With a year of great games almost behind us, here’s Launcher’s list of the very best
By Washington Post Editors and Reviewers
December 9, 2021 at 6:00 a.m. EST
What was the best game of 2021? We thought about it, mulled it over, discussed it, debated it and couldn’t arrive at a consensus answer. It’s a hard question any year: With so many great games representing a range of genres, how can you even compare them? What qualities make a racing game better or worse than a shooter? And while video games represented a respite from the pandemic in 2020, in 2021, they were a reminder of its disruption, as pandemic related delays pushed many highly anticipated titles to 2022. And so, in a year that lacked a definitive No. 1 title like last year’s “Hades” from Supergiant Games, we’ve opted for a different approach.
Instead of crowning one game above the rest, we’ve selected 10 of the best games of the year and five honorable mentions. The past year reconnected players with classic franchises. It introduced indie gems that absorbed us with their inspired serenity. Some titles spoke to mental health, others inspired reflection on the way we treat others. A few were just plain fun.
Presented in alphabetical order, the titles listed below are The Washington Post’s picks for best video games of 2021.
Chicory: A Colorful Tale
In a weird year like 2021, puzzle adventure game “Chicory: A Colorful Tale” is a soothing balm for the mind. “Chicory” discusses mental health and how it’s okay to say no to the many demands of others. You play as an anthropomorphic dog, which you name after your favorite food, who learns to paint with a magic brush. The gameplay is about returning color to the world, one brushstroke at a time.
“Chicory” imparts the lesson that being an artist is not about striving for perfection. It’s okay to paint recklessly, outside the lines, or to carefully fill up each shape with love and care. Everyone has a different style, and there’s no wrong approach. Mom and Dad are just a phone call away if you get stuck on a puzzle, always willing to help guide you. “Chicory” is a game with massive range, from beautiful music to satisfying sound design. Above all, it sends a gentle message: Take care of yourself. — Shannon Liao
“Forza Horizon 5” might be the greatest racing game ever made. While the racing genre typically isn’t “prestige” game of the year award material, that thinking needs to change. Racing games have traditionally been video games’ most welcoming on-ramps into the medium, and the more we celebrate great racing games, the better the genre will get.
The fifth Forza Horizon game doesn’t break the mold, but it does fine-tune its accessible and pleasant open-world formula to fit the player’s fancies. It helps that it’s gorgeous; this title may be the most stunning game of the new console generation so far. Even if 2021 was stacked with quality, high-budget games, “Forza Horizon 5” would still stand tall as a titan and captain of the genre. — Gene Park
Available on: Xbox Series X and Series S, Xbox One, PC
“Halo Infinite” is the best-playing multiplayer shooting experience of the year, and it’s arguably the best Halo campaign in the 20-year history of the series. While the story is no exception to a series known for hammy writing, it’s the gameplay that rockets “Halo Infinite” to the spot of my favorite game of 2021. No other game offers this much variety of play on a moment-to-moment basis. As the Master Chief, you can be the getaway driver, the one-man demolition team, a platoon leader of Marines or a cybernetic Spider-Man swinging across Halo’s gorgeous, Pacific Northwest-inspired alien world.
No other big-budget experience this year gives this much agency and power to the player to tell their own story. “Halo Infinite" is simply the best version of one of the greatest, most influential shooting games ever made. It’s a tremendous acknowledgment of and tribute to our childhood memories of play. If video games are still looked at as toys today, “Halo Infinite” leans into that sentiment by simply reminding us that the medium offers the best toys in the world. — Gene Park
Available on: Xbox Series X and Series S, Xbox One, PC
The Hitman games are the closest one can get to playing a James Bond simulator, so it’s a good thing developer IO Interactive has been tapped to make those next. In the meantime, “Hitman 3″ will show you why IO Interactive was trusted with the 007 license. The game’s second level allows protagonist Agent 47 to become the lead detective in a slow-burn Agatha Christie novel. Two levels later, he’s being stalked by fellow hit men in a warehouse rave in Germany like a scene out of a Michael Mann thriller.
The Hitman series, which deserves more recognition, also remains remarkable for being among the most nonviolent action games. You are encouraged (and required) to only kill your targets, but everything else is either collateral damage or a prop used for players to achieve this goal. If “Deathloop” left you feeling a bit raw in terms of detective-like gameplay, you’ll find that potential maximized in “Hitman 3." — Gene Park
Available on: PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Xbox Series X and Series S, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, PC, Google Stadia
I’ve finished this game eight times. In those runs, I discovered a pristinely designed classic experience for adventure and exploration. It’s stunning just how much “Dread” gets right about the classic Metroid games, including how it encourages players to create their own shortcuts by using the game’s tools. Bosses can be defeated in many different ways, some of them as secret as the breakable walls all over the game’s maps.
While 2-D Metroid-like games have won critical and commercial success over the years, “Dread” reminds us why Samus Aran, the first lady of gaming, is still queen of the genre. She speeds through the game with powerful, unique moves that have often been replicated, but rarely ever delivered with the same impact. By the end of the game, she’s characterized as the most dangerous being in the known galaxy. The great success of “Metroid Dread” is that the player feels this by the end, too. — Gene Park
Nothing is quite as strange as the human mind; no wonder, then, that the twisted psyches of people make for captivating settings in a video game. “Psychonauts 2” continues the adventures of Raz, a kid who can plunge into the minds of people and confront the mental constructs that structure their outlook on the world. As a junior member of an international spy ring of psychics, Raz must ferret out a mole and stop the group’s old nemesis, Maligula, from settling some scores.
The follow-up to one of the original Xbox’s most beloved titles is a masterpiece, arguably the greatest work yet produced by the game’s developer, Double Fine Productions. “Psychonauts 2’s” blend of witty dialogue and shape-shifting game design makes the start of every stage feel like a bracing leap into the unknown. — Christopher Byrd
Available on: PlayStation 4, Xbox Series X and Series S, Xbox One, PC
When everything in “Ratchet and Clank: Rift Apart” — from the story to the characters to the game’s PlayStation 5-aided movement — just feels good, what’s not to love?
The game tells the story of a felinoid alien, Ratchet, and his diminutive robotic sidekick, Clank, as they’re sent spinning through an inter-dimensional crisis. Along the way, they encounter a range of impressively nuanced characters; even the supervillain, Dr. Nefarious, is surprisingly sympathetic (and progressive). During the game, we learn Nefarious granted his robotic servant paternity leave.
From start to finish, the game delivers a fresh, funny and wholesome package that’s enjoyable for both kids and adults. It also incorporates some of the Play Station 5’s best features, such as the zero-latency load times that allow Ratchet to zip through portals from one location (or dimension) to another in the blink of an eye. — Mike Hume
Imagine exploring a desert planet whose beauty soothes the spirit. That’s the promise of “Sable,” an adventure game about a woman who leaves her nomadic tribe to discover who she is and what surrounds her on the planet of Midden.
Zelda aficionados will recognize the ways “Sable’s” developers have iterated on the puzzle-exploration formula. With its gorgeous, fine-line art style — inspired by the French artist Moebius, a.k.a Jean Giraud — and entrancing soundtrack by Japanese Breakfast, “Sable” pulls off the trick of being engrossing to play without the usual crutch of combat feedback loops. There is a satisfying calm to be found performing the game’s most basic activities such as driving a hoverbike over pastel-shaded sand or exploring a cavernous alien ship. “Sable’s” strongest asset is that it conveys a sense of the joy of travel itself. — Christopher Byrd
Available on: PlayStation 4, Xbox Series X and Series S, Xbox One, PC
Everyone who has played “Valheim” remembers their first troll. That first glimpse of the big, blue shape in the woods. The curious “Wait, what’s that?” slowly transitioning into a squinting “I think it’s moving toward me” and then faster and more frantically shifting gear to “Oh God, oh God, oh God” as the beast comes into focus.
“Valheim” is challenging and at times unintuitive — two unavoidable descriptors that, counterintuitively, work in its favor. Upon release, the game was just unwieldy enough to be compelling. Any fight could easily spiral out of control, and death meant schlepping back to the scene of the accident to recover loot. On top of that, “Valheim’s” spartan approach to tutorialization imbued its quirk-filled systems — from home building to animal husbandry — with a profound sense of achievement. Success in “Valheim” feels earned.
The game’s jankiness also encouraged exploration and experimentation. Players turned to tutorials and guides and subreddits to learn the game — and camped there for months, building on each others’ discoveries. And it always felt like more was possible: In September, my friend and I created a makeshift soccer game mode in “Valheim,” which, as far as I could tell, nobody else had built before. — Mikhail Klimentov
“Wildermyth” is a storybook of infinite possibilities. Every time you start a new campaign, the turn-based strategy game procedurally generates a new cast of heroes, each with their own histories, tendencies, passions and flaws. How your band of misfits spend their precious time — all characters age, grow old and eventually retire (or die) — is up to you. Perhaps they’ll walk a valorous path and dedicate their lives to fending off an encroaching evil. Or maybe they’ll take a more morally questionable approach — dabble in dark magics, sacrifice a few villagers, steal from god — and live to see their cursed bodies bear the consequences. As journeys draw on, some of your characters will become friends, lovers and even parents, while others’ simmering tensions will blossom into bitter rivalries.
Other games might fumble such a melting pot of themes and mechanics, spilling into your lap a steaming hodgepodge of incoherent randomness. But against all odds, “Wildermyth” manages to tell unique stories that are emotionally affecting whether your characters are saving the world or making bad puns with each other. There’s nothing quite like it. — Nathan Grayson
While they didn’t crack the top 10, several other titles merit mentioning for their excellence in 2021.
“Deathloop,” a blood-drenched whirlwind tour across a cursed hedonic island, is whip-smart and stylish, though that style doesn’t always translate to substance. And because “Deathloop” is so nearly a perfect game, its flaws are all the more glaring, like a dent in a luxury car. Even still, its merits place it a head above just about every other shooter released this year. — Mikhail Klimentov
“Death’s Door” reimagines the afterlife as a bureaucratic operation run by cute little crows, turning the looming specter of death into something mundane. Playing the game is the opposite of mundane, though. Combat is punishingly difficult, with every fight a dance of split-second dodge rolls. The story’s dark humor and tone are a cherry on top. — Alyse Stanley
Available on: PlayStation 4, Play Station 5, Xbox Series X and Series S, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, PC
Get in the Car, Loser!
This indie role-playing game about lesbians road tripping and thwarting evil with button-mashing combat is hilarious, respectful and full of little gems of dialogue worth screenshotting. — Shannon Liao
Available on: PC
It Takes Two
“It Takes Two” is a two-player action adventure game that doubles as a test for its players: How well can they get along as they brave a multitude of challenges, puzzles and boss fights? On its face, it’s a test of coordination, but it’ll also test your relationships. — Shannon Liao
Available on: PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Xbox Series X and Series S, Xbox One, PC
While “Village” was no grand innovation for the Resident Evil formula, it undeniably is home to some of the best gaming experiences in 2021, most notably House Beneviento. The cliffside home was a master class of building tension and atmosphere — well past the player’s breaking point — until it unleashes a horror so unhinged and disturbing, it was hard to look at. — Gene Park
Available on: PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Xbox Series X and Series S, Xbox One, PC, Google Stadia