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Favorite games of 2021

Forza Horizon 5

From November:

This was one of my most anticipated games of the year, and it’s largely delivering—I played hundreds of hours of Forza Horizon 4, and I’m already on track to do the same with its sequel. There may only be minor iterative improvements to gameplay, and it may still be a couple patches away from the baseline stability I’d hope for, but the world they’ve built for FH5 is so phenomenal that I don’t even mind. I’ll probably be dipping in and out of this for years to come.

As with many live titles of this sort, it may be more accurate to say that FH5 contains a great game than that it is one. It sometimes feels like it exhibits all of the worst excesses of modern video games: a map overstuffed with activity icons, weekly seasons of chore-like tasks, a FOMO-inducing rewards structure, and (still!) a surprising number of bugs. It can be especially tedious for completionists.

But if you can block out the noise and focus on the moment-to-moment experience of driving, it is transcendent. I spent more hours in Forza Horizon 5 than in any other game this year, even though it came out in November. And I don’t even care about cars!

Tales of Arise

From September:

The Tales series has always seemed like the sort of thing I should like, but its dense action RPG combat kept me at arm’s length and I never got very far with. Arise streamlines its combat just enough to be palatable, and once I was in I found that I enjoyed pretty much everything else. With years to go before the next new Trails localization, I may be back for more of these games to get my anime melodrama fill (though I may also continue dropping the difficulty level).

I actually finished Arise without ever really getting into the combat, which only reaffirms how much I enjoyed the other parts. I never got tired of those little manga-panel skits, even as they piled up into the hundreds. I tracked down all of the owls and I caught all of the fish (what a bizarre fishing minigame, by the way). If they ever make one of these where I actually look forward to the battles, I’ll be golden.

Nier Replicant ver.1.22474487139…

From April:

My only exposure to the Nier/Drakengard series was Automata in 2017—my game of the year with a bullet, if not for Breath of the Wild—and I’m glad to be getting back to it with this new Replicant remaster. I’m early yet, and while its first impression may not be quite as explosive as Automata I’ve been enjoying its oddball cast and strange, evocative soundtrack.

Replicant continued to grow on me as I played, and though they have different strengths and weaknesses my final impression of it is nearly as positive as Automata’s. The characters and the music continued to be the highlights for me throughout. I was far more compelled by Kainé/Emil/Weiss than I ever was by 2B/9S/A2, and it had what was easily my favorite game soundtrack of the year. It was wild to hear them play a track from it at the Olympics!

Atelier Ryza 2: Lost Legends & the Secret Fairy

I would venture a guess that this is the game on my list that appears least frequently on others'—Atelier is a somewhat niche series, Ryza 2 was only a modest success, and although I just got to it this month it’s actually from way back in January.

Well, it’s great! It’s largely iterative improvements over the first Ryza game, but there are just so many of them that the result far exceeded my expectations. It makes a bunch of smart refinements to the crafting and combat mechanics, its maps are more engaging thanks to new interactions with the world like climbing and diving underwater, and it doubles down on the cozy slice-of-life vignettes. (It’s possible they overdid those, actually—I felt like I was cleaning them out regularly, but then I’d walk around the block and three more would pop up.)

As with Tales of Arise, the Ryza games might end up being the accessible entry point that compels me to check out older entries in the series. And I’ll definitely be here for Ryza 3, if and when that shows up.

Sable

Sable seems like it should be a lonely game. The conceit is that its culture has a rite of passage as children come of age, a sort of rumspringa for finding one’s vocation, and the title character is about to begin hers. On finishing the tutorial area, there is a tremendous shot of Sable riding her glider bike out into the unknown as the camera pulls back for the title card and the pensive Japanese Breakfast soundtrack kicks in. It seems like it will be her against the world from there on out.

But that’s not how it feels in practice. In her (fantastic) DiGRA India keynote, Sable narrative designer Meghna Jayanth says:

As a protagonist, [Sable’s] circumstances are not unique. Everyone in this world goes on this journey. Other people on this journey have the same powers and abilities. This makes the world warm and familiar, the protagonist’s experience is grounded in a shared one, a communal one, every adult she meets has gone through it, and has experiences and well-meaning or annoying advice. It is her journey, but she is not alone.

“Warm” is exactly the word for it. Sable is full of brief but poignant conversations that reward talking to people in a way that few games do—I have rarely been as happy to encounter an NPC in a game as I was Eliisabet, the retired guard who Sable befriends. I also enjoyed its take on a Breath of the Wild-esque open world, though it’s compact enough that even the most fatigued players should still be able to stomach it. (The degree to which you explore that world also has narrative resonance, so sticking close to home is a valid choice consistent with the game’s themes.)

The only thing that keeps me from making a full-throated recommendation is that Sable was, unfortunately, extremely buggy for me. I had everything from frame rate dips and audio artifacts to more substantial problems like broken quests and missing UI. I do think it’s worth fighting through the mess, though, and hopefully it’ll improve with patches. Perhaps it already has!