Well, thank goodness for video games. As Planet Earth serves up a double-header of crappy years, these little gleams of hope and light make a lot of difference. And what gleams we’ve had this year, such a wealth of superb games that have tragically fallen way under the media and audience’s radars. I hope my efforts have made a small difference, and still fervently wish that the bigger boys would assume I’m not a complete idiot and give the games below the wider coverage they all deserve.
These games are not listed in any particular order, apart from the last one, which is my Game Of The Year 2021.
Of all the games that should have broken through to the mainstream this year, there’s Ynglet. By Nifflas, who has been creating wonderful indie projects for decades, this received a review in Edge and the Guardian! And yet, despite even this, most of the popular gaming press ignored it. And six months later, those who did notice seem to have forgotten.
Not us. Ynglet is an absolute marvel, a platform game with no platforms, an exploration of swimming, and a soundscape created by your actions. It’s fluid and fascinating, as you swoosh between floating shapes, sending out explosions of colour, learning how to more precisely control your jellyfish-like creature.
It’s a warm, gentle, ambient game, that while challenging always remains approachable, with bonus tougher levels available once you’ve finished the main game. Its player-created score is wondrous, and just flipping buy this right now.
This is all about dice rolling, appointing attacks and defences to your characters, and letting them make bloody war against a level’s enemies. It is, on the surface, incredibly simple. But the more you play, the more you realise there is to it, as you edge closer toward completing its 20 levels.
This spent a lot of time on my phone this year, and oddly, on my son’s tablet, too. It doesn’t present as a game appropriate for 6-year-olds, and I’m not convinced it is, but damn he was good at it. Still is. It’s hooky enough that he remembers it and replays it pretty regularly. Me too. You should as well.
The real joy of Buried Treasure is installing anything that looks weird or interesting on Steam, and then finding something as extraordinary as Tux And Fanny. A super-lo-fi game about a couple of great buddies, who just want to kick a ball around the garden. But the ball is deflated, and so they’re going to need to go on an epic quest, that will somehow take in a Proteus-like first-person exploration of the forests, helping a worm pass through the digestive systems of multiple animals, and a brief visit to the moon.
At the same time, it subverts its very “wholesome games” vibe with some existentially unsettling commentary from the local bug life (“The age of man will soon be over,” an ant informs you.) Then it makes you forget about that with a whole wodge of games to install on T&F’s computer, all playable, as well as records to collect, flies to help, and mixed-media bizarreness to explore.
Developers Ghost Time Games aren’t releasing this on Steam out of principle, so its currently only on Itch and Switch. It’s so good I’d recommend getting it on both.
Allow your entire metabolism to slow down, and then settle in to enjoy this Christie-like detective story. Here you play as Robert Conway, a retired police officer restricted to a wheelchair, living in a small, gated community in 1950s England. A girl has gone missing, and despite almost no one wanting your help in finding her, that’s what you’re determined to do.
After a genuinely rudely slow opening (you will scream at your screen), things speed up to a snail’s crawl in a gorgeously rendered and voiced story. It looks a bit like Dishonored, and it has the best British voice cast I’ve ever heard. What follows is a methodical detective tale, but made more interesting by its constant meta-questioning of whether it’s at all appropriate for some guy to try to do the police’s job.
This is a touch buggy, but it’s a testament to how good of a tale it tells that I didn’t mind. Just for the voice acting alone, this deserves recognition. But it’s a long, fascinating game, with that 20th-century Poirotish mindset that can feel so comforting.
A first-person 2.5D Doom-like shooter, but made with the sensibility of a Metroidvania, all based on the work of Polish artist Zdzisław Beksiński? This is why we do this.
This game is so superbly atmospheric, its combination of undulating, pustule-ridden environments, and deeply unsettling score, make it feel unlike anything else. That you’re zipping through it at the speed of a mid-90s FPS game only makes things more strange.
Gloriously, it’s a short game, too. All that, but it’s not going to take you days to get through.
The art, which remains a deeply curious choice, does not in any way reflect the sort of game you’re going to get from Curon. This is about the true final days of a small South Tyrolian town in 1950, before it was flooded by an Italian chemicals company, Montecatini.
While there is a Netflix show also called Curon, and loosely based around the same events, they have nothing in common – that is a horror, this is a sad love story.
With romance, betrayal, subterfuge and gossip, it’s a game unlike any other, a historical account with a dash of fiction (not least, the time-travelling of the protagonist). It’s just darned weird that the whole thing looks like a Minecraft mod, but also, it works.
This is my favourite Metroidvania in a year in which Metroid Dread came out. There, said it. Because where Dread adds nothing to its (superb) formula but horribly imbalanced difficulty walls, Transiruby creates a bright, cheerful world that wants to welcome in as many players as possible.
Siruby is a cyborg, who finds herself in another dimension, and then generally runs about collecting abilities, biffing enemies, and turning into a motorbike. It’s huge, beautifully crafted, and incredibly accessible, and will just let you smile as you play. In a world of bastard-hard MV’s like Hollow Knight and Dark Souls, it’s an enormous pleasure to see someone not only remember it’s fun to already be good at something, but also deliver it so extremely well.
I can’t wait for this to come out on Switch next year, so I can play it all over again.
I really wasn’t expecting anything much from Day Repeat Day. I took a look because I was intrigued how a visual novel could include match-3, being a big fan of the latter. What I instead got was a remarkable game telling the story of a person’s entire lifetime, while satirising our current predicaments with companies like Amazon.
There’s so much depth to this, as well as a storyline you can directly influence, changing with whom your character is in relationships as the years go by. Plus there are hidden bizarro-world websites, Lynchian video collages, and of course a match-3 game to simulate your days at work.
I was just astonished by Day Repeat Day. There is far more to this than you could imagine, as it explores so many facets of life, relationships, work, fear, depression, hope, aspiration, and more. It’s also currently under £4 in the Steam sale.
I didn’t want to tell people anything about Dum-Dum before they started playing when I reviewed it, and I still don’t want to now. So just trust me and get it. It’s currently half price.
If you want more convincing, it’s a simulation of a mid-80s desktop, in which you aid a worker seemingly trapped in her workplace by a crazed boss. It’s all done using the various applications on your computer, solving puzzles, playing minigames, all using the power of your stupidity. Yes, yours. You dum-dum.
It’s the Blade Runner game everyone else forgot to make. A superb narrative adventure, where your primary means of play is running what are essentially Voight-Kampff tests on androids, to determine if they are in fit condition for use.
Of course, “fit condition” is relative, and the game quickly diverges into ethical quandaries and investigations of your own nature. Within this, you can choose the ethical path you want to walk, which lead toward many different endings.
While not perfect, it offers an extraordinary array of routes and responses, really letting you have different experiences based on your approach. Its mix of Papers Please and Blade Runner is extraordinarily potent, and it remains a grim indictment of the gaming press that so few sites bothered to give it a look, even after PC Gamer followed up on our review with one of their own.
I have raved and raved about Scarlet Hollow. I desperately hope my attempts have helped people discover my favourite game of 2021. And at just 2/7 complete, it might even be my favourite game of 2022 and 2023.
Visual novels are a genre I always think I don’t like until I remember how many of them I’ve loved. From Phoenix Wright to Day Repeat Day (above) to Space Court, it’s by no means all the uncomfortable wank fantasies that admittedly make up most of the output. It turns out, if the writing is good enough, then they’re already halfway there.
Scarlet Hollow‘s writing is the best I encountered this year. It’s just such a bloomin’ wonderful piece of fiction, and that you get to somewhat direct its content feels like an honour. While the story beats will go where they’re going to go, the dialogue choices you make – and indeed the RPG-like ability choices you pick at the start – have real and significant impacts on your experience. It’s possible for major characters in this creepy back-woods small-town tale to live or die depending upon what you choose, and that has already shown narrative consequences in the two chapters currently available.
The art is amazing, as well, so much work put into every scene, even if you only briefly pass through it once in the whole game. But this is primarily a game about characters, and here it shines so damned brightly. I want to spend so much more time with these people! I want to be creeped out in the woods at night, or rescue ungrateful teenagers from a collapsing mine, because of the people I’m with.
A new chapter should be with us around February ’22, and I cannot wait. Scarlet Hollow is my Game Of The Year 2021.