Wow, there goes 2021 huh? Time flies during a global pandemic. Here's a list of some personal standouts from 2021.

10. Boyfriend Dungeon

Boyfriend Dungeon, as the name suggests, is a delightful fusion of dating sim and action adventure. Welcome to Verona Beach, a place where it’s not uncommon to see the locals morph into implements of destruction. Just one of many things you’ll have to get used to as the newest non-shapeshifting resident.

And get used to it you must, for you will need the trust and companionship of the town’s humans-turned-weapons to survive. There are plenty of games in existence now which have combined elements of dungeoneering and dating, but few which make your date the actual weapon. It’s here where Boyfriend Dungeon’s compelling loop kicks in. You meet people who agree to swap to their weapon form for use in dungeons, adventuring with them builds rapport, and upon return to town a new date awaits. As the relationship progresses, so too do new abilities unlock for use in the depths. It creates a constant reaction, where engaging with one element advances the other, incentivizing both in equal measure.

I found Boyfriend Dungeon difficult to put down, due to this clever self-perpetuating progression. The only thing keeping it low on the list, unfortunately, is the fighting itself. While serviceable for the purposes of a dating sim, much of my time battling it out felt more like flailing. There’s a lack of strong feedback in dealing or recieving damage that keeps it from really singing as a brawler. That said, even if the combat falters, the character stories pick up the slack.

9. Melty Blood: Type Lumina

You never forget your first French Bread game.

Melty Blood: Type Lumina marks the return of a long beloved and whacky franchise the fighting game community holds dear. Melty Blood is a slap-happy fighter chock full of generic anime people, duking it out for some absurd motives. Characters include a maid, a priest, two versions of the same vampire girl, another maid, and then both maids together as a separate character. You know. Anime.

So what makes Melty Blood so special? The answer lies less in the visual appearance, and more in what it allows players to do. Melty Blood flies in the face of typical fighting game conventions (and to that end, the next few sentences may mean nothing to you. Very sorry). Melty Blood has reverse beat combos, whiff cancels, mid-combo air throws, and a shield mechanic to counter moves — but the attacker can also counter the counter, which can in turn be countered. When two contenders in Melty Blood are evenly matched, it's a sight to behold.

This new entry does take some steps to bring new players into the fold. Inputs are relatively simple and every character has an auto combo. To call it "accessible" however, would be quite the misnomer. Melty Blood is rife with tricky setups to learn, and is absolutely bursting with oddly specific interactions one has to master to be competitive.

Nonetheless, it’s exciting to see Melty Blood return to the fray, with all its chaotic energy in tow.

8. Fights in Tight Spaces

From developers Ground Shatter comes the ultimate deck-building roguelike, which unfortunately sailed under the radar this year. As the name suggests, Fights in Tight Spaces is a series of turn-based encounters in confined locales; bathrooms, lobbies, alleyways, dive bars and the like.

First you pick a deck, each one tailored to a different style. Then you hit the road to track down the big bad boss of an evil organization. After each stage you’ll pick a card to add to the deck. Ideally, by the time you reach the boss, you’ve got a fine-tuned stack for dismantling crowds of baddies.

Or, if you’re like me, you’ve got a deck packed to the brim with garbage and die waiting for good cards to appear. Back to square one.

Fights in Tight Spaces makes the list for its simplicity and creativity. Cards are tailored not only to do damage, but also to cause movement — either for yourself, or others. So, players can either go hard on crafting a deck designed to deliver haymaker after haymaker, or opt to manipulate the field. With a deck full of movement cards, you can push foes into the path of their own bullets or weapons, turning their strengths against them. Neither approach is incorrect, it’s simply a matter of creating the right situations.

The minimalist approach, both visually and mechanically, really helped Fights in Tight Spaces stand out. It made for an excellent game to mess with while sitting in queues for our next entry...

7. Final Fantasy XIV: Endwalker

I must confess, Endwalker started much higher on this list and slipped spots as I approached the end. It absolutely still belongs on a Game of the Year list, but it would be disingenuous to say I was fully impressed (narratively, at least).

Endwalker marks the culmination of Final Fantasy XIV’s story to this point. Something of a “season finale” if you will, wrapping up all the threads laid out in one monolithic expansion. I stand in opposition to the greater FFXIV community on how successfully it accomplished this endeavor, but by Zodiark, stand here I do. That said, there are still plenty of enjoyable moments in the sprawling web of a narrative that is Endwalker, and perhaps more importantly, enough good new content to get it on the list.

It’s also here where I run into a massive problem, for to discuss the narrative of Endwalker would be to discuss the narrative of the entire game thus far. No one has time for that. I will do my best to briefly discuss its merits, sans the long storied tendrils this expansion tied together.

As with any expansion, Endwalker adds many new zones, classes, and alterations to existing mechanics. As always there are winners and losers, and the current consensus is Warrior and Paladin have made out like Tank bandits, awash in powerful tools. The two new classes, Reaper and Sage, make for enjoyable additions to the roster. One involves summoning a voidsent to stab away, and the other uses drone lasers to shoot and heal in equal measure.

Whatever qualms I have about the story itself, the visual and musical presentation remains exceptional. There are some impressive locales and scenery all throughout Endwalker, and the musical interludes and repeating motifs tie it all together. There’s an excellent use of songs shifting in the world to match the tone. This technique saw use in Shadowbringers but gets punched up to another level here, especially as the culmination approaches.

I would recommend Final Fantasy XIV to you, but alas, you cannot currently play it. Servers were so impacted in the wake of the new expansion Square Enix has suspended sales while they scrounge up new data centers. From no one wanting to play it to everyone and their mother wanting to play it — Final Fantasy XIV has really come full circle.

6. Persona 5: Strikers

When I was but a young, foolish child, I loved me some Dynasty Warriors. “Musou games,” as they’re known nowadays, involve slaughtering entire fields of people by the bushel. The gameplay is often rather route and repetitive, but when you’re young, you don’t ask for much more. You just get to the stabbing.

As I’ve gotten older though, the magic of slaying entire fields of dudes has waned. Even when Omega Force has adapted properties I love, they rarely hold my attention for long — there’s only so many times one can mash the Square or X button in a row and still get an endorphin kick.

Persona 5: Strikers revitalized the entire formula.

Strikers picks up one year after the events of Persona 5 (the orginal, that is, not Royal. Kasumi will not be attending this reuinion). The Phantom Thieves assemble for some summer fun, but wouldn’t you know it? The dang metaverse is acting up again! It’s not long before the team sets out on a road trip to investigate the presence of “Jails” popping up all over Japan.

The involvement of Atlus undoubtedly helped elevate Strikers into something grand. Aside from the story (which mind you, is a thousand times better than any Dynasty Warriors narrative), the presence of Persona skills gives the player more options on how to approach a crowd beyond mashing attack buttons. The ability to swap between Thieves also means you can switch to who’s best for the current situation.

The only downside I see to Strikers is the story is nigh impenetrable to anyone who hasn’t played Persona 5; a Persona for first-timers, this ain't. For fans however, it delivers.

5. Solar Ash

Solar Ash is a profound explosion of artistic vision and despair.

Solar Ash is the second game from Heart Machine, the studio known for Hyper Light Drifter. While there’s a very similar aesthetic on display, aesthetics (and from what I hear, a very minor narrative connection) are where the similarities end.

Stop me if you’ve heard this one; there’s a brewing environmental catastrophe, but rather than do anything to address it, the powers-that-be drag their heels until the catastrophe becomes an emergency. Isn’t it nice to play video games and escape from problems in the real world?

What was I saying? Oh right. Rather than let the world fall into ruin, a group of stalwart interstellar adventurers known as Voidrunners set off on what is likely to be a one way trip to a black hole threatening their planet, with one last-ditch piece of tech which could save them all — the Starseed. As Rei, you make the journey into the Ultravoid to activate the Starseed and save the world.

What follows from here is a journey across the remnants of many civilizations, all of which fell into the Ultravoid. Solar Ash’s greatest strength is its ability to tell a story not with words or text, but with its environment. As you explore each region, you piece together what became of these lost planets, finding details about what their culture was like, how they reacted to its looming threat, and what failed missions and enterprises happened to save themselves (assuming they attempted anything at all).

Most of this exploration is done with voidtech rollerblades, zipping around forgotten rail lines and curling tree branches. While there is combat in Solar Ash, it’s hardly what I’d call the focus. The real task is simply figuring out how to move from place to place, or what needs to be done to create new pathways. This truth even carries over into boss fights, which all take place against giant beasts who appear as a final capstone to each zone. Taking down these colossal foes isn’t about stabbing them a lot, so much as quickly navigating their stony carapaces. It’s an act reminiscent of Shadow of the Colossus, if The Hero had some sick neon rollerblades.

What really shoots Solar Ash up the charts is the hopeful and sorrowful tone looming over everything. Rei is an upbeat young girl adrift among fallen civilizations, bouncing from one tragic story to another. Each fallen world reminds her what’s at stake, strengthening her resolve to press on. Also lost among these ruins are also the occasional survivor, living out their final days here at the end of all things. Assisting them is entirely optional, but I highly recommend it — it's where some of the best personal stories Solar Ash has to offer lie.

4. Life is Strange 3: True Colors

Welcome to Haven Springs.

Life is Strange 3 follows the story of Alex Chen, a 16 year old foster-home raised teen who is reunited with her older brother. She leaves her life in the system behind to join Gabe in the idyllic town of Haven Springs, Colorado.

As is often the case with Life is Strange protagonists though, Alex is not entirely what she seems. Alex Chen is an empath; she senses the emotions of others around her, and can even hear their thoughts. People literally emanate their feelings in visible colors only she can see (hence the subtitle).

Now I hit the usual roadblock when discussing a narratively driven game in a short (well, “short”) list. It would take me pages upon pages to discuss everything I loved about Life is Strange 3, and every word would ruin the adventure for those who haven't experienced it yet. Haven Springs is a place full of rich, delightful characters, all of whom are worth knowing.

As is the case in any Life is Strange game, how the people in your life change (or fail to) is entirely up to you and the choices you make. Even the side characters who act as optional interactions have tremendously compelling personal stories and small moments to enjoy.

Much needs to be said about the incredible visual design, through and through. When people’s emotions run strong, the world around Alex changes entirely. It’s here where Deck Nine flexes their artistic muscles, presenting a modified, twisted version of the world you’ve seen so far. A child scared of a ravine sees a monster looming below, and now so does Alex Chen. At least one of these moments happens every chapter, if not more, and it’s always an impressive display.

Also there's also a LARP.

Life is Strange 3: True Colors is the first game in the franchise since Deck Nine acquired the rights, and the series is in good hands.

3. Metroid Dread

I still can’t believe a new Metroid came out this year. Even more surprising yet, it took third place on my personal GOTY list.

I've got a long history of not finishing Metroid games. With the exception of Super Metroid and the first Metroid Prime, I’ve often tired of the formula long before reaching the culmination. It is not so much that Metroid Dread does anything substantially different from these previous outings, so much as it just does everything they did better.

Dread is tight and constrained, both in its level design and mechanics. Most areas will immediately funnel you towards the next required zone, cutting down on the usual guesswork and aimless wandering (For some people this may be a mark against it, but I appreciated the stronger direction). While I did get lost on occasion, it happened far less than the typical Metroid game, and as a result I found it much harder to put down the controller.

There’s a great feel to the combat as well. Each enemy you come across requires a different tool in your kit to defeat and new strategies to avoid. The melee counterattack from Samus Returns uh... returns, now with far more expanded applications. You can knock heavyset dudes off balance, trigger special boss sequences, and reflect specific attacks. As usual, Samus ends up with a wide array of other gadgets and tools in her arsenal as well, all with both combat and traversal applications.

One cannot mention Metroid Dread without also mentioning the newest threat, the E.M.M.I’s. These Terminator-esque nightmares occupy the central space of each region. Passing through their domain becomes a game of cat and mouse, as they can only be harmed once specific conditions in the zone have been met. Samus has a few new mobility options to escape danger, including a new under-the-leg slide. Once the hunt is on, Samus’s life is on the line — if you’re caught, you’ve got two small windows in the ensuing cutscene to potentially escape. Blow it and you’re dead.

Despite the game’s name, I did not necessarily find these sequences scary, but they are tense changes of pace from the usual running and gunning. I look forward to seeing how speedrunners use Samus’s new array of tools to completely break the game and make the E.M.M.I.’s look like minor speed bumps.

2. Guilty Gear: Strive

I know the smell of this game, alright.

Guilty Gear: Strive absolutely dominated the fighting game scene this year, and for good goddamn reason. It rocks out loud.

The Guilty Gear series has a long history of complexity and ruthlessness. Strive made the ambitious (and contentious) choice to pair down the series into something more manageable. Screen size is significantly reduced, as are combo and super options. Gone also are the instant kill supers that once defined the series. But, in carving out what was once core to previous Guilty Gears, Strive found a new identity.

Strive is downright breakneck. Matches are over in a blink. One false step or whiffed move can end everything. This speed of play pairs well with Guilty Gear's extended options for every situation. You’ve got three different ways to block. Do you block it normally, go for just blocks to keep them close, or use faultless defense to push your opponent away and give yourself some space? Even while getting hit, there’s a choice to make. In Guilty Gear games, you can burst while getting juggled in a combo, but your burst comes back slowly. It might be the only one you get in a match, so choosing when to burn it is key. Or, do you use it offensively, netting yourself a full super bar?

Another Guilty Gear staple now expanded upon in Strive is the Roman Cancel. An R.C. can extend combos in unusual ways, save you from a whiffed animation, or even drift you a short distance across the screen. Being able to lightly break the rules of the game at the cost of meter makes the neutral game exciting and dynamic to watch among pros, as they burn their bars to try and set up impossible situations or escape certain death.

None of this would matter, of course, if the character roster were a letdown, but Strive wisely retooled their cast to fit the new motif. Sol lost his ability to quickly traverse the screen, but he gained outrageous combo extensions and longer sword reach. With the reduced screen size, Potemkin is now the ultimate grappling nightmare. And, of course... Totsugeki.

Each character has a well-defined toolkit, and what impresses me most is none of them have overlapped thus far. Most fighting games end up full of characters with similar movesets, or at least similar game plans in a match. In Strive however, everyone’s looking to put their opponent in a different situation to put up the W. It’s a rather remarkable testament to Arc System’s ability to keep iterating.

Considering Strive has also joined the kingdom of Rollbackia, it has a good chance to stand the test of time, further pandemic be damned.

1. Resident Evil Village

Holy shit, what an experience.

I never would’ve guessed the continuing tale of Ethan Winters would rate this highly. His introduction into the series back in Resident Evil 7 was highly necessary, I think — the original cast is far too deep down the rabbit hole of Plagas, T-Viruses, and Umbrella Corporation shell companies. Better to have a new protagonist stumble blindly into these threats, rather than a cast of well-versed experts for whom pulling a key out of a picture frame to solve a shadowbox puzzle is just a typical Tuesday.

My surprise at the #1 placement has much to do with my feelings on Ethan Winters’ previous outing. While I enjoyed Resident Evil 7, it certainly wouldn’t make a top ten list. I had no desire to return to the halls of the Baker Manor, and while there were a few surprises and revelations, nothing substantial happened, narratively at least, to elevate 7 to something special in my mind.

Village pushes the franchise to dizzying heights. It is, without a doubt, one of the best openings to a horror game in recent memory. The first fifteen minutes are punctuated by constant terror, as Ethan’s peaceful life is torn apart in one confusing night.

Much praise is owed to Capcom’s marketing team, I think, for hiding almost 75% of Resident Evil Village’s content from the marketing material. If you’re someone who has no interest in the franchise but ended up awash in trailers and fan art anyway, you may be surprised to learn the tall vampire woman and her daughters are only the primary antagonists for the first section of the game. Within two hours, everything in Resident Evil Village was a mystery. Only as it happened did I realize how rare it was, to feel completely oblivious to the twists and turns ahead. It made for a thrilling experience on a fresh play, full of absolutely wild surprises where anything could happen.

And boy, did anything happen.

Resident Evil Village finds the razor thin balance between action and horror others in the genre struggle to find. It manages to be bone-chilling at times, while also a blast to sit down and play. Some moments feel like you’re hanging by a thread, while others you're bringing the fight right back to the terrors who’ve haunted you thus far. The pendulum is always swinging, from one to the other, right as it needs to.

Ethan Winters’ story in this mysterious European village takes some unbelievable twists and turns, with profound and dramatic revelations and consequences. Ethan is a man completely lost at sea in a world of monsters and conspiracy, and everyone else around him has a bigger piece of the greater puzzle. Where Resident Evil 7 Ethan just wanted to survive, Village Ethan seeks to understand. It makes for a far more compelling tale, as each answer only raises more questions. Safe to say, there’s a lot to like here for long time fans of the series. Resident Evil Village has much more connective thread to the series as a whole than 7’s more disconnected side adventure.

In going with the larger emphasis on action, Resident Evil Village also brings back The Mercenaries, a bonus mode with a series of challenge maps. This is perhaps the main reason I was unable to stop playing Resident Evil Village all year; every stage is like solving a complex puzzle. The first run is exploratory, figuring out the optimal path to the exit. Every run after you’re tweaking small things here and there, deducing new strategies to shave off time.

Completing stages in The Mercenaries unlocks new weapons or tools to bring with you into the main game, giving you further incentive to jump back in and play again. This loop kept me playing both modes, back to back, long after I normally would’ve moved on to a new game.

Resident Evil Village is, to me, the new Gold Standard of what a Resident Evil game can be. According to development diaries the team looked to Resident Evil 4 for inspiration, and I believe they succeeded more than they know. Much like 4 revitalized the aging franchise, I believe Village has done the same.

Shameful Omission

Psychonauts 2

This is the most shameful omission of all time. I mean, my name’s even in the credits for being a backer — and not for an insignificant amount of money either. And yet, I never saw Raz’s first adventures as a newly minted cadet. Sorry Raz.

Honorable Mention

Deltrarune: Chapter 2

Originally Deltarune: Chapter 2 made the list, but in order to remain consistent, I simply can’t leave a partially complete game up there. Down to the mentions it must go.

Deltarune is a followup to Toby Fox’s Undertale (which, for the anagram inclined, may have been obvious) and acts as something of an alternate universe. The same characters are here, but the space they occupy is more akin to our own world than the sparse underground from Undertale. They have jobs, homes, libraries, and schools (which of course, you attend).

The story thus far; Kris and Suzie are two students who find special passage to a Dark World. In this place are burgeoning fountains of darkness, which threaten to destroy everything. Any who have the power to seal these places are referred to as “Lightners,” and wouldn’t you know it, Kris and Suzie fit the bill.

The creativity in Deltarune, both in setting and mechanics, is off the charts. When these portals to the other realm appear, their entrance becomes a room somewhere in your world. The entire setting takes on a theme and aesthetic to match whatever room has been hijacked, and the objects inside become the living inhabitants. In Chapter 2, the computer lab is the source of the new fountain, which means Suzie and Kris enter a world of tech and intelligence. The music and character work is astounding, and while the mysteries keep coming, each chapter still feels like its own completed story.

The only downside to Deltarune is at this current pace, it won’t be eligible for placement on our GOTY list until like 2030.