2021 has shaken up my gaming habits. The lingering threat of COVID ramped up stress levels, so I ended up investing more time with games that had relaxed pacing and forgiving difficulty. Becoming an Xbox Game Pass subscriber allowed me to dabble in new games across different genres and budgets I wouldn’t have otherwise given a chance. Life outside of gaming remained busier than ever, which forced me to ditch many lengthy titles if the game didn’t click for me out of the gate.
Even though my gaming tastes and routines have shifted, I still look back on 2021 with five games I enjoyed immensely and would recommend to almost anyone.
I’ve always been a big fan of Arcane’s past immersive sims, but they’ve always had elements that can dissuade newcomers. Levels present multiple paths to victory, but the fragile health of your character can lead to a conservative approach. Skill trees can feel overwhelming. There’s also more methodical pacing than your average “run and gun” first person shooter.
Arcane has taken these challenges to heart, resulting in their best game to date. Deathloop is a brilliant mix of Arcane’s immersive sim template with roguelike elements and the guns, speed, and tight handling of a modern first person shooter. Gameplay mechanics encourage experimentation. Because the game’s conceit is a time loop where your player purposefully visits the same areas repeatedly, exploring new places with different techniques comes naturally. The forgiving enemy AI allows a reshuffling of stealth and more aggressive open combat within the confines of a single level.
The game also benefits from a loose, 60s inspired visual design and superb vocal performances from Jason Kelley and Ozioma Akagha as lead characters Colt and Juliana. Altogether, it’s the rare AAA product with a high level of polish and original gameplay that will undoubtedly inspire many future titles.
In a year where time loops were in vogue across multiple high profile games, The Forgotten City uses the conceit to deliver my favorite narrative story of the year. Gameplay mostly unfolds from conversations with townsfolk in a mysterious, ancient Roman city. Many player actions will reset the loop but allow your character to retain any knowledge and items acquired along the way. This mechanic enables conversations with the same character to evolve as you learn more about them and the larger world. The branching dialogue gives otherwise stock characters a surprising depth and complexity.
The Forgotten City also interrogates morality and sin with an attention to detail that I rarely associate with games, especially one that wraps its canonical story in under ten hours of gameplay. Early on, your character learns that any action that violates the Golden Rule (“the many shall suffer for this sins of the one”) immediately dooms the city to sudden death, forcing a reset of the time loop. Over time, your character’s actions confront this rule directly; certain “sins” are met with immediate rebuke and a loop reset while others seemingly pass without consequence. Your character also has philosophical chats with characters on what they consider sin. Likewise, the very nature of a time loop and an asymmetrical knowledge gap over the city has inherent moralistic implications. By experiencing loop after loop, your character can effectively foresee the future. You’re able to use that knowledge to send people to their (otherwise preventable) deaths or manipulate otherwise innocent people into giving up their possessions. Is the former murder and the latter theft? Critical late-game conversations interrogate these ideas in a mature and insightful way.
A key thematic element explores how civilizations evolve by borrowing ideas, texts, and learnings from the culture prior. In one memorable exchange, a character questions the value of religion in the face of historical evidence that shows worshiped gods are “mere copies” of what came before. It’s the kind of existential debate that sounds pretentious but somehow approachable and resonant in the context of the game.
The biggest knock against Forza Horizon 5 is how much it borrows from previous Horizon games. It’s more evolution than a revolution in the series’ core gameplay loop. But what a loop! FH5‘s highly polished open sandbox is endlessly flexible, with something for virtually any driving fan: traditional competitive races, time trials via speed zones, custom paint jobs, detailed car tuning, car collecting, XP billboards to smash, and much more. It’s impossible to get bored, able to size up or down for any mood and length of time I have to play.
The game’s graphics and setting make it a significant step up from Forza Horizon 4. It’s the best looking driving game I’ve played, with clear technical enhancements that take advantage of the horsepower of the Xbox Series X. Mexico is also an excellent fit for the genre, with a wide variety of biomes and a fifty percent larger map to drive in than FH4. Perhaps best of all, Mexico’s winter season doesn’t leave snow and ice on the road, a scenario that actively sapped the fun out of many FH4 driving sessions for me.
I wrote an entire post about this earlier in the year, but Microsoft Flight Simulator is the ultimate evergreen game. It’s compelling competence porn on a sandbox of infinite replayability and high realism.
MSFS offers the ability to fly virtually anywhere on earth through its streaming satellite technology and 3D photogrammetry. Mix into that realistic flight modeling and real-time air traffic. The result is a no-brainer for virtually anyone who’s had at least a passing interest in aviation. Even during the busiest of weeks, I tend to make time for a brief point-to-point flight, watching the scenery roll by with a podcast in the background to relax.
Sable is critically the most questionable pick on my list, hovering on Opencritic with a 75 rating and an original launch plagued with frame rate hitches and other technical hurdles. It’s not a game for everyone, but I found it the most original RPG-like adventure I’ve played in a long time, taking the modern open-world RPG template and inverting its aim. If most RPGs today are all about the richness of objectives, Sable focuses on the experiences between the objectives. Its fairly minimalist story and UI gave me the room to color in emotion where needed.
Unlike a recent Assassin’s Creed entry or Horizon: Zero Dawn, Sable has no enemies to kill, complex dungeons to loot, skill upgrade trees, or waypoints to check off on a mini-map. The game’s primary mode is calm exploration at your own pace. Your character spends much of the game on a hoverbike, flying over expansive landscapes defined by novel linework and colorful cel-shading. It’s a stunning visual look, enhanced with a soundtrack of ambient electronics and gentle vocal harmonies from Japanese Breakfast.
Sable‘s languid pacing extends to its conclusion, which the player can end at any time after reaching a minimum quest benchmark. It’s a testament to Sable‘s unique appeal that after getting to that point with about five hours of gameplay, I put in another five before rolling credits. The game’s one of a kind exploration was just too much fun to pass up.