TA Team Picks: Game of the Year 2021

By Luke Albigés,
While voting continues in both our big Game of the Year bracket and the simpler overall poll, we thought you might be interested to find out which games our fine TA news team picked out as their own personal games of the year. To make things a little more interesting, each of the news crew was asked for three of their favourites from 2021 — one high-profile game, one smaller indie release, and one 'curveball' option, which could be anything from a gaming event or piece of merch to a game that didn't get an Xbox release... an 'anything goes' category, effectively. With all that in mind, here's what our News Goblins picked out as their highlights of 2021!

Heidi

Heidi

AAA — Jurassic World Evolution 2


Crash. What’s that? Wait, you hear it again… crash. Somewhere, somehow, a dinosaur is trying to break out of its exhibit. Fast forward a few minutes and a storm is crashing its way across your previously peaceful park, guests are fleeing and being trampled, dinosaurs are straying from their exhibits and fighting each other, and your park has devolved into pure prehistoric chaos. Ah, Jurassic World Evolution 2, doing just what it promised to do. I loved the first game, but it feels as though there’s much more to do in the sequel, while the creatures themselves — including marine and flying reptiles — look fantastic. Jurassic World Evolution 2 seems like what we had hoped of the first game, and while the scientist mechanic and guest amenities take a bit of getting used to, the general improvements across the board are wonderful. You’ve got a campaign, which, although admittedly quite short, is shored up by a Challenge mode, a Sandbox mode, and a Chaos Theory mode, all of which bring something enjoyable to the table. Challenge mode lets you test your skills with a number of restrictions or limitations in place, while Chaos Theory lets you try out different “what if” scenarios from the movies. I’m over 50 hours in and still loving my time with it, so it’s definitely got to be my pick for my main GOTY.

Indie — The Big Con


I had no idea I was going to enjoy The Big Con as much as I did. It’s not just that it’s such a love letter to the Nineties, or that it’s got such a distinctive, colourful art style; it’s also the vein of dry, wacky humour running throughout the game that makes it such a joy to play. In The Big Con, we play as high-schooler Ali, whose goal is to save the family video store. To do that, she falls in with an “expert grifter” who teaches her how to pickpocket, lie, and wear disguises as they con their way across America. Despite Ali’s misgivings, it’s an interesting change to have a game so cheerfully chuck you into a world full of potential targets and stand back while you rob as many as you can, rather than worrying about the morality of the situation. The bright, retro art style makes each new location interesting in its own way, and Ali’s interactions with a cast of increasingly zany characters keeps you engaged as you pickpocket your way through the game. Tied together with that wry sense of humour, The Big Con is a retro- and nostalgia-filled blast.

Curveball — Teacup


Teacup is my leftfield choice because I haven’t come across a game as relaxing as it in quite some time, and didn’t really think there was room for anything so calming in all the chaos of 2021. It’s a shorter game, there’s no getting around that; your time with it is over pretty quickly, but it’s one of those that really achieves everything it sets out to do. It’s all about Teacup, a frog who only wants to drink tea and read in peace, until a tea shortage right before a tea party (gasp) ensures she has to step outside her comfort zone and go tea-hunting. I know, the stakes in this life-or-death situation are sky high — but, seriously, it is a wonderfully wholesome watercolour game, peppered through with mini-games, puzzles, and tea facts.

Kes

Kes

AAA — Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy


I’m almost annoyed that I have to pick this as my favourite AAA game of the year. At the risk of sounding like Martin Scorsese, Marvel has been quietly grating away at my patience by taking up so much creative breathing space across film and TV. On top of that, in our special gaming space, we saw Square Enix’s Marvel’s Avengers, Marvel’s Spider-Man, and spin-off Miles Morales. PlayStation Studio Insomniac is now caught up in Spider-Man and Wolverine for years to come. Then, if you consider that Firaxis is making Midnight Suns for 2022 — it’s easy to feel a bit worn out with the superhero thing. So, when I picked up Guardians in a Black Friday deal, it was only because I heard very good things and I have the utmost respect for Eidos Montreal's work with Deus Ex. Guess what? I needn’t have worried about superhero wear-and-tear, because Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy is utterly fantastic.

I suppose the reason I have fallen so hard for Guardians of the Galaxy is that Eidos Montreal has been so darn creative and refreshingly singular in its vision. This is a third-person action adventure with zero expensively-made bells and whistles pinning it to the floor. Live-service is in the bin. Online connectivity is booted into the void. Non-substantive gaming universe building is left on the other side of the portal. Instead, we get a video game that uses its linearity to help create a fresh, tangible universe but builds it on a foundation of characters with pre-existing histories, thoughts, and emotional arcs. Peter Quill & Co’s journey feels weirdly like the end of many individual stories and the promising beginning of a new narrative as the Guardians. That kind of storytelling is a tough task when you are dealing with five characters, but the developers have succeeded using wonderful and intelligent dialogue, very solid combat mechanics blended with MMO-party trappings, and some gorgeous art design. Add on top that some fun player-influenced choices, weird mechanics like the mid-battle huddle system that will start blasting out iconic tunes, and platforming sections with a hint of Uncharted… well, this boy is in love. Guardians of the Galaxy respects your time with a well-paced story that doesn’t run too long, too. I’m bringing this write up to an end now, but I feel like Guardians is so good you can detach it from all of its iconic — but pervasive — creative context. If you like single-player action-adventures with a bit of guile and a cheeky wink, then this is going to blow your mind.

Indie — The Procession to Calvary


Joe Richardson’s one-man title The Procession to Calvary got me laughing over the course of three delicious hours of stupid Monty Python-esque jokes, self-effacing point-and-click puzzle mechanics, and scenarios set in renaissance paintings. Every minute I spent fetching severed heads, robbing a man of his crutches, or winning a talent show in this contorted, oil-painted beast, I loved. Obviously, and I think Mr. Richardson would agree with me, this is not even close to the highest quality indie game releasing this year. In fact, it doesn’t even try to be. It isn’t fuelled by fancy text or animation — it just makes a weird joke about how simple looks instead. That is what is so fascinating about it. The Procession to Calvary takes its bizarre, but compelling, concept and executes by thoroughly understanding what makes it funny and enticing and crafting a fun, interesting puzzle out of it. Then, just when you’ve had enough, it comes to a close and the next scenario begins. The writing is perfectly irreverent and stupid, the insane journey you go on brings you through a selection of paintings by the masters, and I love it. Factually, you will not find a better ratio of time to fun in a video game this year, nor will you find any other game with a “supple young boy with rosy cheeks and a pert little butt.” Not that you should be into that, I suppose. Anyway, there you go, my indie of the year!

Curveball — Kingdom Come Soap


I thought this might be the year where Kingdom Come 2 would be announced. The clues were there: we knew the location and the point in Bohemian history it would take place. Here we go, I surmised with my level four reading skill, we haven't had more DLC for the wonderful first game for a while. Warhorse are ready, surely. We sat down in the office to watch the E3 2021 presentation. Warhorse weren’t ready. No Kingdom Come 2. Fine, I guessed wrong, as normal… that’s cool, man. Switch port of KC: Deliverance? Great. Your presentation is concluded, right? It kept going. Why? The head of the studio sat down to announce one more thing: Kingdom Come soap. Quite the slippy curveball for me, I’ll tell you. On the plus side, I now smell as natural as clay and mud.

Luke

Luke

AAA — Psychonauts 2


In an age where safe sequels and remakes are the order of the day, a game as staggeringly creative and true to its own vision as Psychonauts 2 only stands out that much more. Any game being so long in the making often sets alarm bells ringing, but there turned out to be no cause for concern with Double Fine's long-awaited follow-up to the cult classic platformer — expanded scope and tightened mechanics help Psychonauts 2 feel both fresh and relevant today, while fans will love the returning characters and interesting continued narrative, not to mention the game's willingness to explore some pretty heavy themes, and with sensitivity and respect, no less.

We pick back up with Psychonaut cadet Raz, quickly relearning the mental powers from the first game before adding some new tools to our arsenal, including the ability to form connections between physical manifestations of thoughts and a summoned Archetype buddy who can help both in combat and with puzzles (GIR!). The creative new worlds, each set in the mind of one of the game's main characters, are uniformly excellent both artistically and from an interactive perspective, with each changing up objectives in novel ways while keeping that newly-tightened-up action-platformer gameplay at the core. Our review called Psychonauts 2 "an imaginative adventure that has been well worth the wait," which still rings true months after release. If you've not played it yet, you're in for a real treat, especially with it sitting right there on Game Pass waiting for you to give it a go.

Indie — Hades


Hands-down the best indie game I played on Xbox this year has to be Hades. Sure, it arrived on PC and Switch last year, but having only arrived on Xbox over the summer, it's absolutely a 2021 Xbox game and I will take every opportunity I can get to remind people that it is a damn masterpiece. It'd still be a great game even if there wasn't much going on beyond the fantastic dungeon-crawling combat, but there's way more to Hades' loop than just that. Every run, you'll find yourself befriending new gods from the Ancient Greek pantheon, chatting about previous run-ins with other heroes of myth, unlocking new variants of each of the weapon types, and becoming intertwined in the personal affairs of many of Greek mythology's most prominent figures. Writing and performances are stellar, really pulling you into each and every beat of the sprawling narrative, and the art style and soundtrack are equally excellent. I closed out my review by saying that "Supergiant has an incredible track record, but with Hades, the studio takes its throne alongside the gods of the indie scene," and it's true — the almost peerless quality and production values of Hades on the indie scene make this team the one to beat.

Curveball — Chicory: A Colorful Tale


My overall game of the year came out on pretty much everything but Xbox in the end, with a shadow-drop on Switch just a few weeks ago after arriving on PC and PlayStation earlier in the year. From the creator of Wandersong and the composer of Celeste (we're off to a fantastic start here), Chicory is just an amazing experience from start to finish, with an affecting, captivating, and heartwarming tale more powerful than the cutesy visuals might suggest and a gloriously involving USP in its painting system. The world of Chicory is structured much like a classic 2D Zelda map, albeit one initially devoid of colour. With the help of a magical brush, you get to restore colour to the world however you see fit, leading to interesting gameplay mechanics and opportunities for both personal expression and surprisingly useful map notation, since all of your artistry in the world is visible on your overall map. Leave a big ol' red cross on the ground in a room where there's a treasure you can't reach; physically mark off exits you don't yet have access to; spot gaps in your exploration from a telltale lack of colour; fill lakes with purple, lawns with blue, and skies with yellow, just because you can... it's so satisfying to see the entire world take shape just how you like, and even more so when you watch back the time-lapse replay of literally all of your colouring from the entire game. Like so much of Chicory, it's just a delight. Heidi's review over on TT called Chicory "a charming game full of love, food, kindness, and art," and I couldn't agree more. While it'd be great to see it come to Xbox at some point, the central painting mechanic is somewhat fiddly with a standard controller (mouse on PC is obviously optimal, but the Switch's touchscreen and PS4/5's touchpad are both serviceable), so this might be one you instead want to play somewhere you can really let your creative side run wild.

Sean

Sean

AAA — Psychonauts 2


My AAA Game of the Year came down to two options: Forza Horizon 5 and Psychonauts 2. I was originally leaning towards the former, but the more I thought about the two games, it became clear to me that Psychonauts 2 would take the crown. Forza Horizon 5 is a fantastic game (though currently in rough shape), but Psychonauts 2 is just so fresh and original. Sequels, especially those that spend such a long time in development, can often miss the mark or be a bit unadventurous. Double Fine struck gold this year with Psychonauts 2. It not only delivers a thought-provoking story that tackles some quite intense themes with tact but also some of the finest 3D platforming gameplay we’ve seen in recent years. From the off, I found everything in Psychonauts 2 so rewarding and just fun to mess around with. It always felt like you were progressing, whether that was levelling up Raz to unlock new powers or just collecting all those brightly-coloured figments (which never got old for me for some weird reason) scattered across each and every level. Speaking of levels, all of the locations in Psychonauts 2 are so wonderfully themed and filled to the brim with spectacle and exciting set pieces that they stick long in the memory after they’re gone — the game just oozes creativity from every possible direction. Wrap all of this up and combine it with some of that humorous Double Fine wit, plus an awesome Jack Black cameo that doesn’t actually feel as if Black is stealing the game’s limelight, and you’ve got an absolute gem on your hands.

Indie — The Forgotten City


If I had to pick just one game as my GOTY, it would be The Forgotten City. Born from a Skyrim mod, The Forgotten City was primarily developed by a core team of just three people, and what they’ve achieved is nothing short of outstanding. The game has the undeniable feel of Skyrim (complete with a bit of jank), but it is something so totally different at the same time. You travel back 2,000 years into the past to a Roman city that’s been cursed — if just one person commits a sin, everyone is killed. It’s your job to uncover this mystery and dig deep into the people that live within the cursed city’s walls. Luckily for you, you can loop through time and replay the day again, complete with all the knowledge and items gained from a previous cycle. The real star of the show with The Forgotten City is its writing. The game asks hard-hitting philosophical questions that will have you pause and really make you think about what a sin really is and who decides what is a sin and isn’t. The game folds all of this philosophical debate within a gripping, non-linear story that has numerous different outcomes thanks to the superb use of the time loop mechanic. And each loop is as intriguing as the next. The pacing of The Forgotten City’s story is excellent. There is always something new to uncover or a new dialogue tree to explore that will result in something exciting happening — you’re never just wandering aimlessly through the streets and will stumble into situations that will stick with you long after the credits roll. I wasn’t expecting much when I first fired up The Forgotten City as games derived from mods can be very hit or miss, but I honestly couldn’t put it down, and now I’m a little sad that there is nothing left to uncover. The Forgotten City is included with Xbox Game Pass, so if you’re up for answering some thought-provoking questions and unwrapping a tightly-packed mystery, you definitely need to give this one a go.

Curveball — Death Stranding Director's Cut


I really wasn’t expecting to play Death Stranding again after its first release back in 2019. I found it boring, awkward, and not all that enjoyable. Fast forward to 2021, and after playing through the Director’s Cut, it’s safe to say that I probably didn’t fully understand it when I first played the game a couple of years back. I had so much fun with Death Stranding Director’s Cut. Maybe it was because of the extra fps on the PS5, or perhaps I just needed another dose of Geoff Keighley in my life? Whatever it was, something clicked this time around as I trudged across a post-apocalyptic America as crotchety Norman Reedus. I think, where the hype and conversation had subsided, there was more room for Death Stranding to breathe with the Director’s Cut — everything about the game had already been said, and you weren’t being bombarded with opinions on how this was Hideo Kojima’s best work, and conversely, his worst. Sometimes you just need to step back from all the buzz and excitement and go into a game with a fresh pair of eyes. That’s kind of what I did with the Director’s Cut, and I had a wicked time. Sure, the story is a load of old tosh, but the gameplay finally became enjoyable. I loved the puzzle of trying to get from one seemingly inaccessible location to the next while carrying an impossibly heavy load. I had to deliver everything I could — I was absolutely sucked into Death Stranding’s gameplay loop and couldn’t put it down. While writing this, I’m getting mighty tempted to fire it up once more. Mr Kojima, you got me again.

Tom

Tom

AAA — Far Cry 6


While the Far Cry series is one of my favourite franchises, and I enjoy every moment I spend in the chaotic worlds, I wouldn’t say any of the previous games could take the top spot as a previous Game of the Year. Far Cry 6, though, has changed that and is without a doubt my favourite title to launch in 2021. From the moment I witnessed the captivating performance by Giancarlo Esposito — who plays the game’s antagonist, Antón Castillo — I was hooked. By the time I’d gained full control of my character (Dani Rojas) and had a chance to start exploring Yara, I was already heavily invested in the world. By exploring, I mean riding into battle on a horse, getting bucked off when an enemy launches a molotov at it, engaging in a close-quarters shootout while the forest burns down around me, and then breathing a sigh of relief when it’s all over in the knowledge that I was the only survivor… only to get battered by a group of wild boar. Welcome to Yara!

Far Cry 6 takes everything the mainline games have become known for, and then adds a few new features that help make the game its own beast without taking away from the core experience. Through the implementation of a gear system, with each item offering perks that allow for various build creations, the new Supremo backpacks, and a new enemy tier system, Far Cry 6 offers a little more customisation with its chaos. Of course, it’s all complemented by a stunning Caribbean island, fantastic characters to meet, and animal friends — Chorizo the wheelchair-bound sausage dog should get the Pooch of the Year award, right? If you need me for anything in 2022, you know where I’ll be!

Indie — Chernobylite


Chernobylite caught me off-guard in a way, not because I didn’t think it was going to be good, but because I didn’t realise just how much I would enjoy it. Developed by The Farm 51, Chernobylite features 3D recreated areas of the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, and it’s beautiful. The game mixes the real-world disaster event with a supernatural, time-bending twist, and layers it with RPG and horror elements. The game’s greatest strength is by far the ambience, which ensures that you never feel safe, even when there really isn’t anything around trying to kill you. It’s a fantastic game that leaves you hoping for new content, but not overstaying its welcome with what it does offer. With a smaller team behind it, Chernobylite was never going to stand up to some of the behemoths mentioned today, but if you’re looking for a brief adventure into one of the world’s most mysterious areas, this is certainly worthy of your attention. I’ll be looking forward to finding out if we’ll be graced with DLC in the new year, fingers crossed.

Curveball — Xbox Mini Fridge


My curveball is the Xbox Series X Mini Fridge... well, maybe not the fridge itself, per se, but the position that Microsoft has found itself in now. For me, the announcement of the fridge was the moment I realised that Microsoft’s gaming division no longer had anything to prove. The Xbox brand has certainly been in a bit of a rough situation since the Xbox One launched back in 2013, with Microsoft attempting to claw its way back into players’ good graces. And in the most poetic way possible, 2021 (Xbox’s 20th anniversary, in case you’ve been living under a rock) looks to be the year that everything has paid off. Xbox Series X|S consoles are continuing to dazzle players, Game Pass is… well, ridiculously good, Xbox Game Studios has launched some beautiful games, Bethesda joined the ranks of first-party studios, and more. It’s been crazy, and the brand is without a doubt in the best situation it’s ever been in, and I believe that is showcased in the amount of Xbox-branded items we’ve been seeing hit the market — my house has so many Xbox goodies now! It’s safe to say that I cannot wait to see what happens next year, woo!

What would your choices be in those three categories, and do any of our opinions line up with your own? Let us know!
Luke Albigés
Written by Luke Albigés
Luke runs the TA news team, contributing where he can primarily with reviews and other long-form features — crafts he has honed across two decades of print and online gaming media experience, having worked with the likes of gamesTM, Eurogamer, Play, Retro Gamer, Edge, and many more. He loves all things Monster Hunter, enjoys a good D&D session, and has played way too much Destiny.