RPG Site Best of 2021 Awards - our picks for the best of the year
It was hard to predict exactly how 2021 would play out -- not just in the world of video games, but in general. After a rough 2020 for all of us, we hoped that 2021 would bring a reprieve. Unsurprisingly, we saw the effects of 2020 linger into the subsequent year both within and outside the world of video games. Despite that, as we looked back on our favorite releases of the year, we found ourselves with a very difficult task to narrow down to our absolute favorites. It's time to discuss them all in our Best of 2021 awards.
If you've looked through our end-of-the-year feature previously, this should seem familiar to you. Our format hasn't really shifted since 2018, and we've kept it largely the same again this go around. That means that in this listing you'll find several Category Awards that highlight games that exhibit some specific excellence. Past that you'll find ten games we whittled down from a much longer list as our best of 2021. The way we organize our Top Ten is as follows:
- The first five of these are runners-up, games that we recognize as some of the best of the year, but did not land into our Top Five.
- Then we list our non-winning Top Five, which ended up falling just short of our overall winner, but remain as RPG of the Year-caliber releases in their own right.
- Finally, at the very end, one of the Top Five is crowned our official RPG of the Year 2021.
We achieved all of this by taking a long list from across the RPG Site staff - any game that our staff felt deserved to be in consideration. Then we all whittled that list down to a list of about 20 contending games. From there, we narrowed it down to a final ten, then a final five, and finally a winner. It's a grueling process, and we held some very spirited arguments to end up at our final rankings. In fact, even narrowing our list down to a top ten required a good bit of discussion. Here's the good news: you can listen in to our entire hours-long deliberation on a special RPG Site podcast, because we recorded the entire thing. Find that special Best of 2021 edition of the Tetracast embedded below or available via iTunes or Google Podcasts, or Spotify!
A couple of final important notes to consider:
- Our list includes games released between December 2020 and November 2021. This way we make sure late releases don't get snubbed. So titles released in December 2021 will be eligible in our 2022 deliberations.
- Only official English releases are eligible. Fan translations or imports might be discussed in passing, but will only be in contention with a formal release.
- Outside of our overall RPG of the Year, our list is unranked within the Top Five and Runner Up categories.
- As always, we include some RPG-adjacent titles in our deliberations.
We also enjoy comparing our results with our readers! In the month of December, we hosted a 2021 Reader's Choice Poll via our Twitter page to determine your favorite RPGs of the year, along with your most anticipated RPGs for 2022. Finally, we've also published our own staff list of RPG Site's most anticipated RPGs of 2022 to round out our end of the year feature slate.
- 0:00 - Intro
- 6:32 - RPG Site’s RPG of the Year Features and Explanation
- 13:59 - Best Remake or Re-release
- 50:01 - Best Writing
- 1:42:42 -Best Art
- 2:09:59 - Best Music
- 3:06:40 - Best Design and Immersion
- 3:48:21 - Best Ongoing Support
- 4:27:03 - Best Non-RPG
- 4:51:05 - RPG of the Year Top 20
- 5:12:12 - RPG of the Year Top 10
- 5:40:57 - RPG of the Year Top 5
- 6:12:19 - RPG of the Year 2021
- 6:24:02 - Thank You and Signoff
Category Awards: Special Commendations for Specific Excellence
It goes without saying that great games typically do many things very well. However, sometimes even an average game might do one thing very very well. In essence, that's what these categories are for. In the past we've called these Commendations, but the idea is the same. After taking staff nominations for each specific award category, we deliberated each nomination and landed on a handful of games we wanted to highlight separately from the main RPG Site Best of 2021 list for certain aspects of their design.
We didn't add any categories this year compared to our 2020 list, but we still want to give a special shout-out for our Best Re-release category. As remasters and enhanced ports make up a growing portion of the games we play each year, we wanted to make sure we had a place to identify games that didn't first appear in 2021, but gave us a reason to either revisit them or experience them for the first time. This also allows new experiences to not be crowded out from our main list.
If you listen to our linked podcast, going through the category features also gives us some specific context in which to discuss games within their particular strengths. While we only assign one winner per category, some of these had lots of competition and some razor-thin winners, so give it a listen if you're interested in how these winners were chosen!
- Best Re-release - SaGa Frontier Remastered
SaGa Frontier was one of the strangest experiences I had playing games during the PlayStation 1 era. The game was extremely flawed and filled with many obscure mechanics that would probably receive scorn in modern games critique. Despite that, it was one of my favorite games at the time. It always comes to my mind that a simple patch back in the day could maybe have fixed some of the big issues I had, but games made in those days were more or less set in stone once they were released.
Fast forward many years later, and a remaster for SaGa Frontier comes out of nowhere. As the SaGa franchise is nowhere as popular as Square’s other flagship properties, it was hard to imagine Square Enix giving this old classic another real chance, but they went above and beyond. SaGa Frontier Remastered holds a special place in my heart for more than just nostalgic reasons, but rather in how this game was given the opportunity to address all of the original shortcomings. Along with quality of life features, including a New Game+ mode which adds a total fresh take for playing the game, the remaster even went on to bring back content that was cut out of the original release. These additions resolve some lingering plot threads that were left unfinished and unexplained from the original. Saga Frontier Remastered is an exemplary Remaster that shows what's possible when it comes to revisiting games from decades ago without losing what originally made them special to us in the first place. [Chao Min Wu]
- Best Writing & Storytelling - Lost Judgment
A few years ago, Judgment presented a compelling, bizarre mystery as players stepped into the shoes of Takayuki Yagami for the first time in this new Yakuza spin-off series. RGG Studio continues to bring the heat in 2021 after last year’s fantastic Yakuza: Like A Dragon.
Lost Judgment is a much more grounded and intimate story that never lets up once it gets going. It explores how contemporary societal structures do not always serve the needs of everyone; there will always be good, innocent people that fall by the wayside as gaps in the law are exploited. Continual refinements to RGG Studio’s Dragon Engine enhance the delivery of Lost Judgment’s narrative presentation as the facial animations in cutscenes are just on another level compared to their past releases. Even if you haven’t played the first Judgment or any Yakuza game before, Lost Judgment is a self-contained entry that has a story too good to pass up. Players have told us time and time again that they, admittedly, skipped its side content on the first playthrough because the story had them hooked. [Josh Torres]
- Best Art - Fantasian
Fantasian is built to prey on one’s nostalgia for a truly classic era of RPG art - the pre-rendered CG backgrounds of the PS1 era, particularly defined by the seventh through ninth entries in the Final Fantasy series. But what’s clever is that it does this in a way that is completely without cynicism: it stokes the fires of nostalgia gleefully, but in a way rarely seen - with unrestrained originality.
Instead of a world crafted in computer graphics, Fantasian returns to reality. Intricate real-life dioramas of in-game locations have been constructed with skill and meticulous attention to detail. These real-life structures are then photographed from the angles at which the developers wish to display them in-game, and used in exactly the same fixed-camera manner as the pre-rendered backgrounds of the nineties were.
It’s actually really genius. While CG art has of course improved hugely in the intervening decades, there’s still a texture and grounded nature to these real-world models that makes them stand apart. This award isn’t just for originality, though - it’s also for execution, where the model backgrounds are blended well with the game’s 3D art and the areas that are created in more traditional means. The end result is a game that frequently wows with its visuals - both in its beauty, and in pondering the skill required to create each location. [Alex Donaldson]
- Best Music - NEO: The World Ends with You
NEO: The World Ends With You represents bustling city streets and teen spirit with a uniquely urban soundtrack. Upbeat, triumphant brass, guitar melodies like something out of a rock concert, bubble gum pop–you name it. These emotionally evocative instrumentals accompany players through scenarios from boss battles to heartbreak, all without sounding like something that could be plucked out of another RPG and just plopped in. They also encompass a variety of genres without ever feeling out of place. NEO includes remixes based on the music from the first game and brand-new songs that define it on its own, too. Even the remixes, which some might argue are too similar to the old songs to count, reinvent the songs enough to count as their own versions.
In short, NEO TWEWY deserves best RPG music of the year for a soundtrack that characterizes the story and setting while staying unique through a variety of scenarios. It doesn’t hurt that the tracks sound like they might be something that you might hear over a shopping mall speaker, either. It isn’t your typical heart-plucking orchestral masterpiece, but it doesn’t need to be. [Jess Reyes]
- Best Design & Immersion - Gnosia
Gnosia stands out as one of the most unique, engaging RPGs in 2021. It’s commonly described as a “sci-fi social deduction RPG” which isn’t wrong, but it’s hard to conceptualize what that actually means. Players abruptly take on the role of an amnesiac that gains the power to time travel; each time they time travel, they have one of the following two objectives: if they’re a human, find and eliminate the Gnosia and if they’re a Gnosia, eliminate everyone else.
The entire game is simply played by going through multiple rounds of a Werewolf/Mafia-styled game to determine who is and who isn’t a Gnosia. “Battles” are done through arguing amongst one another. There are even stat points and skills to learn that help your odds of surviving as you, the player, try to piece together what in the world is happening. And it’s simply amazing. [Josh Torres]
- Best Ongoing Support - Monster Hunter Stories 2: Wings of Ruin
Where's Final Fantasy XIV? Remember, our awards window goes from December 2020 through the end of November 2021. That means our awards precede the release of Endwalker.
With more and games acting as ‘services’ in some way or another, there are always more and more RPGs that fall into consideration in this ‘Ongoing Support’ category outside of the expected MMORPGs. While these sort of persistent post-launch updates sometimes bring cool new content, new challenges, or sometimes exciting story expansions, on the flip-side unfortunately, post-release support can sometimes mean updates in which developers simply ‘finish’ a game with content that should have been included at launch, or sometimes developers fixing buggy or outright broken games from messy launch states. We don’t want to reward that sort of support with this category award, although we still appreciate the time & effort taken to address these sorts of issues after launch.
Out of all the RPGs released this year, one game stood above the rest with sensible and persistent updates that added cool content for players. Nearly every month since launch, Monster Hunter Stories 2: Wings of Ruin added new monsters and monsties, which of course come with new weapon and armor sets, along with plenty of challenge. These all come as post-game quests, adding to an end-game cycle that should feel familiar to Monster Hunter fans, just in a turn-based RPG. Also importantly, these updates were completely free, where anybody buying the game today will get all these updates included without hassle. We thought another Monster Hunter game released this year might take this category, but compared to its turn-based brother, Monster Hunter Rise falls short. It’s possible Sunbreak will compete in 2022, but it also has to go up against Endwalker.. [Adam Vitale]
- Best Non-RPG - Marvel's Guardians of the Galaxy & The Great Ace Attorney Chronicles
In our debate (which, don’t forget, you can listen to in podcast form), we for the first time ended up at a bit of a stalemate for this award - which is why it ultimately went to two games. Both are in for accolades for similar reasons, however - execution of story. Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy offers a fresh, exciting, and surprisingly effective new take on this gang of misfit heroes - and in gaming terms, it offers a story that’ll be sure to appeal to those who enjoy storytelling in certain types of RPGs, particularly those of the BioWare formula. It’s not just a run of the mill superhero story, either - it features genuinely impactful moments with surprising emotional heft. It’s extraordinarily easy to recommend for its story alone. [Alex Donaldson]
Ace Attorney is a series that, for better or worse, has always chased the highs of its original trilogy, never quite recreating them - even if they’ve all still been great games in their own right. What makes The Great Ace Attorney Chronicles stand out is not only how it manages to meet, and even exceed, the highs of the original games - it manages it while delivering a stronger message than any of the series to date. Shu Takumi understands how a country’s pride, and how xenophobia, can ruin the lives of all that call a country home - how the powers that be will use scapegoats to hide their own failures. There’s never been a better place for new players to start the series, and for old fans to rediscover what made the series great in the first place. [James Gallizio]
Best of 2021: The Near Misses, aka the Runner-Up Five
Now we're at the main list, starting with our runner-up-Five. These titles are some that we recognized as among the best of the year and promoted into our Top Ten amidst some strong competition. However, they fall just short of landing into a Top Five slot. Here's to these five, what we still consider amazing games, in no particular order:
Leading up to Scarlet Nexus’s release, it didn’t quite manage to stand out against some of its looming, higher-pedigreed competition. The cyberpunk stylings of this new action RPG from Bandai Namco weren’t immediately compelling, but as a wild card of 2021’s line up, Scarlet Nexus managed to leave a strong, lasting impression against any and all preconceptions. While initially presenting both its narrative and combat stylings pretty much exactly as advertised, Scarlet Nexus ended up unexpectedly endearing to us the more we dug past the surface.
Scarlet Nexus managed to surprise with both the strength of its combat system alongside the great care given to its cast. Despite a large and seemingly conventional roster of the usual familiar archetypes, the manner of story delivery as well as a series of bonding events helped to develop a genuine level of attachment to several individuals amongst the OSF, leaving us wanting more by the time the end credits rolled. Alongside this, the novel hook of borrowing the abilities of these cast members during combat gave a flow to gameplay that not only felt simple in concept, but kept things fresh between the two distinct protagonists and their individual story routes. Add in a narrative that's not afraid to get wild and appropriately unnerving enemy design, and Scarlet Nexus did everything that could have been expected for a new IP. Needless to say, we’re eager to think about where it might build on from here. [Bryan Vitale]
Scarlet Nexus also placed 7th in the Reader's Poll for RPG of the Year 2021.
Fuga: Melodies of Steel
While there’s certainly value in novel experiences, I’m of the mind that one of the most impressive things that a game can do, is to have a singular philosophy that runs through all of its myriad systems. Fuga: Melodies of Steel is an excellent example of this, where the resource management at the core of the game’s many systems is what drives a player’s choices. Do you risk a harder path, in order to get more XP, and perhaps more items? Or are you already a little too weak, and have to sacrifice that potential for an easier path, an attempt to regroup.
For me, seeing how everything in Fuga’s gameplay comes back to that simple premise, is part of what enamored me to the game during my playthrough. Sure, the combat was a ton of fun - I always love it when a game actually incentivizes you to use status ailments. The give and take between the different children’s skills, and passive abilites, and all the different combinations that players can account for - it’s all very engaging in it’s own right, and it’s the constant tug of the game forcing you to leave your comfort zones that make Fuga more than worthy of its spot on the Top 10, even not accounting for its gorgeous art style and soundtrack. [James Galizio]
I can’t believe it. Gnosia somehow managed to be in the top 10 of RPG Site’s 2021 list and I was the only one who could speak up for it. Everyone just took me at my word. Suckers. All of them. It’s actually a terrible game.
I kid I kid.
Gnosia is one of those games that will not appeal to everyone. I fully accept that. I fully own that. I still want everyone to give Gnosia a shot. It is one of the most important RPGs of 2021.
When I think about what kinds of games appeal to me as I get older, I tend to value experiences that show me something truly unique - something that couldn’t work in any other medium. RPGs are a tricky thing because sometimes, they are adventures that could tell their plots in a book and they just so happen to have a layer of “video game” over them. Sometimes that gameplay is just a means to move the plot along and feels separate, or isolated, from the narrative with no cohesion between them.
Gnosia isn’t that. You, the player, are an active participant in that game and you’re building yourself up to simply play the game of Werewolf better. Your “attacks” are arguments, accusations, and lies; you’re not picking a class to swing a sword or cast magic, you’re pushed to think on how to swing outcomes in your favor with words that you use over and over again as you unravel the mystery of why you’re even time traveling in the first place. [Josh Torres]
Monster Hunter Rise
If Monster Hunter Rise had released finished, I could see a world where it had climbed its way to our top 5 - but even if our overall feelings on the game might’ve been stymied by its incomplete state at launch, that doesn’t detract from everything the game does so very right. All of Monster Hunter Rise’s new locations are memorable, and make great use of the new wirebug and parkour mechanics - showcasing a Monster Hunter that features much more movement and acrobatics than anything else in the series’ history.
There’s a lot to be said for Rise’s bold new direction that it takes the series in - personally, while I’m glad that it exists, I genuinely don’t want the series to continue down this path. That’s not the fault of the game itself, though - as Rise is a ton of fun once things get going. It’s undoubtedly the most impressive looking Nintendo Switch title to release this year, and perhaps ever - with certain aspects of Rise looking even better than its bigger brother in Monster Hunter World.
Novelty is always an aspect of a game that’s easy to applaud, and Rise is no different. Capcom has always been one to reinvent the wheel with the Monster Hunter series every now and then, and it’ll be fascinating to see what Monster Hunter 6 - whatever it’s called - ends up borrowing from what Rise has brought to the table. Perhaps we’ll have a better idea this time next year. [James Gallizio]
Tales of Arise
Opinions vary on the quality of Tales of Arise’s story. I’ve seen folks say it starts out strong, but tapers off into relatively rote fare later on. I get it. I really do. But I’ve also seen folks praise the story through and through, and I’m one of them. The truth is, I like where it goes. The Tales of series has always flirted with science fiction themes, and those themes come to the forefront more as Arise goes on. What’s more, I appreciate how slowly the main antagonist is introduced, and his voice actor’s brooding dialogue delivery and terrific art design makes him a scene-stealer every time.
Though criticisms can be made that enemies take a bit too long to drop, the moment-to-moment combat feels snappy and fluid, at least on PlayStation 5, There’s a wealth of combos to behold, and most are totally worth keeping around. The foes have enough diversity in their weaknesses to justify just about anything, and the way Arise lets the entire party get involved at any given time like a wrestling tag-team tournament allows every character’s talents to shine on a regular basis.
But most importantly, Tales of Arise makes me smile. That’s what counts in the final telling, right? The music is great, the towns are surprisingly solid, and the characters — especially protagonists Alphen and Shionne — are better written than their initial archetypes might lead you to believe. I can appreciate. [Quinton O'Connor]
Tales of Arise also placed 2nd in the Reader's Poll for RPG of the Year 2021.
Top Five RPGs of 2021
From our Top Ten, we had to hear arguments for each title decide whether they belonged within the Top Five RPGs of 2021. To put it shortly, it was not an easy decision. On top of that, in every case, each game listed here is an easy game of the year contender. Many of these games had some support for earning 2021's top accolade from our staff. Here are the Top Five RPGs of 2021 in no particular order -- with the exception of our overall winner for RPG of the Year for 2021 which is listed at the end:
Lost Judgment - Top Five of 2021
Takayuki Yagami’s second adventure turned out to be one of RGG Studio’s finest works yet. It is remarkable how many mechanical improvements there are from the first Judgment. I replayed Judgment with its updated re-release on the new consoles shortly before Lost Judgment and it’s immediately noticeable how much better it is; Lost Judgment’s combat, side content, and simply the feeling of moving around just feels superior in about every way and realizes the potential that its predecessor laid out.
Every step of Yagami’s journey in Lost Judgment captivated me. This sequel managed to rectify a lot of the narrative pacing pitfalls to the point that it was tough to find gaps in the story to focus on all the great side activities. It’s so much more down-to-earth emotionally, sometimes hitting too close to home, and the intimate themes it explores are handled so delicately.
Lost Judgment carries the torch of Yakuza’s beat ‘em up roots proudly with frenetic, responsive combat; it feels like an amalgamation of the best aspects of past Yakuza-verse games without any of the sluggishness that some exhibited. Building the Mystery Research Club as narrative nexus for a lot of side activities was a brilliant move; mini-games that I didn’t think I’d engage with much, like the Dance Club, had me grooving for hours to see its story through. The boxing and robotics club activities were personal favorites.
It’ll be interesting to see where the future of the Judgment series goes. Earlier this year, there were rumors circulating that Lost Judgment may very well be Yagami’s final game due to disputes between Sega and Johnny’s, the talent agency behind Yagami’s actor Takuya Kimura, supposedly over Johnny’s firm stance against PC releases for the Judgment series. That rumor has yet to be confirmed or debunked. The only way we’ll all know is if we see Yagami again in a new title.
Another significant thing going for Lost Judgment is it’s the last title before Toshihiro Nagoshi and Daisuke Sato, the head of RGG Studio and Studio Lead respectively, departed. Whatever comes next after this game will be a new era for RGG Studio and I hope it’s a bright one. [Josh Torres]
Lost Judgment also placed 9th in the Reader's Poll for RPG of the Year 2021.
Atelier Ryza 2: Lost Legends & the Secret Fairy - Top Five of 2021
I never thought that Ryza 2 would be the game I played this year with the most in-depth worldbuilding, and all of that comes down to Gust delivering on their ideas for Ruin Explorations - and putting us in Ryza’s shoes as an anthropologist. I genuinely believe that Ryza 2 has done something wholly unique with games as a whole, and how it tasks us with piecing together its story. Then there’s everything else about the package, and how Gust have elevated Ryza’s formula.
Combat is much faster paced, and better integrates Use Items into the flow of it all - fixing one of the first game’s most grievous wrongs as an Atelier. The new dungeons - the ruins of Ryza’s worlds lost civilizations - all feel unique, and the ways in which they evolve as you progress the story helps accentuate the progress that you’ve been making, and the real impact that your alchemy has on the world around you.
Gathering itself has been streamlined to a degree, with a whole heap of welcome Quality-of-Life features that make searching for the ingredients that you want and need feel much less like pulling teeth. If there was any one aspect of Ryza 2’s design that I might call a misstep, perhaps alchemy has been streamlined a bit too much, with how quality calculations have been revamped - but even that feels like a nitpick when all is said and done.
It’s frankly astonishing that Gust managed to deliver Ryza 2 in merely a year. That they could deliver such an improvement, such a refinement of the first game’s mechanics in so little time - while also increasing the scope to such a degree - I can’t help but hope that the inevitable Ryza 3 is granted a longer development cycle. Not because Ryza 2 needed one, but it genuinely feels like Gust has it in them to deliver a truly classic JRPG. They just need to be given the time and resources to do so. [James Galizio]
NEO: The World Ends with You - Top Five of 2021
This game oozes coolness. NEO: The World Ends With You has a very specific sense of style, the sort one would expect from the long-awaited sequel to the original title, and it wears it well the whole way through. Character art is lovely, and the urban environments are chock full of the sort of edginess that is charming, not damning.
There’s a liberating feeling, playing NEO on home consoles. Todd Howard has nothing to do with the game, but as he's been quoted into oblivion over, “it just works.” I’m a strong believer that the DS hampered The World Ends With You’s potential presentation. The stylus-based gameplay was fun, but a big-screen blow-up is precisely what Shibuya needed.
In a year when picking the RPG with the best soundtrack was like saving one’s favorite tooth and saying goodbye to the rest, NEO still managed to rock better than much of the rest of the pack. Composer Takeharu Ishimoto nails it, contributing greatly to that aforementioned coolness with every beat.
Best of all is the localization. We talked a lot about it on the podcast because while many JRPGs manage to give their cast unique voices, few among them handle it as wonderfully as NEO. The modern setting and adolescent characters require a certain sort of writing to feel believable, and goodness, NEO excels.
It’s a real shame the game’s sales have been beneath Square Enix’s expectations. Who knows how long it will be before we see more from the series, if indeed we ever do. But sometimes, it’s enough to appreciate an unlikely resurgence, however brief that may be. NEO: The World Ends With You is a return trip to a fantastic little world some had begun to doubt would ever get booked. [Quinton O'Connor]
NEO: The World Ends with You also placed 4th in the Reader's Poll for RPG of the Year 2021.
Shin Megami Tensei V - Top Five of 2021
Shin Megami Tensei V is an extremely interesting game. Not only is it a new mainline entry in Atlus’ longest-lived series, though somehow standing in the shadow of it spinoff Persona counterpart, it’s also the first console-bound title in nearly 2 decades. Atlus decided to do something they’ve never really done before with SMT V: to develop a game with a mostly-open world design, complete with large-scale maps, lots of exploration, quest markers, and all that. It’s not without some growing pains, but it’s a cool, bold take on a cult-classic that stands tall among all the RPGs released this year.
Expectations for SMT V were both high & varied, and it’s practically impossible SMT V to have met all of them for everyone. As it stands, SMT V is probably the most approachable entry in the series, with a rock-solid turn-based combat system, cool music, cool visuals and a nice bite of challenge. It’s a remarkably cohesive and ambitious entry that I hope we see more of sooner rather than later. Now if we could get some modern SMT spinoffs in the vein of Digital Devil Saga or Raidou Kuzunoha, that would be great. [Adam Vitale]
Shin Megami Tensei V also placed 1st in the Reader's Poll for RPG of the Year 2021.
Fantasian - RPG of the Year 2021
There’s no true science or clear rubric to deciding on an RPG of the Year. Sometimes a game comes out of seemingly nowhere to win our hearts in a year’s waning moments. Two years ago, this was the case when SaGa Scarlet Grace: Ambitions ended up delighting us from start to finish in a result that no one predicted. Other times, a highly anticipated release ends up living up to every expectation, surprising no one as it ends up topping our final list. Last year, Final Fantasy VII Remake managed to not only live up to its lofty namesake, but did so in the face of all the discussion about whether its existence was warranted at all.
Sometimes though, a quiet confidence is enough to carry a title above all of its competition, highly-hyped or otherwise. During our deliberations this year, as contentious discussions were held to determine our final entries for our Top Five and Runner Up lists, one title was near-unanimously agreed to as clearly belonging above everything else in consideration -- Fantasian.
At the start of the year, Fantasian was largely just a curiosity for most of us. Nostalgia for Mistwalker-developed titles of the past played a role for sure, and the inherent intrigue of a Sakaguchi-helmed RPG built in the style of the Playstation-era games from our childhoods obviously piqued our interest. Combine that with a wholly unique art direction built on compositing physical dioramas with CG models alongside the gorgeous Memories sequence art and it's not surprising that Fantasian ended up getting a second and third look on this front alone. Fantasian truly looks like no other game we’ve played in a long long time, and there’s a reason we’ve already awarded it with our award for Best Art for 2021.
But Fantasian’s strengths don’t lie with just its art. Behind its unique appearance lies an RPG that brings forth a level of design excellence that surpasses the other titles on our list. At the forefront are a slew of creative concepts that take the well-worn framework of turn-based combat and layers in aspects of slinging spells in lines or arcs, controlling ally and enemy positioning, or even stacking up random encounters to be tackled in a single go in a smart risk-reward implementation. The result is an incredibly engaging combat experience, exemplified with a whole gamut of boss encounters consisting of unique mechanics that require full understanding of every aspect of combat, gear, and strategy. The result is an admittedly challenging but unquestionably satisfying experience that, upon reflection, surpassed anything else released this year.
Alongside these systems is a cast of characters that not only have clear motivations and unique story involvement, but latch into the core gameplay in clearly defined ways. The design behind Fantasian is so tightly-crafted that every encounter feels like a genuine puzzle where the designers know the tools available to the player and their expected strength at any specific moment. As a result, each challenge feels impeccably tuned such that piecing together the potential strategies to overcome every obstacle never ceases to feel incredibly rewarding.
Rounding out the experience is a wonderfully nostalgic new soundtrack by Uematsu and a surprisingly emotional story with more payoff than anticipated. While the opening hours of Part 1 keep things largely familiar and safe, the storytelling in the back half of the narrative goes a step beyond. Fantasian is a heartfelt experience that deftly pulls together everything that brought so many of us to adore this genre of games in the first place. It’s simultaneously a game that harkens back to our collective upbringings while also being a truly novel craft in its own right. Fantasian is our favorite RPG of 2021. [Bryan Vitale]