The 30 Best Games of 2021

Games Lists best games
The 30 Best Games of 2021

Despite being the first full year of the latest generation of game consoles, we’re not going to remember 2021 for any technological breakthroughs. We’re not going to remember it as a year of game design innovations or for the debut of some groundbreaking new series that will help define the current generation. If we remember 2021 for anything in the gaming industry, it’ll be for matters outside the games themselves. We’ll remember 2021 for the culture of sexual harassment and inequality that was exposed at companies as large as Activision Blizzard and Sony PlayStation, and as small as Fullbright. We’ll remember 2021 for the supply chain issues that have made those new consoles difficult to find. We’ll remember 2021 as the year where an end for the pandemic finally seemed close at hand, letting not just the games industry but life itself return to something like it used ot be, only for us to fumble the ball near the finish line. 2021 wasn’t 2020, but it wasn’t much better.

When we do actually consider the games of 2021, something notable sticks out. The best games of the year were new installments of older series rooted in older genres, only with a psychological and emotional depth we wouldn’t normally expect from games of the past. Psychonauts 2 built on the emotional framework of the 2005 original and explored the memories, feelings, and regrets of its elderly characters. Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart used its cartoon mascots to examine self-doubt, loneliness, and anxiety with charm, wit, and heart. Metroid Dread tapped into a vein of terror that gradually disappeared from the Metroid series over the decades, bringing it back with more power than before. These aren’t the only memorable or moving games of the year, but they are the best, and it’s because of the way they make us feel—not just the physical and intellectual satisfaction of playing them, but the way they touch our hearts and minds.

Yeah, I know that sounds schmaltzy. No regrets. It’s alright to feel, y’know?

There are 27 other games on this list. They’ll all make you feel many different things in many different ways. They’re all worth playing, if you have the time and the necessary equipment. They all get the Paste Games stamp of approval, our nod of acceptance, a tip of whatever Georgia sports team hat we happen to be wearing that day. Good job, games.

Here are the 30 best games of 2021. Take a gander, if you’d like.

30. It Takes Two


Platforms: PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Xbox One, Xbox Series X|S, PC

Two-player co-op game It Takes Two’s mundane settings are an opportunity to get wacky with mechanics and gameplay features, which the game will just fling at you. Every level explores a gimmick or series of gimmicks before casting it aside for the next, so it manages to stay remarkably fresh almost the entire way through. One second you’re playing a shooter and the next you may be playing a hack and slash. I don’t want to spoil my absolute favorite, but the amount of ludicrous things that come together to make it happen is nothing short of magic. Little of it makes any sense with or without context, but also It Takes Two comes across as a videogame for the sake of being a videogame, and while I respect that, it does mean the game shoots its own story in the foot often. The game’s simultaneously asking you to care about this impending divorce and the effect it’ll have on their daughter and the ludicrous task to gun down wasps or murdering plushies often! It forces the player to either try and reconcile these nonsensical aspects, or focus on a thing at a time. By the time I reached anything I’ve mentioned, I’d long since shut off my brain and decided to bask in the vibes rather than the story. “Head empty, no thoughts” is the perfect way to enjoy It Takes Two.—Moises Taveras

29. Olija


Platforms: PlayStation 4, Switch, Xbox One, PC

With Olija it all comes down to the aesthetic—the muted color palette, the hushed tones when characters speak, the overarching sense of loss and despair that permeates the game. And most notably, those archaic visuals that look like they’re from the latest Sierra game you and your friend play on his Tandy computer every afternoon after school. Olija roots its mysteries in the ever-distant, increasingly forgotten past, with all the warmth and sadness that implies.—Garrett Martin

28. Valheim


Platform: PC

Driving necessity is at the heart of the survival crafting genre, with games frequently using scarcity as motivation for the player. Valheim abandons this design entirely, instead promoting players to share their resources with one another for the betterment of all. In a genre that so often valorizes individualism, it’s refreshing to play a game that both discourages and discredits the practice. Leaning on ideas lent by Terraria, Valheim has created a survival game that has rewritten the rules of the genre for the better.—Nicolas Perez

27. The Great Ace Attorney Chronicles

Platforms: PC, Switch, PlayStation 4

Chronicles is Ace Attorney at its absolute best because it contends with not only its own history as a series but the greater mystery genre that informed its genesis. Moving the point-of-view from a lauded white celebrity to a Japanese man out of his depth is a bold move, and one that shows the glaring flaws in the court system and the inherent racist sentiment that guides it. There’s not a single case that feels like a throwaway—each serves as a chapter in Naruhodo’s path to understanding his own drive for his profession, and carts the player along a grand adventure that overcomes the somewhat static nature present in the original trilogy. It’s an absolute must play for any mystery fan out there.—Austin Jones

26. The Vale

Platform: PC

How do you take a “videogame experience” and communicate it to someone who cannot see at all? The Vale has only the most cursory connection to “video” and then almost purely as a kindness to sighted players. The kneejerk response to “a videogame without graphics” is obviously a text adventure, but that would be wrong. While it certainly borrows ideas from text adventures, and video-driven videogames themselves, The Vale has far more in common with radio plays. This is an interactive audio drama. As an audiogame, it delivers an experience in line with big RPG/Adventure titles like Skyrim or The Witcher. And while it might not be the AAA of games for the blind and visually impaired, it might just kick AAA asses into understanding there is both a market for games that cater to these players, and also that there are ways to bake accessibility into existing games that are designed around sighted players.—Dia Lacina

25. Lost in Random

Platforms: PlayStation 5, Xbox Series X|S, Switch, PC, PlayStation 4, Xbox One

Lost in Random is a joy, not just in its shockingly easy-to-grasp amalgamation of gameplay mechanics, but in the entire world Zoink Games has created. Although it lacks the breadth and fidelity of its big budget counterparts, Lost in Random is just as, if not more, immersive and engaging, and it does so within a gameplay system that looks unwieldy but plays like a dream.—Joseph Stanichar

24. New Pokémon Snap

Platform: Switch

Nintendo’s relaxing theme park ride of a game tasks you with photographing Pokémon in their natural habitats. Think of it as an on-rails shooter, but with a camera instead of a gun; you’ll move slowly along a set path throughout different environments, trying to capture each adorable critter in the most exciting pose possible. Don’t worry about taking good photos—just focus on getting each animal in the center of the shot, as large as possible, and ideally either looking directly at you or doing something cute or funny. New Pokémon Snap is a peaceful excursion into a videogame fantasyland full of adorable animals and devoid of almost any stress whatsoever. In other words, it’s the perfect game for the late pandemic.—Garrett Martin

23. Super Mario 3D World + Bowser’s Fury


Platform: Switch

No slight intended to Super Mario 3D World, but this game’s only on the list because of Bowser’s Fury, a short new 3D Mario adventure that’s bundled with the rerelease of a Wii U game. Bowser’s Fury has one glaring game design decision that will keep it off the list of best Mario games—after a certain point that recurring boss battle sequence becomes an absolute drag—but otherwise it’s a fantastically fun 3D platformer that experiments with the classic Mario formula. It almost feels like a rough draft for a future full-scale Mario game, which makes it one of the more intriguing entries in the endless series. Despite being less polished than you’d expect from the usually pristine Mario, though, it’s still a wonderfully conceived game that’s more than worth playing.—Garrett Martin

22. Mundaun


Platforms: PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Switch, PC

Mundaun’s greatest strength is its source material, Swiss folklore. The format, which relies on exploration and puzzle-solving, isn’t particularly innovative, but the story it facilitates is cryptic and compelling enough to give it momentum. Its pacing is also wonderfully supported by how well the game blends together its exploration and scripted moments, balancing the two so fluidly that its bizarre events come together in a way that feels almost dreamlike. Its darker moments do not feel cinematically imposed on the player, but rather, that they are something that happens to—or with—them. The visuals, for example, often play on light and shadow in a way that relies on the player’s position in the room to progress the scene. Style-wise, its black and white color scheme, often used in similar games to soften rough visual edges (think 2014’s Betrayer), combined with hand-sketched textures (reminiscent of Disturbed from back in 2016), evokes the folksiness of a children’s storybook but channels a grim sparsity that supports its themes well.—Holly Green

21. Knockout City

Platforms: Switch, Xbox One, Xbox Series X|S, PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, PC

Multiplayer dodgeball game Knockout City is an absolute blast to pick up and play. It’s inexpensive to boot and simple to keep up with, making it markedly less of a chore to log into, have fun with for an hour or two, and hop back out of unlike most service games. It’s got a fun style and look to it that makes it all the more inviting, and solid enough mechanics to master that I feel satisfied coming back to practice. Straight up, it’s also just fun as hell to play something that isn’t so grim or serious, making Knockout City a success in my eyes.—Moises Taveras

20. Black Book

Platforms: PC, Switch, PlayStation 4, Xbox One

At first, Black Book feels familiar. Its card-based battle system borrows from the explosion of deckbuilding roguelikes, most obviously Slay the Spire. The way the game structures itself around gaining new cards and expanding potential strategies will be familiar to anyone who has played games like this before. However, rather than using a slight narrative framing to hold up a number crunching strategy game, Black Book’s combat feels like the metaphor of a JRPG. It is a system that deepens its themes of people living in a dying ancient myth. Black Book is interested in a world beyond the material, beyond its mathematical parts. Even as it uses math to represent the ephemeral, it tries to ground the numbers in the mythical.—Grace Benfell

19. Chicory: A Colorful Tale

Platforms: PlayStation 5, PlayStation 4, PC

Chicory is filled with contemplative moments on the purpose of art and how it relates to the mental and spiritual health of the artist. The protagonist soon falls into the dangerous pit of comparing themself to other artists—previous wielders, their sister (a talented artist in school for her craft, while they’re just a novice), and others aspiring to become the wielder someday. There’s a lot of doubt that comes with being “the chosen one” here, and it’s even more salient given the wielder can step down at any time and pass The Brush to whoever they want. It’s enough to make the player question their own biases about art; do they value education and skill over enthusiasm? What is the function of art if it’s grown to only make us unhappy?—Austin Jones

18. Shin Megami Tensei V

Platform: Switch

Shin Megami Tensei V’s anarchic tone, relatively high difficulty ceiling, and heavy focus on combat might turn away some players, but it has an undeniable gravity and ultimately proves itself as an exceptional RPG. The grind to the top is ascetic and practiced, with grand ambition and keen diligence towards paying the franchise’s history its proper dues. It’s an undeniably dark game, but quite optimistic in its intentions and eschews edgy clichés. Shin Megami Tensei V is Atlus’s contemporary masterpiece, and one of the finest games this year.—Austin Jones

17. Dungeon Encounters


Platforms: Switch, PlayStation 4, PC

Dungeon Encounters might be the greatest dungeon crawler of all time. Bringing together veteran Final Fantasy director Hiroyuki Ito (creator of the Active Time Battle system), rockstar composer Nobuo Uematsu, and Final Fantasy Tactics Advance artist Ryoma Ito, this game is an ATB love letter to Original Dungeons & Dragons. Throw together a party of a Panther-man, a single mom with a medieval shotgun, a golden retriever, even a robot, and go exploring actual graph paper mazes littered with hexadecimal encounters. Dungeon Encounters is the genre stripped to its bones, and made to dance with charm, mirth, and the sharpest approach to combat the genre has ever seen.—Dia Lacina

16. Age of Empires IV

Platform: PC

I love inventing guys to be angry with. And Age of Empires IV let’s me shout, “YOU TELL EDGAR, I’M FUCKING COMING FOR HIM!” as I highlight a hundred horsemen and press them ever more northward. And each time they bark affirmatively in Old Norman. It rules. When I build new buildings and upgrade my civilization, I can build new guys. Better guys. King William may not have much personality on the battlefield, and largely ceases to exist outside of it, but it’s not important. Ages of Empires IV isn’t a game about a king’s identity. When the Mongols need to differentiate themselves it’s through literally picking up their Town Center and moving it around the map—not because The Khan has a real personality to embody. This isn’t the game where I’m going to tell the story about the time I, Agamemnon, King of Mycenae, raised an army to chase down one man at the far edge of the world and lay waste to the small township he took final refuge. Initially I thought that was a flaw. Where Total Wars let me become Agamemnon, or Liu Bei of the Perpetual Vibe Check, and Civ V bid me to become Theodora, Hottie Empress of Byzantium, and spread Sapphism across the globe to achieve my glorious Cultural Victory, here there’s none of that. I’m simply an amorphous hand guiding the imperial machinery. But honestly, that’s okay. There’s no distraction in Age of Empires IV. It’s a return to a purity of build base, make dudes, obliterate enemies. And I came to love it so much I want to force my dad to spend his weekend playing it with me while he shouts what bits he remembers of the St. Crispin’s Day speech over voice chat, as our massive blobs of 15th century dudes collide at our own virtual Agincourt.—Dia Lacina

15. Unsighted


Platforms: Switch, Xbox One, Xbox Series X|S, PC

Would you want to know exactly when you’re going to die? Or, worse, exactly when you’re going to become undead—when your mind and personality and memories fade away, and you become a brainless killing machine? That’s the dilemma at the heart of Unsighted, one of the best written games of the year. A race of synthetic creatures become sentient, driving their human creators to try and destroy them; these automatons now face extinction as the humans deprive them of the element that keeps them animated. Every NPC you meet has a limited shelf life, with an on-screen marker telling you how many hours they have before they run out of juice and become “unsighted.” That turns a typical backtracking-heavy Metroid-style adventure into a stressful race against the clock as you try to protect and help as many automatons as you can while also trying to solve the problem of the human threat. What makes Unsighted really shine are your relationships with those other characters; when they start to inevitably blink off and turn unsighted, you’ll be overcome with loss and guilt.—Garrett Martin

14. Resident Evil Village

Platforms: PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Xbox One, Xbox Series X|S, PC, Stadia

Resident Evil Village goes to great lengths to instill an ominous atmosphere with an odd undercurrent of lightness—there’s a ton of dread, like in Resident Evil 7’s early moments, but there’s an added layer of goofiness that seriously cuts the tension. I love that. Resident Evil has always been goofy; horror games in general are filled to the brim with cheese and insane situations, from UFOs in Silent Hill to dorky dialogue in Until Dawn. Something about allowing the audience to participate in the horror directly through controlling the game’s central victim creates hilarious moments, intentional or otherwise. I’ll always remember fondly the first time I played Alien: Isolation with a friend and learning the hard way that you aren’t actually safe while crawling in a vent. The comedy of horror, derived from inconsistencies in tone and questionable choices no human would make, is an integral element that’s simply not acknowledged enough. When I remember a horror movie, I should laugh about my naïve experience sitting through it. I should be eager to terrify my friends with it, to grin as they jump out of their seats.—Austin Jones

13. Hitman 3


Platforms: Xbox One, Xbox Series X|S, Switch, PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, PC, Stadia

Playing Hitman 3 feels like being thrown into a random improv scene. You’re constantly switching parts, objectives, and wardrobe, making sure never to break character before you eliminate your target. Every stage is a performance, and they’re all incredibly distinct and fun. You play as world-class executioner, Agent 47, and due to his occupation there’s a thick cloud of intensity and death that follows him around every corner. Each contract sends you to varied and visually striking locations all over the globe, setting up flexible environment-specific boundaries while simultaneously encouraging you to push against them (or even throw it all out and do it your way). Both the plot and general premise of IO Interactive’s Hitman 3 are straight-faced and sober, yet it somehow manages to be one of the funniest games I’ve played in a minute due to clever prop comedy and witty, well-written NPCs. After spending a bunch of time playing around in its charming and compact world, Hitman 3 has proven to be a well-constructed assassination sandbox full of tension, fashion, and possibility. —Funké Joseph

12. Before Your Eyes


Platform: PC

Don’t dismiss Before Your Eyes as a gimmick. Yes, it’s the blinking game—the one that you literally play by blinking your eyes in front of a webcam—but there’s way more going on here than this mechanical tomfoolery. With its focus on a newly dead man’s entry into the afterlife, it has a touch of Pixar’s Soul crossed with the mundane sorrow of something like Death of a Salesman. The game looks back on the main character’s very normal life and the major relationships that shaped it, and the story’s generally well-told enough to avoid the kind of cheap, maudlin sentimentality you might expect from it. The blinking contributes more to the game’s power than you might expect, but if you don’t want to hook your webcam up you can always play it with a mouse instead. Before Your Eyes is a small, quiet game with outsized emotional heft.—Garrett Martin

11. Deathloop

Platforms: PlayStation 5, PC

At the end of the day, the loop is all that matters. Deathloop leaves it all out on the table, reconstructing the immersive sim a few different ways in order to pull you under. Luckily for the game, it’s a damn marvel and works like a charm. While I can nitpick about Deathloop’s shortcomings, I’d rather just point you to a game that’s a joy to play, confident in itself, touts two wonderful Black leads, looks wonderful, and rewards you for thinking outside the box. While it doesn’ quite feel like an evolution of the formula, it’s almost assuredly Arkane’s most feature-complete and refined take on it. Deathloop is countless things, and most of them are great.—Moises Taveras

10. Loop Hero


Platform: PC

Loop Hero is a roguelike, a deck builder and an RPG with the cadence and look of a tower defense game, wrapped in a grim but simplistic ‘90s PC game aesthetic. It’s a mashup that feels like it shouldn’t work, because that sentence I just wrote sounds preposterous. Instead, Loop Hero is absolutely magnificent. While it may seem unengaging because it effectively plays itself, it really is just prompting the player to look at gameplay from another angle, namely a more systems-driven one. For a person like me, who doesn’t really craft “builds” in RPGs, it’s made me realize why that is actually a rewarding aspect of those games. Now I spend half my time in Loop Hero making numbers go up and making optimizations I never would have, before embarking on another loop.—Moises Taveras

9. Genesis Noir


Platforms: Xbox One, Switch, PC

Genesis Noir is a cosmic point-and-click mystery about the meaning of life, the tragedy of death, the creation of the universe, and, oh yeah, jazz. Yes, it’s incredibly pretentious, but in a way that absolutely works, drawing you in instead of pushing you away. It has lofty goals and it isn’t afraid to really go for ‘em, with a cleverness and thoughtfulness that makes even the most esoteric decision land with power. It’s also the most stylish game of the year, with a noir-ish black-and-white color scheme occasionally broken up by flashes of color, incredible character designs, and an atmospheric jazz score that fits it perfectly. It’s one of the most beautiful and entrancing games of the year.—Garrett Martin

8. Monster Hunter Rise


Platform: Switch

Monster Hunter World almost got there, but Monster Hunter Rise feels like the first game in Capcom’s smash series to offer something substantial beyond the repetition of monster hunting. There’s a real world here, with fleshed-out characters, and it makes Rise a pleasure to visit even when you aren’t looking to slay some beasts. And when you do take up the hunt, the clearly regimented quest system makes it fit perfectly within your busy schedule—you can pick up the controller and know you’ll be able to knock out a mission in under a half-hour. It’s a role-playing game that doesn’t demand all of your time, which is exactly the kind of RPG we need these days.—Garrett Martin

7. Wildermyth


Platform: PC

Decisions in Wildermyth aren’t about getting something right or wrong. They’re about telling the most entertaining story. And that’s why no videogame has ever been more reminiscent of my tabletop RPG experiences with friends. Rather than a system like Dungeons & Dragons that offers small variants of failure and success in actions, it is more similar to modern systems like Powered by the Apocalypse games and Blades in the Dark, games that are designed for players to “fail forward.” It’s a thematic value that I wish more games implemented.—Waverly

6. Forza Horizon 5

Platforms: Xbox Series X|S, Xbox One, PC

Forza Horizon 5 is the most gorgeous and dynamic game I’ve played on the Xbox Series X by a mile. That said, the beauty of the game isn’t just in the mechanics alone. It’s in how the game loves, respects, and brings Mexico to life. When it comes to representing Mexico on-screen, Americans like one thing, and pretty much one thing only: Sepia tones. Baked in browns and oranges, representations of Mexico on screen in film and television strip the country of its beauty and distill it down into its most stereotypical parts, often using it to highlight narcos. But in Forza Horizon 5 the diversity of the races is met with the diversity of Mexico itself. Mexico isn’t just a desert landscape, and the 11 distinct biomes in the game highlight that. It’s clear that a lot of love went into Forza Horizon 5. You can see it in the car selection. You can see it in the environmental design. You can hear it in the playlists. This game thrives on a culture of love that is baked into every gameplay element. In every way, Forza Horizon 5 is a love letter to Mexicans, and it’s one I’m thrilled that I opened.—Kate Sánchez

5. Sable

Platforms: PC, Xbox Series X|S, Xbox One

Fittingly, Sable’s title comes from its protagonist’s name, not her role or the place she lives. It foreshadows the game’s small stakes. Sable is a Glider. Just now coming of age, she leaves her home to discover who she might become and what role she might play. To begin, Sable wears the mask of her culture, made from an Ibex skull. As Sable helps other people, she gets badges, which she can turn in for other masks. For example, she could take the mask of the mechanist becoming an expert on refashioning the ancient machinery around her into something practical. She could become a Climber, exploring the highest margins of the world. She could become something as yet unnamed or unanticipated. Its openness means that Sable makes very few demands of you. In a real sense, everything is optional. Because of that, it actually feels free. It is not the freedom to move through space uninhibited, to dominate or control. Rather it is the freedom to determine who you are, to let the people around you make you into something new.—Grace Benfell

4. Death’s Door


Platforms: PC, Xbox Series X|S, Switch, PlayStation 5, Xbox One, PlayStation 4

Death’s Door implicitly argues something the entertainment world at large needs to understand: Nostalgia doesn’t have to be shameless or oppressive. It doesn’t have to be the summation of a game’s (or a movie’s, or a TV show’s) ambition. It doesn’t have to be splashed all over the cover and title screen, or the full extent of the marketing campaign. Death’s Door deeply evokes the spirit of some of the most beloved games of all time, and does it well enough that anybody familiar with those legendary games will no doubt recognize and appreciate it. And it does all this with a context and presentation that makes it feel new and vital and not just like a calculated imitation of the past. It takes so much of what made the original Zelda and A Link to the Past into timeless classics, but makes them into their own. Nostalgia can be part of the package, but it shouldn’t be the whole point, and Death’s Door’s cocktail of mechanical nostalgia and narrative creativity is something we don’t see enough of in today’s IP-crazed business.—Garrett Martin

3. Metroid Dread

Platform: Switch

The first entirely new side-scrolling Metroid game in almost two decades captures what makes Super Metroid such a timeless classic, while also introducing something the series hasn’t seen since the very first NES game: a palpable sense of fear. The almost unbeatable E.M.M.I. sentries are even more terrifying than the metroids you face at the end of Metroid. Every E.M.M.I. encounter punctuates the game’s sterling design with genuine dread, eliciting an emotional and physical response rarely seen in games. Metroid Dread is about as good a return to classic Metroid as anybody could ask for.—Garrett Martin

2. Psychonauts 2

Platforms: Xbox Series X|S, PC, Xbox One, PlayStation 4

Psychonauts 2 feels like a game made by real people who care about real people. Many games have come down the pike the last several years with a focus on the psychological state of its characters, and thus its players, but too often they lack any tact or any legitimate insight into how people think and feel. They use sorrow and violence as shortcuts, relying on cheap scares and easy provocation. It’s like they’re made by machines, or the board room, or some algorithm that slightly rearranges previous AAA hits into something that’s supposedly new. Too many of these games fall into that witless trap of thinking something “serious” and “important” must also be humorless and dark, unrelentingly grim and fatalistic. Psychonauts 2 reveals that for the nonsense that it is, showing that you can more powerfully and realistically depict emotion when you use warmth, humor, humanity—the whole scope of emotions that make us who we are. Psychonauts 2 asks “how does it feel to feel?”, and then shows the answer to us—and the games industry at large—in brilliant colors.—Garrett Martin

1. Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart

Platform: PlayStation 5

The first real reason to own a PlayStation 5, Rift Apart is an embellishment on a formula that’s worked for 19 years. It’s splashy and charming. It doesn’t take itself too seriously, but it absolutely will dive into talking about trauma and disability, and tackle questions of belonging and imposter syndrome in ways that are simple enough to speak to children, but honest enough to resonate with adults. And at times, it manages to be surprisingly funny despite being entirely predictable, knitting trope to trope in a tapestry wrapped in more tropes. It’s a simple but surprisingly earnest and compassionate game. What carries this big flashy sci-fi romp along and helps elevate it from a simple farce is this charm and humanity. Rift Apart has the heart that Guardians of the Galaxy could never find.—Dia Lacina

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Share Tweet Submit Pin