2021: My year in video games

2021 certainly felt a lot like 2020: pandemic-induced lockdowns, things gradually opening up, and now as we approach the holiday season things are looking grim once again. While everyone should try to get as much fresh air and exercise as possible, as long you avoid licking other people’s faces, the one indoor activity that continues to thrive amid our depressing reality is of course that digital ecstasy: video games. Similarly to how I ended last year, I have been inspired to write a round-up of all the games I played, rolled credits on or just tried this year.

Games in 2020 seemed to be a question of right time, right place. Whether it was the urgency in which we lost ourselves battling out of Hades, or the serenity with which we fostered virtual communities in Animal Crossing, video games provided an escape, a hobby to look forward to during our exodus from physical contact. 2021 felt a lot like merely a continuation of this same feeling, and yet, there was a novelty this year. 2020 had plenty of throwbacks, a remake of FFVII, a sequel to The Last of Us, reinstating ’90s nostalgia with Tony Hawk. One major nostalgia hit at the close of the year was a punishingly beautiful remake of Demon’s Souls. Even though 2021 had upwards of 50 game delays, the iron was most certainly struck when hot with the sheer variety of games released. From therapy simulator disguised as a platformer, Psychonauts 2, to a game where you meticulously mouse-click unpack a house in Unpacking, this year seemed slightly weird, to me at least. There are so many games I have yet to play mainly because it felt like a splurge of releases seemed to crowd around each other every few weeks – and a lot of them were really good. September strikes a particular chord since I recall that Deathloop, a new Life Is Strange, Eastward, Kena: Bridge of Spirits, Sable, and Death Stranding Director’s Cut all launched on like the same day (not really but in my head they did). Thankfully, I managed to shuck responsibilities to my best ability and beat 26 games, and played many more. Now, this isn’t a feature only including games released in 2021, as many of the games I tackled this year are from the distant past. If you want a GOTY round-up, then look elsewhere, if however, you’d like to hear about my own personal journey then welcome! Or do the first thing and come back here anyway – it gives me a lot of joy when other human beings actually read what I write.

Regarding this blog, I only managed to write 7 articles this year, which is 1 better than 2020! (But 3 worse than 2019). At multiple times this year I considered deleting everything and starting again, mainly because it frustrated me that I lacked the discipline to sit down and write something every week. The 7 articles I wrote happened because I felt the urge to share. Have I even started writing an epic sci-fi novel yet? No. Oh God, I can feel the existential dread welling up. I don’t know what the future holds for cowopinion; I hope to write at least 7 articles in 2022, and would like to get back into writing some fiction. Look, I’m not going anywhere, even if I disappear for months at a time. I’ll be here, trying to share my favourite experiences with the wonderful medium of video games. Without further ado, let’s begin!


Games I beat (n=26)

I remember little about January 2021, except the fact that we had no sofa for a few weeks and I spent many evenings sat on the floor replaying 2018’s magical Celeste on my shiny new PS5. Yes, I understand there were a heap of games to play with a next-gen console, but I felt like I needed that therapy session. I was transported once again to Lena Raine’s outstanding soundtrack, pixel-perfect jumping my way up a physical and metaphorical mountain. I have yet to encounter a more enjoyable piece of media that encapsulates the struggles one has with depression and anxiety, in such a concise manner.

Another strong contender for conveying more emotion through about 3 pixels than a triple-A bonanza is 2016’s Hyper Light Drifter. A 2D action game where you, the Drifter, roam around a Zelda-like landscape, battle an ambiguous illness, slash and dash your way through difficult enemies and even harder bosses. Special mention goes to the music here; ethereal and pregnant with moodiness. Pairing this course with a more overtly personal story was If Found, a text-based erase-em-up following the story of Kasio, a transgender women struggling to be accepted in her hometown. A sombre, quiet trip, If Found holds a uniquely “real” story that everyone should play.

Onto the big guns now. Cyberpunk 2077 is a game I have written ad nauseum in a previous blog post so I won’t dwell on it here. Looking back I did enjoy it, especially the side arcs, but beyond a solid story I can’t really see myself going back to Night City any time soon. Moving away from vast worlds to dive into, I sought out more linear experiences in February and March. Hot off the heels of my Resi 2 Remake nauseating double-dip in 2020, I fired up Resi 3 Remake featuring fan favourite “Nemesis”; another big guy with tentacles to follow me, Jill Valentine, while I try to survive the zombie apocalypse. A really short horror jaunt that I enjoyed more than 2, not just for its brevity but because it was actually less scary and more action-y (controversial opinion). Special mention to Carlos’ hair. Riding high on horror I blazed through 2019’s Modern Warfare remake, a campaign that utterly surprised me with its audiovisual quality. Following the news of Activision Blizzard’s profile of harassment and toxicity, I am less than enthused to wax lyrically about a game of theirs. One can unfortunately say the same thing about Ubisoft, who’s Assassin’s Creed Valhalla I spent dozens of hours in this year as well. If nothing else, the cinematic visuals, excellent sound design and decent plot entertained me no end in Modern Warfare. Perhaps the tendency for Call of Duty games to appear revisionist isn’t a good sign for the future of these games, but for now, playing on the hardest difficulty, cleaning house in a terrorist cell in a London terrace felt like a real life episode of Spooks meets Zero Dark Thirty.

Assassin’s Creed Valhalla [1]

Speaking of Assassin’s Creed, my 80 hours with an unsatisfying yet more-ish game may be considered shameful. My review of this game was not positive and yet I couldn’t stop going back, not with any urgency to finish the story, but for the same reasons I spent 70 hours with the Division 2 in 2020; the moment to moment gameplay is like a drug, or perhaps like a can of Pringles – it’s incredibly hard to stop when you start. In May I returned to the story of Eivor as she conquered my birthplace of Ireland, which while the story was middling, the side activities and chugging along the foggy, rainy landscapes was terrifically gloomy. More recently, I dropped in to try the Kassandra crossover missions in both Odyssey and Valhalla and somehow spent another dozen hours traipsing around Paris *facepalm*.

There were a few games this year I played with a friend (the same friend with whom we experienced hi-jinx in Savage Planet last year): one we finished in February (Life Is Strange 2), and the other we started in March (It Takes Two) which took us 6 months to get through. The former was a slog to get through – Daniel’s and his brother’s story of crossing borders, fighting discrimination, etc., became lethargic and heavy handed that by the end both of us stopped caring who lived or died. I expressly wanted Daniel to be killed as soon as possible. Fortunate I believe we got the good ending, even if the game never reached the heights of Life Is Strange 1. It Takes Two, the follow-up to co-op split screen phenomenon A Way Out, was actually really fun. A beautifully, cartoon-y buffet of great minigames, hampered by a terrible story, a bloody annoying sentient book that we both instantly hated and wanted to burn and slightly boring boss fights culminated in a bittersweet experience. It’s a great date night game, but not one to enjoy over a long period of time – every time we went back it became harder and harder to care about anything. Special mention to the excellent Chess minigame which is history’s OG GOAT.

In April I moved house with my wife and two young children, which was pretty tumultuous. Our lift broke in our apartment building so I singlehandedly carried about 100+ boxes down to the car over a period of about a week. My arms and legs looked extremely good for a while, and hurt like hell. Settling into our new domicile I committed to righting a wrong I and avoided ever since I bought a Nintendo Switch in early 2020; it was time to play Breath of the Wild. Releasing to widespread critical and fan acclaim, BotW has gone down in history as one of the greatest video games of all time. Taking the Zelda lore, the classic storytelling and feel of those retro games and applying it to a Skyrim-like open world can’t have been easy, but holy hell does it work. Yes, I realise I’m late to the party here, but the hype was real – it is seriously good. Exploring the open world is satisfying because the discovery feels genuine. With no way points, tick boxes and only 4 main missions with a final boss fight, the game creates an open world ripe for exploration – the anti-Ubisoft game. I was so enamoured by this world that I also played through all the DLC before fighting Ganon, and one rainy afternoon in April, I rode up on my magic motorbike, master sword in hand and slashed that bastard in half. I am incredibly excited for the upcoming sequel – just talking about BotW makes me want to return to that world.

May arrived and with it an idea. Having recently fallen out of my work’s book club for creative differences (not really but it turns out I prefer weird sci-fi rather than grown up books), I missed that social interaction, talking about something you had all experienced and getting everyone’s perspective. Couldn’t I do the same with video games I thought? Thus, my video game book club was born! It still exists to this day and we are on our fourth video game (Undertale). But in May our random spinner landed on Hollow Knight. Oh, HK, what a trip we had. I love you like a burned lover. I went into the game with expectations of extreme difficulty and beautiful art – both turned out to be true, except the gameplay was more frustrating than difficult. I couldn’t seem to stop being annoyed after about a third of the way through the game. Boss fights were not hard per se but rather felt like luck; things were happening so fast that I wasn’t sure if I was learning a pattern or just reflexively responding. I kept dying on my way to the fights inhibiting progress as I would lose the game’s currency meaning I couldn’t upgrade my nail, get more charms etc. I managed to push past all of this but getting to the end of the game was a hollow victory. I cheesed many bosses with magic, after dying to the Mantis lords 700 times I realised melee was not my forté. HK feels like a metroidvania mixed with some Souls-esque mechanics that ultimately results in bewildering, maze-like traversal and often uncalled-for punishment. I started off loving the game, the fight with Hornet in Greenpath a highlight, but it turned into a painful slog. So much so that I almost destroyed my switch. Special mention to the lush art style as well as the musical arrangements being some of the best I’ve heard in a game that looks skin-deep but ends up an abyss of details.

I’m going to time jump slightly to November because I recently finished Dark Souls Remastered, my first Souls game. Having played DS1 following HK is an odd experience, as in retrospect I can see how many things were copied from the former. I believe HK fails in its attempt to marry metroidvania with Souls because it punishes exploration. I have written about my DS1 experience so I’ll just say that I really enjoyed it, even if it was super grindy at points, and I may have made myself OP by the end. It was also far more forgiving than HK which surprised me. DS1 worked so well for me because it was janky, it was possible to glitch and cheese yourself throughout the game. Even parrying sometimes felt like a cheat. And all of this is built in – I can totally see why the game is so loved. A challenging but often hilarious experience – I can’t tell you how many times I screamed at this one silver archer in Anor Londo before I realised if you kite him a bit he will fall to his death all on his own.

Back to May, and with it Resident Evil Village; which turned out to be one of my favourite games this year. It was a perfect blend of the creepy first person survival horror of VII with the action packed explosions of 4. Castle Dimitrescu was beautiful and terrifying – Lady D herself was a wonderful antagonist, who I found more intriguing than her counterparts such as Heisenberg and weird fishy boi. Village worked so well for me because I found it to be well paced – no section felt too long or too short. The horror castle didn’t outstay its welcome, nor did the grotesque baby mutant in House Beneviento. When the action came in the form of Chris Redfield, it felt deserved and enjoyable. I never felt oppressively scared and weak like I did in VII, which some may consider that a failing of Resident Evil’s ethos – I don’t. Village nicely ties up Ethan’s story by leaning into gothic horror and a larger variety of style in its execution; it’s definitely my favourite Resi game. If you are interested in reading about how scary games scare us, as well as why we like them, I’ve written a jumbo article here.

In June and July I busted out the PS5 exclusives Returnal and Ratchet. Two wonderful showcases of the PS5, with insane haptic feedback and gorgeous visuals. Before I go into those two, I should mention that I found a few hours to play the FFVII Remake DLC, episode Yuffie, which follows in the footsteps of the eponymous Wutai agent, tasked with stealing unique materia from Midgar. A brief and light experience, it was fun to re-enter the FFVII universe. There were some interesting cutscenes that fans should not miss but in terms of Yuffie’s story it wasn’t anything amazing. I’m sorely tempted to return to one of my favourite games of 2020, in all its upgraded beauty, but who has the time! I’ll satisfy myself by just listening to the iconic themes.

Back to the R’s. Ratchet was a glorious nostalgia trip back to the Lombaxian mega arsenal that left me feeling full and brimming with joy. The story was great, the gameplay was slick, which is to be expected by now from Insomniac games. I can’t say anything bad about the game as it stands – it’s a fantastic experience, however I can’t help but feel that it was a safe experience. I hope if they do make another one, they change something, go a bit off the rails. But man, a played by numbers Ratchet game is still one of the best games of the year.

Returnal [2]

The second R, Returnal, is hands down my game of the year. Housemarque games morphed their arcadey, bullet hell reputation into a 3D masterpiece of hallucinatory particulate visuals, crunchy gun combat (hello haptics), and refreshingly narrative-heavy take on roguelites. It’s this year’s Hades, which is a pretty damn good compliment. I surprised myself with the game given its difficulty; the fact that death means restarting right from the beginning, that boss fights were incredibly tough and yet somehow my hands were doing it. Dodging energy balls and laser beams while flitting around hazardous biome after biome, from wintery tundra to aquatic abyss, pumping Cthulhu-like enemies with a huge variety of artillery – it was all bliss. I managed to get through all the way to the second boss without dying, had a hiccup for several days at the third boss and man biome 5 can go to hell. Returnal enthrals with a deliciously inventive and ambiguous story that reminded me of Control mixed with Alien, with an ambiguous endgame that I loved. I won’t spoil more of the game because if you can play one thing, play this. Okay one more thing – the route to and fight with Hyperion, as the organ plays in the background is an event that’s stuck in my head. The organ plays through the entire biome, starting off quiet, until it becomes a cacophony as you approach the boss, who is the one playing it. The music synchronised with bullet hell in the boss fight, and the haunting quality of it has stuck in my head. The relevance to the story here is very well done too. I should say that poignancy is incredibly tough to transmit in a game like Returnal but it works.

In July our book club returned to play FAR Lone Sails, an interesting arty game, who’s obscure story was fascinating. Imagining a world that has suffered a resource apocalypse, such that travellers cart around on modular vehicles seeking some sort of reprieve – in this case to get to the ocean, is communicated powerfully in a dialogue free driving game.

In August my daughter gave me an early birthday present. Turns out you shouldn’t hand your phone, unlocked, with access to your Amazon “save for later” list easily accessible. A couple of days later I received an Xbox and a Peppa Pig book in the post. I had a Bilbo Baggins moment as I considered returning the console, “After all, why not, why shouldn’t I keep it?” I blazed through 12 Minutes, a unique, top down time loop game that went into some weird places storywise but overall I found quite cool as a concept. The Medium, while a bit cack-handed with some child abuse storylines was interesting enough to keep me attended to the end. I did enjoy the horror aesthetic albeit there was no fear as I never felt like really tense – the dual perspective gimmick was exceptional and I hope more big-scale games do something outside of the box too. Tell me Why, a rare game featuring a transgender protagonist with a Life is Strange story style that I think might be my favourite in the series. I wrote about the fallibility of memory in the game here and loved how it was utilised. The most recent game I finished on Game Pass in September was the Moebius-open-world-soul-searching-hoverbike-game Sable, which while buggy AF, was a nice soothing experience that I recall fondly. There’s no combat, only climbing and kind of figuring out your place in the world. I focused on seeking out remnants of spaceships that possessed logs that when pieced together told a cohesive story about how a civilization was born, alongside a hidden observatory in the desert. Exploring the world of Sable, scuttling through abandoned ships, reminded me of Rey in the Force Awakens, the scrap hunter.

It was during Autumn that I played a lot of games but didn’t finish many (or at least have yet to), with the exception of DS1 in November and my most recent game, Undertale, my book club’s current game. A smart, witty and hilarious meta-take on the RPG, albeit an ugly game, Undertale has achieved cult status in no time at all. The writing is top notch, and the multiple endings are fascinating to discover. Personally I played an almost-genocide run, just to see what it was like having heard that the proper way to play is the “pacifist” method, i.e. in this game you can talk to all the enemies and put them down nicely. Even bosses! There was one mini-boss duo I lucked out on by getting their partner to remove their armour, showcasing their flesh at which point the other enemy confessed their true feelings for them and they both left me to get ice cream. One of our book club members has done a pacifist run and I am excited to hear more stories like that. While I tell them how horribly depressing my ending was.


Games I played for a little while (n=?)

That was games I beat, but what about games I played a little, shelved or even completely abandoned? Here’s a smattering of that.

In February a friend and I attempted to play Phogs, a body-horror Mario-world type game where you each control one half of a gruesome two-headed dog-like monstrosity. On the surface it’s all cutesy and playful, but like 2020’s Bugsnax, how far do the depths of this ungodly creation descend? Eventually the levels became boring and same-y so we abandoned it.

In March I tried out critically acclaimed Disco Elysium; a dialogue heavy, info-dump of a detective game. It plays like a CRPG, with dice rolls and textual reams of the protagonist’s internal thoughts, which is unique in a video game. I streamed the game for a few hours in fact on Twitch, however, I have yet to go back. The murder mystery of it all was intriguing but the information overload and the finicky controls haven’t called me back yet.

In August I bought Mario Golf, which is an excellent golf game, as in standard golf. The campaign however features speed golf extensively – Speed golf is terrible and I hate it. I no longer play Mario Golf.

Since September I’ve been jumping in and out of Xbox Game Pass games, with no regret if I don’t finish them. It’s a wonderful experience, since I essentially bought 3 months access for next to nothing, I can abandon games with freedom from financial guilt! I played 8 hours of Octopath Traveler, a wonderful HD-2D retro turn-based RPG, that plays wonderfully and looks incredible, but unfortunately the story was pretty basic and it was a bummer that the party of characters that you grow don’t interact in any way; an extremely important feature of JRPGs like Final Fantasy, that invests the player in the narrative. I need to commit to Hades, because everytime I play it I think, “why did I stop playing this?” Then I die and can’t seem to go back in.

I played about 4 hours of Psychonauts 2, a great game that meshes mental health issues with funky platforming, but I didn’t really enjoy the Tim Burton/Coraline aesthetic, and I bounced off it. It doesn’t matter though, as otherwise I would have spent the £40-odd only to abandon it regrettably on PS5! Forza Horizon 5 released to acclaim in November and I have only dabbled in it, but it is very fun, and very more-ish. It’s surprisingly similar to the previous entry, and there’s nothing wrong with that, but since I played dozens of hours of 4 last year I don’t really have that itch (yet) to drive angrily around Mexico.

For the low-low price of £5 I purchased the Director’s Cut of Death Stranding, one of my favourite games of the last generation. I’m about 8 hours in and replaying the story, delivering packages, all in beautiful 4K was worth it, even if I never get round to finishing it (I beat the game on PS4 though). It’s a game for a certain type of mood and I’m glad I have that option on hand, should I feel like walking in the rain, listening to Low Roar again.

Finally, Death’s Door is a cute little Soulslike featuring an isometric perspective, a compelling story and a crow with a laser sword. I’m currently stuck in the second boss’s dungeon (a big frog lad), where I have been for a while, during which I took a break to finish off Dark Souls 1. I hope to go back in the New Year, but with so many games coming out that I’m more excited for, this one may fall to the side.


Games I’m still playing

I don’t have the willpower or focus to concentrate on one game, so here are several that are currently on my rotation.

On PlayStation I’m playing House of Ashes, a follow-up to last year’s Little Hope, part of Supermassive Games’ anthology of horror, and is arguably their best outing since Until Dawn. A return to proper gory horror with real monsters makes House of Ashes a suitably creepy and terrifying experience. It has the vibe of Aliens, mixed with some ancient lore, that is incredibly fun to play. I will say that the game often feels slow, especially in this first half (I suspect it speeds up), and a theory I have is that Supermassive games work better in confined, claustrophobic spaces, rather than large open territories.

On Switch I’ve lost some momentum with Eastward; an RPG reminiscent of Earthbound with Zelda-like combat, and Last of Us themes. The attention to detail in the art style, the sublime writing, are impressive, although 10 hours in, I’m finding myself struggling with the pace of the story. I will push through and once I’m done watch this space for a review.

Halo Infinite [3]

And now, the only game I can think about, the game I’m itching to go back to every second of every day is none other than Halo Infinite. I’m a Halo virgin, having mostly skipped the Xbox 360 generation, and so coming to this I was excited to try a brand new, next-gen Halo. It delivers, beyond what I expected. Marrying the Far Cry formula with Halo’s Ringworld sci-fi combat melds very well, giving that same Ubisoft urge to clear the map, explore each side activity and just wander around aimlessly on Zeta Halo, stumbling on Craig brutes and little dudes that squeal when you shoot them. What surprised me was the story and how invested I am; I could feel the nostalgia seeping into my bones, memories I never possessed assimilating and hijacking a brain I thought empty of Halo‘s influence. The prologue cutscenes are heavy on emotive storytelling, with a butter-meltingly sumptuous score rising and falling with each story beat. The introduction is reminiscent of 2018’s God of War; taking a hero we know from days of old, and showing us how we can empathise with a relatively mute personality. Yes, Master Chief is your stoic, emotionless hulk, but in the same way Joel is in the The Last of Us, or Kratos in God of War – there is a hard-edged determination that everyone can get behind. He’s here to finish the fight after all. The gameplay is punchy, slick and extremely enjoyable – this is probably old news for Halo fans, but for me it’s thrilling. There’s nothing truly spectacular here, it is reductively open-world Halo, but it doesn’t need to be anything more than that. The series to me seems a rousing call to arms, a clichéd inspiring “save the world” story, but just like a Marvel film it is incredibly easy to get swept up in. The moment I fell in love is after world opens up (that first “step out”), you take down an outpost singlehandedly and then your mate in the big military jet picks you up, the camera pans to Master Chief watching the verdant-green Zeta Halo zoom by as “The Road” by Gareth Coker emphatically plays. What a goddamn incredible opening.


Games I want to play next

There are many games that I’m looking forward in 2022 and beyond, and plenty I’ve missed this year which I hope to visit at some point. Dark Souls 2 and 3 demand at least a test run, although I don’t have the same commitment I had with the first game. I will attempt to hold myself off buying Elden Ring, an open world Dark Souls (I’m sensing a trend here), instead, in February 2022 I’ll be jacked into Horizon Forbidden West, the sequel to one of my favourite games of all time. Others such as sci-fi sentient ship game Chorus, the recent remakes of Pokemon Diamond and Pearl, Deathloop, Guardians of the Galaxy, Kena Bridge of Spirits, are all waiting for me too. Solar Ash, the follow-up to Heart Machine’s Hyper Light Drifter is intriguing to me, in same way that The Pathless was – the idea of an open world that focuses on traversal rather than explicit content every few seconds, i.e. a more chilled out, zen experience. Finally before the holidays I’m hoping to check out The Gunk, Xbox’s Kena meets Mario Sunshine.


The End

Thank you for getting to the end of this bumper-sized issue of my year in review. I hope you have tried some of the games I’ve written about, or perhaps you have garnered some inspiration to give them a go. I wish everyone a deserved rest over the holidays and you will most certainly hear from me in 2022.

And as always, thanks for reading.


Sources

[1] https://magazine.artstation.com/2020/11/ubisoft-assassins-creed-valhallaart-blast/?utm_source=homepage&utm_medium=toprow&utm_campaign=1775-assassin-s-creed-valhalla

[2] https://www.artstation.com/artwork/Ga06Rz

[3] https://www.halowaypoint.com/en-us/news/the-art-of-halo-infinite

Cover image sources taken from Eastward, Returnal, Dark Souls Remastered, Halo Infinite, Sable, Resident Evil Village, Assassin’s Creed Valhalla, Ratchet and Clank Rift Apart, Hollow Knight, Zelda: BotW

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