I’ve desperately needed gaming this year to compensate as I lacked other forms of entertaining myself. I was quite undecided about how to tackle my year-end rankings, and then an email from Nintendo magically appeared in my inbox: my 2021 year in review summary.
“Aha,” I thought to myself. “These will all be games released in 2021 and I can base my rankings around my playtime statistics!” Unfortunately, I was 66.66% incorrect with this assumption; two of the three games I’d put the most time into all came out in 2019. And all three ended up being re-releases of older games.
However, statistics are statistics, and I will be ranking my top three most played Switch games of 2021 while also explaining why I think they resonated so much with me this year.
Third Place – Shin Megami Tensei III Nocturne HD Remaster
Coming in third place with a casual 113 hours clocked is Shin Megami Tensei III Nocturne HD Remaster, a remaster of the original 2003 release. Fun fact: here in the UK, we didn’t get it until 2005. Bitterness of a bygone era aside (I could write a whole article on what we didn’t get over here in those dark times), this release felt much more accessible to me than it did way back when. My teenage self never actually completed the original, and while the remaster does make some quality of life improvements, I can’t help but feel like the Shin Megami Tensei series just makes more sense in modern gaming. That, and I wanted to replay it before Shin Megami Tensei V came out.
Maybe it’s just me, but I felt like I really had to curate what I played in 2021. Life has been very different for us these past 18 or so months. Still, I think the Nocturne remaster was so thematically fitting for the current crisis that it ended up being a very uplifting experience.
I will keep this spoiler-free, but I will summarise the basic premise of Nocturne’s story. To put it bluntly, the world ends, and your protagonist is left to navigate the aftermath. They have to adapt to a myriad of changes, and they witness others’ true selves emerge. Sounds familiar, right? Despite the at times unforgivingly brutal gameplay and the story, Nocturne’s core elements synergise with such morbid serenity that those darker moments become beautifully melancholic. I can’t give direct examples without going into major spoilers, but I hope those of you who also played Nocturne this year understand what I mean when I say it’s quite cathartic. And if you didn’t play it yet, I highly recommend it.
Second Place – Tales of Vesperia: Definitive Edition
Tales of Vesperia: Definitive Edition arrived in 2019, but for some reason, I never got around to playing it until 2021. Like Nocturne, I think the anticipation of Tales of Arise’s release somewhat influenced my decision to jump back into Vesperia. And I say “back into” because yes, I also played the original release on Xbox 360 back in 2009. I also put 113 hours into Vesperia, but I must have spent just a few more minutes playing it than Nocturne.
Thematically speaking, Vesperia isn’t as cohesive as Nocturne; this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but your driving goal changes frequently. It’s less of a “we must find the power to survive” and more of a “things keep changing, but we need to push forward.” Vesperia’s unpredictable carrot-on-a-stick storytelling made it a joy to play in 2021.
From Yuri’s humble beginnings as a wanted man to him inevitably saving the world, his realistic and relatable motives as a protagonist make him memorable and likeable. Too often, RPGs present us with a protagonist we don’t really like, one whose decisions frustrate us. The way Yuri handles himself is a refreshing antithesis to the archetypal hero. He always acts with his friends’ best interests in mind when he finds himself in a situation that challenges his convictions, whether or not they understand that at the time. I’m sure he’d wear a mask at the item shop.
As is par de course for many RPGs, the game has a happy ending, so while the tribulations along the way were quite taxing on our heroes, they still saved the day. I think it’s those contrasts of shade and light in its storytelling that made Vesperia such a compelling play this year. Similarly to Nocturne, it’s quite the classic these days and an easy recommendation from me.
First Place – Dragon Quest XI S: Echoes of An Elusive Age – Definitive Edition
Dragon Quest XI S: Echoes of An Elusive Age – Definitive Edition wins two prizes here: one for the longest playtime and one for the longest name. I put a rather concerning 183 hours into this game and adored every minute. I barely even touched a major part of the S edition exclusive content, Tockington, and nor did I replay any segments in 2D Mode. It really is just a vast and sprawling game.
Dragon Quest is one of my favourite series. The first numbered entry we received here in the UK was DQVIII, and I’ve dutifully played most offerings since. It’s easy to see why XI achieved its level of success; it masterfully combines many of the classic elements of the series while also modernising many of its more frustrating features. It’s this accessibility, along with its gorgeous visuals, orchestrated OST, and riveting story, that kept me truly fixated with Dragon Quest XI.
Again, I will keep this spoiler-free, but there’s a pattern with real-world-situation parallels to the games I’ve been playing this year. I suppose it’s a trope by now that something horrible happens to the world in a JRPG, and maybe that’s what’s drawn me to these older (or more classically-styled) games in 2021. The Dragon Quest series often has real emotional contrasts in its stories, and XI is no different. Let’s just say I didn’t see the mid-game coming at all. I sometimes question if I really feel emotions anymore (*tips fedora to Miss Sertraline*) but XI reassured me that yes, I do, and it’s okay to cry.
On that last note, I think video games can be a great way for us to process what’s happening in real life. In my opinion, any art form is an invitation for us to contextualise our own lived experiences. While my most played Switch games of 2021 have mostly been games that weren’t really released this year, I think we’ve all had to use our free time as wisely as we can to maintain a sense of familiarity and continuity from before. I will cherish the time I’ve spent with these wonderful games this year, and I think it was a wonderful idea for Nintendo to send out these year-end reports again. I hope you’ve all been able to have some equally memorable gaming memories in 2021!