The Hamden Journal’s favorite games of 2021

This pandemic has dragged on longer than expected but hey, another 12 months in lockdown means another year to play lots of video games. And what a year it’s been, with new installments in storied franchises, remakes of forgotten classics and a game where you date your sword. As is tradition, the The Hamden Journal team gathered together to ruminate on their favorite titles released this year, extolling their virtues and sometimes drawbacks, but mostly explaining why we like them so much. We’ve also thrown in a few of our older faves that we played in 2021, because hey, a good game is always a good game. (Also, it helps when there are updates.)

When people look back at Microsoft’s 2021, they’ll cite Halo: Infinite and the extra year the company gave 343 Industries to work on the game as one of its best recent decisions. But I think the company also deserves praise for taking a chance on Relic and Age of Empires IV.

Coming off the dismal Dawn of War III, fans had every right to be skeptical of whether the studio could pull off a sequel to one of the most-loved real-time strategy games in history. Relic had a nearly impossible task before it. And yet it found a way to respect the history and roots of the series while pushing it forward in new and interesting ways. The star of the show here are the eight civilizations. Mechanically, they’re far more unique than the factions you could play as in past games. Each has a handful of twists that make them fun to learn and interesting to play against. The studio also changed how you move between the ages to present the player with interesting choices.

AoE4 isn’t perfect, but neither was Age of Empires II before its Age of Conquerors expansion. More than anything, I’m excited to see where Relic takes the series should Microsoft give the studio the chance to continue working on the series. — Igor Bonifacic, Contributing Editor

Boyfriend Dungeon is a perfect blend of sword-swinging action and insatiable horniness — but not, like, in a gross way. This is the dungeon crawler of your middle-school daydreams, offering eye candy in a variety of forms and art styles, plus a mall packed with monsters to slay. And sales! But mostly monsters.

Everything about Boyfriend Dungeon is playful, from the cell phone messaging system, to the bright character customization options and the library of ‘zines that serve as power-ups. The most charming aspect of the game, though, is the arsenal of flirty, dateable weapons. Players, ahem, forge relationships with the personalities behind the blades and then bring them into battle, choosing which combat style (or dating tactic) feels right in the moment. Combat itself is fast-paced yet adorable, with TV sets, flying VHS tapes, bats and phones attacking from every corner of the mall. There are also opportunities for small dates in between the battles, keeping the hormonal vibes alive.

Not only do you get to date your weapons in Boyfriend Dungeon, but they’re all gorgeous and charming in their own way. Best of all, they’re not limited by the old-school definition of a boyfriend. There’s a sword for nearly every play style here. Wink. — Jessica Conditt, Senior Editor

To say I love Arkane Studio’s Dishonored series is an understatement. I’ve spent countless hours extolling the virtues of that series’ slick stealth gameplay, gorgeous steampunk art design and inventive level design. While the first game was successful enough to spawn a sequel and a standalone entry, Dishonored never reached the massive mainstream popularity it deserved. (You could say the same for Prey, another critical darling that sold poorly.)

Since we first saw a glimpse of Deathloop, it looked like an intriguing remix of some of Dishonored’s best components. There were magical powers that let you teleport at will. It was a first-person stealth game that leaned heavily on both melee weapons and guns; and it looked absolutely beautiful. Personally, I was hoping that Arkane would be able to recreate the magic of Dishonored to make it more palatable to general players.

Well, Deathloop isn’t that. Its time loop mechanics are hard to parse at first — in particular, it takes a while to learn what you should actually be doing to make any sort of progress. Even dealing with the game’s menus can be migraine-inducing, especially when you’re learning how to keep weapons between multiple loops.

But just like my colleague Jessica Conditt, I loved every minute of it. It’s a blast to play, so long as you’re attuned to its stealth mechanics. I seriously dug the multiplayer mode, which puts you in the shoes of the game’s main antagonist, Julianna, as she hunts down other players. It’s not as fleshed out as the single-player campaign, but it sure felt great ruining someone else’s loop.

While it’s not quite the Dishonored 3 I really want, I can’t help but applaud Arkane for the sheer amount of innovation packed within Deathloop. Sure, it’s a time loop game like so many others; the day repeats itself like clockwork, and you’re also pushed back to the beginning if you die. But, crucially, it also builds on that concept. If a similar temporal anomaly were discovered in our world, it likely wouldn’t be too long before a bunch of elite technocrats started using it as a way to achieve something close to immortality. — Devindra Hardawar, Senior Editor

Death’s Door was the best game I played in 2021. And that’s not because it did something different. To me, someone who loved Ocarina of Time and Majora’s Mask growing up, its familiar and comforting Zelda-like rhythms were exactly what I needed in a challenging year. Everything about Death’s Door is also perfect. From the music to the art style and gameplay, developer Acid Nerve has crafted one of the best adventures in recent memory. — I.B.

I’m a huge fan of visual novels — in my time at The Hamden Journal I’ve lauded games like Doki Doki Literature Club and Dream Daddy — so it’s no surprise that I enjoyed Famicom Detective Club when I played the pair of re-released games for the Nintendo Switch back in May. 

The stories, particularly The Missing Heir, are compelling while the characters are easy to like. The gameplay is a little simple compared to the complexities of modern titles, but that just made me appreciate the genre more. I preferred the first game to the second, The Girl Who Stands Behind, but who am I kidding, you can’t play just one; they’re that fun. I hear that developer MAGES is willing to do a third installment, and I’d like to see where the series goes with a more modern spin. — Kris Naudus, Buyer’s Guide Editor

I’ve never been a huge fan of realistic racing games, mostly because of that one word: realistic. I don’t have the patience to tweak my car and master all the skills necessary to make the most out of those games. Forza Horizon 5 pulls off a great trick by making its racing just realistic enough while still being extremely approachable. The library of classic and modern vehicles means you can easily find your dream car(s), and the game makes it easy to auto-tune your collection for peak performance if you don’t want to spend time picking out suspension systems, tires and so forth.

There’s also the brilliant “rewind” button: Taking tight corners at speed without wiping out (or going so slow around them that the entire field blows past you) is not easy, but rewinding means you can easily erase any big mistakes you make and take the corner all over again. It helped me learn faster than I would have if I ended up in last place every time I took a turn.

Beyond that, the world of Forza Horizon 5 simply looks amazing — the beautifully-rendered jungles, mountains and open roads of this fictionalized corner of Mexico make for a perfect driving backdrop. It’s beautiful to look at, and the variety of terrain means you’ll get a huge variety of terrain in the different races to try.

In a year when I’ve shied away from the narrative-heavy, single-player games that I typically prefer, Forza Horizon 5 has been a perfect escape over the last few months. It’s the kind of game you can sink hours into at a time, or just pick up and play for a few races. And between the variety of race types, different weather conditions, weekly challenges and much more, it’s a game I think I’ll be coming back to for a long time. — I.B.

In my review of the Halo Infinite campaign, I criticized the game for relying on tired narrative threads and repetitive mechanics. I found myself wanting more innovation out of a modern, open-world Halo, rather than a cramped map of overly familiar landscapes and a lineup of the best tricks taken from other successful franchises.

All of that remains true, but hey — it’s still Halo.

When it comes to gameplay, Infinite is the best Halo’s been. It doesn’t thrust the series forward in any significant way, but it spit-shines the best features and presents everything in a polished environment that’s perfectly suited for floaty, fast-paced gun battles. The campaign evokes your warm-fuzzy nostalgic feelings and, even though it may not feel like a massive open world, offers a larger area to explore than ever before.

Infinite’s multiplayer matches benefit from the franchise improvements as well. There are tight and large-scale maps, a handful of new weapons with plenty of kick, and fan-favorite guns on offer like the Needler and Battle Rifle. This is the refreshing Halo experience we’ve been waiting (and waiting) for, driven by new tools like the Grappleshot, a hook that allows players to fly around the map like a short-range, hard sci-fi Spider-Man.

In comparison to other open-world action-adventure games and rapid-fire FPS titles, Halo Infinite doesn’t deliver anything particularly innovative, but it also doesn’t have any catastrophic failures. For a franchise in its 20th year, that’s a successful outcome. Especially in comparison to other Halo games, Infinite is an achievement that any fan should be happy to play. — J.C.

After the disappointment of last year’s Avengers, I went into Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy with low expectations. I’ve rarely been so happy about being proved wrong.

Guardians is a blast. The story zips along, taking the crew from one gorgeous, colorful alien environment to the next as they try to save their skins and, inevitably, the galaxy.

You can only play as Peter Quill (aka Star-Lord), though you’re rarely without at least one of your companions. The crew retains the quippy, rapid-fire dialogue from James Gunn’s films and the characters talk almost constantly. Thankfully, the writing’s the strongest part of the game, with a solid slate of jokes and story-centric lines. There are also dialogue choices (much like in a Telltale game) that can affect how a level plays out.

Eidos-Montréal had the chance to create a Guardians story that’s distinct from the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The characters look, sound and act different from the MCU crew. It was initially a little jarring given how much I enjoy James Gunn’s movies, but I quickly grew to love them.

Unfortunately, the combat isn’t great. Quill’s guns are woefully underpowered at first, so fights are more about managing the rest of the team’s more impactful abilities. A power-up mechanic that brings the team together in a seemingly inspiring huddle is annoying, while some of the enemy encounters feel extraneous. Still, the rest of the experience was so enjoyable that the mediocre combat wasn’t too bothersome.

In a landscape dominated by massive, never-ending games, Guardians of the Galaxy is a refreshing throwback. It’s a single-player adventure that tells a streamlined story with great attention to detail. Best of all, in certain areas where Quill can’t fire his pistols, he’ll point finger guns and make “pew-pew” noises. I never get tired of that. — Kris Holt, Contributing Editor

As the first all-new, side-scrolling Metroid adventure since 2002, Metroid Dread had a lot to live up to. Nintendo has experimented both successfully (Metroid Prime Trilogy) and unsuccessfully (Metroid: Other M) with the basic formula, but Dread returns the series to its roots while adding enough new gameplay elements to keep things fresh.

However, with a series that had been dormant this long, new things weren’t what drew me to the game. I had never played a side-scrolling Metroid game all the way through, and this installment is a near-perfect modern interpretation of the “Metroidvania” genre the series helped invent. There’s lots of exploration, back-tracking, and new areas opening up when you get power-ups. It’s a simple formula executed with precision by developer MercurySteam.

The stealth elements, where Samus has to avoid detection from the powerful E.M.M.I. robots, are new to the series. Fortunately, they aren’t so frequent that they overpower the standard segments. And while they can be difficult, they’re not so tough that I ever got terribly frustrated – they’re just hard enough that finally getting the power you need to take down an E.M.M.I. is extremely satisfying.

The rest of the game is pretty classic Metroid, but the journey to regain all your lost powers, explore the varied worlds of Dread and take out truly epic boss monsters doesn’t feel like a retread at all. Instead, it reminded me of why Metroid is one of Nintendo’s most classic franchises. Metroid Dread showed Nintendo at its best of breathing new life into a series while still keeping it comfortingly familiar. — Nate Ingraham, Deputy Editor

Gamers have their holy grails, the titles they’ve love to see that may never get made, like Half-Life 3 and an official English translation of Mother 3. For years, the Nintendo 64’s Pokémon Snap was one of those games on that list; I certainly remember people begging for a Wii or DS version back when I worked at The Pokémon Company over a decade ago. (The original got released on Wii Shop, but that’s about it.) So the announcement of New Pokémon Snap was a welcome surprise from last year, and the finished game certainly delivered.

The classic rail-shooter gameplay is back, but now with improved graphics. The Pokémon look amazing, and the ability to use motion controls really adds to the immersion. (Though I admittedly did get a bit motion sick.) I’m a fan of birdwatching, but not the best at bird photography. So New Pokémon Snap really scratched that itch, with all the fun of logging and collecting them. I loved playing this game, and not just because Todd Snap got a real glow-up. (But it certainly didn’t hurt.) — K.N.

Look, even I can see that Pokémon Go is the objectively better game. It just has more to do and a bigger community. But I prefer Pikmin Bloom because it just asks so little of me, and that’s perfect for my busy life. I don’t have time to be looking for Pokémon and tossing Poké Balls and going on Raids… but you know what I can do? Walk around and have cute little Pikmin plant flowers as I travel. There’s something impressive about opening the app to see all the flowers you and others have planted, and the Pikmin are just super cute. The little noises they make when they go on expeditions? Squee. — K.N.

The protagonist of The Vale: Shadow of the Crown is Alex, a princess whose brother has just ascended to the throne and made her a warden of a small castle at the edge of their kingdom. On the way there, Alex survives an attack on her caravan, but she’s stranded 500 miles from home and has to make her way back. What’s more, Alex has been blind since birth.

The Vale attempts to replicate how Alex experiences the world in being almost entirely audio-based. Even though it’s a first-person game, the only visuals to speak of, other than menus, are floating particles that offer the player some sense of the 3D environments and provide some contextual details like time of day.

Unlike many other RPGs, which usually offer a map that’s spilling over with places to go and things to do, everything the player does is based on what they hear. The Vale uses spatial audio (headphones are essential for this one) to help players navigate the space, find other characters to interact with and receive guidance from Alex’s companion. The sound design and voice acting are terrific. I rarely felt unsure about where I was or what was happening, unless that’s intended by the developer. It’s important to listen carefully during combat too, as you’ll aim your shield and weapon in one of three directions, depending on where you think an attacker is.

For a game that puts such an emphasis on accessibility for blind and vision-impaired players, it’s disappointing that there are no subtitles or control remapping options for others. That said, developer Falling Squirrel has crafted a deeply immersive adventure you can explore with your eyes closed. The Vale: Shadow of the Crown is a remarkable, memorable experience which underscores that games can and should be for everyone. — K.H.

Bonus round

Look, I know I talk about Animal Crossing: New Horizons a lot. But when Nintendo announced the 2.0 update a few months ago I pretty much started to hyperventilate and I’ve been lightheaded ever since. Lots of long-requested features finally dropped, most notably the addition of a café, but also plenty of quality of life improvements. It’s almost like a whole new game in some ways, reinvigorating this nearly two-year-old title to the point where I’m playing daily again and I haven’t even tried all the new features. Just when I thought I was out… — K.N.

I’m glad I waited for the PS5 version of Control. The wonderfully strange world is made even better by the console’s capabilities. Whether it’s running in 4K with ray-tracing on or at 60fps, this is a beautiful game. The DualSense offers a satisfying click when the Service Weapon shape-shifts into another type of gun and the haptic feedback from each firing mode feels different. The 3D audio adds to the atmosphere, while the zippy fast traveling is very welcome.

Add in the DLC, and Control Ultimate Edition feels like the ideal way to explore The Oldest House. I’m already counting down the days until the next game in the series. — K.H.

This one could technically be in the 2021 category for two reasons. First, it’s timeless, and second, the Final Cut version of the game came out this year, adding full voice acting, new quests and general gameplay improvements to an already highly acclaimed title. It really doesn’t matter which category it goes in, though, as long as you do yourself a favor and play it.

Disco Elysium is a mature, densely detailed role-playing game with an incredible dialogue system, and a brilliant sense of player choice and expression. It stars an amnesiac, alcoholic detective and it’s set in a grimy open world filled with fascinating characters. This is a game that will make you think, laugh and recoil in horror time and time again — and oftentimes all at once. — J.C.

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