Hello, everyone, and happy New Year. New Years’ is a time for looking ahead, but it’s also a time where online content writer types like myself throw together year-end retrospective lists. Now would be the optimal time for a Top 10 Games of 2021 article, wouldn’t it? The one obstacle is, though, barely anything even came out this year, and I don’t tend to pick up games on release. I’m both a person who’s trying to familiarize themself more with the “canon” of games and someone who just doesn’t like buying something on release when I can wait for the price to drop, so a lot of what I played over the last year were old games. But that’s not gonna stop me from making a Top 10! Since I keep track of what games I buy and finish over at https://backloggery.com/bellsprout, I’ve decided to compile a list of all of the games that I first finished over 2021 and write a few words about my Top 11. We’re doing 11 instead of 10 because the majority of these games deserve some form of credit, and also I’m just kind of quirky like that.
If you’d like to see every eligible game, you can check out the “Memory Card” feature at the above link. If you’re just looking for a list of eleven recommendations and don’t really care about what didn’t make the list, then don’t worry about it. Some of these games were titles that I started playing ages ago, but I finally just got around to finishing them. Some of them were brand new entries from this year. Also, If you’d like to see my thoughts on some of the snubs, you can check out the reviews on my Backloggery page. Some of the reviews for older games there are pretty rough and need revising but, for stuff I’ve finished recently, it should be all fairly up-to-date. I don’t really think much more needs to be said, so without further ado, let’s get into the list!
#11: Serious Sam HD: The Second Encounter (Croteam, 2010/2002)
I’ll admit, I spent a lot of time in Croteam’s world last year. I went from having played a tiny bit of Serious Sam 3 to having beaten every mainline entry in the series over the course of about six months, so it was fairly likely that at least one of them was gonna end up on this list. Out of the series, I found The Second Encounter to be the most agreeable and the most fun time.
For those unfamiliar with the series, Serious Sam is a long-running series of budget FPS games in the horde shooter mold. Though occasionally cited as a return to classic FPS design principles, it’s focused much more on huge, over-the-top encounters than it is on exploration and resource rationing. Think less DOOM (1993) and more DOOM (2016). It can be fairly easy to denigrate this game based on its rage-game-adjacent encounter design, Spartan visual and level design, and just its general lack of game mechanics, but what makes Sam so captivating for an FPS-head like myself is the complete lack of fluff. If you like pointing and clicking on monsters, Sam is going to deliver you pointing and clicking on monsters ‒ and they’ve got monsters to spare. There’s also something about Croteam that just makes it feel like you have a weirdly direct connection with them. Perhaps that’s another thing about the lack of fluff ‒ with how streamlined everything is, you’re getting Croteam’s design decisions delivered directly to you.
Why The Second Encounter over anything else? Well, after The Second Encounter, the games start to lose that ultra-streamlined design philosophy and start getting a little bit more setpiece-heavy and objective-focused, which isn’t a strictly bad design decision, but it’s not what makes Sam a unique series. That leaves us with the first two Encounters, and the greater weapon and visual variety, in conjunction with just a much better sense of pacing and encounter design leaves me preferring The Second Encounter over the first by a fair amount. It’s just a much more refined and well-designed game in comparison. I don’t know how easy to recommend this series as a whole is except to the type of people who are probably already interested in it, but if I were to suggest any Sam game be your one time with the franchise, The Second Encounter is your best bet.
#10: Castlevania: Harmony of Dissonance (Konami, 2002)
I’ve already written fairly extensively about Harmony of Dissonance in a prior article, which you can find here. The TL;DR is that Harmony of Dissonance is a fun and well-made Metroidvania with maybe a little bit too much map space and a very much underbaked OST. It’s much too coy about telling you how to even use its fast travel system, and the mirrored two-castles gimmick doesn’t really reach its full potential. But those are just the core negatives; aside from those, I really enjoyed Harmony of Dissonance. It’s a solid entry in the long-running Castlevania franchise that captures a lot of what makes the Metroidvania genre so captivating. Castlevania as a series is much more RPG-element heavy than other Metroidvanias, often featuring a literal RPG stat system, which combines the inherent satisfaction of watching an empty map fill in with color with the inherent satisfaction of watching numbers go up, forming an experience that’s altogether warm and satisfying like a good Turkey dinner. Since it’s available in the Castlevania Advance Collection and also not a significant time investment, I’d say it’s pretty easy to recommend Harmony of Dissonance. It’s certainly not the series’s best, but I still prefer it to Circle of the Moon and had a solid time.
#9: Gunfire Reborn (Duoyi Games, 2021)
Hey, it’s a game that came out in 2021, technically! Although the game has been available in early access for a couple of years prior, but it still counts. I can at least say a game that actually came out this year is on my list.
I like FPSes. I like Roguelikes. Gunfire Reborn isn’t the first game to put those two genres together, but it’s the first one that feels like it really made the combo work. Gunfire Reborn draws a lot of its combat ideas from the Borderlands series, and even though I’ve gone on record as someone who kind of dislikes that franchise, the things that bring it down aren’t quite as present in Gunfire Reborn. What is here is one of the better co-op Roguelike experiences you’ll find on the market. While most of the big-name Roguelikes tend to leave co-op as more of a secondary thought, Gunfire Reborn is designed for co-op, which takes advantage of the genre’s tendency towards featuring multiple distinct characters and different builds, allowing you to finally see the way that all of those different pieces might act when working together.
Solo players don’t need to worry, either, as the game is perfectly playable and enjoyable as a loner. Most of my fifty-odd hours are recorded in solo play. Overall, I wouldn’t exactly call Gunfire the most balanced experience, and the tendency for getting one-tapped on later levels feels like slogging through a Call of Duty campaign on veteran (without the hitscanners, at least), but if you’re familiar with Roguelikes, you’ve probably got a much higher nonsense threshold than the majority. Overall, Gunfire Reborn isn’t an earth-shattering game, but it’s a great pick-up if you’d like a fresh Roguelike or a new co-op experience.
#8: Castlevania: Aria of Sorrow (Konami, 2003)
It looks as though Castlevania serves much better in the “number of entries in series played vs. entries on the year-end top 11” metric in comparison to Serious Sam. Aria of Sorrow was my favorite of the 3 GBA titles, and most of the positive qualities I outlined in the Harmony of Dissonance section apply here as well, even moreso. There are also simply less glaring flaws than in Harmony, which gives Aria its higher placement. Again, I’ve written about this game before, so I’m not going to repeat myself too extensively, but Aria of Sorrow is another solid entrant on the list.
#7: Black Mesa (Crowbar Collective, 2020)
You’ve got to have some serious stones to take a game as influential and iconic as Half-Life and say, “that’s cool and all, but we can do it better”. Crowbar Collective have been workshopping Black Mesa for ages, and with the game’s final release in 2020, the remake really showcases what twenty years of hindsight and a whole lot of effort can do for a remake (take note, Brilliant Diamond/Shining Pearl). Black Mesa trims the fat of some of Half-Life’s worst chapters, rebalances the combat to feel more modern and less awkward, and totally reimagines the game’s concluding act, with visuals so stunning I legitimately cannot believe that this is all being done with an engine originally released in 2004.
I do have my gripes. It’s not really a game that you’re meant to play before the original, because so much of what makes it great is based on the ways it refines and improves upon the old formula. Also, for as pretty as the Xen section is, and for how much it improves over the original (admittedly, not a high bar to clear, as even Valve will readily admit), it drags on for ages. My trek through Xen made up about 40% of my campaign, and I swear that Interloper made up a fifth all on its own. It felt to me like the devs were really showing off and trying to flex how much they improved upon Half-Life’s most infamous chapter, but it really started to wear me down by the end. These are minor complaints, though, because Black Mesa is still the best way to experience Half-Life out there, and Half-Life is a solid enough core that I can’t not recommend it. Half-Life is one of those games that I think it’s worthwhile to play just to experience a piece of history, and Black Mesa supplements that with an example of both how design has progressed and how incredible community projects can be.
#6: Eviternity [for DOOM II] (Dragonfly et al, 2019)
Speaking of incredible community projects!
Is it cheating to put a free mod on a list like this? With how much effort went into Eviternity, and how it’s a longer playthrough than some of the actual commercial releases on this list, I definitely think not. Eviternity’s aesthetics are genuinely mind-blowing for existing in a 2.5D engine from the early 90’s, and its gameplay is intricate and refined. The project is described as a birthday gift to DOOM, and it really showcases how 25 years of community support can lead to an incredibly intricate understanding of a game’s systems and mechanics. Eviternity’s fights are well-balanced, and its difficulty curve scales nicely from something that someone familiar with the commercial DOOMs can handle fairly well, to a nail-biting slaughter in its closing chapters. At no point, however, does it resort to cheap difficulty or utterly crushing hordes, which puts it above some of the other DOOM projects I’ve played (though my experience is, admittedly, limited with the vast quantity of high-effort projects out there). Some of the stages, like Map 19: Dehydration and Map 32: Anagnorisis take upwards of a full hour to complete, and their scale is deeply impressive and compelling. There’s just something about the feeling of triumph you get from finishing a map like Anagnorisis that few other experiences replicate.
It can be hard, of course, to recommend a mod in a list like this. It somewhat necessitates experience with the original DOOM, and by original DOOM, I mean DOOMs I, II, and Final, which is a lot of preamble. Obviously, you can start your DOOM experience with Eviternity, but that’s not really advisable. If you’re familiar with classic DOOM, Eviternity is a must-play for how it refines the formula, and if you aren’t familiar with classic DOOM, I’d recommend it, just for the historical value, and who knows, maybe you’ll end up with a new fixation (like myself). Even if the original DOOM titles have aged fairly poorly with their deeply outdated level design, Eviternity proves that the core mechanics of DOOM can be molded into an incredible experience. Eviternity is pretty much the highest-up project on this list due to its mechanics alone, since it has practically no narrative to speak of. It’s a great time if you’re properly prepared.
#5: Psychonauts (Double Fine, 2005)
While the more up-to-speed members of the community were diving into this game’s long-awaited sequel after it finally hit store shelves in 2021, I was taking my first trip through Double Fine’s classic 3D platformer. And let me tell you, if Psychonauts 2 is anything as good as its predecessor, that game was snubbed hard at the Game Awards, because Psychonauts is deeply captivating and an admittedly bumpy joyride from start to finish.
I’ve gone on record as someone who doesn’t typically enjoy 3D platformers. Their tenure as the dominant genre predates my era, and every time I’ve gone back to one, I’ve found them to be awkward and clunky, with weird cameras and problematic perspectives. My depth perception is naturally terrible, and it’s even worse when I’m judging fake depth on a TV screen. And if you want to talk clunky 3D platformers, Psychonaut’s reliance on scripted animations and moves leads to extended gameplay sections always feeling half-functional and tedious. Where Psychonauts grabs me is its incredible writing and creative set dressing that makes the game an absolute delight, even with its jank.
I probably don’t need to talk about the creativity in-depth. Psychonauts is legendary for its unhinged stage themes, ranging from a lungfish metropolis, a giant war-themed board game, and the legendary Milkman Conspiracy. That, combined with the genuinely laugh-out-loud funny writing, which manages to have a bitter meanness to it that doesn’t come off as exhausting edginess, kept me glued to my screen, elated to see what other crazy thing the devs thought of. Is it janky and frustrating at times? Sure. But Psychonauts really is an experience like no other and an absolute masterclass of comedy writing in games. An easy recommendation for anybody who likes games.
#4: OMORI (OMOCAT, 2020)
Past this point, we’re getting to the absolute masterclasses. Games that I’d chalk up as some of the best of all time, not just the best I’ve seen in 2021. OMORI, maybe, isn’t quite that. But it’s incredible all the same.
OMORI is, honestly, kind of lacking from a mechanics perspective. The combat’s use of an elemental type system that also serves as stat modification and is also something you’re pretty much in control of is maybe a little too clever for its own good, and I used basically the exact same strategy for the entire game and never felt a real need to switch it up. The game doesn’t really have that many dungeons, and the ones it does have drag on for far too long. I don’t think OMORI is a great game, mechanically. So how did it take the coveted #4 spot on the world-renowned Bellsprout’s Top 11 Games Of The Year List?
OMORI’s presentation and story combine to sell the experience to a level few other pieces of media I’ve encountered reach. The biggest flaw in the gameplay, in all honesty, is that every random encounter is time spent not progressing the story. For the sake of not spoiling anything, I’m not gonna say too much about it, but it twists and turns in ways that lead to incredible moments, and even if its exploration of mental illness is somewhat surface-level, the depth of character among the main cast is deeply compelling. Not to mention the gorgeous artwork and the fantastic OST. The mechanics themselves might be subpar, but the way the game is able to recontextualize them to sell certain moments is an absolute masterclass. OMORI is secretly a mechanically subversive JRPG like moon or Undertale in the guise of a standard one. The problem is, you still have to deal with the standard RPG half. Again, I don’t want to spoil anything, but if you try OMORI for yourself, you’ll see what I mean. OMORI’s minute-to-minute experience may often be middling, but its highs are so atmospheric that it sweeps the #4 spot on this list.
#3: Subnautica (Unknown Worlds, 2018)
Even though I’ve owned Subnautica for a long time, long before I had a computer reasonably capable of playing it with a stable framerate, it took me until this year to push through my criminally short attention span to dive properly into Subnautica, and the treasure I found buried in the muck was absolutely worth the plunge. Once you get over that initial hurdle and get your feet wet, you’ll find yourself with a rewarding experience of dizzying depth.
I’m honestly kind of glad that Minecraft doesn’t track your playtime, because if it did, I’d be genuinely terrified by how much of my life I spent playing it. I think, after my bajillion hours in Minecraft as a child, survival games have never really hit the same ever again. It also doesn’t help that I’m usually not too keen on trial-and-erroring my way through a complex tech tree or constantly tabbing out to look at the wiki to figure out what the hell I’m even supposed to be doing. But Subnautica eases up on the crafting and construction of necessary complex structures, and fills it with the thrill of exploration. Everything in Subnautica is driven by exploration, and with the gorgeous environmental design, the exploration is a thrill unto itself. There’s still an element of resource harvesting and construction, but it’s de-emphasized so that you can spend more time exploring the deep than staring at menus.
The main thing that I love about Subnautica isn’t the gameplay, however, but the narrative. Not the lore and actual plot of the game; those things are fine, but what I’m referring to is the narrative of survival over the planet. Subnautica is often a genuinely terrifying game, even for someone who absolutely loves sea life and has never felt a particular fear of the ocean, because of just how vulnerable you really are as a player. You don’t conquer the seas of Subnautica, you don’t colonize an alien planet: you learn how to cohabit, how to coexist, and when you get the chance, you wave the leviathans good-bye and take off, leaving the planet and all you’ve constructed behind. It’s not a game about conquering and destroying nature, it’s a game about understanding it (and,as you’ll eventually learn, healing it). The fact that Subnautica has a definitive end, where you have to leave the world behind, is something that I really love about it. You can’t just spend your time perpetually working towards the total domination of the world. You are always a small, dangerously edible part of it. Even if you don’t like survival games, I can’t recommend Subnautica enough.
#2: Anodyne 2: Return to Dust (Analgesic Productions, 2019)
The prevalence of indie projects among this list is not an accident, and Anodyne 2 is a great example why. It’s experimental and direct in a way that a AAA game really just could never be. For those unfamiliar, Anodyne is a two-entry series from the two-person team at Analgesic Productions. The original was a cross between Link’s Awakening and Yume Nikki, with a heavy emphasis on the exploration of surreal, dreamlike spaces that both games engaged in, while wrapping that in Zelda’s dungeon-crawling adventure gameplay, all scored with a beautiful, trancelike, deeply atmospheric soundtrack. Anodyne 2 isn’t a direct narrative sequel, but it is a mechanical one, and one which brings the exploration to the third dimension, and develops the writing substantially. The first game’s story is more vaguely hinted at than strict text, but the second’s story is significantly more prominent.
Anodyne 2 is similar to Psychonauts in that it’s a game that constantly surprises you with what’s coming next. Again, I ardently refuse to spoil the details of some of the game’s greatest moments, but I’ll say without context that the DESERTNPC and Sunset Beach areas genuinely blew my mind the first time I encountered them. This is another game on the list that’s about diving into the minds or dreams of characters, clearly a favorite conceit of mine, and this game uses that conceit both to explore the emotions that the side characters symbolize and the ways that those emotions relate to the main character. Anodyne 2 is a game about a lot of things; it's about a finding a sense purpose, about disillusionment with religion, about loneliness, about parent/child relationships, and despite how much it sounds like the game is trying to tackle, it does so elegantly and subtly, without feeling like it falls flat on its face. It’s a game that juggles multiple modes of gameplay, as well, with some sections being a 3D platformer, and others being in the top-down explorative style of the original. The game features a number of dungeons which function well as distinct levels, all of which use some sort of unique mechanic and aesthetic which keeps them all distinct and compelling to uncover. It’s not a very long game, but it’s constantly captivating throughout.
At risk of completely derailing this article, I need to spend a few sentences gushing about this game’s soundtrack, because it’s my absolute favorite game OST of all time, no contest. Pastel Horizon, Longing, Nano Cleaner Zera, Dustbound, Bonegummed Yearnsands, Upon Soaring Highways, just a nonstop feed of incredible music. My favorite song, though, is Center City Cenote, which is a song that manages to carry so many moods at the same time. It’s simultaneously warm and cold, close and distant, mournful and nostalgic. It’s a synecdoche for everything that makes this game so phenomenal. I feel almost vulnerable recommending a game as intimate as Anodyne 2, so heartily, but it’s one of the all-time greats.
#1: Jimmy and the Pulsating Mass (Kasey Ozymy, 2017)
It was never not gonna be this.
The final game on this list that’s all about exploring a dreamscape, Kasey Ozymy’s Jimmy and the Pulsating Mass is honestly beyond words. To quote the Backloggery review I wrote upon first finishing the game, it’s “funny, charming, stylish, inventive, touching, grotesque, tragic, horrific, and, above all else, phenomenal”. It’s a deeply emotional and profoundly affecting journey, an intricate character study of a protagonist too young to truly understand the implications of what he observes, glimpsed exclusively through his eyes. It’s a fairly unassuming game on the surface, and its slow start leads builds to an utterly devastating conclusion.
Unlike its kin OMORI, Jimmy’s gameplay is actually very well thought-out and fun. Engaging in its gameplay doesn’t feel like wasted time away from the narrative elements, and even though my JRPG background isn’t as deep as others’, I still loved the way this game stuck to a fairly traditional, but extremely defined, JRPG framework. The ability to switch between classes at will and build the main character as you desire adds an interesting layer to the combat, and the lack of backbreaking RNG means that you feel genuinely in control of the fights in a way that you often don’t in turn-based combat. I wouldn’t call myself a JRPG combat enthusiast, but I do tend to like or at least tolerate it, but I genuinely enjoyed doing fights in Jimmy.
Of course, this game’s main draw is its narrative, which, again, I am not going to spoil, but it’s an extremely powerfully told story that’s ultimately tragic, but tragic in a deeply compassionate and hopeful way. The game manages to explore themes that could come across as manipulative in the wrong hands in a way that’s holistic, not reductive, exploring the full breadth of its tragedy in a way that makes you empathise with every aspect of its design. Not to mention that the experience of exploring the dreamscape is captivating in the same way Anodyne 2 is: it’s full of surprises and unique ideas, but it never feels overly cutesy or meaningless. Every detail feels intentionally placed, every frame a painting. Nearly everything in the game serves the narrative core, which is impressive given the game’s incredible amount of content. This isn’t one of those 10-hour indie RPGs; Jimmy is easily a forty-hour experience, and not a second of that is wasted. Sure, there’s grinding, but the game has methods to mitigate grinding, and you can spend time levelling for main objectives tackling the broad range of side content. There’s so much to find, so much to do, and it all feels purposeful.
The word “masterpiece” gets thrown around in YouTube-level games discussion to the point that it’s basically lost all meaning, but I mean it to the fullest extent of the term when I say Jimmy and the Pulsating Mass is a genuine masterpiece. I know that I’ve been lavishing ceaseless and probably exhausting praise on the game, but it’s seriously the game that really made me take notice and finally understand what games could truly be when they meet their full potential. Given the positive and wordy reviews on Steam, as well as how the friends I’ve recommended this game to have responded to it, I don’t think I’m alone in this sentiment. If you only play one game on this list, let it be this one.
So, what did we learn today? That I’m kind of a dour person who really likes tragic narratives? That I’m really, really into the dream-exploration concept? That I’m really bad at writing about Castlevania games? All of these and more, I’d say!
I played a lot of games in 2021, and most of them were pretty good. There were definitely some stinkers in the mix (ol’ Randy strikes again with Gearbox’s total inability to make a slightly tolerable game with Bulletstorm), but all in all, I experienced a lot of fantastic games this year. It was, all in all, kind of a shit year from a broader perspective, another three hundred and sixty-five days in the shadow of the plague, as we watch deranged, meaningless internet culture war nonsense from 2016 somehow become the primary mode of American political discourse, after all the sedition, of course. It was a year where I’m very glad that I found games that spoke to me as much as Anodyne 2 and OMORI, and gave me something to give me just that little bit of hope. I know that sounds cheesy to say, but there’s really nothing like experiencing truly great art to keep your outlook from turning nihilistic. I hope that some of these games can bring the same kind of joy for you all, and I wish you all a fantastic 2022. Until next time,
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