The year is almost over which means the time has come for every video game website to do their Game of the Year schtick. And yes, that includes me! Why wouldn’t I celebrate the fun and cool games I had the opportunity to play this year? Originally for this, my final article for the year 2021, I was going to take sixteen of the games I have experienced over the course of the year and compare them in a tournament-style bracket, sharing things I love about each as well as the aspects I felt could be improved while elevating the ones I love the most to the top of the ladder to determine my game of the year. I even planned the last couple of games that I played this year around that concept. But when I sat down to actually write the thing, I quickly had two realizations. One, that article would have been so long that no one would ever read the whole thing. And two, I don’t necessarily feel the need to speak about every single game I spent time with this year. There are specific titles I want to reflect on and discuss, ones I think I will continue to carry with me into 2022 and beyond.
So instead of my original vision for a tournament-style throwdown between the top 16, I’m going to zoom in and really focus on what I think will be the five games that stick with me the most after this year. These are the ones that really got me thinking about either their mechanics or their storytelling and characters. Games I play in the future may very well be informed by my experience with these titles, and out of all the games I’ve played this year these five will be the ones I am most likely to recommend. So then, let’s quit jabbering about the games vaguely and actually get about discussing them one at a time!
#5: Hollow Knight
With the release of Metroid Dread this year, I was determined to make that game my one final chance at liking a Metroidvania title. While I’ve enjoyed the Prime games in the past, Samus Returns had me convinced that 2D Metroidvania games just weren’t for me. When I read reviews suggesting that Dread, while good, did nothing to advance the formula, I decided to drop it from my list and instead check out Hollow Knight. I’m glad I did, because Hollow Knight opened my eyes to the potential of the genre.
If I had to give Hollow Knight a Game Awards style title, it would be Best World. The setting of Hallownest is a fascinating one built not by exposition or lore dumps from books but instead by tiny trickles of information from cryptic and interesting NPCs. The backgrounds are gorgeous and each region’s distinct flavor makes them fun to explore in different ways. Bouncing off mushrooms with your sword in the Fungal Wastes feels very different to wall jumping and dashing between narrow spikes in the Deepnest. The regions connect in fascinating ways that makes exploration open – outside of the initial couple of areas, there is really no set order to tackle the challenges of Hallownest and returning to an area with new tools opens up more satisfying rewards than just “here’s a missile upgrade.”
Gameplay-wise, Hollow Knight is a tough game that challenges you to learn patterns and play carefully until you have a good opening to get some strikes in. Your abilities are somewhat basic – directional sword strikes, a couple of spells, dashing and wall-jumping to avoid attacks, and the ability to heal. But using these abilities precisely around the unique movement patterns and attack shapes of different enemy types keeps combat active and challenging. When you die you lose key resources – money and a piece of the glass orb that contains your magical power – that you can recollect by defeating the shade you leave behind. The game is tough but the ability to recoup your losses as well as go exploring for new abilities and buffs means you always have options if you hit a wall you feel you cannot pass. For its blend of challenging but fair gameplay and the joy exploring such a fascinating world, Hollow Knight sits comfortably among the best games I played this year.
Some of my favorite indie games take a particular genre and execute it to a high level. They are not necessarily groundbreaking in terms of new mechanics but they do what the genre is known to do in a way that is unmatched among their peers. For a long time I’ve been looking for the game that does this for the turn-based RPG, streamlining it and distilling it to the core elements in a way that feels satisfying to play. I think this year I may have very well discovered the game I was looking for in the form of Ikenfell.
Ikenfell tells the story of a group of queer witches at a school of magic called…well, Ikenfell. The main character Maritte begins the game without magic, but gains the power of fire on the way to find her missing sister at the school. As she searches she meets her sister’s friends and rivals while learning about the many dark secrets her sister had been investigating at the school. Ikenfell isn’t a “wholesome game” – the characters are all dealing with their own forms of trauma and that pain is intermingled with dark magic in unsettling ways. But the story celebrates how queer love – both platonic and romantic – can overcome the darkness of our past and paint a future that is brighter.
This beautiful story with its charming cast is delivered concisely within little more than 20 hours, a pretty short amount of time to spend with an RPG. This is possible because mechanically, Ikenfell’s exploration and dungeons are streamlined experiences where you quickly encounter puzzle concepts and enemy types, riff on those basic ideas a couple of times, and then face a boss that puts what you’ve learned to the test. You’re never in any part of the game too long for the unique mechanics to get stale while the tactics-lite battles test your timing and positioning in interesting new ways with different enemies and new characters to play as. I heartily recommend Ikenfell to anyone who wants a good RPG experience in a digestible timeframe. The quality of neither the gameplay nor story suffer for Ikenfell’s brevity.
#3: Final Fantasy 7 Remake
A note before I dig into this one: Square Enix has recently announced that they are doubling down on a previous exploration of NFTs and blockchain gaming. These are practices I condemn because of their harmful impact on the environment relative to other implementations of gaming tech and because supporting NFTs supports a structure of harmful scamming for financial gain. I believe that these decisions are directly in conflict with the values expressed in Final Fantasy 7, a story about the harmful impact of thoughtless technological expansion as a result of capitalistic desires. This game is one of my favorites from this year, but I am frequently critical of the Game Awards for blindly praising games without acknowledging the harmful practices of the major companies behind them. The implementation of NFTs and the blockchain broadly in gaming is harmful both to the environment and to game design, and me enjoying this game does not mean I condone their bad behavior.
- Further reading on Squeenix’s interest in NFTs: https://www.nintendolife.com/news/2021/11/square-enix-is-the-next-company-to-embrace-nfts-and-blockchain-gaming
- Further reading on the harmful effects of NFTs: https://www.aleksandrhovhannisyan.com/blog/nfts-are-a-problem/#losing-sight-of-what-matters
I discovered Final Fantasy 7 through Kingdom Hearts and played the game much later than its original release. Because I came to it so late and had experienced so many other RPGs by that time, while I still enjoyed the game its age felt apparent. The lore and the hype around the characters I’d met in Kingdom Hearts and seen in action in Advent Children had far outstripped what the original game felt like it could give me. In Final Fantasy 7 Remake, I got the opportunity for the first time to play as these characters as I had envisioned them in my head before ever touching the original for the first time.
What fascinates me about this game is the way it engages with that idea of its own legacy. A supernatural force within the world of Remake fights to make events play out exactly the way they did in the original game. The heroes must deal with this force directly and face the daunting prospect of what it means to battle against your own fate – and whether or not changing that fate is something you want to accomplish. It does this while still honoring the legacy of the original game, filling the world with fun references and clever bits of fanservice while also filling in the details that were missing in the original.
Mechanically, Remake takes some of the most effective pieces of other Final Fantasy titles and brings them together to make a combat system that is rich and compelling. Changing characters is a satisfying experience and each of the four playable heroes has a unique style that makes them fun to experiment with. There are different weapons to upgrade which change stats in meaningful ways, materia can be equipped and swapped to customize spell selection or other unique abilities, elemental weakness and stagger systems to differentiate your approach against the various enemy types, side quests for those who want to explore more than just the main story beats; there’s plenty to dig in to from a gameplay perspective. Combine the solid mechanics with a well-realized version of this familiar world and Final Fantasy 7 Remake becomes the version of the game that feels custom made for me, respectfully playing with the story I thought I knew and daring to ask the question of whether or not that story should even be told again.
CrossCode is a game within a game. You play a character who is playing CrossCode, a VR MMORPG where the player’s avatar manifests in a real-world space to explore. But Lea, the protagonist, is different from other players – she has no memory of who she is outside of CrossCode. With the help of programmer Sergey, she seems to reawaken her memories within the game to finally realize who she is outside of it and reclaim her life. This basic premise leads into a compelling story about technology and how it is used in the modern world, by the end of which I found myself thoroughly enamoured with Lea as one of the best-executed silent protagonists I’ve ever seen in gaming.
CrossCode is more than just a neat story – in fact as much as I loved certain characters and the major story beats, much of the plot of CrossCode took a background role for me. CrossCode is most compelling in its combat and puzzles. Lea has a few basic abilities: melee attacks, a ranged orb blast that can charge and ricochet off of surfaces, three dashes that function as dodges, and a shield which can be broken if it absorbs too much damage. These basics are built upon by adding one to three special techniques to each basic move, with the techniques varying in shape and application based on what element Lea currently has equipped. There are four elements in the game and each one has unique properties in terms of specials, weaknesses, and resistances. These building blocks of combat build up slowly; in the beginning you’re just attacking and dodging, but by the end of the game you’ll be swapping elements rapidly depending on whether you are attacking or defending as well as trying to have the right special ability to best resolve your current problem in battle. Fights are hectic and busy, rewarding you for mastering higher-level techniques like perfect guards and dash canceling.
CrossCode also has what are very likely the most complex but also most satisfying dungeon puzzles in any game I have ever played. Each element you command interacts with puzzle mechanisms in the environment in different ways. The beginning of a dungeon will teach you the basics of those interactions: heat turns bubbles into steam, cold freezes water pillars into structures that can ricochet your shots, shock powers magnets that can pull blocks across pits, wave launches energy spheres that phase through walls, and these are just a single manifestation of how each element may be used. As you learn the basics you are challenged to push each element to its limit, and most dungeons have a penultimate chamber with a timed puzzle where you guide a ricocheting orb through a series of obstacles that are manipulated by one or more of the elements under your command. These challenges are tough, but the feeling of satisfaction that comes from learning the patterns and finally executing the puzzle perfectly is my personal favorite aspect of CrossCode. It’s an excellent game for fans of crunchy action and deep puzzles.
I thought I was done with farming sims. The repetitive nature of games like Harvest Moon and Story of Seasons lost me more with every game, and even Stardew Valley – likely the pinnacle of the genre’s classic formula – just didn’t feel like a game that matched what I’m looking for from stories about growing and making things while developing your relationships with a community of people. Then I encountered Spiritfarer, a farming sim with platforming elements where the protagonist Stella is helping wandering spirits to resolve their final regrets and pass on to the afterlife. It was a game that directly addressed every complaint I had about the classic farming sim, and brought to the table elements I never would have imagined I wanted to create a game that filled me with joy even as it filled my eyes with tears.
As a farming sim Spiritfarer is not limited by the calendar structure that often traps these sorts of games into a repetitive cycle. Nor do you have to wait for in-game days to see the fruits of your labor. Rather than maintaining a farm you have a magical boat, and upon it you build facilities for harvesting materials as well as crafting buildings to make those materials into the things you need to make your spirit companions happy. You build their homes, cook them meals, and travel to various islands in the spirit world to help them resolve those last lingering struggles. As you explore, you also gain movement abilities like gliding, bouncing, ziplining, and long-jumping which allow you to move from task to task in a way that feels satisfying. Navigating islands and your boat has a sense of fun and whimsy that just walking around a field or a town does not present. And that hug mechanic – more games need to let you hug your cool virtual friends.
The characters in the game are nuanced and detailed. While a Harvest Moon shopkeeper’s entire personality is often their area of expertise, the spirits of Spiritfarer have lives which are filled with hope and struggle. The womanizer is also a war veteran, your childhood best friend unpacks her complicated relationship with her family, the inventive child gives us insight into his tumultuous upbringing – everyone has depth that highlights both life’s difficulties and life’s pleasures. The moment when you finally say goodbye can be agonizing, but if you want to progress in Spiritfarer and meet new spirits on new islands then learning to let go is something you have to do. In the end, Spiritfarer is a story about confronting your own mortality, a reminder to see the beauty in the brief but busy existence that we lead. With excellent mechanics, a powerful story with lovable characters you will hate to say goodbye to, and a smart design that skillfully brings these elements together to get its ultimate message across, Spiritfarer is an easy lock for my favorite game I have played in 2021.
Well adventurers, that brings us to the end of 2021. I’ve found so much to enjoy this year not just in these games but in many others as well, and I’m excited for what next year may bring. I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below about your own favorite games, or if you had a different experience with one I have described here. Whether this is your first article or if you’ve been with me since the beginning, thank you being a part of another year of Adventure Rules. Here’s to the next one.