2021 in games: A brief retrospective

The end of 2021 approaches, somehow. You read the title, so let’s not waste too much time. One stipulation: a lot of games released in 2021 and I can only cover the ones which I’ve actually played — this piece is nothing close to all-encompassing. With that out of the way, let’s begin.

OMORI – Dec. 25, 2020

I must begin by spotlighting a game which just barely missed the distinction of a 2021 release. From the mind of OMOCAT, indie RPG “OMORI” slides in less than a week before the end of 2020, though I didn’t play it for myself until earlier this year. I mention it here because it’s simply one of the best games I’ve ever played, and has since become my new favorite game of all time. It has radically transformed how I understand video games as a medium, and has inspired me to my own creations more so than any other game I’ve played.

It is truly special — a game which I could not say enough good about.

Assume the role of the reclusive and ever-aloof Sunny as he traverses a mysterious and whimsical dreamworld through his alter ego of Omori. Underneath this world’s cutesy veneer, a hideous truth lies in wait. “OMORI” is as moving as it is horrific, and honestly, the less said about that, the better. It must be experienced. If you only take one thing away from this retrospective, it should be that you need to play this game. If I could make one game as good as “OMORI” in my lifetime, I would die a happy man — and I really mean that.

For more on “OMORI,” you can check out my in-depth spoiler-free review here.

The Binding of Isaac: Repentance – March 31, 2021

A game which I’ve been enjoying on and off for about a decade now culminated in its apparently final iteration earlier this year. The brainchild of eminent indie game designer Edmund McMillen, “The Binding of Isaac” has proven itself one of the most influential games of the 2010s, ushering in a rebirth of the esoteric roguelike genre in the form of the “roguelite.”

Play as the titular Isaac as you make your way through labyrinthine dungeons and experiment with dizzying combinations of randomly generated modifiers which Isaac can collect as he descends deeper into the abyss. The game’s simple twin-stick shooter style in combination with its enticing roguelite structure has kept it among the genre’s most popular offerings for years.

Its latest and largest incarnation, “The Binding of Isaac: Repentance” perfectly highlights everything that is great about and simultaneously wrong with the game’s core design. There’s such a wealth to uncover, but how much of it would you want to? How many unfruitful or doomed runs would you be willing to suffer? Most of the unlockable items suck, anyways. I don’t know — I’ve had my fun with “The Binding of Isaac,” but I think I’ll stick to other roguelites such as “Risk of Rain 2,” a game which features item drops that are at least serviceable — as opposed to a relentless torrent of garbage. Not to mention, the game’s new content is even more convoluted to navigate than ever before. It feels absolutely bloated. If you want more of “The Binding of Isaac,” you’ll find it here. I just don’t know that I want any more.

Psychonauts 2 – Aug. 25, 2021

Tim Schafer’s original “Psychonauts” was one of the defining games of my childhood, but seeing the property revived, I was riddled with skepticism. How could they recapture the same appeal of the first game all these years later? I went in prepared to be absolutely underwhelmed, and to my shock, discovered that “Psychonauts 2” succeeds in seemingly every regard.

Psychic wunderkind Razputin “Raz” Aquato — together with the Psychonauts organization of psychic agents — returns for yet another romp through the mental realms of troubled souls and malevolent conspirators. Vibrant, memorable levels and charming writing reminiscent of a corny cartoon carry this delightful action-adventure platformer.

It’s a real sequel in the best sense of the word — retaining what worked from the first game while expanding upon its systems and introducing new ones. More refined gameplay and some seriously stellar art direction make this game a worthy successor to the original cult classic.

Back 4 Blood – Oct. 12, 2021

Turtle Rock Studios returns to co-op zombie-shredding carnage in “Back 4 Blood.” A spiritual successor to their much-loved “Left 4 Dead” and to Valve’s untouchable “Left 4 Dead 2,” “Back 4 Blood” is Turtle Rock’s attempt to reinvent the very formula which they themselves originally established. To what extent do they succeed? Only marginally so, I’d say.

As in “Left 4 Dead,” there’s little story to speak of. Move through maps populated by the undead horde and mow them down to your heart’s content. A new card-based customization system indicative of a roguelite adds some extra flavor to the now tired formula, allowing for your character to improve their stats and acquire new abilities as you progress through the levels.

First of all, it’s no “Left 4 Dead,” obviously. The exclusion of any and all mod support has ensured that the game will forever remain in the shadow of the games which it aimed to succeed. But honestly, I’ve had a lot of fun with it. The matchmaking is abysmal, the characters are trying and numerous design decisions are indeed questionable, but the actual meat of the game — unloading copious amounts of ammunition into zombies — I found to be immensely satisfying. I also appreciate the attempts at innovation here, such as the inclusion of roguelite elements. I only wish that these systems were more robust. But as it stands, “Back 4 Blood” is solid co-op fare.

Age of Empires IV – Oct. 28, 2021

I’ve never been much a fan of real-time strategy — or “RTS” — games. The way they seem to emphasize a synthesis of dexterity and tactics (more so dexterity, in my meager estimation) over pure strategy always puts me off. Still, I must acknowledge that they occupy something of an upper echelon among video games. If you’re damn good at RTS games, then you’re damn good at games period. I suppose it’s the aura of mystique and reverence which surrounds such RTS titles as the series’ legendary second entry that brought me back for “Age of Empires IV.”

The premise is straightforward: Engage in skirmishes with AI or other players in competitive multiplayer matches under the pretext of recreating historical battles — though the appeal of “Age of Empires,” I find, lies more with toying around in its medieval strategy sandbox.

I’m admittedly pretty awful at the game myself, but I’m happy to say that I’ve enjoyed my time with it. However, the value proposition here is a dubious one. Full price demands a full game, but it often feels that “Age of Empires IV” gives us only most of one. Why is it that so much which was present in “Age of Empires II: Definitive Edition” is absent here? Does “Age of Empires IV” really represent over 20 years of progress for this series? How can we consider this acceptable when other strategy staples such as “Sid Meier’s Civilization” innovate and transform themselves meaningfully between each installment? “Age of Empires IV” does not excite.

Lastly, a moment of silence for Nightdive’s “System Shock,” which was to come out during the summer of this year but never did. Maybe I shouldn’t have pre-ordered.

Here’s to another year of games — I look forward to being able to cover “S.T.A.L.K.E.R. 2: Heart of Chernobyl” in 2022 and the many other games which surely await us.