Games of the Year
2021 has been quite the year in gaming as we saw dramatic shifts begin to take place – the PS4 and Xbox One are now certified last-gen consoles as the PS5 and Xbox Series complete their first full year on the market, and while exclusives for the new machines are still relatively few and far between, there have been a number of titles which have really been able to show off the new hardware. On PS5 we had the seemingly unstoppable force of nature that is Insomniac Games release their second game for the console in the brilliant Ratchet and Clank: Rift Apart, Housemarque released the widely praised Returnal (although I have to admit I’m yet to dip my toes into its notoriously difficult world), and 2020 PS4 release Ghost of Tsushima saw a strong expanded rerelease which, while ruffling feathers regarding the price of games in the new generation, managed to provide what is now undoubtedly the definitive Ghost experience. I’ve yet to get my hands on an Xbox Series console yet, so I’m admittedly less able to provide personal opinion here, but a few notable indies were released throughout the year, specifically Death’s Door and 12 Minutes which managed to garner a fair bit of attention. Both of these titles will have been released on the Playstation ecosystem by the time 2021 comes to a close, and I’m very much looking forward to trying them out. Looking at Microsoft’s first-party lineup, Forza Horizon 5 seems to have really found an audience that appreciates it, while Halo Infinite‘s surprise early launch of its free-to-play multiplayer component seems to be reassuring people that the series could be on track for a much-awaited return to form.
Nintendo have also had quite the year, not really releasing any landmark titles in their key franchises but keeping things interesting with the return of Metroid with the long-awaited Metroid Dread dropping back in October. Aside from that, remakes and rereleases were the keywords of the year for the big N, as The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword HD released back in the summer before we headed into an autumn of Mario Party Superstars and Pokemon Brilliant Diamond and Shining Pearl. While Nintendo have had a relatively quiet year, the horizon is looking pretty exciting with new titles such as Splatoon 3 and a new Kirby game announced for next year. A remake of Advance Wars was something I was particularly looking forward to, but, as with many games this year, it’s fallen victim of the delay and ended up slipping into 2022. Here’s hoping it doesn’t end up releasing in February, when everything else seems to be hitting shelves.
Story of the Year
As gaming has continued to evolve and the audience has expanded, developers have been placing an increasing emphasis on story. Possibly the clearest example of this is Naughty Dog – Sony’s first-party developer of Crash Bandicoot which has now gone on to create some of gaming’s most story focused experiences in their Last of Us series. As these games have continued to thrive and become commercial successes, this type of story has become what is, among many, seen as the gold-standard to aim for – gritty, dark and full of anger. The problem, of course, is that success has now created an environment wherein a large number of these story-based experiences are emulating those same beats – the tortured protagonist, ill at ease with the world around them.
It is into this world that indie games like Maquette are breathing fresh air. The story here is small and personal – detailing the relationship of a couple throughout the years and the changing emotional states of the woman at its heart. Maquette is more delicate in its presentation and its tale – it puts those aforementioned emotions right at the forefront of its story, even working them into the gameplay in a way that never feels forced or out of place. While some might see this smaller-scale story as frivolous, I thought the beats of the relationship felt real, and the characters were easy to empathise with. I think Maquette shows us that there is room for these lighter stories which paint their stories in a whole different palette of emotions inside the world of gaming, and I’m excited to see how the medium continues to grow. Bravo.
Honourable Mentions: World’s End Club, Nier Replicant
Art Direction of the Year
Every now and again, you come across a screenshot or a graphic from a game, and you just know that you simply need to play it, pronto. That’s what happened to me with Genesis Noir. My friend Jonny was around visiting and had brought his new gaming laptop with Xbox Game Pass. While looking through the titles on the service and others coming soon, my eye jumped to a black and white stylised image of a man standing in front of what seemed like a sun, a planet hovering above his hand. Then, in art-deco gold font, the title: Genesis Noir. That first bit of art had sold me hook, line and sinker on the game, and as soon as it launched, I picked it up on Switch. This cosmic blend of science-fiction and jazz detailing the birth and eventual death of the universe was a tale that was intensely interesting, even if at times a little clunky to actually play, but it was the art that kept me pushing forwards.
A new-age jazz exploration through the cosmos is perhaps a tough vision to realise, but the visuals of Genesis Noir help evoke an impressive feeling of timelessness, of diving deep into the primal depths of the space and time. I was open-jawed throughout my playthrough as planets swirled around me, as I found giant saxophone players on some distant starry shore, as I witnessed the birth of primitive humanity, and that feeling of wonder remained with me from start to finish.
Honourable Mentions: The Artful Escape, Outer Wilds: Echoes of the Eye, Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart
Soundtrack of the Year
The Artful Escape
As a gamer currently without an Xbox, missing out on playing The Artful Escape has got to be one of my biggest disappointments of 2021 – here’s hoping it either makes its way beyond Microsoft’s borders in early 2022 or I manage to pick up an Xbox soon. Refusing to let the game pass me by completely, I did take the time to check out its soundtrack, and what a marvel it was. The Banks of the River Are Lined with Gold has to be one of the best songs to come out of video games – possibly my favourite since Bioshock Infinite and its cover of Will The Circle Be Unbroken – but the brilliance of Johnny Galvatron and Josh Abrahams’ work extends into their more atmospheric fare. Since I started listening to the soundtrack, I’ve even played it for my generally video-game-averse family members who have even stopped to ask what album I was playing.
The dynamism of Galvatron and Abrahams’ soundtrack has to be the biggest standout, from those folk-tinged opening songs to the electronica and sci-fi flavoured instrumentals, The Artful Escape feels like a rollercoaster even just to listen to, and I’m more hyped than ever to sit down and play the game when I finally have the chance. Honestly, I was hoping to give my Soundtrack of the Year award to a game that I’d played and experienced in all its glory, but after hearing this one, I knew that I couldn’t justify giving it to anything else. Absolutely brilliant.
Honourable Mentions: Death’s Door, Maquette, Chicory: A Colourful Tale, Halo Infinite
Game of the Year
Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart
2021 was a rough year for many – the dark sequel to 2020 in a lot of ways. While it is typically more serious fare that wins Game of the Year awards (think the grit of The Last Of Us Part II, the desolate, wide open spaces of Red Dead Redemption II) but in the current situation, I can’t help but heap praise on the game that brought me the most sheer joy – Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart. It’d been a long while since I’d played a ‘new’ title in Sony’s long-running platforming series, but after seeing the trailers leading up to release, I was hooked. The world seemed so vibrant, so exciting, the graphics were gorgeous and the gameplay looked like it was pure fun throughout. I was elated then to finally get my hands on the game and realise that all the impressions I had from those trailers were true.
For a franchise that’s been running now for almost 20 years, it’s easy for things to start getting stale, and it’s at that point that many series might start to add new ingredients in the hope of spicing things up a bit. That can flop (think Scrappy Doo), or it can bring much-needed fresh air. The two new characters introduced in Rift Apart, Rivet and Kit feel like characters who have been here since the beginning, to the point where it’s now hard to imagine a future release without them.
The titular rifts were also a great showcase of the PlayStation 5’s power as one of the few true next-gen exclusives released so far, and it fills me with excitement to see where Insomniac can take the console in the future when they can dig even deeper into its true potential. Even here though, the presentation is immaculate – the cities are a wash of neon, bustling with activity, the swamps bubble and squelch around you – and there was never a moment in the game where I felt bored by the design of the various worlds.
The gameplay itself was slick and action-packed with a variety of fun tools to use during combat. Normally when it comes to games, I’m a much more story-focused player who much prefers delving deeper into lore and character than I do into the combat mechanics, but using the myriad tools at my disposal in Rift Apart to tear through hordes of enemies was so dazzlingly fun that I found myself returning to highly-populated areas and the combat arena just to get a little more time with them.
Overall, Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart was another brilliant release from a developer at the top of their game, and one that I’d highly recommend to anyone with an interest in gaming. I even got the platinum trophy in it (admittedly not too much of a challenge) to show just how much I loved my time with the game. That is why, in a year which has seen a number of great games, I am happy to say that Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart is my Game of the Year.