Joel DeWitte’s 2021 Games of the Year

Joel DeWitte is co-host/editor of Super GG Radio, and hasn’t found an indie game he won’t try.

It’s been another good year to like video games.  Two of my fellow Super GG’ers have snagged a Playstation 5 and were able to chew through high profile exclusives.  I somehow got my hands on an Xbox Series X, where that coupled with Game Pass has been a gateway to trying independent games more broadly than I have before.  Games from my backlog rounded out the year with some of the best experiences I’ve had in the medium.  In spite of 2021 being the year of the time loop, my list only grazes the trend, and I can wholeheartedly recommend the following.

Honorable Mentions:

Kingdom Hearts Re:Chain of Memories

Memory is a fickle thing.  Over time, as priorities change and your mind sorts through what is needed day-to-day, the past becomes hazy, and memories start having gaps like swiss cheese.  Kingdom Hearts Re: Chain of Memories’ beat-by-beat storytelling is a straightforward tale of Sora, Goofy, & Donald in search of Riku and King Mickey in a mysterious tower, but it’s the themes of fading memories, forgetting important people, and grappling with what is or isn’t real that shines brightly.  That coupled with a card battling combat system that was ahead of its time makes Kingdom Hearts Re: Chain of Memories a big improvement that overshadows the original.

Hollow Knight

Hollow Knight is something special, like a movie that sticks in your head for days after seeing it.  The nameless bug knight keeps the character nothing more than a silent observer to the diverse, beautiful, and haunting world of Hallownest.  Each section of the broader world is a joy to explore, with challenging bug monsters and bosses which are brutal but fair.  Uncovering sections of the map by paying a cartographer hidden in the world became a great pawing-in-the-dark search that was rewarding each time he was found.  Environmental storytelling earmarked by conversations with fellow travelers and rivals tell the story of a ruined kingdom, but that only scratches the surface of what leads to a breathtaking conclusion.  Hollow Knight is the pinnacle of 2D exploration and one of the best games I’ve played.  

Top 10 of 2021

Boomerang X

Boomerang X’s showcase is its frantic, whiplash-inducing gameplay.  What starts as a basic “walk around and throw this boomerang’ing ninja star at black amorphous enemies” slowly develops into tall, multilevel rooms with dozens of flying monsters that look as if they’re dripping in ink, honing-in while you use powers that teleport through the air and chaining together kills without ever touching the ground.  The snappy yet unwieldy movement reminds me of Gravity Rush in the best way – easy to learn, hard to master flying that gives a sense of satisfaction the better you become.  The ambiguous setting of being washed ashore to a ruined civilization of people who greedily seeked an ancient artifact smartly stays out of the way, a nice window dressing to a frenetic gaming experience.  In spite of monotonous enemy design, Boomerang X is what happens when one gameplay hook is honed to a sharp edge.

Rogue Heroes: Ruins of Tasos

Despite growing up on the Sega side of the fence, I have a special place in my heart for The Legend of Zelda: Link to the Past.  Rogue Heroes: Ruins of Tasos doesn’t hit the same notes as the seminal classic (how could it?), but takes that tried-and-true top-down dungeon crawling experience and expands it into something wholly unique by inserting roguelike elements and a co-op multiplayer experience.  Purchasable stat boosts, character classes, town building, and more made each run at a dungeon satisfying, even if it resulted in doom.  They share similar puzzle solving experiences, tools, and large looming bosses, but the world is expanded large enough to accommodate up to four players.  There’s something magically fun about sitting with my family on the couch, trying to solve block pushing puzzles while corralling a seven and nine year old’s wild antics like a herd of cats.  Rogue Heroes: Ruins of Tasos is a competent Zelda-like, but the gold is in a group experience.  

A Monster’s Expedition (Through Puzzling Exhibitions)

Puzzle games haven’t always been in my bailiwick, but they’ve slowly become an important part of my video game diet.  They have to have a cogent, straightforward puzzle logic.  Then that baseline has to be expanded in a way that takes that foundation and slowly builds more intricate challenges that rely on understanding that core.  It’s akin to going from learning basic addition to understanding algebra – taking the baseline and drip feeding knowledge until you can comprehend the complex.  A Monster’s Expedition (Through Puzzling Exhibitions) handles that deftly.  The individual islands with simple tree/log pushing to open new paths gradually slides the puzzle difficulty up without losing that original methodology.  The icing on the cake is a charming world with different museum displays that tell stories of a post-human world, where monsters view us the same way we would neanderthals.  A Monster’s Expedition was a joyful surprise I continue to revisit.

A Short Hike

A Short Hike filled the gap earlier this year when I needed something breezy and uncomplicated to spend my time.  A young bird who wants to climb the highest peaks of the mountain on a peaceful island is a welcomingly uncomplicated premise.  A cast of characters that are endearing, cute, and have short stories to share add depth to a straightforward world.  Small, bite-sized tasks that are simple but give just enough reward and make you eager to find the next one.  A colorful world obfuscated by a grainy pixelation that felt stylistically familiar without being stale.  I struggle to elaborate more because A Short Hike is a quick hit of sunshine, and that’s all it needed to make my list.

12 Minutes

A husband comes home to his wife who prepared a romantic dessert and set the table with lit candles.  In the middle of conversation, a police officer knocks on the door, lets himself in, and proceeds to handcuff both of them, claiming she murdered her father and deamanding to know where a watch is.  After struggling to escape, he pins the husband down and chokes him out, only to reappear at the start as if none of the events happened.  It’s Groundhog Day, again, and he needs to unravel the mystery of why he’s stuck in the recurring loop and break the cycle.  In 12 Minutes, the point-and-click adventure has you looking for every nook and cranny to find new clues.  Learning what sequence of events that need following to crack open the next line of investigation feels like an “aha!” moment nearly every time.  The story arch you’re winnowed to is a slow descent into madness, and each point you get stuck will eventually lead to desperate and sometimes despicable measures in the trial-and-error methodology.  There are glaring issues with controls and pacing, but the blemishes don’t stop 12 Minutes from being one of the most compelling experiences this year.

Life is Strange: True Colors

Life is Strange is a cherished franchise in our household.  The stories have been well crafted experiences of young adults struggling through pain and leveraging supernatural powers to guide their decision making, all of it coupled with a killer lo-fi, indie band soundtrack.  I had some trepidation with a new developer taking the helm for the next game, but they were unfounded.  Life is Strange: True Colors’ story of Alex Chen reuniting with her brother and taking root in a sleepy Colorado mining town only to be thrust into a brutally painful mystery is both a wonderful refinement of the series’ dialogue option roots and a visual fresh coat of paint that feels more polished than the grungy look of the prior entries in the series.  Her Empath abilities are much more subtle than Max Caulfield’s time rewind power in the first game, requiring not just delving into people’s thought process to open the next verbal choices, but also an exercise of taking the knowledge of characters’ inner thoughts and applying it in a way to truly reach them.  Life is Strange: True Colors genius is how being an Empath isn’t just a means to an end, but also an open door to better understand the deeper experiences and motivations of the people in this world.  Alex uses a more subtle hand to reach people which allows her to play backseat to the people that make the town, and is better for it.

Carto

Those who’ve asked me about music know my favorite band is Death Cab for Cutie.  One of their earlier songs has the lyric “I wish the world was flat like the old days, and I could travel just by folding the map”.  In Carto, rather than folding the map, you shuffle it via square tiles by moving or rotating them into new places, provided they share the same land or water type terrain.  Carto’s puzzle system is deceptively simple on its face, starting as a simple swap and rotate tiles to open new pathways to multilayered and complex sequences that need to be finely adhered to.  The titular character is cute, and the world is as colorful as a picture book with charming characters and an endearing story of Carto trying to make her way home to her grandmother.  It all adds up to a brief and satisfying short experience to enjoy.

Halo Infinite (Multiplayer)

I don’t have any real attachment to the overarching Halo story.  I know it involves a man vs alien war and an AI whose name has been co-opted for an Alexa alternative.  My history with the series is playing the original in a friend’s basement for hours on end, scarfing on pizza, guzzling soda, and endless slayer matches where haphazardly swinging warthog vehicles tip them over for laughs was the norm.  Since then, either due to aging or the genre changing, modern first-person shooters have passed me by with a twitch-like trigger finger needed to stay competitive.  What makes Halo Infinite one of my favorites this year is how it slows back down to a manageable speed.  Being first to fire isn’t a guaranteed win in a skirmish, and there’s a tango that takes place between you and them that feels almost more like a fighter than a first-person shooter.  While my history with the series helps, Halo Infinite’s multiplayer has a winning formula that goes against the grain of modern shooters.

Inscryption

Few games I’ve played have left such a strong first impression as Inscryption – the roguelike with a cryptic and mysterious story that unfolds in cascading, shocking moments.  It plants you right into a small cabin that mixes escape rooms, trading card games, and desktop RPGs to make an experience that is strangely familiar but wholly unique.  Your captor, a shadowy figure that acts as de facto Dungeon Master, is unnerving to a fault, and each word spoken comes with a pang of dread.  To elaborate beyond this is to spoil the experience, because what shines most about Inscryption are those sharp story beats that are elevated by how it evolves with the game itself.  If there’s any critique, it’s that those high highs make some of the lows feel like a real drag, but it’s not enough to sour my time with it.  Quick recommendation – play this at the same time as some friends.  Having people to bounce ideas off of or share in the awe of what happened is a great way to experience Inscryption.

Death’s Door

There’s something really grounding and hilarious about the idea that agents of death (in this case, crows) simply are part of another bureaucracy with soul quotas to fill.  In Death’s Door, what starts as a simple job of collecting a rogue soul escalates into a winding story of characters and Death itself.  Combat is a honed dodge-then-counter style, coupled with upgradable side abilities that also act as tools to complete puzzles.  The story, world, and characters are intertwined and play off each other beautifully, providing a rich environment throughout.  The exclamation point comes from its soundtrack, a series of moody melodies that are beautifully composed and can’t get out of my head.  Death’s Door is the most “complete” game of 2021, and understood a fundamental truth – being the best can come from refinement rather than revolution.  

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