As 2021 drew to a close, the typical online chatter took place that happens every year “was this year a good year in gaming?” I was surprised to see a lot of people think it was a bad year just because we didn’t get back-to-back masterpieces of games. Part of me thinks this was the consensus due to *a lot* of the anticipated 2021 releases getting pushed into what we can only hope is this year, if they can avoid being delayed further. I played a lot of great games over the course of 2021, let me give you my top 5 releases from last year:

5. Knockout City

Credit: Electronic Arts & Velan Studios

When Knockout City was first announced in the February 2021 Nintendo Direct, it immediately caught my attention as a game that I would check out at the very least. What I didn’t expect was that I would be using my lunch breaks at my new job exclusively on playing Knockout City matches to grind out the various in-game challenges. I even joined a Knockout City Discord channel to find a Crew which is something I would never do for 99.9% of the games I play. Now fast forward to me receiving my PlayStation 2021 Wrap-Up a couple of weeks ago that exposed me for sinking 107 hours into earning that platinum trophy in Season 1 of the game.

It shouldn’t be a surprise to say that a multiplayer game is more fun to play with a group of friends that you can communicate with, but I also found a lot of enjoyment out of playing Knockout City being paired with randoms by solo queueing. Sure, you could go into Knockout City and just throw balls at the enemy team but the 200 IQ plays come from the teamwork strategies like throwing a normal ball at an enemy and then “balling up” so your teammate can throw you at that same enemy while they’re stuck in their dodge or catch animations to get an instant knockout.

One of the best decisions that EA made was to let Velan Studios have 10 days of free-to-play access at launch, it gave this game a lot more attention than it probably would’ve gotten without it. That being said, it was still a niche multiplayer game that had a hard time retaining an audience after launch and I was struggling to find matches by the end of Season 1. Admittedly, I haven’t been back to Knockout City since that initial season because I definitely burned myself out on that platinum grind. The game is currently on its fourth season, so they must have gotten a new influx of players from PlayStation Plus or EA Play. One of these days I might just drop back in to see what’s changed.

4. A Plague Tale: Innocence

Credit: Focus Entertainment & Asobo Studio

Now hold on, I know what you’re going to say, “how could a game from 2019 be on your top 5 2021 games list?” I completely missed the boat on A Plague Tale: Innocence back when it launched, even after hearing great things about it from several gaming podcasts, I didn’t feel like I needed to play this game in an urgent manner. In 2021, Asobo Studio not only released the new-gen version of the game, but it also launched as a PlayStation Plus offering. The stars finally aligned with the lack of true new-gen games in the wild that I finally decided to give it a shot, and boy did I love this game.

If you haven’t experienced A Plague Tale: Innocence yet, the gameplay centers around stealth and puzzles with combat taking the back seat since the protagonist, Amicia, is equipped with a slingshot and some rocks. You’ll make your way through levels covered in hordes of rats that need to be diverted with fire or light, while also avoiding French Inquisition soldiers that have it out for Amicia’s family. The narrative struck me with pangs of The Last of Us at times, I use that comparison lightly because this is an indie title after all, but a real good one if you ask me.

The sequel, A Plague Tale: Requiem, is supposedly releasing this year but with all the development issues caused by a global pandemic, I wouldn’t be surprised if it slipped to 2023. One thing’s for certain, this next entry is high in my anticipated game releases. In the trailer, it appears that Amicia’s upgraded from a slingshot to incorporating a crossbow in her arsenal so I’m interested to see how that changes the gameplay from A Plague Tale: Innocence and what other mechanics will be improved or changed along the way.

3. Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy

Credit: Square Enix & Eidos-Montréal

Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy being a great game was the surprise of 2021 if you ask me. I don’t know if it was intentional by Square Enix to release the worst possible trailers for this game, especially coming off the heels of Marvel’s Avengers, but kudos to the team at Eidos-Montréal for pulling this one off with style.

Speaking of style, Eidos-Montréal did a fantastic job of matching the tone of James Gunn’s MCU duology where it counted, while still diversifying their Guardians from the team we’ve come to love in the films. I think the game does a wonderful job of leading players into the shallows of Guardians of the Galaxy lore through familiar territory we’ve seen in the movies, before getting to the weird stuff that fans would find in the comic storylines.

My main gripe with the game was that combat became very repetitive by the end of the roughly 30-hour experience. One of the best parts of the Guardians, no matter the media, is the banter that the team has amongst itself. Unfortunately, it felt like this is where the game needed the most editing because it often felt like I needed to stand still as the player so the dialogue wouldn’t cut itself off without being able to be heard again.

Setting aside the shortcomings of the game, I think that Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy had moments that impacted as well as narrative beats in Insomniac Games’ Spider-Man and Spider-Man: Miles Morales which are my top two superhero games I’ve ever played. I’m hoping that Square Enix will give Eidos-Montréal another crack at the Guardians in the future, and excited to see the potential improvements to the gameplay formula a sequel could bring.

2. Returnal

Source: PlayStation Studios & Housemarque

Returnal was another game like Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy that caught me off guard with how much I enjoyed my time with it. I had played a few of Housemarque’s previous titles like Resogun, Dead Nation, and Alienation when they had their respective releases, but I wasn’t really looking forward to Returnal. For some reason, this game hadn’t appealed to me until I watched videos and streams closer to launch. Little did I know that Returnal would be the Housemarque game that would keep me coming back for more, even to this day trying to finish out the platinum trophy.

I’ve never been one to gravitate towards difficult video games, yet for some reason, I keep buying FromSoftware games for full price at launch only to get beaten into submission in a few hours. While Returnal is certainly a challenging game, it’s not to the level of Soulsborne difficulty. Anyone that has played a Housemarque game knows that this team has modern arcade game design on lock, and Returnal is their first title to bring a AAA quality experience along with it.

Whether it’s clearing bosses, exploring new procedurally generated rooms, or looking for all the gear upgrades and collectibles, Returnal offers a lot of obstacles to overcome and it’s satisfying as heck when you do. Back in November, it definitely seemed like Housemarque was teasing new content for Returnal on their Twitter account and if that’s the case, I can’t wait to loop back to it.

1. Life Is Strange: True Colors

Credit: Square Enix & Deck Nine Games

Honestly, I don’t know what else I can say about Life Is Strange: True Colors that I haven’t already put in my review, but I can certainly try. This entry in the Life Is Strange series is forever going to be an incredibly special game for me, and that’s due to a blend of events that had transpired in my life, some that are planned for the near future, and an immaculate story by the team at Deck Nine Games.

Heading into Life Is Strange: True Colors, I was a little skeptical about getting more from this series since I didn’t enjoy Life Is Strange 2 from Don’t Nod Entertainment. Also, if we’re all being honest it was hard for Deck Nine to sell us on taking control of a character who is an empath for the supernatural elements of this game. Somehow, they found a way to make empathy a great ability to see the world through other characters’ eyes in unique and creative methods.

The cast of characters within Life Is Strange: True Colors quickly became my favorites out of the entire series, and this is a bittersweet realization because I doubt we’ll see much of them in the future based on the nature of the franchise. Who knows though, we did get more Steph Gingrich after she first appeared in Life Is Strange: Before The Storm, and Deck Nine is steering the ship from now on so I’ll hold out hope of seeing Alex, Steph, and Ryan if only for the briefest of moments in the future.

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