Let’s hear it for the games: they helped us through this mess.
If you feel like your relationship with games has hit a new level over the last 15 months, you’re not alone. The pandemic has turned us into a nation of indoor kids, glued fast to our couches and screens, avoiding human contact as strenuously as possible. Games haven’t just been a valuable way to kill the time, but also kept us connected to those we could no longer see or talk to in person; they’ve been like a Zoom call but with something to actually do beyond silently judging your friend’s apartment.
After all of this, you might be burned out on games, especially now that things are starting to return to some semblance of normalcy. Why play games when you can finally go out to eat, or see live music, or knock back a few at the corner bar again? Those are obviously all worthy pursuits that you should be aiming for now that they’re possible again, but don’t forget the humble old friend who had your back throughout the pandemic: games. Games are your friend. Games are the friend in this metaphor. Like any good friend, games don’t necessarily like it when you get too clingy or weird about things, so by all means, definitely go out and do all the fun stuff we’ve been deprived of for so long. But is it too much for you to still check in on your old buddy every once in a while? Especially with all the great new games we’ve seen so far in 2021. There’s more than enough time for you to rip up some monsters and blink through a dying man’s life AND still hit the movie theater or local water park. The batting cage will still be there even if you take an hour for some Ratchet & Clank. And if you’ve got a Switch, you can snap those Pokémon, new or old, on whatever road trips you might head out on.
Games were there for you. Don’t forget ‘em now that you can get back to living your life.
Here are the best new games of 2021 so far. We vouch for ‘em all. Don’t overlook them during your mad rush back into the real world.
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
Platforms: Switch, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, PC
RetroMania Wrestling takes its name seriously. It’s an intentional homage to WWF’s arcade games from the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, WWF Superstars and WWF WrestleFest, which were popular quarter-eaters during the latter half of WWF’s Hulkamania era. RetroMania doesn’t have the WWE license, of course, but it does feature two stars of WrestleFest: the tag team best known as The Road Warriors, who appeared in WWF in the ‘90s as The Legion of Doom, and who were effectively the final bosses in WrestleFest. The rest of the roster features a combination of indie wrestling stars, former WWE names, and two territorial stars from the ‘80s, Nikita Koloff and Austin Idol; various other stars are available through DLC. It is faithful to its inspiration, with the right kind of modern updates needed to bring it up to modern gaming standards, and should be played by anybody who’s into wrestling games. It’s not dependent on nostalgia to enjoy it, but it probably helps. RetroMania does exactly what it set out to do: revive a cult classic wrestling game that never really had a faithful home version.—Garrett Martin
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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