2021 was difficult in many respects, but instead of burdening y’all with details, I’ll just say that I played way more new games than I usually do to escape the hellscape of the real world. But it still didn’t seem like enough. I did get to at least eight 2021 titles I’d like to discuss — all of them sequels and only two of them remakes.
Retro Encounter of the Year – Shin Megami Tensei III: Nocturne
Shin Megami Tensei III: Nocturne wasn’t my first Atlus rodeo, but it was my first attempt at one of their mainline SMT titles, and oh boy did it leave an impression on me. An unabashedly bleak setting, challenging boss fights, and unforgiving save point placement in lengthy dungeons all contribute to Nocturne’s reputation as a tough-but-fair grind, and I can confirm all of it. Of all the video games I played for RPGFan podcasts in 2021, Nocturne is the one that I want to revisit the most. I embraced Yosuga, but there are many Reasons to play and replay this classic.
8. For Excellence in Creating a World I Want to Protect – NieR Replicant ver.1.22474487139…
I enjoyed all eight of these 2021 releases at least enough to want to praise them, which is another way of saying that I loved the NieR: Replicant remake, despite it finishing eighth on my list. I greatly enjoyed the boss fights and dramatic character moments in NieR, but I definitely got annoyed at the repetitive nature of its quest design and site placement (why do I have to trek a full 10 minutes to upgrade my weapons?). But the caring feelings that NieR instills in the player, attaching you to the struggles of Nier, Yonah, Emil, Kainé, Red Bag Man, and others, are both beautiful and emotionally manipulative. Yoko Taro loves nothing more than to trick players into loving something and then cruelly rip it away. Respect to the master.
7. For Excellence in Traversal Mechanics – Ys IX: Monstrum Nox
When you’re in the middle of the action in a dungeon or field area, Ys IX: Monstrum Nox is an excellent action RPG. My complaints about Ys IX are mostly that the story feels stagnant for the first two thirds of the game and that parts of the town are gated off to the player via poorly explained rules. But these nitpicks are mitigated by the most agile Adol Christin in Ys history, with his zoom-dashing, wall-running, air-gliding, and shadow-diving moves making sprinting around the city much more entertaining. Ys IX strongly delivers on its gameplay, especially how the Monstrums make their way downtown.
6. For Excellence in Satisfying Gameplay Without Telling a Great Story – Shin Megami Tensei V
Shin Megami Tensei V is probably the game that gave me the most mixed feelings in 2021. I adored most of its combat, exploration, demon negotiating, demon summoning, and menu tinkering, but its writing and lack of great characters let me down. But oh man was the gameplay great. The high-risk turn-based combat that’s a series staple is back, but with powerful items and more fusion and modification options, giving players much more agency in combat. I played SMTV for 60+ hours and enjoyed most of the journey, but not the destination.
5. For Excellence in Beautiful Storytelling Without Great Gameplay – Impostor Factory
If SMTV is a Hollywood smash, Impostor Factory is a Sundance darling. A slow-paced, surreal indie game about the life and relationships of a young woman, retold in a dream sequence and resembling a 16-bit RPG, Impostor Factory is the third full game in Kan Gao’s Sigmund Corp. series. Like its predecessors, Impostor Factory strikes an unusual, unforgettable emotional chord. I was invested from the first minute, and experienced more comedy and drama in Impostor Factory’s four-hour duration than in just about any other RPG in 2021 — and without a single boss fight against glitches in someone’s mind matrix.
4. For Excellence in Job Systems and Boss Battles – Bravely Default II
Bravely Default II is the most fun I’ve had with a job system in a long time. The variety of skills, nuances of subclassing, upgrading jobs by completing late-game trials, and FURTHER breaking the job system with weapons that bequeath extra skills? Pure catnip to my JRPG preferences. And its boss fights, usually designed around building the best job combinations and exploiting enemy patterns and weaknesses, are exciting combat puzzles solved with tools baked into that job system. Bravely Default II has a number of (de)faults that hold it back from RPG perfection, but I liked every job and boss it gave me, way more than my real-life jobs and bosses.
3. For Excellence in Capcom Not Fixing What isn’t Broken – The Great Ace Attorney Chronicles
The Great Ace Attorney Chronicles duo doesn’t require any prior knowledge of Ace Attorney to play, but it will feel simultaneously fresh and familiar to series veterans. The early 1900s setting, jury examinations, and deduction/correction segments are brand new to Ace Attorney, but they fit in perfectly with every other tradition and convention of the 20-year-old (!?) lawyer puzzle adventure series. My favorite video game story moment of 2021 was a union of one of those deduction puzzles with some joyful tap dancing (trust me on this one). The Great Ace Attorney’s intricate conspiracies and loveable characters carry the player through two games and 10 cases that were worth the long wait for international fans.
2. For Excellence in Combat Variety – Tales of Arise
Tales of Arise is full of RPG systems and feedback loops that interact beautifully, but it all comes down to combat in the end. The six characters in Arise feel so different to control — each specializing against a different enemy type and with at least one unique gimmick — that it’s like choosing your main in a fighting game. Arise’s intense fireworks shows posing as random battles are consistently entertaining, with the absence of multiplayer being the only major misstep. Thankfully, when I wanted to play an action RPG with friends in 2021, I had an alternative…
1. For Excellence in Playing with Friends, Combat Variety, Boss Battles, Traversal Mechanics, Satisfying Gameplay Without Telling a Great Story, Creating a World I Want to Protect, and Capcom Not Fixing What isn’t Broken, Game of the Year – Monster Hunter Rise
Monster Hunter Rise doesn’t change or break the Monster Hunter formula that’s made it the most successful Capcom series of all time. However, it smoothes out the rougher edges of Monster Hunter tedium in ways that move MonHun further away from the preparation-heavy dinosaur-tracking patience of the PSP era and into arcade fantasy superhero action.
Rise is designed to get players hunting monsters as fast as possible, riding your dog through hunting grounds, racing from bird to bird for stat boosts, and using your wirebugs to swing like Spider-Man across wide gaps while your owl keeps an eye on monsters for you. For me, these additions are so fun that they’re now indelible. I also love the cozy Kamura Village where you reside between hunts, with its pleasant music and friendly denizens. And the monsters themselves! Every new monster in Rise is inspired by the combination of a Japanese Yokai and a real-world animal, like the fruit-slinging Bishaten’s hybrid of tengu and lemur or the sumo-wrestling Tetranadon’s blend of kappa and platypus. Rise is more action-packed, colorful, intimate, and wild than any prior game in one of my all-time favorite series. Bring on Sunbreak.