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It’s that time of year: time to officially begin my Top 10 countdown! It’s been tough to work out what would make my list. There are several games I’m playing which would technically meet my criteria, but I haven’t gotten far enough into them to consider them this year. So, games like Psychonauts 2, Grow: Song of the Evertree and Mecha Knights: Knightmare, you have sadly been looked over for now. I’ll try and get reviews out on all three some point, however, because all three games are fantastic so far.
These were my Top 10 favourite games from 2020, just as a bit of reference:
Cyberpunk 2077 (after completing it for the first time this year)
Urtuk: The Desolation
Paper Beast: Folded Edition
Crusader Kings III
Previous Articles for GOTY 2021:
So, without further delay, it’s time to begin!
In another time, this game would be much higher on my list. As an experience of exploration, few games provide more pleasure that than Sable.
Unfortunately, this beautiful game barely holds itself together, as it’s held back by a myriad of technical issues. It’s a shame, as it is close to becoming the Spiritfarer and Outer Wilds for this year. Both of those games won my GOTY in their respective years. While Sable does not quite manage the level of brilliance they accomplish, I recommend it to almost anybody – as long as they’re willing to deal with some jank.
I was really excited for Sable when I first found out about it. A casual, free-form game of exploration and discovery, with no ties to a death counter? More games need to be like this. I added it to my wishlist as soon as it became available. I’ve found myself being drawn more and more towards these ‘artistic’ experience games. Chill games. Emotional discoveries. They’re getting pretty good.
Sable came out in September to some mixed reception, and I have to agree with a lot of the criticism. The game received a lot of love as well. Most of this game is stunning. I have to get that out of the way. The atmosphere is wonderful, coupled with an emotional and powerful soundtrack which only adds to the immersion. Taking the role of a young girl called Sable, you leave your clan and explore the world. What you decide to do…well, it’s up to you completely. There’s a very loose story buried in the game, but the world design is open from the beginning. With your sentient hover bike, the world is an open book. Climb, discover new places, dig into old ruins for treasures, earn masks, it’s all up to you. I love the open-ended design from the beginning, and the worldbuilding and lore is a perfect example of subtlety. There are few long-winded dialogues, no giant infodumps of lore. It’s very simple, and it’s part of what I love about Sable. The game holds a unique art style, with a world that’s right at home with Arabian Nights. There’s a good mixture of cultures, blending ancient and future times together incredibly well. All of this is great.
That’s the good news. The bad news is the game is a little…broken. There have been patches to help fix some of the problems, but it’s clear to me that the game released sooner than wanted because the performance of the game is significantly below par for what is expected. I have frequent problems with my mouse forgetting to work in the options menu (this happens every time I boot the game, and it always crops up). Sable works better with a controller and this is well mentioned in the game description, but I could do better if the UI didn’t keep bugging out. A few times, I couldn’t even return to the main menu, and had to force-close the game manually.
The bike riding also suffers from constantly clipping with the terrain, and it’s a jarring experience. Flying the bike should be a lot smoother. I’ve had a fair few visual glitches like terrain popping out, and poor draw distance. This terrain clipping is worse when you try to fly over objects and water. You just go underground instead. There’s little things as well like the music going silent at random times. It makes for a frustrating experience at times, and it drags the game down a lot.
When totaling up the sum of its parts, Sable is a game that struggles to meet its full potential. It feels more unfinished and unpolished than anything else, and that’s a shame.
Yet, despite all of these issues, I can’t help but love what Sable achieves. The level of open-ended exploration, beautiful art style and music, and the subtle worldbuilding are all excellent, and I enjoy Sable a great deal regardless of its problems. It is probably the best broken game of 2021. Some people may disregard the positives of the game in favour of highlighting its shortcomings, and I understand that. It would be better if games didn’t release in a broken state. It’s why Sable is relatively low on my Top 10 list. I’ll still commend it for its strengths, and Shedworks has great potential as a developer.
I’ve already covered my thoughts about Valheim, both in my Feburary 2021 review and in Best of Early Access. As a result, I will not go into too much detail about the game in this entry. You can read about those here by clicking on the link.
Back in March, I was sure Valheim would make it much higher up my list, perhaps as high as a Top 3 finish. It’s relatively low ranking may seem like a mark against it, but don’t think about it that way. I guess earlier entries suffer most.
I was really torn on which Early Access titles to make the Top 10 this year. I’m overall happy with my choices, but Valheim was the hardest one to place. After all the praise I’ve heaped on it, it feels criminal to have left it out. Therefore, here it stands on my Top 10. It might be lower than I expected, but that’s not against the game at all. I put over 100 hours into it, after all. If in January, you sat me down and told me I’d be putting 100 hours into an Early Access open world survival game that’s multiplayer, I would have laughed. And look how it turned out!
I really enjoyed my time with Valheim. It takes a lot for me to trust Early Access survival games and multiplayer experiences, but Valheim coaxed me into it and I have no regrets. It’s a true example of how you can make a game like that while avoiding some pitfalls many competitors fall into. Of course, the massive success of Valheim has worked against it. Because of the millions of players, development of more features and content has been pushed back in favour of bugfixes and stability improvements – a good move, if it means people got burned out on the current content. That’s reasonable. I haven’t played Valheim in a while, nor have many of the people I played it with. We’re all waiting for more content.
It would be foolish to ignore how monumental Valheim has been on the gaming scene in 2021, and therefore deserves its place in my Top 10.
8. Vagrus – The Riven Realms
Take Oregon Trail, load it full of pain-inducing drugs and some of the best lore I’ve read in a video game, and you have Vagrus – The Riven Realms. I had this game on my sights for ages.
This is another game which released from Early Access to a full 1.0 launch this year, and it’s a pretty good one. It’s very similar to Highfleet, to be honest. Both games are brimming with immersion, atmosphere and stunning worldbuilding that rivals the best AAA has to offer, but both games struggle with flaws in overwhelming difficulty and some odd design choices. Unlike Highfleet, I found myself more drawn into Vagrus’s vast, overwhelming depths.
I was planning on covering Vagrus in my 2020 GOTY posts as an Early Access nomination, but it struggled to sit with me back then. I guess I didn’t play enough of it, but the lore grabbed me from the start. Now it’s complete, I’ve been playing a lot more.
Vagrus is a hard game, deliberately so. I can’t think of many games which give a warning notice about it in the Steam page!
They weren’t kidding. This game is brutal in all sense of the word. I’ve lost countless caravans to starvation and attacks, and the combat system is frustrating and borderline broken. The game has flaws, that’s for certain. What sells Vagrus is a deep, immersive experience, great writing and one of the most realized open worlds in a video game. It’s not for everyone, though. The devs provide a chunky free prologue to try out. This provides a small, tutorial based mini campaign called Tale of the Wasteland which teaches some of the ropes, as well as a small slice of the sandbox experience. Many players will probably work out if the game is for them from this. Demos are great for the industry, and this game is no exception.
The lore is stunning. There’s a ton of narrative in here, over one million words. That’s a lot of reading. It would have been amazing to have voice acting, but that would be unrealistic for such a small developer team. If you don’t like reading, this is not the game for you, and the devs make that very clear. It’s well realized and it promotes what it sets out to do. Other games could learn from Vagrus in how it shows itself to the public. For me, I love reading, and this is one of the most realized worlds out there. The characters are diverse and well written and I can smell the locations through the screen. That’s the kind of writing I can get behind.
The main thing that holds Vagrus back for me is the combat system. It’s a slow, turn-based thing that’s…it’s not great. It’s better than it was, but that’s like asking someone if they want to be burned alive or buried alive. It’s not a fun system and I actively go out of my way to avoid all combat situations if I can. Sometimes it’s unavoidable, and bad combat sucks a lot of the enjoyment out of playing.
Vagrus would be much higher up my list if the combat was better, but this is a gigantic game with deep systems, and I still love it despite its flaws. It’s a pain simulator, but one worth the pain.
7. Mechwarrior 5 Mercenaries: Heroes of the Inner Sphere
Alright. This game isn’t exactly new. I know that.
I didn’t really play much Mechwarrior 5 until this year, though. That is solely thanks to the Heroes DLC, and the primary focus of this review. It wasn’t until it released on Steam, updated and with Heroes that I began to really have fun, and it’s why Mechwarrior 5 makes my Top 10 this year.
A little bit of history, first. Mechwarrior 5: Mercenaries came out December 2019 on the Epic Store, which was a controversial move in itself after a long and arduous Kickstarter campaign. I won’t go into the details of that, as Piranha Games is well documented already. The game had a lot of issues, despite its great gameplay loop. Bugs and glitches, poor writing and voice acting in the campaign, poor AI, a lot of grind and repetition brought this game down significantly. I played a bit of the original Mechwarrior 5, and it had many problems despite being enjoyable to play.
Two big things happened for Mechwarrior 5 this year. The first was its full release on Steam with major improvements. The second was the Inner Sphere DLC. Yes, this is a DLC intro into my Top 10. I mentioned in the first GOTY article that this is allowed, provided the DLC adds enough content. Well, this achieves that in spades. In fact, the Inner Sphere expansion is so important to Mechwarrior 5 Mercenaries that I wouldn’t play the game without it. There’s another DLC pack called Kestrel Lancers which adds a more linear, high quality campaign to the game, but Inner Sphere is almost essential. Both are great additions to the game, though.
Inner Sphere adds career mode to the game, a non-linear sandbox which gives the player the chance to explore and play to their hearts content on an expanded map. There’s also a bunch of new mech variants added, several questlines and items. Basically it transforms the experience into the sandbox version which this game thrives upon. The game plan is simple: managing a mech mercenary company. Loads of factions, missions and the like. With no campaign to slow you down, this greatly improves the experience. The campaign mode is…not very good. There’s occasional brilliance, but Mechwarrior is an experience of procedural content and the odd, hand crafted mission. There are several questlines which are hand crafted and are high quality, but most of the game is procedural missions. The handcrafted stuff is great, though, and I would love to see more of it. When it works, it works well.
The mission design may be lacking in some areas, true, but the meat of the game is the mech combat, and it’s one of the most enjoyable gaming experiences I’ve had this year. I play this game for the joy of beating the shit out of other mechs in all out brawls, and Mechwarrior 5 achieves that in spades.
Sure, it could be more stable. The writing and voice acting could be much better. The AI is still not where I would like it, and I would love to see more diverse mission types and biomes. There’s still a lot of work to be made on the game after several years of difficulty. You could even say Piranha Games may not be the right guys to take on a series as monumental as Mechwarrior. I might even call Mechwarrior 5: Mercenaries the ‘worst’ game on this list. That doesn’t stop it being one of the most pleasurable times I’ve had in a video game. To quote a certain Todd Howard, it just works. Not as well as I would like perhaps, but I want to see this game improve. There’s a long way to go, but it made my Top 10 for a reason.
Yep! We have a second Early Access game revealed, and I gave the second spot to Dorfromantik. I guess we all saw that coming!
Like Valheim, it was fighting a very tight battle. I think I had five games in the shortlist for a month before making my final choices. I already reviewed Dorfromantik before in the Best of Early Access article, so I won’t go into too much detail again in this one.
This game crept up on me like a hitman over the last few months, and it’s now part of my daily routine. As of writing this, I have 140 hours in the game, which is more than any other 2021 title I have played this year. The only other game I’ve played more of this year is Cyberpunk 2077, which I’m deep into a second playthrough.
When I need to do some writing or experimental research work, I boot up Dorfromantik. I find it’s simplicity beautiful in the way the puzzle is designed. I’m not great at the score mode, admittedly. I keep making mistakes in placing the world tiles in the wrong places, screwing up the layout and running out of tiles quicker than I should. However, I love the way it works. There’s a subtlety to how much strategy there is behind the surface of a happy, relaxing world builder. I find myself having to think carefully where best to place tiles, and the wrong decision can backfire hours later! It’s a great way to get my sluggish, coffee enhanced brain to work in the morning.
With both the scoring and creative mode, plenty of tiles to unlock and its stunning atmosphere, Dofromantik is the perfect balance between difficulty and relaxation. It’s a game I could play forever. Number six might seem a little low for how much I’ve praised this game, but that’s not a knock against it. I just feel there are more story-geared games that are more deserving of a higher spot.
It was between Death Trash and Dorf for this slot, and this game won out overall. Death Trash is an amazing RPG that will dominant the indie scene at full release, but I felt the current stance wasn’t quite worthy of being one of my three ‘Best of Early Access’ choices. The competition was just too tight this year. Give it a chance, however.
We come to the end of this article. Trying to come up with a ranking was incredibly difficult. Honestly, they can be interchanged at will. That’s how tight it was. That’s the bottom half of my Top 10 revealed, and some are probably surprising choices.
Join us next time, as we discuss the Hidden Gems of 2021. These will be games that either fell under the radar, or are deeply flawed games which I believe have some appeal.