s Groundhog Day concept has been done before, Arkane should be applauded for the ambitious way it told its puzzle piece story. As NME said, Deathloop “has successfully nurtured that genius nugget of an idea – a roguelike immersive simulator – into a AAA blockbuster.” Demi Williams
Best bit: You can shoot a firework at an NPC and make them explode.
3. Forza Horizon 5
Platforms: Xbox Series X|S, PC, Xbox One
In a nutshell: A stunning road trip through the wild and wondrous circuits and dirt tracks of Mexico, in more or less any car you can imagine.
‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’. You can imagine that printed on a banner hanging up in the Playground Studios offices; it seems to be a tenet for the Forza Horizon series. But tinkering is better than fixing, anyway, and the engineers behind Horizon’s cars know exactly what they’re doing.
You can overlook the copy/paste feeling of how cars drive, how the UI looks, how the game works in Forza Horizon 5 because it all just feels so damn good. The same fundamentals have appeared in the last three Forza Horizon games, tuned up a touch each time, letting you slip back into the remarkable worlds the studio has kitbashed together for you.
And what a treat Mexico is! Whether you’re ragging a pimped-out Jeep through a mangrove forest, coasting in a classy Chevrolet along a desert highway as the sun sets behind you, or tearing up the streets in a Seat Ibiza, Forza Horizon 5 makes you feel important. Like a driving superstar (even with all the assists turned on).
Turning up the music, listening to the purr of the engine in your favourite car, and bombing it down a mountain faster than anyone else? That’s pure gaming comfort food, right there. Dom Peppiatt
Best bit: Roaring down the side of an active volcano as the earth beneath you begins to growl…
2. Resident Evil Village
Platforms: PC, PS4, PS5, Xbox One, Xbox Series X|S, Google Stadia
In a nutshell: Blending together the quarter of a century history of the franchise whilst coming up with something new, Resident Evil Village is the definitive campy-horror experience.
How do you follow up Resident Evil 7, a smash hit that reinvigorated a weary franchise by mashing together the best of its first game with a new lead, new perspective, and new monsters?
Capcom’s answer was to take that lead, that perspective, and those monsters, and this time inject them with a hearty dose of the best of its best game, Resident Evil 4.
Village is an unashamed nod to Leon Kennedy’s finest outing, from the titular rural European setting – complete with looming castle – to a renewed emphasis on action over pure horror.
At times that’s to the game’s detriment – it’s telling that by far the most memorable segment is a weaponless stroll through House Beneviento and its many, many, many dolls. But while Village pulls back on fright, it leans all the way in on a pure, bonkers, relentless dynamism.
This is a game that never stands still, and combined with a whole-hearted embrace of Resident Evil’s high-camp history the result is a game built to continuously surprise and shock, even if it doesn’t always bother to scare. Dominic Preston
Best bit: The dolls. So. Many. Dolls.
1. Metroid Dread
Platforms: Nintendo Switch
In a nutshell: Nintendo’s sci-fi action game returns with an unforgiving learning curve and bold new moves.
Metroid Dread has already proven divisive. It’s fiendishly difficult at times; complex to navigate; and changes enough from the classic Metroidvania formula to frustrate some older fans, while keeping enough of that formula to prove obtuse to some newcomers.
But set all that aside: this is still the best game of 2021.
You can tell that from the first moment you take control of bounty hunter Samus Aran, as she runs, jumps, and slides with a swagger and fluidity that’s all too rare. There’s a pure joy to just being Samus in Dread, a distant echo of swinging through New York in Insomniac’s recent Spider-Man games.
But this is no mere power fantasy. For as much as Dread offers you a power trip, some of its best moments strip that power away in breathless, panicked scenarios in which you can only flee from near-invincible robotic foes.
And yes, some of those sections are difficult z – and the game’s frequent boss fights even more so. You will die, and die, and try again. And there’ll be no magic moment when it all clicks together. But instead, attempt after attempt you’ll master new moves and perfect dodges, until that heaving, tentacled monster that killed you in 30 seconds the first time round suddenly can’t hit you at all.
Because in that moment you’re Samus, and no other Metroid game has captured that feeling quite so well. Dominic Preston
Best bit: Samus’s “Oh, it’s only Kraid” shrug as the game’s biggest beastie emerges.