Branching Path: James Galizio's Top 10 Games of 2021

If 2020 felt like a nightmare, 2021 felt a bit like a waking dream - a bit listless, and it really did feel like everyone was just doing their best, all the while unsure of what the "best" actually was. On the bright side, there are always videogames, and boy was I blessed with a ton of great ones this year. 

I've kept seeing people on social media bemoaning the lack of AAA releases this year, but from where I'm standing the number of releases that fit squarely in my own interests this year were almost impossible to keep up with as is. With all that out of the way, here's the best of 2021 that I've played:

Honorable Mention: Final Fantasy XI

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It wouldn't be my list, if I didn't list the best game that I played this year that didn't actually come out in 2021 - for me, that was Final Fantasy XI. Although I've spent merely a tenth of the time in Vana'diel as I have in Eorzea, I've remarked that in many ways Vana'diel feels more like a home - partly owing to how much more "real" that the world feels. While Eorzea is a theme park, Vana'diel has its own sense of autonomy - even if much of it is faked. Going through the basegame and the first two expansions with Bryan earlier this year left me with an appreciation for the decades-old MMO. For as janky, as obtuse as much of the experience was - and is! - I can't help but envision what the experience must've been like, as hundreds of thousands of players had to figure out Vana'diel on their own. They don't make MMOs like Final Fantasy XI anymore, and I'm just glad that I've had the chance to experience it before it's gone.

10. The Great Ace Attorney 2: Resolve

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It’s tough to talk about The Great Ace Attorney 2 without talking about the first half of its story, but it didn’t feel right to list the first part when I’d actually played it back in 2019 on 3DS. What I can say about Great Ace Attorney, both halves, is that it’s far and away my new favorite in the franchise. Ace Attorney has never been afraid to shine a serious spotlight at the blind spot that the justice system harbors, but never has it felt more obvious and intentional than here.

A tale of two islands – and the dark secret that they share together, and a story of how governments can and will fail their citizens, and the members of the judiciary who struggle to uphold the values with which their countries were founded. While it sits low on my list, you owe it to yourself to play The Great Ace Attorney.

9. Undernauts: Labyrinth of Yomi

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Hey, did you know I love DRPGs? All jokes aside, Undernauts: Labyrinth of Yomi is simply the best dungeon crawler that Experience Inc. has developed, and an excellent starting point for anyone looking to get into the genre. It’s got a fantastic art style, solid dungeon design, an engaging battle system, and even a half-decent story – but most of all, it manages to be accessible while still maintaining a level of complexity that allows players to express themselves through their teams.

It might not have been my favorite game to release in 2021, but it was almost definitely the least popular. Less than 200 people played the game on Xbox last I checked. Please give Undernauts a try.

8. It Takes Two

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When It Takes Two was revealed, I thought it looked cool, and then I basically forgot about it entirely until a friend of mine who used to write for another outlet asked me if I could help him play through the game – he’d been tasked with reviewing it, and as the title implied, he needed a co-op partner. We ended up breezing through the game in a few scant sessions, and both of us were blown away with the level design and sheer variety of co-op gameplay hooks that Hazelight managed to stuff into the game. When Director Josef Fares claimed you would never be doing the same thing twice, he wasn’t lying – and the whole time, we had smiles stuck to our faces.

Really, the only thing holding back the adventure as a whole would be the story – it never quite gripped either of us, but at worst it managed its job as a means of driving the gameplay forward. Everything else, though? Even if it wasn’t my personal Game of the Year, I can’t fault the accolades it's achieved. Folks will be recommending this co-op masterpiece for many years to come.

7. Returnal

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I detest that I spent $70 on Returnal, but I’m not going to sit here and say that I didn’t get my money’s worth out of the game. I did. While my list last year was graced by multiple roguelikes, Returnal is the sole representative of the genre I actually played this year – and its mix of frenetic 3D action bullethell gameplay and gorgeous, alien environments, made owning a PlayStation 5 all the more worthwhile during the early months of 2021. The game’s haunting atmosphere and blood-pumping boss fights were exactly what I needed when it came out, and both managed to make good work of the PS5’s haptic feedback and adaptive triggers.

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Once again, I don’t think I loved the story as much as others did – and I could maybe argue that the game doesn’t feel nearly as randomized as other games in the genre. Each run felt like less of a new beginning, and more a slight remix of the same trek towards the finish line. Returnal was so much fun to actually play, however, that I could never really muster the energy to care.

6. Atelier Ryza 2: Lost Legends & the Secret Fairy

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I was a casual Atelier fan before Ryza 2 – honestly, half the reason I even reviewed it in the first place was that I was the only available staff at the time who’d played the first game, and had the time on hand to review it. I expected a solid improvement over Atelier: Ryza – I didn’t expect what we actually got. Literally, everything about Ryza 2 is an improvement – level design, story, graphics, combat, and alchemy.

The best thing I can say about Ryza 2 is that it made me hope that Ryza 3 could be given a longer development cycle – not because it was bad, but because of how much potential Gust clearly has to deliver Atelier to the next level. I can’t wait to see what’s next for Ryza’s adventure.

5. Metroid Dread

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I’m honestly still in shock that Metroid Dread even exists, let alone that it was released and is as good as it is. Like, seriously – this time last year the game was confined to the dredges of history, a game many had long assumed had been canceled, never to see the light of day. Yet here it is, and it’s a total slam dunk on basically all fronts! Samus has never felt better to control, with the new slide slotting seamlessly into her moveset. Dread is absolutely filled with memorable bosses and moments, impeccable level design, and a pacing that had me itching to replay it as soon as the credits rolled.

You can say many things about 2021 in gaming, but if nothing else it’ll be remembered as the year that a decades-long wait for the next new 2D Metroid reached its conclusion, and it managed to do so while meeting almost every expectation. Man, what a great game.

4. Fuga: Melodies of Steel

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While for some people NEO: The World Ends With You was their favorite sequel to a niche DS game that was released in 2021, Fuga: Melodies of Steel was mine. I was a huge fan of Solatorobo: Red the Hunter, and although Fuga is a fundamentally different type of game – it still managed to live up for the expectations I’d set for it. A charming artstyle, a fantastic soundtrack, an excellent battle system… all underscored by an engaging gameplay loop revolving around resource management. There’s not much else to say, other than I hope we won’t be waiting another decade for the next Little Tail Bronx release.

3. Fantasian

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2021 was the year I properly got into Final Fantasy, after getting into Final Fantasy XIV last year. By the time Fantasian rolled around, I’d already played through Final Fantasy I through VI, and there’s definitely a level of appreciation you get for the game when you’re familiar with Hironobu Sakaguchi’s history as one of the fathers of the JRPG; but even separated from that legacy, Fantasian is an incredible experience.

Beautifully handcrafted dioramas make up the majority of the game world, which is one part of the game’s draw for sure, but what really drew me in was the gameplay – Fantasian’s battle system is simple, but it makes the most out of every mechanic that it brings to the table, to make each and every boss feel fresh, new and engaging. I don’t know if it will ever release off of Apple Arcade, but if you have any Apple product sitting around your home, you owe it to yourself to play Fantasian.

2. The Legend of Heroes: Kuro no Kiseki

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Everything I have to say about Kuro no Kiseki, I went over in my impressions. I love it, and it’s probably my new favorite game in the series – but I really don’t want to make this any harder for western fans stuck in localization hell. You’ll get there eventually, friends.

1. Final Fantasy XIV: Endwalker

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I was fully prepared for Endwalker to disappoint, much in a similar way to how Stormblood felt like a step down from Heavensward for most players, and yet the opposite ended up being the case. Endwalker is already well on its way to being the best Final Fantasy XIV expansion, with excellent dungeons and trials, imaginative zones, and a cathartic ending to the decade-long adventure. More than anything, I think I needed a game like Endwalker this year - and even discounting that, there's no question in my mind that it's my personal favorite game that I've played this year.

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