2021 was a tough year for game developers, as well as console manufacturers. Many gamers struggled to get hold of the new PlayStation 5 – which was subject to scalpers from the moment it launched – and several long-awaited titles were delayed as a result of Covid.
Even so, there were plenty of creative highlights from across the year, including blockbuster games as well as unexpected hits from indie studios. And while we might all have been just a little less attached to our Animal Crossing islands than we were in 2020, the continued uncertainty around socialising meant that, for many, the digital world was still a very necessary escape. Here’s ten titles CR enjoyed this year.
In 2016, Niantic published Pokémon Go, and showed the world the creative possibility of augmented reality. This year, the developer released Pikmin Bloom – another AR ‘game’, set in the Pikmin universe, that allows users to add trails of digital flowers to their walks, and interact with tiny radish-like creatures. It hasn’t yet reached quite the hype of Pokémon Go, but Pikmin Bloom was downloaded two million times in two weeks, showing there’s a continued appetite for a more gentle approach to gaming, and one that connects more closely with the real world.
Pikmin Bloom is available on Android and iOS
The much-anticipated Sable – “a video game for people that don’t like video games” – launched in September this year, to hugely positive reviews. CR readers are sure to love its Moebius-inspired graphics, created by London studio Shedworks, and its mysterious, desert setting. The game’s titular character is tasked with exploring the sandy wilderness via hoverbike, and although there are parts to find and things to do, Sable remains enjoyably free of the manic to-do list that so many open world games are burdened by.
Sable is available on PS4, Xbox X and Series S, Windows, Xbox One, and Mac OS
Looping narratives are nothing new, as anyone that’s attempted Dark Souls will be grimly familiar with. Returnal, released by Housemarque, takes a slightly different approach, crash landing the player on a mystery planet with a series of procedurally generated biomes that they must work their way through, starting over if they die. The world design is beautiful, as is the gradually unfolding story of why the main character keeps returning to the same place. It’s a tough play-through though, with reports suggesting that less than a quarter of people had defeated the final boss two months after release.
Returnal is available on PS5
The main selling point of this puzzle game, from Graceful Decay and Annapurna Interactive, is its distinctive graphics, which depict a world that is simultaneously tiny and huge. Players must interact with maquettes of the main character’s memory, solving puzzles as they go by rearranging objects. The focus is entirely on these immersive sets, with the story told only by voice and text. Each puzzle solved moves the player onto the next bit of the narrative, which is revealed over the course of a few hours play time.
Maquette is available on PS4, PS5 and Windows
Sometimes the most boring-sounding premises make for the most enjoyable games, and this is certainly the case with Unpacking, released by Witch Beam and Humble Bundle. Players move through a series of interiors, unpacking boxes of belongings and stashing them neatly away as they go. It sounds deathly dull, but there’s something weirdly compelling about the process – which, as the game continues, unveils a tantalising glimpse of a background narrative. Rock Paper Shotgun probably had the right idea, when they described the game as producing “the exact same joy as unwrapping a Kinder egg and building the toy inside”.
Unpacking is available on Switch, Mac OS, Xbox One, Windows, Linux, Xbox Series X and S.
The latest instalment in Nintendo’s much-loved Metroid franchise, Metroid Dread was released to practically universal rave reviews. The side scroller follows main character Samus Aran as she hunts down the X parasite on the planet of ZDR, exploring beautifully illustrated labs, caverns and corridors along the way. Metroid Dread had been a rumoured release for at least 15 years, so expectations for the title were high, but there’s no doubting that Nintendo have smashed this one out the park in terms of gameplay, storytelling, and design.
Metroid Dread is available on Switch
Not all games need to be epic open world narratives, with a quest list that runs on forever. Overboard!, from Inkle, is proof that a short, simple approach can be just as engaging. The murder mystery game takes place aboard a cruise ship, where the player is challenged to frame someone else and get back on dry land in no less than eight hours. It’s hugely playable, with a ridiculous storyline and whip-smart writing that keeps the pace moving along.
Overboard! is available on PS4, PS5, Windows, Switch and Mac OS
The Oregon Trail
The Oregon Trail is an oldie but a goodie, first released in 1971. This year, Apple Arcade published a revamped version of the strategy game, which challenges players to survive a 2,170-mile journey across the US. All your decisions, from how much food you carry, to how quickly you go, affect the final outcome, making for plenty of replay potential. This new version deals with some of the more problematic elements of the original, with indigenous historians guiding the revamp – which now includes playable Native American characters.
The Oregon Trail is available on Apple Arcade
Another world-within-a-world puzzler, Moncage – released by Optillusion – tasks players with solving challenges by changing the perspective of a cube. Each pane shows different scenes, which can somehow be connected together to move the game along. The graphics are beautifully designed, offering peeks inside tiny dioramas filled with unexpected detail. The accompanying story is a little nebulous, but the puzzle challenge just about makes up for it.
Moncage is available on Android, Windows, Switch iOS and Mac OS
No list would be complete without at least one all-consuming, triple-A adventure game – and Deathloop ticks all of those boxes. The world design from Bethesda Softworks is incredible, with the sci-fi island of Blackreef rendered in beautiful detail. Deathloop’s narrative is another ever-repeating story, but one that’s set up to be compelling rather than frustrating. Players can choose which strand of the tale they follow, giving them an enjoyable degree of autonomy when it comes to untangling the narrative thread.
Deathloop is available on PS5 and Windows