Nadia and Kat Reveal Their Top 10 Games Of 2021
The end of 2021 is upon us! It’s been an eventful year full of wonderful games here at Axe of the Blood God, and we’ve got lots of cool plans for 2022 (stay tuned!) In the meantime, Nadia and I wanted to take a moment to post our ten favorite games of 2021 (Eric’s list will be going up on Destructoid). With few major blockbusters to rally around, this year was more about individual niches, fandoms, and tastes, which is reflected in our lists. But as you might expect, there is some crossover, particularly when it comes to Nintendo games. Take a look!
Kat’s Top 10 Games of 2021
10. Record of Lodoss War: Deedlit in Wonder Labyrinth
9. Pokemon Unite
8. Tales of Arise
7. Loop Hero
6. Super Robot Wars 30
5. Subnautica: Below Zero
4. Bravely Default 2
3. Metroid Dread
2. Monster Hunter Rise
When I think back on a specific year in gaming, my thoughts tend to crystallize around whatever game hit hardest for me in that period. 2017 was the Zelda: Breath of the Wild year, I’ll think, or 2020 was the Animal Crossing and Hades year. But when I think back on 2021, I think I’ll remember the year more for the surprising breadth and depth of its offerings than any one release.
My personal favorite game this year was Monster Hunter Rise, which was my co-op mainstay all the way into the summer. The game that impressed me most was Returnal, which took the roguelite structure that has dominated the indie scene for some time now and translated it into a tentpole release. Both were underrated in their own ways: Monster Hunter Rise for its incredible mastery of the Switch’s hardware, Returnal for being a novel action game and one of the best-looking games of the new console generation.
My other favorite games ended up being a mix of old comforts and pleasant surprises. Metroid Dread and Super Robot Wars 30 broke through my cynicism with outstanding revivals; Pokemon Unite was the perfect MOBA for people who hate MOBAs, and Loop Hero was a neat reinvention of the old-school dungeon crawler. Subnautica: Below Zero was my first foray into the series, and it stunned me with its incredible environmental art, open-ended exploration, and enjoyable sci-fi storytelling. Record of Lodoss War, meanwhile, just had really nice sprite art.
Without a doubt, my biggest surprise of the year was Bravely Default 2, a game I largely overlooked until I suddenly found myself clocking 80 hours in it. It wound up being everything I wanted in a turn-based RPG, streamlining the grinding that dominated the original without sacrificing the depth of its strategy. The boss fights were a particular highlight, challenging my understanding of the overall battle system while offering a multitude of different solutions. It might have been my favorite pure RPG of 2021.
Beyond that, I had a brief but torrid affair with MLB The Show 21, and I was charmed by Fuga: Melodies of Steel’s mix of turn-based combat and Gundam-like melodrama (and furries!) Final Fantasy VII Intergrade made me fall in love with Yuffie all over again. Forza Horizon 5 and Deathloop were very good despite failing to keep my attention for long, though I found it comforting to drive around in the former’s lavish world while listening to Momoland. Chicory, Unpacking, Unsighted, and Ruined King remain firmly on my backlog.
The rest of my attention was taken up by familiar comforts like Monster Hunter and Animal Crossing, with the rest going to building up the Patreon and establishing myself at IGN. The Pantheon meant that I spent a lot of time playing older RPGs this year, particularly Final Fantasy VIII, Phantasy Star, and Persona 5 (no, I still haven’t finished that last one). I’ve become more serious about knocking big RPGs off my backlog of late, as exemplified by my determination to finally polish off Dragon Quest XI. It was a year in which games formed a pleasant background hum, providing a degree of comfort even if they didn’t always surprise or challenge previous assumptions. Maybe not the most exciting year, but given the circumstances of the world, a good one nonetheless.
Nadia’s Top 10 Games of 2021
How in the name of God’s holy mother did I survive another year — let alone a sickness-stricken year wherein Kat and I had to fend for ourselves? This shouldn’t be possible. Did I make a pact with some demon and forget I did it? Ah well. Here I am, alive, and loaded with more expletives than ever. Thank you so, so much for supporting us through our first year. I’m proud to keep existing as the single reason why sentient alien life probably decided humans just aren’t worth talking to.
I miss USgamer, but it’s nice to have full control over what I play again. I’m no longer obligated to play games for review purposes (barring the few reviews I took over the year). As a consequence, I didn’t wander too far outside my comfort zone. Eh. Look at the state of things. My game choices are hardly the worst of the world’s sins. Anyway!
10) Jett: The Far Shore
Jett proved to be a nice surprise this year, though it didn’t click with everyone. It has its flaws, I admit; I don’t think people realize it’s quite linear and not an open world game. But Jett also shows off some of the most eerily unique landscapes I’ve seen in a video game. Said landscapes are combined with a strange narrative that casually combines the highest sciences and deep spiritual worship. Jett is just an unforgettable journey. It also gives the DualSense controller the most thorough workout it’s had since Astro’s Playroom. The feedback gives Jett a dimension of depth that’s unlike any other I experienced this year.
Once you learn how to handle your titular Jett, you’re in for a special experience. But the learning curve admittedly stops some folks short. I do hope to see the property carry on in some capacity.
9) Actraiser Renaissance
End of the Year lists typically aren’t where you park the sevens-out-of-tens you played over the year, but I’d feel bad if I didn’t give a shoutout to another big, sudden surprise that happened: Actraiser Renaissance, a remake of one of my favorite SNES classics. Some of Renaissance’s design choices sparked ire, e.g. the 2.5D art style, but Renaissance isn’t a cynical reskin. The team (including legendary composer Yuzo Koshiro) had a good idea of what made the first game special, and built upon that. Not every modification landed; the game’s really slow about letting you out of Filmore. Once you’re out, though, you’re allowed to rip through the towns in your chosen order, which is exactly what Actraiser is about. There’s even a whole new world! [Glances nervously over shoulder for Disney lawyers.]
Interestingly, Actraiser Renaissance shares a trait with Guardians of the Galaxy (also from Square Enix): People just automatically assume it sucks based of its name/first impressions, but most of the people who play it, including hardcore fans, like it quite a lot. In any case, I’m glad to see Quintet is alive in Square Enix’s memory. Actraiser isn’t the only Quintet game that deserves a Renaissance.
8) Bravely Default 2
Bravely Default 2’s rough demo gave the game a slightly worrisome air, but it came out just fine in the end. Then again, I liked Bravely Second: End Layer quite a bit, so maybe I’m just inherently forgiving towards Bravely Default games.
I wasn’t the only person who got wrapped up in Bravely Default 2, though. In fact, it sucked Kat’s life away for the first half of 2021. It’s not a story-heavy game (though even the sparse story carries some charm), and what it lacks in narrative it more than makes up for in systems upon systems. As with previous Bravely Default games, Bravely Default 2 is all about swapping jobs and abilities until you have the build to take on the next Superdeath Murderboss. It’s a satisfying loop that’s made especially fun by the individualized job glamor. It’s a great game for grinding through the winter blahs. If you haven’t tried it yet, ’tis the season.
7) New Pokemon Snap
I never played the first Pokemon Snap. I’m not sure why I missed out on it: possibly because N64 games were expensive and I had to make careful choices. It’s a good bet I would’ve loved the first game, because man oh man did I fall hard for New Pokemon Snap. I’m a nature documentary nut, and I love seeing Pokemon frolic in their native habitats. I also love seeing how their behaviors change according to the time of day, and your method of harassing them. (Let’s be honest with ourselves.) I’m hopeful I get to see more of the same in Pokemon: Legends Arceus—and this time we won’t be stuck inside a Jurassic Park car / bulletproof Pope Mobile hybrid.
Oh, and New Pokemon Snap earned me my first arrest for Nintendo crimes: I made a picture of a Liepard farting a rainbow. It was promptly removed and I was issued an email warning written in the tone of a schoolteacher who’s past fed-up with her grade 5 students’ idiotic monkeyshines.
I don’t regret a single action! I’d do the same again! These prison walls secure me, and I’m numb to pain.
(By the way, lots of people made their own version of my picture. As always, brilliance is never appreciated, only copied. It’s worth noting most of the imitators were allowed to stay up, probably because they eschewed the butthole. I guess the rainbow fart is OK, but giving Liepard a butthole to fart out of is a step too far according to Nintendo law.)
6) Ys IX: Monstrum Nox
In February, I elected to accompany Adol Christin and Dogi on their eternal honeymoon. We eventually landed in Balduq, a city-size prison nation owned by the expansionist Romun empire. Wait, why did we stop here, exactly? Adol is number-one on the Romun empire’s shitist.
Sure enough, Adol is given a cozy prison cell for all the times he’s gummed up the empire’s inner workings. He’s also accused of being involved in several insurance scams, as the ships he sets foot on have a bad habit of sinking. Now that is how you break the fourth wall.
Adol breaks out of prison and explores the entirety of Balduq (and its surrounding lands) with the aid of some newfound goth talents. Yeah, Adol becomes kind of half-dead and thereby gains the ability to run up walls, grapple, and glide. The details don’t matter. All I can say is these gifts make Ys IX a riot to play. It’s an action RPG infused with parkour and Batman stuff. Who can possibly say “No?”
Oh, people who own a Switch, I guess. I played Ys IX on my PS4, and there was certainly some chug in Balduq that eventually got resolved. With the Switch version…well, those resolutions are reportedly incoming. Maybe. Point is, Ys IX is great but play it on the not-Switch.
5) Tales of Arise
I’m officially a Tales fan. I hope Eric writes Bandai Namco a “Thank You” card. I really enjoyed Tales of Vesperia on the Switch, and I still think Yuri is a more interesting protagonist than Arise’s Alphen, but Arise’s ridiculous battles are unmatched. Every fight is so wild, so riotous, it makes Dragon Ball Z’s entire stable of Super Saiyans tremble in shame.
Arise is also a nicely streamlined RPG that keeps you on your toes. Something is always happening, and there’s always something to look for on the beautiful, sprawling world maps. I will gladly die for Rinwell and Hootle, so I guess I can officially say Arise has a compelling cast, too. Just a great game overall, and arguably the best Tales game.
Oh, and you raise, kill, and eat your own pork chops and chicken and steak. Circle of life, Simba.
4) Shin Megami Tensei V
I don’t envision a future where the Shin Megami Tensei games slake the west’s endless Persona thirst, but I think Shin Megami Tensei V brought a lot of new fans into SMT’s demon-haunted courtyard. I was personally glad to learn SMT V plays quite a bit like a more refined Shin Megami Tensei III: Nocturne, a game I appreciate very much but couldn’t really get into because its systems are a touch on the inelegant side. It’s amazing what a difference no random encounters and an easy-to-use teleportation system does.
I also love the freedom of zipping around SMT V’s demon-haunted worlds. One reason Nocturne is so successful is because it’s still a very eerie, unsettling game. SMT V picks up that atmosphere and revels in it. I’ve always had a weakness for apocalypse-blasted cityscapes that were once amongst the jewels of the civilized world, so SMT V’s sand-scoured settings are the chef’s kiss that make it an easy Best of 2021 win.
3) Monster Hunter Stories 2
I loved the original Monster Hunter Stories on the Nintendo 3DS, and for a long time I felt like I was the only RPG fan who got a kick out of bossing around the world-famous Monster Hunter stable. I’m glad to see I was wrong. Monster Hunter Stories 2 is a touch on the formulaic side, and it doesn’t have an epic story, but it does have plenty of monster breeding and riding and fighting. Not everyone likes Stories’ battle system, which is based on paper-rock-scissors as much as it’s based on tinkering with monster genes in hopes of creating that perfect Rathian. Admittedly, sometimes it’s just nonsense, but the funnest kind of nonsense.
Also, chasing down wounded monsters in Monster Hunter makes me feel bad. That’s why I’m glad Monster Hunter Stories 2 lets me command my “Monsties” to do my dirty work for me! Ahh, I’m gonna sleep well tonight.
(P.S., shout-out to the excellent Monster Hunter Rise. I couldn’t fit it on my list, so instead it gets to piggyback off the Monster Hunter Stories 2 entry, like a half-formed fetus twin piggybacking off its fully-developed sibling. It happens, look it up!)
2) Metroid Dread
I don’t know if everyone else counts Metroid Dread as their biggest surprise of 2021, but you have to admit, there’s a compelling case for the title. Nintendo was all like, “Hey, there’s a new 2D Metroid coming, and hey, it’s almost here!” It’s so rare for prestige titles to be revealed within spitting distance of a release date, and it makes me happy when it happens.
The reveal was made all the more remarkable when Yoshio Sakamoto revealed we were about to play the fabled Metroid Dread — the whispered-about 2D Metroid game that seemingly became vaporware. I’d all but dropped the idea of Dread ever existing; I never even entertained the possibility we’d get a release.
Best of all, Metroid Dread is good, very good. It’s hugely rewarding if you’re a hands-on learner like myself, i.e. someone who will patiently and persistently get her head slammed into a brick wall repeatedly in hopes they learn something for the next fight. I think the fanbase is divided over the EMMI chases, but I eventually got to the point where I craved them, despite having my DNA siphoned by a steel proboscis again and again. The boss fights are mountains to conquer, which I did so eagerly even as I screamed “How in the name of Kraid’s butthole am I supposed to dodge that?“
Bring on more 2D Metroid! Oh sure, bring on Prime 4, too. Just, our girl Samus really thrives in the second dimension, and it was nice to get a reminder of that this year.
1) Final Fantasy XIV: Endwalker
Okay, okay. Duh. Right? Yeah, yeah—but I still wish I could explain why Endwalker is my number one of 2021 without veering into hot spoiler land. What I can say is that Endwalker grabbed the wheel of my expectations and pulled clear off the road with them. But we’re talking about a magical [REDACTED] in side-plot about a country that’s an analogue for [REDACTED], then find yourself in [REDACTED REDACTED] and fighting with [REDAAAACTED]. I don’t think anyone was expecting all that. The Sharlayan Dropouts sure weren’t, I can tell you that much. Then again, we are dropouts for a reason.
As wild as Endwalker gets, it all comes together in the end and we emerge with a lot of serious questions about life, the universe, and everything. It’s a good game to play—maybe even an important one—as we battle a continued plague and deal with increasingly dire disasters triggered at least in part by climate change. Forge aheaaaad.