What a year. I think it’s safe to say all of us are looking forward to not being in 2021 anymore. I (Eric) am optimistic, but I was optimistic for 2020, and we see where that got us. As per usual, we wrap up our years by talking about our favorite video games that we’ve played. I’m making a small addendum to this, however: let’s throw in tabletop games. I know Ace and Nick are really into them, and I’ve played a ton this year via Tabletop Simulator.
Without further ado, let’s get this thing started.
The year 2021 was/is a bit of haze for me in terms trying to remember what games I’ve played. I do remember a few: Shadow of the Colossus, A Plague Tale: Innocence, Song of the Deep. But there were only two games I want to write about.
Video Game of the Year: Returnal
I only started playing Returnal last week, but it is my game of the year. It’s my first roguelike (or rogue-lite, whatever, I don’t want to get into that but you can read this if you’re just as confused about the differences as I am) and I am hooked. I started the game completely blind, as in I had no idea what the story was, how to play, what the objectives were, or anything. I only knew that the developer, Housemarque, was acquired by Sony to join the Playstation Studios family. I don’t think they’d do that if the game sucked. And I also had a vague notion that it was a Groundhog Day kind of game. The trailer was enough to get me excited so I bought it digitally when it was on sale a while ago but finally dove in last week. And am I having a blast.
Like I said, I didn’t know what to expect or how to play. I just figured things out as I went along. At it’s core, it’s a hack’n’slash game with an element of Groundhog Day. Every time you die, you start over at the beginning where you crash land on an alien planet. From the crash site, you move into the next zone dispatching the alien creatures that want to kill you and picking up consumables and upgrades along the way. You move onto the next zone and rinse and repeat, all the while trying to unlock the secrets of the planet and why you’re stuck in this endless loop.
It sounds relentless and repetitive but it’s not. Each run is a learning experience. You gain familiarity with the different zones. I haven’t gotten very far in the game so there’s only a handful of them for me right now. But knowing the map helps when it comes time to clear the area of monsters. And knowing the monsters is another learning experience. Memorizing both their attack patterns and the particular room you’re in will have you eliminating them like a pro. Combining jumping, dashing, melee and ranged attacked will come naturally for you so while a room may spawn a ton of baddies, you’ll soon reach a point where killing them becomes second nature and, most importantly fun!
The game earns its roguelike label from each death you experience. The layout of the zones you go through change with every reset with the only constant being the crash site. Weapon upgrades, monster drops, consumables, and other pick-ups are completely randomized as well so no two runs are exactly the same. You lose almost all of your upgrades and consumable with every death but there are some upgrades that persist through to the next cycle. However, those are few and far between. Returnal takes this repetitive cycle to heart and weaves this into the overall story. Your character has a certain level of self-awareness of being stuck in a cycle and is trying to unlock the how and why through memories and found scout logs, logs left behind by other versions of herself.
Housemarque really leans into the neverending cycle theme. There’s an online component to the game where a scout’s death by another player can be downloaded to your game. Every once in a while you’ll come across a deceased scout that you can scan. The scan will replay the last few moments of the scout before its death and show how the scout died. After which you can scavenge the body for loot or avenge its death by fighting an alien monster. A successful avenging will net you Ether, an in-game type of currency. The avenged player will get a notification and receive some sort of pick-up item. This works the same way for you too. Your death will be shared automatically with other players if your settings allow it. And if your death was successfully avenged, you’ll be able to receive a pick-up item upon the start of your next cycle.
I’ve played and died a LOT but it’s a lot of fun. The fun for me comes from each run where I feel like I’m doing a little better, learn a little bit more, and progress a little further. There’s no leveling up or experience points or anything like that. The closest thing might be gaining proficiency in a weapon the more times you kill an alien monster. But, like most other things, any proficiency gained is lost upon death.
Aside from the actual game play, for me Returnal exemplifies the power of the PS5. It runs at 4k 60fps with no loading screens. Everything feels buttery smooth and screens and levels load instantly. So many games that were upgraded to a PS5 version offered a performance setting OR a fidelity setting. Why not both at once? The PS5 version of Spider-Man offered a “Performance RT” setting that was the best of both worlds but there were still some sacrifices made to get there. Maybe because those were PS4 games that were more or less ported to a PS5, but Returnal makes no such compromises. I have to assume it’s because it was natively coded for the console. I mean, I haven’t done a technical analysis but this is what it feels like to me. All that and the PS5 doesn’t sound like a jet engine that’s about to take off like my old PS4 Pro did with some games. Top to bottom, Returnal is truly a great experience.
Runner-Up: Rocket League
I started playing this only ’cause one of my boys is super into it. Playing soccer with Hot Wheels sounds weird but is pretty damn fun. I’ve more or less retired from Splatoon 2 (until Splatoon 3 comes out) and Rocket League has filled that goto quick-fix game vacancy it left behind. And since I picked Splatoon 2 as my Game of the Year for 2017 partially because of the number of hours I’ve put in to it, I have to be fair and give Rocket League a nod in this post because I play it almost every day. I’m not very good but every once in a blue moon, I’ll make a play like this and feel like a pro, if even for just a moment:
Pretty damn fun.
Yeah, I don’t have much to contribute for this genre. I received a couple of Kickstarters that I backed, but I haven’t played any of them. Sadly, some are still unopened in their shipping box.
This is always my favorite post to write each year, because honestly I forget about most of the games I’ve played.
This year was pretty big for me, because I got a PS5 (thanks to Ace’s quick fingers). This opened up a whole new world of gaming, including Demon’s Souls, a new / old Souls game for me to enjoy. While a majority of the games I played this year were on PC, the games I got on my PS5, I greatly enjoyed. I won’t bore you with the details, but I’ll break down my favorites of the year below. Keep in mind: these are my favorite that I played this year, not necessarily games from 2021.
Slay the Spire
This one came out in…2017. So I’m a bit late to the party, but thanks to Xbox Game Pass Streaming, I was able to experience this game with touch controls from the comfort of my bed while watching documentaries. Slay the Spire is the perfect tune-out game. It demands enough attention to not be boring, but the game is set to your pace. Want to take things slow? Blast through it? Take a five minute break mid-battle? Slay the Spire doesn’t care.
It’s the first deck building game I’ve ever played, and wow, I am now a huge fan of the genre. The amount of different builds and skills you can focus within each character is truly astounding. For instance, take my favorite character: The Silent. You could focus a poison-heavy build, slowly killing enemies while building up a tanky defense to outlast them. Or a throwing knife build, where you can not only boost the power of cheap throwing knife cards, but also really up the amount you get, so you can take down bosses in one or two turns. Or put everything on the power of discarding and drawing cards, so you can select the specific cards you want each turn. There’s so many variations that come with including just one or two new cards. Add in relics that permanently boost your abilities, or potions that give you temporary abilities, and ways to manipulate all of those, and you’re in for a good time.
Another note: this game is tough. It took me a long time to beat it, even longer to beat it with every character. It’s a standard roguelike, so if you’re not into that gameplay loop, well, you might not like deck building games at all. It can also be kinda daunting to dip into if you’re looking to relax. While I’d say the game is relaxing, it can still be pretty stressful sometimes, and usually requires a fair bit of thinking.
Keeping with the deck building theme is Dominion. Dominion is actually a card game, but luckily for humanity, it has a free-to-play digital version both on Steam and on browser. Let me say first and foremost: do not play this game physically. There is so much shuffling and so many rules that without automation, you’re in for a bad time.
Anyway, with that out of the way, let me tell you how Dominion blows Slay the Spire out of the water.
First of all, you’re playing the game against another human opponent, which adds a bunch of death. Your strategy will change because of that. While your goal is simply to have more points than your opponent, there are so many ways to do that, and it can change as you watch their move and slowly build a mental image of their deck.
Second, every single game is different (as long as you have all the expansions, and you must have the expansions). With only ten action cards each game, the small variations that arise from the pairing of different cards can completely change everything. I think I read a stat somewhere that if you started a new game of Dominion every minute, it would take around 63 million years to see every single possible match of 10 cards.
Third, there’s no right way to play the game. Dominion simply gives you ten cards and says “well, whatcha got?” Do you want to go with a really tight deck with cards that build your currency? Or pull off ludacrious combos until you have 15 different cards in play each turn? Dominion forces you to be creative, and unlike Slay the Spire, games are usually so quick that even if a strategy doesn’t work, it won’t be long until you have a fresh start, and that strategy is completely irrelevant. It’s impossible to go into this game with strategies, because every game is different. You just have to know how to chain together what you’re given well enough to win.
I could go on and on, but if you like deck building games, give it a try. It’s free. And then do what I did and spent $150 on the expansion packs. And never regret a thing.
The only bad thing I can say about Bowser’s Fury is that I keep forgetting it’s my game of the year. It’s not a very long game. It took me around 5 hours to 100% it, so maybe that’s why. I’d call it DLC for Super Mario 3D World if it wasn’t so very different, and wasn’t so much better.
Bowser’s Fury is much more of a fusion of Super Mario 3D World and Super Mario Odyssey than a pure successor to either. While the moveset, powerups, and enemies are all taken from 3D World, the gameplay loop of grabbing Cat Shines after completing a series of platforming challenges comes right out of Odyssey.
And, of course, Bowser’s Fury bring two new, important things to the table. First, everything is in one level. There’s no level select, no flagpoles, nothing to separate the various platforming challenges from each other aside from literal geographic separation. What you get, especially towards the end of the game, is a masterful blending of using the levels as a highway to move from one place to another. Cat Shines are hidden all over the place, sometimes behind rock pillars, or high up in the sky, or behind some specific blocks. So the stages are recontextualized depending on the challenge you’re seeking.
The stages also brilliantly change whenever you leave them. Each stage has 5 different “levels”, usually focused on a central mechanic: flipping platforms, the propellor cap, the ice skate. And after you beat a stage and walk off to do something else, it will seamlessly transition into another challenge. If I can say one bad thing about Odyssey, which remains my favorite Mario game to this day, sometimes you can be walking around too much, looking for a moon without really knowing where you’re going. That problem is gone in Bowser’s Fury. It is always obvious where you need to go, you just need to get there.
Bowser’s Fury also adds, well, Bowser. And his fury. The entire game orbits Bowser, who has transformed into this kaiju-like beast. Most of the game, Bowser is slumbering in the center of the map, but every few minutes he will wake up and the entire game will change.
He breathes fire, create new platforms to make some challenges easier, and can blow up special “Bowser Blocks” to reveal Cat Shines. Again, it’s another recontextualization of the stages. Because the only way to get Bowser back to sleep (aside from beating him up, but we’ll get to that), is by collecting a Cat Shine. So it’s generally in your best interest, unless you like getting lit on fire, to grab one as quickly as you can. If you don’t grab a Cat Shine, Bowser will eventually go back to sleep, which I’ll admit isn’t my favorite design choice. Especially in the late game, when you need him to blow up a series of Bowser Blocks in a row. It can be a bit frustrating to wait on him, but it’s a small nitpick.
Another form of recontextualizing (my new favorite word, apparently), comes with the BIG BELL. I don’t know if that’s the official term, but it’s what I call it. After you’ve collected a few Cat Shines, you’ll unlock a giant bell that will turn you into a giant Kaiju. Then, you deck it out with Bowser on the map. The stages now become obstacles, to stop Bowser’s fire or his rolling attack. It’s brilliant, and, unlike previous Mario games with a big Mario Bros. (looking at you, Mario and Luigi: Dream Team), it’s actually genuinely fun.
Fun is a great word to describe this game. The momentum of moving from one place to the next is so good, and it never stops. I felt a dopamine rush throughout the entire game, until the credits rolled at the end. While, yes, this game is short, it makes me extremely excited for the future of Mario games. The lesson learned in Bowser’s Fury will surely be used in the next Mario game, and I can’t wait to see what we get.
Yeah, so, Eric asked me about this a few weeks ago, and I thought long and hard about this. Not about what my favorite game of 2021 was, but about what new video games I actually played in 2021. So here’s the complete list of video games that were released in 2021 that I played this year:
- Mass Effect Legendary Edition
- Call of Duty: Vanguard
- Forza Horizon 5*
I’ve played exactly 14 minutes of Forza Horizon 5 thus far – short review, it’s a Forza game. Mass Effect Legendary Edition is a re-release of a game trilogy I’ve played dozens of times – your opinion of Mass Effect is set, and I’m not going to give any more credit to “Bioware Magic” (i.e, Crunch). CoD is a guilty pleasure from a company that deserves to die in a fire and I seriously hate that I enjoy the fundamental gameplay loop of so much. I’m not going to recognize them with anything because Activision|Blizzard is a gross company that the world would probably be better off without and Bobby Kotick is a billionaire, and the world would certainly be better off without all billionaires. All of them.
That leaves Valheim as the Video Game that I spent a decent chunk of time with… it’s a survival sandbox builder game that’s got some inspiration from Minecraft in it. It’s an odd game for me to like in a way, as I don’t like Minecraft all that much (though I need to get over that, since it’s my daughters absolute favorite game), and I’m not big into survival games. That being said, it’s a builder, and it scratched an itch that the long-dead EverQuest Landmark did, and it can be modded and allows for private servers.
Plus, it’s an indie title, and the developer has a “no crunch” policy, and despite hitting the jackpot with their title (five million sales on Steam after it’s launch – it’s a PC-only title), they haven’t turned it into a microtransaction-laden monster title. They deserve support and success.
That’s not to say I didn’t spend a lot of time this year not gaming… it’s just that most of my time gaming wasn’t spent in front of a computer. I mean, I did plenty of that, just playing the same old stuff I always do. Instead, I spent a lot of time at my local friendly game store instead, pushing little plastic models around in big pretend battles.
We kicked off a Crusade league here, which is a new way to play with 9th edition, and has quickly spread out to the other games in the form of “Narrative” play. Basically, instead of straight-up competitive play, you’re doing more of a story-based, game-to-game system that’s about building up over time. I opted to start with my Blood Angels force, and kept working on them over the course of the year.
My Blood Angels aren’t the strongest army in the game. Certainly not the worst… that’s reserved for my second army, Craftworlds Eldar (who volley for that title with the Tau), but they’re an early-edition Codex that lacks a lot of synergy with the rules. Power Creep has been a big thing this edition, and there has been some real balance issues with books released after the initial batch. Worse, the actual rules for the Blood Angels, while flavorful, don’t really match the lore and what the army is supposedly good at.
In theory, we’re a close-combat army that likes jet packs. We do have some troops that can do both of those things, but there are generic Space Marine troops that do it better than them, and there are other armies that do it better than them as well. Other armies have better rules than us to do those things as well, and our rules don’t really support it.
Still, it was a fun way to meet a lot of new people, enjoy playing games masked, and for a brief time pre-Delta and Omicron, unmasked, amongst mostly-vaxxed players (I mean, you got some idiots in every group), and I’ve found a good community of players in Warhammer for the first time in years. That’s the big thing for games like this… the community makes it far more than the game does, and the reason why I’d quit playing it in the past was because the community where I’d lived was just so bad.
It’s not all perfect, though… Games Workshop, as a company, has certainly seen their share of highs and lows. They continue to do rather epic levels of shooting themselves in the foot when it comes to communication and marketing. The debacle around Cursed City is still a master class on everything not to do… they just recently announced that the game is coming back without any sort of explanation as to why they scrubbed it from their site and went radio silent. No date as to when, but it will be getting expansions, so… yay, I guess?
More recently, an issue of their magazine that was supposed to show up before Christmas has just… vanished. It was supposed to have new rules for a couple of different armies in Age of Sigmar (the fantasy game), as well as some other stuff… and just nothing. They continue to have issues with product delays and the pipeline, and they’re just drip-feeding out information. Prices have gone up, and product has been increasingly hard to find, both at local game stores and directly from GW. Their ability to fulfill orders laughable most of the time, with stuff often taking weeks or months to show up.
That being said, they’re still the wargames that I find most fun to play. There are plenty of competitors out there, but none of them scratch that same itch. Legion has a decent enough following around here, but I haven’t gotten into it and don’t have the time to paint it. Fallout Wasteland Warfare, while fun, has no community to speak of in this area (or anywhere so far as I know – cool looking minis, but it hasn’t ever taken off). I’m not really interested in the rank-and-flank style games like Conquest.
I have started to get more into the smaller games from GW, though, and those likely will be what I talk about next year. Things like Necromunda, which I last played back in the late 90s, Kill Team, which saw a new edition come out this year. I’m going to start dipping my toes into Age of Sigmar, because I always want a bit more fantasy, though Im likely going to avoid Warcry and the like. There’s plenty of tabletop, and painting and building has been my jam as of late.
I’ve also done some D&D, though that’s also been a bit more scattered as the pandemic year has moved it all online and my group has sort of scattered to the wind as people have moved around in the 24th month of 2020. Hopefully I’ll get some of that going again as we go into 2020 Part III, but I’m also taking a long and hard look at my shelves full of RPG books, and realizing that most of these books and systems are going unread and unused, and probably need to be cut as well.
I wrote about my adventures in doing too many things earlier this year, dealing with anxiety and mental health, and just the world being a general tire fire. All of that is still true. I’ve continued down that path, as it’s a journey, not a goal. I’ve managed to get rid of some piles of plastic, gotten different piles of plastic, and generally maintained. I did find someone to buy my copy of Gloomhaven, though somehow my board game collection still managed to grow as old Kickstarter pledges started to show up (as did Heroquest, which just took up Gloomhaven’s space in the the closet). So, kind of a wash.
Still, though, it was really a Warhammer year for me. Who knows, maybe Space Marine II will come out in 2022 (though it has no date announced, so who knows)… and it can scratch both my Warhammer and video game itches. The first game was one of the few 40k games that I’ve ever actually enjoyed, and even though it was janky and somewhat one-note, it was fun and underrated.