Welcome to yet another year-end list where someone gushes about the games they’ve played over the last 12, and now 13, months. Much like 2020, 2021 hasn’t been anything like we expected. But unlike last 2020, the past year has had a deeper effect on my headspace. So, throughout this list of games, you might notice how many of these games speak to how I’ve been emotionally over the last few months and my emotional needs during that time. So, when you notice that heavy hitters like Halo Infinite and Deathloop aren’t listed, before getting upset or appalled, hear me out on why thee games resonated with me more. Because I played a lot fewer games than normal this past year, and the variety of this list might show why. As always, i have 4 categories: Games of Yesteryear, Games I Own But Didn’t Make Time For, Runners Up, and my Top 5. Each category has 5 entries, and I’ll go ahead and start with the first one now…

Games of Yesteryear (Sponsored by: Titanfall 2)

5) Ratchet & Clank (2002)

This year we got the first truly new Ratchet & Clank game since Into the Nexus in 2013. So, as a massive fan of the series, I decided to try and fill all of my gaps in the franchise in the lead-up to the release of Rift Apart. As of the beginning of 2021, I planned on playing through Ratchet & Clank, Ratchet & Clank: Going Commando, Ratchet & Clank: Up Your Arsenal, and Secret Agent Clank, all within the first 6 months of the year.

Well, I failed to follow through on that ambition, but I did make some progress. I managed to stream all of the first two Ratchet games, finally double back and beat Ratchet: Deadlocked. And of those, I enjoyed the original most, which is still surprising to me. My first Ratchet & Clank game was Size Matters back on the PSP, so from then onto the many PSP sequels, I’ve been used to circle-strafing my way through combat. So, playing through the original game in the series forced me to get used to it being more of a platformer than a shooter, and I found that refreshing.

Narratively, the game isn’t all that engaging, and its characters are perfectly serviceable, but none of that brought down the cozy and familiar gameplay. Nailing jumps, collecting upgrades and bolts, and participating in charmingly janky mini-games were just the way I wanted to start off the year. It’s a classic PS2 platformer, and it comes with everything that implies, but it gave me all the aspects I crave from video games. It didn’t blow me away, but man did it prove why this franchise has lived on for over two decades in the hearts of many, including myself

4) Slay the Spire (2019)

This is yet another game on here almost purely for gameplay reasons, but even that feels like a bit of an overstatement. Those who are familiar with my tastes know that I tend to go for more active games. But Slay the Spire is no shooter, racer,  or melee action game, but a strategy card game. Well, it might surprise you, but I’ve spent well over 20 hours with the game. Ever since Drew Debessonet put me on a few years back, I’ve retreated to it on Switch whenever I wanted the most satisfying gameplay for the least amount of physical effort..

Now, in all honestly, that description isn’t fully fair. In some ways, getting good at Slay of Spire requires even more diligence, future planning, and resource management than any of the games I regularly play. But I often don’t engage much with those systems, or at least do so passively that I don’t perceive any exertion of my mental energy. So, when I see the numbers go up next to my damage, gold, and health icons on the screen, it feels like I’m getting a flat bonus that I didn’t really put much effort into earning. I know that might sound like the opposite of an ideal experience, but sometimes, after a long and stressful day, it’s exactly what I need.

This past year, I played so much of it that I finally saw the end of the main campaign. I had been playing the game up to this point with that being my ultimate goal. But once I defeated the final boss, I was greeted not with a satisfying ending, but with even more new cards and characters to replay the game with once again. I initially was disappointed by this, but then I considered why I enjoyed the game so much in the first place. I didn’t even remember the names of any of the characters, enemies, or even the setting because the rewarding and relaxed gameplay is what kept me coming back. So, even though I finally “beat” the game, I will likely continue to play for many years to come whenever I have nothing but the bare minimum of my attention to spare.

3) Fortnite (2017)

For the longest time, I have been one of the louder detractors of Fortnite. Ever since Epic first turned it around from an obscure Rust-like to the biggest interactive franchise in pop culture, I’ve clowned on the game regularly for seeming to lack a soul that wasn’t borrowed from an outside franchise in some way. As someone much older than its initial target demographic, I could see how transparent it was as a product. It isn’t designed just to be a fun game, but to be a compelling platform for microtransactions and brand crossovers. And even before becoming a fan of the game, I even fell victim to many of those crossovers. I hopped in to buy the Kratos, Aloy, and Mike Lowrey skins before I even played the game regularly.

But something changed this year after booting it up once again for Ariana Grande’s Rift Tour. I bought her skin and gleefully watched along as I was carried through her interactive musical experience. But after that, I realized I owned quite a few costumes in Fortnite now, well over $20 worth, yet I hadn’t played more than a few matches of it overall. Well, once Chapter 3 began and introduced crouch sliding and sighted weapons similar to Apex Legends, I finally saw what millions of others did for years.

Fortnite is so much God damn fun. Its gunplay is just refined enough to feel skill-based, but it’s simple enough to be easy to pick up. Every match is full of things to do that level up your character, and many of those actions have nothing to do with getting kills and being good at the actual combat. And the bright and cartoonish artstyle always keeps the mood and tone light so that I can never get upset while playing it. In the last few months specifically, I’ve come around to see the game not only as a cynical consumer product but also as a playground for self-expression and relaxed competition.

Maybe I’ve only come around on the game because I’ve become as braindead as many of the people who love the game. Maybe they just finally crossed over with enough brands that I couldn’t ignore the gravitational pull of the game anymore. Maybe the game is just legitimately great and is, at least somewhat, deserving of the success it has. But for whatever reason, I can’t claim my smug superiority as a Fortnite hater anymore, and honestly, I’m glad I let my disdain go.

2) Little Nightmares (2017)

Playdead really did a number on me with Inside a few years back. So, ever since I fell in love with that game, I’ve been on the lookout for games that have a similar vibe. Little Nightmares is one such game and this past year I decided to finally try it out since its sequel was slated to drop in the same year. I was thoroughly entertained by the title.

I couldn’t really tell you, beat for beat, that the game is about plotwise. But as a linear ride through creepy, yet not horrifying, setpieces it certainly lingers in my mind. There were just so many effective setpieces and images: The unnervingly long arms on that one lady in the elevator, the hordes of gluttonous blobs that I ran from near the end, the unsettling urges of the player character to consume flesh at random intervals.

The game itself is technically a puzzle platformer, though its puzzles are about as complex as those found in Uncharted, and its platforming is about as precise as modern Tomb Raider games. But that easily digestible gameplay is what makes the moments so effective. I was there for the vibes more than the gameplay, and I’m glad to say the vibes were immaculate. Now if only I made time for the sequel last year, which I already had thanks to Stadia Pro. Ah well, maybe this year…

1) Bayonetta (2009)

I will never forgive myself for taking so long to finally play this. Now, considering Nier Automata is my 9th favorite game of all time, I should have known Platinum Games would have made more games that would appeal to me. And considering how much I loved Devil May Cry V a few years back, I had to assume that the same team that made that franchise’s earlier titles would go on to make something as equally, and deliciously, campy. And for years I’ve seen Bayonetta parade around in trailers and other games like Smash Bros and I’d always perk up a bit internally.

Well, the reveal that Bayonetta 3 would finally release in 2022 pushed me into finally jumping into this franchise that I had been curious about for ages. And well, it completely knocked me on my ass. My love for this game is so extreme that I instantly knew it’d be one of those franchises that define me up there with Titanfall 2, PlayStation All-Stars, and Kane and Lynch 2. And it earns that status for not one reason, but for many.

Its gameplay is often tough as nails and demands a sometimes infuriating amount of mastery over its mechanics. But once you have mastered that combat, it rewards you handsomely with a beautiful dance of dodges, wicked weaves, and ultra-violence. The addition of Witch Time gives microbursts of reprieve from its intensity to give you a chance to reassess the situation and prepare another devastating string of combos. Plus, exploring every level can unlock both upgrades to health and magic and new weapons that heavily alter your gameplay style. You can wield a giant sword-like every other character action game, or you can use a whip to keep enemies at bay, or ankle-strapped rocket launchers, or shotguns, and a handful of other equally, ridiculous weapons.

So, yea, I adore the gameplay and feedback loop of this game, but its style is what makes it an instant classic for me. Its exaggerated animations, from Bayonetta’s flamboyant dodges to the multitude of otherworldly enemy attacks, constantly inject creative flair into every frame. The character designs, from Baulder’s gaudy face mask to the fact that Bayonetta’s outfit is made of her own hair, make every single person in the game have a distinct look that matches their strong personalities. The larger-than-life bosses that are just as fun to fight as they are to gawk at in disbelief keep the combat from getting stale and punctuate the story with further escalation. And the music is a potent blend of pop and jazz that is as infectious as the spirit of the rest of the game.

As the man who adores the bombast of Bad Boys 2, Bayonetta has triple the amount of excess in its’ action. As someone who loves watching badass women be badass, Bayonetta delivered on that desire more effectively than anything I’ve ever played, watched, or listened to. And as someone who loves hack-and-slash combat so much that I still rank God of War III over its PS4 reboot, it delivers on that combat more satisfyingly and stylishly than any other game in the genre I ever played. This game feels like it was made specifically for me to fall in love with it. And while I wish I gave it that chance to sway me earlier, I’m glad that I saved it for such a turbulent year, because it was certainly a massive oasis in a sea of discontent in my personal life.

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