With 2021 marching on at a seemingly impossible pace, we thought it was high time we sat down in our virtual Treehouses to chat about the best games of the year we've played so far. 2021 has been an odd year for games. The first few months were front-loaded with some big meaty hitters after giving Cyberpunk 2077 a wide berth at the end of last year, while others have been pushed back even further into the depths of 2022. Indeed, a lot of the games we're really looking forward to in 2021 are still hovering away on the horizon, tantalisingly close but just out of reach.
Until those juicy morsels arrive on our gaming plates, though, these are the games we've enjoyed the most over the last six months. You'll find all sorts here, from big epic space operas and zombie horror fests to cosy town builders and err... couple's therapy puzzlers. Will any of them make it to our end of year Advent Calendar? Only time will tell. And if we've missed something you think is absolutely vital playing this year, please do shout about it in the comments. Our gaming bellies are never full these days, and the Christmas turkey is still so very far away...
RPS' favourite games of 2021 so far
- Hitman 3
- Chicory: A Colorful Tale
- It Takes Two
- Loop Hero
- Before Your Eyes
- Dyson Sphere Program
- Resident Evil Village
- Going Medieval
- Mass Effect Legendary Edition
- Nier: Replicant
- Minute Of Islands
- The Medium
- Narita Boy
- HuniePop 2: Double Date
- Boomerang X
- Hundred Days
Colm: The last level is one of the worst in the trilogy, the story doesn’t click whatsoever, and the amount of new features is limited at best... but it’s still Hitman, isn’t it? Smushing your well glam target in Mendoza’s grape crusher or blowing up an OAP with an exploding golf ball in Dubai is just marvellous. Your mileage may vary when it comes to some of the levels in Hitman 3 – I go back and forth on my feelings towards Berlin, for example – but I appreciate that IO attempted to do something a bit different with the structure of Ian’s missions this time round. And some of them, like the murder mystery of Dartmoor, became instant classics as soon as I began sneaking around the old English mansion. I know it might be a while before the baldy boy is back, but that’s alright because I have plenty of challenges to clean up anyway. Another excuse to jump back in.
Katharine: Hitman 3 is just such a delight from start to finish. IO Interactive's sandbox theatres of death and destruction are second to none in my eyes, especially when Hitman 1 and 2 can be played within it (and got a very generous tech upgrade in the process). Taken as a whole, Hitman 3 is one of the all-time great trilogies, and it makes me excited for IOI's new James Bond game.
Katharine: Before release, I already had an inkling (no pun intended) that Chicory would be something special. Greg Lobanov's previous game, Wandersong, really knocked my socks off when I played it for the first time last year, and I was super excited when I saw his next game would be a top-down Zelda-like about a talking dog with a magical, Okami-style paintbrush.
But Chicory ended up surpassing even those early expectations. Its heartfelt story about the highs and lows of being a creative really hit home in a way I wasn't quite prepared for, and the amount of freedom it gives players to pursue their own artistic vision in bringing Picnic Province back to life is also worthy of celebration. I know 'masterpiece' is a word that gets bandied about a lot in games these days, but Chicory's one that truly deserves it.
Colm: Katharine has perfectly summed up my feelings on this game. So, instead, I’ll tell you that when the credits started to roll, I felt really bad for drawing willies everywhere at the start. Chicory deserved better than that.
Katharine: You monster.
Alice Bee: I had some quibbles with the story, but honestly this world's weirdest couples counselling sessions (featuring a magic book I hate with all my being) by Hazelight Studios is actually the best co-op game I've played, not just this year but in recent memory. Heck, in my long term memory, too. Cody and May, an about-to-split married couple with a sad daughter, are transformed into Borrower-sized dolls made of clay and wood, respectively, and you and a co-op friend go on a larger than life adventure. There's a giant garden being terrorized by a sad flower, a snowglobe full of friendly snow people, and a tree full of unfriendly wasps and squirrels.
Cody and May learn some lessons along the way, but who cares about their fictional relationship? Not me! I care that the levels and puzzles are so playful, and so truly co-operative, that it's impossible to play this game without working together. You get loads of different cool toys and abilities (my favourite being Cody's sap launcher combined with May's match gun for explosive results). It's nearly impossible to get bored, but It Takes Two is best played with someone you know pretty well, preferably in the same room, because playing with a relative stranger over the internet would probably be pretty tough to pull off. Although, who knows? Maybe by the end you'd have fallen in love (no you wouldn't).
Colm: These days, I don’t dabble with multiplayer games too often. Everyone’s getting a little older, so trying to organise a sesh around date nights, kids football and everything in between is a little more difficult than it once was. Like Cody and May being forced to make time for one another in-game, It Takes Two is one of those rare co-op games that demands you find a buddy before you press start on the main menu.
And while I could go on and on about how important communication is when it comes to timing jumps, lever pulls and whatnot, It Takes Two’s greatest achievement is that it’s never ever ever boring. There are about five or six mechanics in here that would prop up a different game for its entirety. It Takes Two says, “ here’s a hammer and a few nails, but don’t get too comfortable because there’s a Diablo bit in a minute.” Like Alice, I have some issues with the story – the ending, in particular – but entering a new world and discovering what interactive treats Hazelight had in store for us never got old.
Colm: This card-collecting, match-3 puzzling, auto-battling roguelike didn’t seem like my kind of game. I mainly played it out of obligation, really, because the buzz around it was unavoidable. I fully expected to walk away after a few hours with a big “not for me” Deborah Meaden head.
Populating the one-lane road while a little knight fella goes for a stroll was almost relaxing at the beginning. But, I started to get Loop Hero’s popularity when I finished my first 3x3 rock formation and a harpy popped out of nowhere. So, I started to mess around with the placement of cards: why not stick a meadow next to a spider cocoon? Would an adjacent swamp affect a village? Can I drown those bastards goblins in a river? Discovering new combinations – good and bad – is one of my favourite things in video games this year. But, even managing your gear, building your base, taking down The Lich for the first time: it’s all far more compelling than it should be.
At launch, my biggest issues were that you couldn’t save mid-run, and the speed at which your little man walked around the road was far too slow. Both of these grumbles were addressed in a patch last month. A fantastic game made even better with a few QOL tweaks. I guess I like card-collecting, match 3 puzzling, auto-battling roguelikes now.
Imogen: Loop Hero is the definition of a "just one last run" game. Similarly to Colm, I really thought I'd bounce off it, and yet I would constantly find myself three hours later wondering how I'd managed to spend so much time going in circles. It's like a deconstructed RPG that you watch from far away, yet have to get so involved in, and it's absolutely hypnotic.
I think my favourite bit is placing the tiles around your loop - partially because it's exciting to see what beasts or effects will come from them, but mainly because I liked to build nice, neat fantasy landscapes. This bit me in arse late game, as I realised that some of the combos I was doing actually got me murdered because I didn't read the effects properly. But it was still fun to learn (even if it was the hard way), and made it that much more satisfying as my knowledge grew, allowing me to overpower my little rogue beyond belief..
Colm: Before Your Eyes is your classic sub-two hour, narrative-driven, first-person game. You play as this recently deceased guy called Benjamin who is recounting his days to the ferryman taking him to the afterlife. This one stands above a few others for it’s gimmick: blinking.
You can play this game without a webcam, but it does lose some of its impact. Because, whenever a metronome pops up onscreen and Actual You blinks, you skip forward past the memory Game You is recalling. And there are more than a few scenes where you find yourself forcing a shocked expression, just to see what’s going to happen next. Then you blink and the game has moved forward a few months. Thematically, it obviously works, but intentionally drying your eyeballs so you can get a little extra morsel of story results in you being more invested than you might be in other, similar games. I mean, it helps that the story is pretty compelling, too, but to say more feels spoiler-y. Although, I will say that the ferryman is a talking wolf. And that’s pretty good.
Ed:I can't say much more than Colm for fear of spoilers. What I will say is that I fought back tears on a regular basis and I lay awake at night with a lifeless glaze over my eyes after I'd finished it. My emotions were shot, but in a good way.
Ollie: What an incredible surprise Dyson Sphere Program turned out to be. A team of five developers putting together a 3D planetoid-based factory-building simulation game which comes closer than I would've imagined possible to knocking the almighty Factorio off its pedestal. DSP is just about the most ambitious game I've ever played which actually managed to deliver on its promise - and in Early Access, no less.
If you've ever played Factorio, Satisfactory, Mindustry, or any other factory-builder, you know what you're getting yourself into here. But the end-goal is certainly the loftiest in the genre. Building a rocket? That's nothing. How about creating a fully-functioning Dyson Sphere (or Swarm) capable of harnessing a star to power the digital reality home of an entire civilization? Now that's a goal worthy of some automation along the way.
Combining the challenge and depth of a factory-builder with the charming, gravity-obeisant planets of Outer Wilds was a stroke of pure genius. It fits thematically, and injects a palpable sense of scale directly into the bloodstream of your long and lonely journey. But it also offers mechanical complexity, forcing you to sequester your factories across multiple planetary bodies and work slowly towards connecting them in a sprawling interplanetary logistics network. It all just works so fabulously well, and I can't believe such a novel idea was not only envisaged but then honed and polished to near-perfection by such a small team. Magnificent stuff.
Nate: The sad truth is I’ve been a bit too knackered this year to properly wrap my head around a factory game this year, but I spent a couple of weeks with Dyson Sphere Program, and I’m with Ollie all the way - it would have been pretty great even as a Factorio clone with pretty 3D planets, but it’s got its own distinct set of ambitions, and ends up in a fascinating space all of its own as a result.
Ed: Until I played Resident Evil Village, I hadn't touched a horror game for years as I'm a big wimp who likes to sleep at night. And you know what? I might be a changed man. It took a big lady threatening to crush me, and a terrifying descent into a haunted dolls house for me to realise what I'd been missing out on. Turns out I quite like being scared, actually.
In moderation, of course. And that's what Resident Evil Village does so well. It's very much a game of two halves, with the first being a sequence of goosebump-inducing nightmares, and the second shedding scares for action set-pieces. The latter's not bad, but it's the former which felt like the game at its very best. The village itself remains compelling throughout, too, acting as an unsettling hub that expands and morphs as you progress. Resident Evil Village is just super memorable to me, you know? I'll look back on 2021 as the year I got into horror games thanks to a snowy place filled with werewolves, and Ethan, a man whose hands are never safe.
Nate: Sin Vega, formerly of this parish, has great taste in games. The two of us have fairly differing tastes on the whole, but there’s a certain streak of townbuilder which really gets us good, and when one excites us both at the same time, I know it’s something special. See, then, Going Medieval, which we’ve both hooted about in the last month, despite it still being a pretty barebones early access release. I know that GOTY-ing a game that’s still this incomplete is risky business, but I’ll ask you to take it in good faith. If this game isn’t either abandoned or botched in some unforeseeable way, it’s going to be the next Rimworld. Because... it’s Rimworld. Only you can build on multiple storeys. Which is like saying, “It’s cigarettes, but they make you healthier”. Definitely one to keep an eye on, even if you’re holding back for now.
Imogen: The Mass Effect Legendary Edition is the best way to play Mass Effect right now, and I just can't get enough of it. Before, I really struggled replaying the first game in the trilogy, because everything was just so jank. While a little bit of that is still there, the remaster has fixed enough of it to make me really enjoy it again for the first time in years. It's certainly not my favourite of the series (I shan't get into that argument), but I had a delightful time exploring uncharted planets and taking postcard pics with the new photo mode.
I'm on Mass Effect 3 now, and really taking my time with it. It's one of those games that you don't want to end, that gives you that hollow feeling in your chest when the credits start to roll. I've made an effort to pay more attention to everything going on too, burning it all into my memory again. It's Mass Effect! Except it all looks a bit nicer, and I don't want to miss a single, tiny thing. It probably won't end up being my ultimate Game Of The Year, but man, it's been an absolute joy to play.
Ed: I never ever want to play NieR Replicant ever again, you hear me? I had to slog through four endings to experience the fifth and final true ending. Yet, this is what makes it a standout game for me this year so far. I can see every boss fight, every corridor, every dialogue box; they've all been burned into my memory.
There's nothing quite like NieR Replicant - other than NieR Automata, I suppose. I like its fluid, flashy combat. I especially like the music, which is just so hummable. But I especially love how it transitions from a hack-and-slasher to a bullet hell to a platformer in the space of 20 minutes. Yes, it loses some unpredictability later on as you replay sections over and over, but amidst the monotony you're fed these nuggets of story that make you see things from an entirely different perspective. And that fifth ending? It was totally worth the effort.
Alice Bee: I reviewed Minute Of Islands and stand by the bestest best I gave it. It's one of those games that seems to accomplish everything it sets out to do. The art is so detailed but so clear. The land is so strange and beautiful - even death is beautiful! - that you sort of wish you could live there even under the threat of consumption by a floating fungus in the air. The platforming is smooth. And the story, obvious at times though it is, is weird and circular and meditative. I have recently been reading a lot of books that involve mushrooms and fungus, as well, and so my thinking has further evolved. Did you know fungal spores can contribute to cloud formation and rain in the Amazon? Everything is fungus. We are all mushrooms. I think Studio Fizbin, the people who made Minute Of Islands, already knew about the rain of spores.
Katharine: Despite still being in early access, I think I've played more Dorfromantik this year than anything else. It's been my go-to wind down game at the end of the day, the perfect "I'll just fire up a quick round while I have a cup of tea on a Saturday morning" kinda game, and it's genuinely just really very lovely. Its chill, pastoral tile-based town-building is a real tonic after hammering away at a keyboard all day, and its gentle guitar twangs and lilting soundtrack put me right at ease. It's only going to get better, too. While its much-touted creative mode is still yet to arrive, developers Toukana Interactive have already made some great improvements to its UI, making objectives clearer and fixing important bugs (my train and boat tiles have finally unlocked, hooray!). It's really coming into its own, and I can't wait to spend even more time creating tiny rural idylls as the year goes on.
Rebecca: It's been a pretty quiet first half of the year for new game releases in most of my genres of choice, but as a horror fan at least I've had more than enough to keep me occupied - and the one that stands out for me in particular is The Medium. I don't want to spoil the story, but I can tell you that The Medium delivers the exact atmosphere I want from a horror game. Bloober Team always comes up with great environments, but The Medium definitely benefits from being designed as a showpiece for the Xbox Series X. Everything feels real and immediate. When protagonist Marianne is trudging through leafmould in the woods around the isolated Niwa Workers' Resort, you can practically smell yesterday's rainstorm and feel the vaguely unpleasant cling of damp clothing.
It's also creepy as hell even — perhaps especially — when nothing particularly scary is happening onscreen. Unexplained noises on the edge of hearing might be a symptom of Marianne's spirit medium powers, or might just be a by-product of a long-abandoned building slowly succumbing to nature. I find myself feeling relieved any time Marianne gets pulled into the hellish otherworld or comes face-to-face with a spooky little ghost girl, just because it gives me a concrete cause for fear to focus on for a few minutes. And really, what more could I ask for?
Katharine: Narita Boy has a great sense of swagger to it. It's a bold, suave side-scrolling action game decked out in stunning pixel art, gorgeous synths, and it knows exactly what it's about. You are Narita Boy, a saviour beamed in from the physical realm to rescue the Digital Kingdom, a world that's written in code and stored inside your computer. A terrible virus simply known as HIM is wreaking havoc with their army of Stallions, and you must wield the fabled Techno Sword and restore the three Trichroma beams to take HIM down before he wipes the world from existence.
With its flashy set of moves, sharp, sword-slinging action and Japanese-infused roots, it's the kind of thing you can imagine being made into an 80s Saturday morning cartoon. Even better, it's a love letter to all things PC, and tech nerds will no doubt get a kick out of all its various references. I know I did. It has a fantastic energy to it, so don't sleep on this one, folks. It's a real winner.
HuniePop 2: Double Date
Rebecca: I feel compelled to mention this one as it's the only game released in 2021 that I've actually finished so far, which must mean I liked it. It's not without its flaws, but a podcaster I follow recommended it as a great game to play when you're feeling too run-down to play anything else — and the fact that I've finished both games in the main series in the time it's taken me to get halfway through Control probably speaks to the truth of that. HuniePop won't be for everyone, and whether it manages to stop before tongue-in-cheek NSFW fun becomes borderline objectification is debatable at times. But if you're in the market for a match-3 puzzle game that's also a dating sim, HuniePop is really the only game in town, and it does both things surprisingly well.
As a sequel, Double Date now tasks you with wooing two dates simultaneously, with a new Stamina resource to reflect the extra difficulty. Furthermore, dateable characters now come with unique 'baggage' traits that complicate your attempts to tile-match and are... probably the most objectionable part of the game. The new location and characters honestly don't quite recapture the charms of the original in my opinion, but the addition of an off-the-wall sci-fi meta-plot (complete with bombastic musical score) is a genuinely good gag, and makes reaching the end of the story a more compelling prospect than it was in the first game.
Ed: Boomerang X is just sublime, so sublime, in fact, that it's birthed a new genre: the First Person Boomeranger. Which makes sense, seeing as you play as a mummy who's washed ashore on this mysterious island filled with nasties. To deal with said nasties, you hurl a mystical boomerang at them, because guns are rubbish and wooden spinny things are the new hotness.
Boomerang X really gets me going because the boomerang feels so damn fun to use. As you dive deeper into the island, you get these special powers that complement it beautifully. There's this one which teleports you to it in a snap, letting you hurl yourself into the air, or cut through it like a falcon that's glitching out. This speed isn't jarring, either, but smooth as butter. And I mean the spreadable kind, not that stuff that masquerades as 'soft' and yet can't be applied straight out the fridge. I'm talking silky smooth and very tasty. So yes, play Boomerang X. Apply it to your PC like butter. Thanks for your time.
Nate: I’ve not actually written about this one yet, but I really loved it. On the surface, Hundred Days is a cute, narrative-driven light management game about running a vineyard. What it really is, however, is a charming, low-key lecture on the basics of winemaking, delivered in a style that means you will retain one hundred percent of what you’ve learned. Honestly, two hours with this game will leave you able to fool a wine lord into thinking you know your stuff for a full ten minute chat, I reckon. It’s not the deepest business simulation out there, and while it has a lovely story, it feels like it’s over before it starts, finishing before you’ve even got a third of the way through what the game has to offer. Nonetheless, if considered as an educational game and - god forbid - a way to relax, I think you’d struggle to find a more pleasant package. Thumbs up.