The 20 Best Xbox Games of 2021

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The 20 Best Xbox Games of 2021

Xbox’s latest consoles, the Xbox Series X and Xbox Series S, are still about as hard to find as the PlayStation 5. You haven’t really missed out on any games if you don’t have one though, at least not if you have an Xbox One or a gaming PC. Microsoft’s top exclusives—games like Forza Horizon 5 and Halo Infinite—are playable on all three platforms. It’s part of the industry’s growing commitment to making games accessible on more than a single system. Seven years ago some dingus who edits Paste’s games section predicted that backwards compatibility was dead and would never return; since then both the PlayStation and the Xbox have embraced letting people play games from older consoles more whole-heartedly than at any point in the medium’s history, to the point where you can just pop games from older Xbox or PlayStation consoles into the new machines and get cranking. Microsoft, of course, has taken that commitment even further with Xbox Game Pass, the subscription service that gets you access to over 100 games at any one time, including first-party Xbox games on the date of release. So if you’re an Xbox owner, it was exceedingly easy to find good games in 2021, whether you’ve moved on to the Xbox Series line, are sticking with the Xbox One, or prefer their great grandpappy, the PC.

Of all the many games you could’ve played on those systems this year, here are the 20 we’d recommend the most. These are Paste’s favorite games released for the Xbox Series X|S or Xbox One this year, and since they’re all playable on both systems, we don’t even need to make a note of which one they’re available for. Thanks for making it easy, Xbox.

20. The Good Life

The Good Life’s premise parallels that of other life simulators, but with some added flavors that make it stand out. Naomi Hayward is a journalist who, through the power of backstory, has amassed $30 million in debt. Instead of sending an army of debt collectors after her, however, she is given the chance by the Morning Bell News to pay off her debt by working in the idyllic village of Rainy Woods in the English countryside. There, she is tasked with uncovering what’s behind the town’s labeling of being the “happiest town in the world.” As Naomi tries to uncover the real reason behind the town’s happiness (it couldn’t possibly be that they get to turn into cats and dogs, right?), a murder occurs. At this point, its up to Naomi to solve the murder while also paying off her debt and keeping the Morning Bell pleased. There’s a lot of moving parts to the game, and just getting to the actual inciting murder can take a few hours. But the game balances it all surprisingly well, to the point where no one element feels like a more worthwhile time investment than the rest.—Nicolas Perez


19. Little Nightmares II

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Little Nightmares II’s best moments outshine even those of the original, especially while utilizing new mechanics such as using blunt objects for light combat sections and a particularly fun Portal-like mechanic added in its penultimate act. Its varied environments and encounters definitely scared me more than the original and one moment near its conclusion made me audibly gasp. When Little Nightmares rolled its credits after just around four hours, many players were left asking, “That’s it?” Multiple times before Little Nightmares II rolled its credits, I thought, “That’s not it?” When producer Lucas Roussel shared that the game would be “definitely longer” than the original, I was at first worried they’d take previous feedback the wrong way and make the game too bloated. Fortunately, the only things bloated in the game are its monsters.—Joseph Stanichar


18. Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy

A deep sense of familiarity clings to the entirety of Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy, from how it plays, to how it’s structured, to (obviously) the major intellectual property it’s based on. Guardians sticks close to what has proven to be popular and successful in the past, eschewing inspiration and ambition for competence. It’s very competent. I kept chugging along through its story and its battles without either ever feeling like much of a chore. Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy doesn’t have the ingenuity or spark of James Gunn’s movies, but it should do just enough to keep you interested on a lazy afternoon when you don’t have anything else to do. That’s a perfectly fine role for a game to fill, and this game is perfectly fine with filling it.—Garrett Martin


17. It Takes Two

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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


16. Olija

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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


15. Halo Infinite

If you’re like me and have been starved for the sensation of bonking someone on the head with a hammer, you’ve probably been playing Halo Infinite’s multiplayer since it shadow-dropped a month ahead of the official launch. Otherwise, maybe you waited on the full release, and kudos to you for having such strong will. You’re just built different. Whether it’s your first time in Halo or if you’re a returning vet, we’re all clear on one thing: Infinite’s provided one of the most fun and open-ended multiplayer sandboxes in years.—Moises Taveras


14. Lost in Random

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


13. Mundaun

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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


12. Knockout City

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


11. Space Warlord Organ Trading Simulator

What I loved about Trading Simulator and keep coming back to is how unflinching it is. In Trading Simulator, if you don’t have the money, you need to suck it up and take on shitty deals to work your way back up. You need to make risky stock investments and hope they pay off, or go through days where you’re generating basically nothing until something happens to shift your luck. It may be easier to take an obvious scam in order to push through to more lucrative jobs. In the meantime, though, you’re going to get shafted, and it’s going to feel really bad—in a good way!—Moises Taveras


10. Undernauts: Labyrinth of Yomi

On its face, dungeon crawler Undernauts: Labyrinth of Yomi is a game about low-level managers and the employees they supervise. It’s setting is the chaos of job sites. The real evil isn’t the monsters you face—it’s the depravity of the c-suite, holding companies, and puppeteering shareholders. The promise of shares. But also an absence of OSHA protections, a lack of equipment, training, and support. Undernauts is both the body horror of Upton Sinclair and Screaming Mad George. The story beings with a description of the boom period of Yomi exploration, the big corporations and all the money made, and then it bottoms out. That’s where the game itself starts and stays—with a small company trying to make it big by going into the less safe areas of the giant hulk. Big risks and no guarantee you won’t die. Who would take this job? Here it’s “derelicts” who can’t get jobs elsewhere—kids fresh out of college and young women in the middle of an economic downturn, ex-cons, and the disgraced. When the Yominan boom bottoms out greedy companies stretch their already thin ethics to the breaking point and prey on the desperate.—Dia Lacina


9. Black Book

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


8. Unsighted

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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


7. Resident Evil Village

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


6. Hitman 3

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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


5. Genesis Noir

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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


4. Forza Horizon 5

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


3. Sable

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


2. Death’s Door

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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


1. Psychonauts 2

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