Some games I played in 2021
Posted at 18:36 on 2nd January 2022 - permalink

Previously: 201820192020

2021 was not exactly a vintage year for games. It felt like the big publishers were playing ‘wait and see’, and the none of the handful of tentpole releases that did make it out this year really piqued my interest.

As with last year, I’ve mainly been playing established staples and grazing the Playstation Plus freebies. I was surprised to look through my notes and find I’d still played a good couple of dozen games this year, it’s just that very few left any kind of lasting impression.


I played through the opening chapters (the first 30-40 hours or so if memory serves) of the Final Fantasy VII Remake. I never played FF7 on PC or PS1. I expect that the remake is a very different experience for those who have a quarter century of memories of the original.

I found it to be a stunning piece of craft, but so weighed down with reverence for the source material that it often feels more like guided tour with very little for the player to actually do beyond mechanically advancing the current combat or exploration scene to the next plot beat.

It’s wildly tonally inconsistent, in some places assuming the more ‘gritty’ ‘adult’ posture that one might expect from a modern action adventure game while in others hewing closely to the charmingly clumsy presentation and storytelling of the early days of the PlayStation, with one foot still firmly in the established conventions of the SNES JRPG era.

Every element is so polished and carefully considered that it’s a bit exhausting after a while. The atmosphere of melancholy that pervaded many major Japanese pop cultural works aimed at teenagers in the late 90s is also a Bit Much. I might still go back to it at some point.

One of the other big ticket PS+ freebies last year was Horizon Zero Dawn, presumably given away to drum up anticipation for the very unremarkable-looking crossgen sequel.

It’s time for developers to stop putting bows and arrows in games. The only way to make them a practical option is to slow down time, and even then they’re just guns with ponderous reload and wind up times. They make every game that includes them slightly worse – and yes I include The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild in this. (If you’re going to give Link a tablet computer, you might as well give him a magic gun as well. See: Noita.)

Coming straight from a couple of hundred hours with Cyberpunk 2077 (which – as predicted – underwent a critical rehabilitation as more people played the patched version), HZD felt like winding the clock back about 15 years. The game’s world, while beautiful, feels incredibly sparse. The whizzy terrain engine smoke and mirrors (used to great effect here and in Death Stranding) kind of falls to bits when asked to render a small city. The less said about the conversation cutscenes the better.

HZD is categorised by it’s developers (and most contemporary press) as an RPG, which is laughable. There’s no real character development. Every conversation (that’s not with Tutorial Dad in the opening section or Lance Reddick toward the end) can be skipped missing nothing. The diversity of items in the game’s shops is about on par with Alex Kidd in Miracle World. The only system with any real depth is the combat against the dinosaur robots (which is fun, and thrilling, once you get the hang of it). It’s basically open world Golden Axe, put into the service of telling a solid sci-fi mystery story.

Underneath the sumptuous production values it’s a 7/10 game, although at least it’s one of the more rewarding examples of the ‘all spectacle, minimal simulation detail’ Sony blockbuster formula. (It’s wildly less tedious than God of War or the Uncharteds at least.) The game’s greatest strength is its central mystery and how it keeps revealing new twists right up to the end.

It must be noted that Guerrilla have some weird ideas about what human-made artifacts and materials would survive 1,000 years into the future. Apparently automobile bodies (steel which in reality rusts to powder in centuries, tops) would be fine but none of the zillions of tons of plastic (with, you know, information written on it or moulded out of it, explaining the pre-fall world in detail) would still be around.

I did think that it was quite clever that the backstory (avoiding spoilers) deftly gets around needing to show any human skeletons in the aftermath of an extinction level event, which I expect may have been an intentional decision for the Chinese market (where the authorities are a bit weird about the depiction of skulls and skellingtons in games).


I briefly dipped into a few shooters this year. I was very impressed by Splitgate. It’s such an obvious idea that’s it’s weird that nobody had done it before: essentially an arena shooter (think Quake 3 Arena), with portals, as in Portal (2007). It has good control feel, lots of maps, lots of game modes, good weapons, VERY little waiting around on loading and matchmaking screens (Fall Guys take note), and the most generic art direction it’s possible to have short of limiting the game to using flat-shaded geometric primitives. I complained a couple of years ago about Apex Legends’ art direction being a bit ‘tired’, but Splitgate makes it look like Speed Racer by comparison.

I got super into it for about a week, but then got distracted and haven’t gone back – for me, it lacked the hook of the bigger budget shooters where there are longer term goals to work towards and different characters and playing styles to vary things up.

I also spent an agreeable evening murdering my way through Thatcher’s Techbase. Don’t go into it expecting a radical overhaul of Doom – it’s not a total conversion or new game build on the engine. It doesn’t introduce any new mechanics or do any ambitious Duke 3D-ish trickery.

It’s not telling a story or making any nuanced satirical point, beyond “one of the 20th century’s greatest monsters mobilising a breakout from hell” being a funny premise. It’s just a (very) big Doom II level with a strong theme of which it makes good use (the location of the final battle made me laugh out loud when I first saw it).

id/Bethesda/Microsoft released a remastered version of Quake across all formats to mark the game’s 25th anniversary. It was a huge relief to see that this was essentially a re-release on a modern engine, and that the game’s aesthetically perfect assets were (aside from some small, tasteful tweaks to the enemy models) left untouched. (If only Rockstar had taken this approach with Grand Theft Auto: The Trilogy.)

It was also encouraging to see the game getting a positive critical reception – PC gaming, and certainly the hardcore end involving LANs and 3D cards, was still very much a niche pursuit outside of the US in 1996, and it’s often felt like Quake has not been given it’s due in the years since.

Coming complete with the original Nine Inch Nails soundtrack, both contemporary expansion packs, plus two new campaigns created by MachineGames, this is the definitive version of Quake. The new ’25th anniversary’ campaign (Dimension of the Machine) is chock full of inventive ideas using the standard set of Quake chess pieces, with bits of ‘Quake cute’ tantalisingly blending Quake’s level of representational detail with Quake 2 and even Half-Life.

If you’ve ever bought Quake on Steam (why would you not have done this?) you already own it, and if you favour another platform it’s a must buy. Obviously. It’s Quake. Duh. (Also, it supports gyro aiming on Switch.)

I remain wary of the oft-rumoured ‘AAA’ Quake reboot, particularly since id were absorbed by Microsoft. Assuming MachineGames would be handling it (and the daft plans to outsource id’s old IP to unsuitable studios are now dead in the wake of Rage 2 bombing and Tim Willetts’ exit), it seems extraordinarily unlikely that they’d still be given the creative freedom they had for their Wolfenstein saga.

Quake was a one-off that none of the original creators have much appetite to revisit. It’s not a loose ‘007’-like trademark like Wolfenstein, or a pop culture mainstay like Doom. It would need to be a project along the lines of Twin Peaks: The Return to work, retaining the spirit of the original but massively expanding the scope. (And not stinking things up with a load of meme humour, Funko Pops and battle pass content like modern Doom did.) A hard sell in the modern ‘AAA’ market.

More games in brief

Bonfire Peaks – The most recent Draknek & Friends game is (surprise!) another 3D sokoban type puzzler. It’s harder (and less silly) than Monster’s Expedition, but still satisfying to chip away at and very nicely presented. It’s not quite as bastardly as Stephen’s Sausage Roll, but I have hit a few puzzles where I’ve had to refer to a walkthrough, and still can’t see how I would have ever found the solution based on the information the game had given me at that point. It requires the keen ability to visualise the outcome of it’s rules in 3D space that I think is going to prevent me from finishing it.

Horatio Goes Snowboarding – Infinite State Games, who made one of my favourite early-ish iOS games Frutorious, are back with another tiny but compelling arcade game. Horatio Goes Snowboarding is (would you believe) a spiritual successor to Horace Goes Skiing. It adds slick 3D graphics, nice controls, and an absolutely brutal drum ‘n’ bass soundtrack. A nice little score attack game.

No Man’s Sky – Of course I’m still playing it. I got drawn into some of the Expedition (timed events) content this year, which I’d passed over originally. Expeditions are played by starting a new save (which can be converted into a ‘normal mode’ save on completion), making them a good way to fast track new players through a lot of game’s systems without an excessive amount of grinding required to level up out of the survival mechanics.

It’s been so long since I’d played the game as a low level character that I’d forgotten how challenging it can be. The ‘derelict freighter’ dungeons are a completely different experience when you have to tiptoe through them with minimal shields.

Kid A Mnesia: Exhibition – Radiohead team up with Epic Games to make an interactive demo soundtracked to their early 2000s duology of not-quite-as-good-as-OK Computer LPs. My old desktop PC’s GPU is not quite up to the job, but what I played of it was very impressive. I’ll be picking it up on PS5 at some point for sure.

Skeal – Just before the end of the year, I was introduced to Skeal, which is likely to become a new Christmas gaming staple along with Dracula Cha Cha. You can play it here (note that it doesn’t play nice with Firefox – there is also a downloadable version here). I can’t really say anything more without spoiling it.

My Game of 2021*

(*yes okay it came out in 2020, but I played it in 2021.)

I picked up Paper Beast as part of Sony’s ‘care package’ of bonus games for PSVR owners, with no great expectations. As with Horace last year, I’m shocked at how it seems to have been largely critically overlooked (although it’s more understandable in the case of a VR game that’s limiting it’s addressable audience from the outset).

Paper Beast is easily the best game I’ve played on PSVR, and I can only imagine it would be better still on a ‘proper’ VR setup. Even the previous title holder, Astro Bot Rescue Mission, I would still find I could only tolerate in sessions of less than an hour. Paper Beast captivated me so completely that I finished it on one multi-hour sitting without any discomfort.

Much as with Éric Chahi’s earlier game Another World, Paper Beast initially confronts the player with the mundane before dropping them into a completely alien environment. The most prosaic description of the game would be that it’s a linear series of levels where the player has to observe, then influence the behaviour of different species of simulated wildlife to solve puzzles. What it actually is, is a long, vivid and involving technology-assisted dream.

Some of the puzzles involve a great deal of patience for shepherding slow, erratic agents and sometimes the solutions feel like brute forcing or glitching the game’s physics. It feels like an incongruous (but welcome) throwback to the earliest sandbox and god sim games of the DOS era, where simulated ecosystems were all the rage. I expect it would be infuriating for the kind of dullards who hated The Last Guardian.

Chahi’s genius (aside from the actual ‘being a coding genius’ thing) is in breathing life and intention into characters sketched with only the lightest strokes. Paper Beast zeroes in on the things that VR does really well (following the player’s gaze, virtually unlocked FOV, extremes of scale, allowing the player to intuit distance and speed of objects in space, etc.) and constantly throws up new playful ways to surprise and delight the player. If you have any kind of VR hat I urge you to play it as soon as you can. (There’s also a non-VR edition, but I can’t imagine that it has anything like the same impact.)

Most of the other VR games I played this year were a disappointment, with the exception of Moose Life (standard Llamasoft fare, with the welcome addition of a ‘game tourism’ playing mode if you just want to soak up the trippy visuals without testing your reflexes).

Star Wars Squadrons (on PSVR at least) felt cheap and hollow – a huge letdown given the potential of the concept. Moss looked nice but it quickly becomes apparent that it’s another ‘VFX studio trying to make their first game’ situation (at least, that’s what I assume), with lots of basic errors in the platforming controls and animation making it a bit of pain to play. The Persistence was a serviceable sci-fi roguelike (and clearly either inspired by, or the inspiration for, NMS’s derelict freighter missions) marred by abrasively loud and stressful combat that it doesn’t really need.

I also enjoyed watching games being played and talked about in 2021:

Action Button Reviews: Season One – Tim Rogers’ long video essays about important games. Assuming you can put up with the presentation style, these are a must-watch.

Decino plays Cyriak Harris’s Going Down – One of the best ‘doomtubers’ expertly plays through and comments on surreal Flash animator and composer Cyriak’s Doom II megawad.

Half Life: Alyx but the Gnome is TOO AWARE – More hilarious improv nonsense from the team behind Half Life VR but the AI is Self Aware.

I Do Not Understand Hotline Miami 2 – Jacob Geller discusses Dennaton’s memorable but frustrating sophomore game. (My take here.)

Samus Aran Origins: Metroid’s Influences Beyond Alien – “Critical Kate” Willært digs up some early influences on Metroid and it’s Japanese home micro predecessors.

DF Retro put out lots of good content this year as well – their roundup of all the Playstation 1 launch titles was typical of the warm and enthusiastic style they’ve developed.

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,


↑ back to top ↑