Why wait until the end of the year to hear about its best games?
Knowing which games are helping to define the year in entertainment, or pushing the state of the art forward in some capacity, is a great way to get a sense of where the industry may be headed. It’s early in the year, so this list is a little thin. It’s almost like there are other factors that may be slowing down development on top of the launch of a new console generation. Still, it’s never too soon to cast a spotlight on the best work of the year.
You may notice the inclusion of games that were either fully released or made available in early access prior to 2021. Because many games change from patch to patch, let alone year to year, we may include previously available games that receive a significant update within the year or become available on a platform that substantially impacts how that game is experienced.
Without further ado, here are Polygon’s favorite games of 2021, to date.
Persona 5 Strikers
Persona 5 Strikers feels like a true Persona game while belonging to a different genre altogether.
When the characters all dive into a new Jail — themed after a draconian castle, a carnival, and more — we still move through the shadows. This may be a Musou game, but we’re still Phantom Thieves. As in the RPG, I sneak up on enemies and initiate combat with stealth attacks. But when the battle erupts, I’m relieved of my menus and thrown into a mostly real-time brawl.
A dozen Shadows erupt from the enemy I just attacked, and a small arena forms around where I initiated combat. Instead of issuing commands, I’m mashing buttons or inputting combos to make Joker slash through enemies with his knife. At any time, I can swap to one of the other three Phantom Thieves in my party.
Ryuji can execute powerful charge attacks, or Makoto can ride her motorcycle Persona through a group of enemies — a Persona being a manifestation of each Phantom Thief’s inner being, usually based on a historical or literary character. Makoto’s Persona, the motorcycle Johanna, is based on Pope Joan, while Joker’s persona is based on Arsène Lupin, the gentleman thief.
I can summon my Persona mid-combo or hold a button to select a number of moves to strike my foes. And that’s when the action stops. These battles may be big and fast, but this is still a Persona game. Different Personas and Shadows have different elemental weaknesses, and I can freeze time at any point to pull a powerful Wind attack out of Zorro, Morgana’s Persona. By striking an enemy’s weakness, my team and I can execute a powerful All Out Attack, damaging all enemies nearby.
This is the general flow of Persona 5 Strikers’ combat. The Phantom Thieves and I battle in fast-paced brawls and then pause to strike an enemy’s weakness. And Strikers really nails the feeling of Persona 5’s combat, for being a different genre altogether. I’m thinking about how to balance my SP (mana) with how much damage I can inflict with my regular attacks during every battle.
Persona 5 Strikers and its combat kept me engaged for the game’s entire runtime — about 50 hours. —Ryan Gilliam
Available on Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, and Windows PC.
In one sense, Hitman 3 is a relatively simple more-of-the-same sequel: a set of five new locations, plus an epilogue, with new targets for Agent 47 to take down using some new toys and tactics.
In another sense that’s just as valid, it’s a bold evolution of the Hitman franchise’s narrative elements. In fact, the story that IO Interactive wanted to tell in concluding its World of Assassination trilogy in Hitman 3 occasionally takes precedence over the series’ sandbox gameplay ethos. As 47 starts to assert his own free will, the player occasionally loses some control — and the trade-off, which results in a more directed campaign-esque experience, is well worth it. IO makes good on three games’ worth of character building for 47 and his teammates, delivering a level of narrative payoff that I never expected from a series that is known for interspersing goofy hijinks between moments of operatic spy drama.
Hitman 3 also offers new kinds of thrills in its sprawling assassination playgrounds, and many of them are informed by the story. Through setups like the engrossing murder mystery at an English country manor or the hunter/hunted dynamic in the Berlin mission, the game feels like a more unified, cohesive, and inventive experience than its predecessors. It’s a brilliant capstone for this trilogy and the entire Hitman franchise, and that’s even before you consider the ability to import levels from Hitman and Hitman 2 and play them all with Hitman 3’s technical upgrades. This may be the last we see of 47 for a while, but it’s a fond farewell. —Samit Sarkar
Available on Google Stadia, Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Windows PC, Xbox One, and Xbox Series X.
Crafting and survival games often involve a rough start and a bitter grind before players can get to the sweet experience of building massive bases, hunting dangerous bosses, and conquering a hostile world. Even survival game success stories like Rust have received updates after release to make things easier and more accessible for new players.
Valheim, in contrast, is $19.99 and highly accessible. Players take on the role of Vikings who were granted an eternal afterlife by Odin himself. One of Odin’s ravens shows up to provide tutorials, and the game distributes tools slowly as you get the basics of terraforming, farming, combat, bosses, and crafting. You can’t get in too deep without understanding your starting tools, and that provides a good on-ramp for the game. Luckily, you don’t have to spend long punching trees to earn wood before you can get into the real action.
I’ve only encountered minor bugs during my 20 hours in the game. I can play with up to nine friends, and it’s super simple to connect to another person’s server. I can even hook up a controller without any problems. These may sound like small feats, but they’re also issues that even AAA games like Fallout 76 struggled with implementing, so it’s a huge relief to dodge that sort of mess.
Valheim is also mechanically forgiving, without any of the usual survival game obstacles like prohibitive repair and expansion costs or expiring food. There are terrain manipulation tools and a construction system that lets players build elaborate structures and sprawling settlements. Building can be a bit fiddly, but players can either free-place wood or snap pieces together depending on their preference, which leads to something that is mostly easy and flexible. PvP is a toggle; unless I opt in, I don’t have to worry about another player wrecking my house or sinking an ax into my back while I farm.
Games like Rust and Fallout 76 have built huge communities around their survival gameplay loops, but they’ve also left other players in the cold, either with tough design decisions meant to increase difficulty or technical issues. Valheim doesn’t do anything new or out-there, but it doesn’t need to. Iron Gate Studio has created a simple but deep game that works on every level, and that’s enough to blow up on Steam. —Cass Marshall
Available on Windows PC.
Get it here: Steam
Super Mario 3D World and Bowser’s Fury
I won’t go so far as to say Super Mario 3D World is my favorite entry in the storied franchise. I will say it’s the entry I am most likely to recommend to both newcomers and lapsed fans returning to video games in adulthood. The four-player online multiplayer feature helps. And there’s a genuine comfort to the reliability and consistency of the adventure, like listening to Fleetwood Mac’s Greatest Hits.
To stretch out that comparison to its snapping point: While most folks prefer the Greatest Hits album, the most obsessive Fleetwood Mac fans (read: me) will prefer listening to Tusk, the band’s experimental album that’s not 100% bangers, but radiates personality from its ambitious and sometimes misguided intent. I accept that I can’t spend this whole review talking about Tusk, Fleetwood Mac’s best and most underappreciated album, but, patient reader, I can tell you about Bowser’s Fury: the Tusk of Mario games.
At first, Bowser’s Fury doesn’t appear to be so different from other 3D Mario games. Mario stands on a beach, surrounded by coins and platforming blocks and the usual baddies. But in the far distance sits another set of platforms, and farther in the distance, more platforms still. Imagine Super Mario 64, but instead of discrete stages, each location is one island in a grand archipelago.
The scope overwhelms, similar to Super Mario Galaxy’s stages crammed with satellite planets, in which Mario looks like a small speck in an infinite void. And similar to the original Super Mario Galaxy, the scope of Bowser’s Fury’s open world doesn’t allow for the artistic precision of other Mario games.
To put it another way: If most Mario games are meticulously designed obstacle courses in which every object and piece of art is precisely where it needs to be, Bowser’s Fury’s open world resembles a toddler’s room after a day of playtime: color and toys and distractions everywhere. It’s messy and lived-in, but if you take a breath, you’ll notice the space has its own charm and warmth. —Chris Plante
Available on Nintendo Switch.
No one asked for the Pong Cinematic Universe, but the PC game qomp is here to provide it anyway. It may be one of my favorite games of the year so far.
I was mesmerized by the game’s opening moments. It looks like a clone of Pong, but I wasn’t in control of either paddle. I did realize that I could hit a button and change the direction of the ball, however, and that became my first challenge: making sure the ball got past those paddles, because I was sick of being hit back and forth.
It’s time to escape, and that escape is going to take up the rest of the game, which can be beaten in two to three hours, depending on your skill level.
The world of qomp is a mostly black-and-white maze of obstacles and enemies, and the only way the player can interact with it is by hitting that one button to change the direction of the ball. That’s it. It’s a matter of timing, patience, and visualizing angles. Everything comes down to where the ball is headed, where it will go if you hit the button to change its trajectory, and where it needs to go next to stay on the path to freedom.
In a world of forever games and constantly updated releases that all but require you to play every day to keep up, qomp is a welcome respite, the sort of game you can play for a few hours, have fun, and then put it down. The game has perfected its own limited scope. It’s not about being big; it’s about being good. — Ben Kuchera
Available on Windows PC and Linux.
The Climb 2
The Climb 2 on Oculus Quest 2 is Crytek’s second pass at bringing solo climbing to virtual reality, and it’s a doozy. The first game focused on natural features located in a mostly static environment, but the sequel introduces cityscapes and livens up the experience with interactive animals and other distractions, surprises, or delights. During one particularly surprising moment, I found myself face to face with a rattlesnake, which promptly bit me, causing me to lose my grip and fall to my virtual death.
That calm from being so far up, and so far away from other people and the distractions of modern life, combined with the sweat-inducing fear of falling, creates an appealing escape if you have the stomach for it. —Ben Kuchera
Available on Oculus Quest.
Get it here: Oculus
Loop Hero is a strategy game that’s also a fascinating meditation on parenting. The game takes the focus away from controlling the hero directly; instead, it’s your job to craft their environment, weapons, and abilities to get them ready for the road ahead. You can’t do it for them, but you can improve their chances of success.
The game drops you into a confounding setup. The world has ended, and no one quite knows or remembers what happened, or why. A lone hero is stuck traveling in a loop, but you don’t play as them; they operate completely on autopilot, fighting each monster they encounter, until either they die or you direct them to retreat to camp to preserve their collected resources. Each loop they complete will heal a percentage of the damage they’ve taken, and the power of their enemies and the loot they drop also increases with every loop.
Loop Hero inverts what you’re used to paying attention to in a game. Your hero and the battles they’re taking part in? You have no control over that, at least not directly; all you can do is organize their loadout. Meanwhile, the world itself? You create it. It’s someone else’s job to survive in it. —Ben Kuchera
Available on Linux, Mac, and Windows PC.
Get it here: Steam
League of Legends: Wild Rift feels too good to be true, especially for new or lapsed players.
I’m a long-time League of Legends player on PC, dating back to the game’s earliest days. I remember when the lane designations were decided on by players, then formalized by Riot. I saw the evolution of runes, survived release Xin Zhao, and played literally thousands of games. I’ve seen some shit.
I’ve also logged on less and less over the years. I still like League of Legends, at least theoretically. I just don’t have the time to invest in 40-minute games, I’m intimidated by the new champions and their learning curve, or I feel a little slow and stiff physically for a game with such a high skill ceiling.
But Wild Rift captures about 90% of what I enjoy about the PC version. I’m not pulling off high-intensity jukes and scraping out kills with fancy keyboard combos … but I do get the satisfaction of landing a powerful laser beam on a bunch of enemies, frying them, or charging into the other team with a perfect rush and stun. The skill ceiling may be lower, and so the highs aren’t quite as high as the base game, but the positive side of that is that Wild Rift is much more accessible than League of Legends. —Cass Marshall
Available on iOS and Android.
Monster Hunter Rise
Monster Hunter Rise takes the accessible foundation that Capcom built in World and expands on it without breaking what makes Monster Hunter fun, including the deep combat and the feeling of progression as you defeat, skin, and wear one monster to fight the next. If World was the first step forward into a new era of Monster Hunter, Rise takes it even further.
Monster Hunter: World was a game I would recommend to friends, with some caveats. But Rise’s gameplay variety and mobility — all fueled by that little Wirebug — make it a must-try game for Monster Hunter skeptics and hardcore fans alike. —Ryan Gilliam
Available on Nintendo Switch.
Honestly, I hesitate to recommend this irritating little gem. Few games raise barriers like the original Nier from 2010, and though this remake adds some creature comforts, like beautified art and accommodating controls, I’d hardly call the game friendly. Its plot is dumbfounding, the pace languid. The action takes 10 hours to get to “the good part.” To see the true ending, you’ll need to repeat the “good part” many times over, sinking a dozen hours into the same fetch quests and stilted combat.
Why then would we include such a frustrating game on our list? That’s a question I spent a thousand words and change trying to answer in my review and I’m still unsure if I succeeded. I suppose a few more words can’t hurt.
Nier is a rough draft for its superior predecessor, Nier Automata, a game that launched the series into the realm of hundred dollar merch, mobile game spin-offs, and MMO tie-ins. Automata attracted millions of new fans. Nier Replicant allows these newcomers to try the original without having to fight against its fussy combat and muddy visuals. It’s akin to watching a 4K remaster of George Lucas’ THX 1138 or Barry Jenkins Medicine for Melancholy: a chance to see creators pushing a vision to the breaking point of the resources and time made available to them, to experience a boundary-busting classic with a clarity and care it hadn’t been initially afforded.
Nier Replicant is a shaggy dog of a video game, brimming with sincerity and heart. Damn if it isn’t lovable, even if it’s pissing on the floor. —Chris Plante
Available on Windows PC, PlayStation 4, and Xbox One.
New Pokémon Snap
New Pokémon Snap wasn’t necessarily a surprise. Instead, it was exactly what original Pokémon Snap fans were offered — a place to take photos of wild Pokémon. New Pokémon Snap puts the original game’s formula into a new region, Lental. Pokémon in Lental are spread across different biomes: reefs, forests, fields, and volcanos among them. Under the guidance of a new Professor, you’re tasked with taking photos of the area’s Pokémon to do research into why the local creatures glow. There’s no real innovation here in actually taking photos in New Pokémon Snap; It’s still on-rails, there’s still apples, and the Professor wants Pokémon right in the center of the frame. It’s all solid, but very reminiscent of the original game. And that’s not a bad thing at all.
But like Polygon wrote in its review, the real delight in New Pokémon Snap is in observing Pokémon just being Pokémon — wild, Pokémon. Little moments are triggered by different actions: Machamp racing a Sharpedo or a Squirtle riding a Blastoise, for instance. It’s all part of the charm. —Nicole Carpenter
Available on Nintendo Switch.
It feels like every video game in 2021 is a roguelite — hell, there are at least two other roguelites on this list. And in a year that follows Hades’ Game of the Year sweep, it’s hard not to feel tired playing around in a genre that’s normally so fresh. Returnal breaks through the monotony with something its developer, Housemarque, has never really had access to before: production value.
Returnal is a big, expensive looking game. It’s not particularly long and it doesn’t have the deepest roguelite systems around. But it has an atmosphere that’s always changing between biomes. And for a game that’s all about progressing through the same areas over and over, Returnal always keeps you guessing what your next upgrade might be — with the actual upgrade being slightly different than expected every time.
Housemarque’s arcade game influence also hits at the heart of Returnal, with the game’s speed helping to propel players through the story and deeper into its mystery. Returnal is a lot of things, and while not all of them are unique, the sum is something to behold. —Ryan Gilliam
Available on PlayStation 5.
Resident Evil Village
Following the wild course correction of Resident Evil 7 biohazard, which brought the survival horror series into first-person and refocused the franchise on low-rumbling horror, Capcom appears to be running on a smooth track. With Resident Evil Village, players revisit 7’s first-person perspective and faceless protagonist Ethan Winters as they’re thrown into the deep end of even wilder family drama. And this time, there are werewolves! And large sexy vampires!
Resident Evil Village, as we noted in our review of the game, mixes survival horror tension with run-and-gun action. There’s a clear confidence here: Capcom sticks to the franchise’s horror roots but concedes that, you know what, some of Resident Evil’s action-packed moments are fun too. Lessons learned from games like Resident Evil 4 and recent remakes are on clear display here; after faltering in multiple sequels, Village sees the Resident Evil team firing on all cylinders.
Beyond the varied gameplay and the memes, there are memorable characters and enticing experiments with other genres, like the puzzle-based horror of House Beneviento, that offer variety to the parade of scares. The good news is there’s even more Village to come. —Michael McWhertor
Available on Windows PC, Google Stadia, PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Xbox One, and Xbox Series X.
Time loop puzzlers are in right now, and Overboard! is an especially stylish take on the genre. In Overboard!, I play as a 1930s socialite who’s just killed her husband by tossing him over the side of a cruise liner. Now, I just need to escape the law, and the judgment of the ship’s other passengers. Since I’m stuck in a Groundhog’s Day loop, I get to experiment with multiple methods of doing this, including chucking other passengers into the sea.
Overboard! is a teeny tiny game compared to some of the heavy hitters that were released this year, but it’s delightful. You can technically beat the game in minutes, but the fun is testing out all the options and seeing what you can get away with. Developer Inkle lets you play a pacifistic schemer or a total monster who dooms everyone who crosses her to the sea. —Cass Marshall
Available on Windows PC, iOS, and Nintendo Switch.
Chicory: A Colorful Tale
Chicory: A Colorful Tale is one of the most special games I’ve played in a very long time. Once you begin playing, it’s so easy to fall in love with the world, to poke and prod at different pieces with your paintbrush to figure out just how the space works. In the game, you’ll play as a dog janitor that serves the world’s Wielder — the only person who can bring color to the land. Soon, you’re the one wielding the paintbrush yourself, forced to contend with the reality and pressures of life as an artist in the spotlight.
But you don’t have to be an artist, or even a self-described “creative person” to enjoy the game. The game handles topics like depression, anxiety, and uncertainty with such expert skill and deft. Never does it’s themes feel heavy-handed or misplaced: It just works in a way that will resonate with anyone who’s experienced that sort of devastating self-doubt. Chicory: A Colorful Tale, though, also provides a hopeful outlook for the future, a path towards breaking down the systems that fail us. —Nicole Carpenter
Available on Windows PC, Mac, PlayStation 4, and PlayStation 5.
Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart
Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart is a return to form after almost an entire generation of no Ratchet games. But Insomniac Games takes that hiatus and uses it to the series’ advantage, implementing the powerful new technology in the PlayStation 5 to create the console’s first real system seller. The controller rumbles subtly as Ratchet or Rivet bumble through levels with their robot companions. You can see every stitch of fur on the fuzzy protagonists. The technical achievements give an otherwise fantastical game a sense of place, and it offers interesting new mechanics to up Ratchet & Clank’s famously bizarre weapon game.
But beyond the technical achievements of Rift Apart, Insomniac built a story and world that’s surprising. Longtime fans know the Ratchet series has always had heart, but the addition of Rivet and Kit changes the series’ dynamic. The writers even acknowledge just how long it’s been since Ratchet and Clank had a proper adventure together, and that paves the way for interesting conversations around imposter syndrome and the importance of a “found family.”
Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart is a surprising game, not in its refined mechanics, but in how Insomniac was able to take it seriously and grow the series for modern audiences while keeping the kid-friendly flare that first captured so many of us. —Ryan Gilliam
Available on PlayStation 5.
There are few stories as powerful as the ones we tell ourselves. Wildermyth understands this. By combining emergent narrative with pen-and-paper storytelling techniques, Wildermyth provides just enough plot to keep each of its campaigns structured, before getting out of the way to let you find the drama yourself.
The result is a machine that spits out finely crafted fantasy adventures, each of which somehow feel bespoke. I describe it to friends as a “Fellowship of the Ring proc-gen simulator.” Party members become cursed. Their human heads become wolf heads. They come across massive, lumbering, quadrupedal forests that grant them long life and arboreal attacks. They lose their sense of curiosity and become guilt ridden after the death of a close friend.
None of this is to mention the extremely solid turn-based battles that put all of these transformations and character quirks to work in combat. I’m also glossing over the map-clearing strategic layer and the clever use of aging that vaults your party members into retirement, and thus, the stuff of Tolkien-infused legend. Wildermyth is at once complex and utterly, delightfully digestible. Its storybook presentation adds to the sense that you’re flipping through a dusty tome from that mound of books at the back of your grandparents’ attic. In the long lineage of games that deploy procedural storytelling, Wildermyth stands out as the absolute best. And that’s saying a whole lot. —Mike Mahardy
Available on Windows PC, Mac, and Linux.
Mario Golf: Super Rush
Mario Golf: Super Rush is a charming, albeit controversial, update to the Mario Golf franchise. It isn’t exactly what longtime fans demand (a perfect recreation of rose-colored memories of Mario Golf: Advance Tour) but the Nintendo Switch game comes closer to that dream than skeptics might expect.
Players learn Super Rush’s surprisingly deep take on golf over eight or so hours of adventure, its mercifully brisk plot binding together a handful of courses, upgrades, and character reveals. Its most debated decision has competitors running after their ball after each stroke, body checking opponents on the green. It makes a leisurely sport aggressive.
For me, this twist added something new to a genre in need of some pep in its step. For more traditional golf, I have Clap Hanz Golf, wonderful in its own right. But I’m more appreciative of Super Rush, the rare big, weird swing from a publisher known for doing more of what works, just better. —Chris Plante
Available on Nintendo Switch.
There are plenty of obvious reasons to love Scarlet Nexus. The bold anime aesthetic makes every frame a visual treat. The superpowers that aid you in combat make each fight an over-the-top spectacle. Plus all the characters have great hair. However, the most endearing aspect of the game for me is far simpler.
Between each chapter in the game, you and your teammates retreat to a secret base. During these intermission segments, you can talk to your cohorts to learn more about them. You can go on little dates to chat them up and develop stronger relationships. Part of the team building is finding items in the game to give to them. As you spend more time with each supporting character, you learn random facts about them and which small gifts might make them happy. These items aren’t anything special like a small toolkit or a new pair of glasses.
The real treat behind the gift giving is that all these items eventually take up space in your secret base. Over time, the formerly sparse hideout becomes filled with all your gifts. There’s a certain joy to seeing these thoughtful items scattered around the base. It’s the same feeling you get when you notice a gift you’ve given a friend has been placed on a shelf in their home. These items become woven into the fabric of each character’s lives and it’s such a simple way to represent the relationships you’re building with these characters whom you are fighting to the death alongside. —Jeff Ramos
Available on Windows PC, PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Xbox One, and Xbox Series X.
Death’s Door surprised me, in that it’s a game I’d typically never pick up. I’ve never been one for the Soulslike genre, which plenty of folks have named as one of Death’s Door’s influences. But The very cute and yet ominous tone, playing as a crow that’s also a reaper, pushed me to pick up the game. Developer Acid Nerve created a game that both felt inaccessible and accessible to me: Death’s Door felt hard to me, a newbie in the genre, but never impossible. I never became frustrated in losing big boss battles, because there was always something new to learn and bring into the next fight.
In dying, I have to replay through most of the level, and even that didn’t mar the experience for me. Death’s Door’s world is so thoroughly crafted and each run brought some new detail to light. It’s stuff like this: Attacking signs means they’ll get broken in half, with two different pieces scattered on the ground. Each piece is still readable, but only the top or bottom of the text. There’s no reason for this small of a detail to matter so much to me, and yet, it does. —Nicole Carpenter
Available on Windows PC, Xbox One, and Xbox Series X.
Splitgate has a punchy elevator pitch: Halo meets Portal. While the game released in 2019, its recent console port and two years of updates have revitalized the game and packed the queues with players hungry for a taste of that old school arena shooter combat. While most of the game is simple, the addition of two-way portals spices things up.
Because Splitgate is so simple, and the portal mechanic is so elegant, there’s room for anyone to win against overwhelming odds. A tactical mind is more important than twitch reflexes and the ability to hit headshots. Splitgate isn’t reinventing any wheels, but that’s alright. It’s taking two great formulas and mixing them together to make something new and fun. The sudden success and resurgence of Splitgate is a good reminder that in 2021, you can never really count a game out. Long live Splitgate, the closest thing you can get to old school Halo. —Cass Marshall
Available in open beta on Windows PC, PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Xbox One, and Xbox Series X.
The Forgotten City
What counts as a “sin”? Good question! And certainly one you’ll become intimately familiar with while playing The Forgotten City. In this narrative game, you play a modern explorer who discovers ancient Roman ruins and is suddenly sent back 2,000 years to find the city bustling with life. Everything seems pretty peachy in this town, but there’s a hook: If one person sins, the entire populace is wiped out (well, technically turned into gold statues, but same diff).
The Forgotten City has minimal combat — murder is definitely a sin, after all — and is more of a detective game, as you uncover the secret of the curse that has befallen these citizens and how you might free them. The story unravels itself through marvelous writing and voice acting, alongside some genuinely clever puzzle moments that lean more on common sense than finding a secret switch somewhere. There’s even some good old fashioned philosophical debate thrown in there, and a well-crafted argument about the nature of good and evil will open up new pathways into the mystery.
Available on Windows PC, PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Xbox One, Xbox Series X, and Nintendo Switch.
Axiom Verge 2
The original Axiom Verge was a long-delayed, long-hyped letter of love to Metroidvania games. While it was well-received, the game struggled to reach the upper pantheon of the genre due to some confusing design decisions and a pretty unparsable story.
For Axiom Verge 2, its creator, Thomas Happ — who acted as a solo game designer, artist, and composer for both games — has taken a different tack. Rather than scouring dark alien landscapes across nondescript, blocky environments of the NES era, he opts for something more in line with 16-bit classics like Super Metroid.
Axiom Verge 2’s greatest feat is how much it trusts the player to not only explore, but to become a dominant species in its world. Diverse power-ups include the ability to hack practically every enemy you come across, or to give your little robot buddy a hookshot. Every wall can be climbed, every crevice can be accessed, and every bit of the map is packed with tiny secrets to uncover.
Even more remarkable is the fact that Axiom Verge 2 manages to tuck an entire second world within its map (saying more would venture into spoiler territory), one that totally re-writes our expectations of exploration and traversal set by the first half of the game.
It’s somehow an even more ambitious and capable effort, while also being more welcoming to newcomers of the genre than the first Axiom Verge. Just don’t ask us to explain the story. —Russ Frushtick
Available on Windows PC, PlayStation 4, and Nintendo Switch.
There are games with inventive level design, and there are games with inventive level design. Psychonauts 2 is the latter.
The newest outing from developer Double Fine thrusts players into the metaphorical manifestations of its characters’ brains. Like its precursor, Psychonauts 2 understands how fertile this ground can be, and it wastes no time cultivating it. You begin within the confines of a giant human mouth. You then roam the hallways of a hospital-turned-casino. Even later, you’re navigating a treehouse village peppered with colossal barbershop apparatus. It feels like a collection of short stories paying homage to everything from Inception, to Star Wars, to Remedy Games’ Control.
Above all, Psychonauts 2 reminds me how liberating and wonderful a great 3D platformer can be. It jumps into cutscenes too often for my taste, and the controls are a bit too stilted for the acrobatics it asks you to pull off. But it’s hard to care about these shortcomings when I’m too busy marveling at the kaleidoscopic Freudian brain-worlds. —Mike Mahardy
Available on Windows PC, PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Xbox One, and Xbox Series X.
No More Heroes 3
No More Heroes 3 is a bit of everything. It’s charming, ugly, funny, impenetrable, simplistic, clunky, and brilliant. It’s held together by a rock solid, simple premise: To save the world, Travis Touchdown has to kill his way to the top of the killer leaderboards.
Right at the start, the game introduces you to the cast of brilliantly weird and colorful bosses (inspired by the trippy tokusatsu villains of the ’70s and ’80s). No More Heroes 3 shows its hand right away, then delights in pulling aces from its sleeve. Sometimes it flips the table. An advertised boss might turn up dead before you cross blades. A showdown might take place in an unexpected genre. The promise of new absurd twists kept mashing through the simplistic, but competent combat.
Twists aside, I think the greatest joy of No More Heroes 3 is how very personal it feels. It feels like hanging out in someone else’s dream— in someone else’s brain. Suda51 has poured everything he loves into a big bucket and shaken it up. Character’s will ramble about the minutiae of Takashi Miike films and untelevised wrestling matches from the ’80s. There are no footnotes. If it sounds alienating and overwhelming … it is. But that opportunity to totally lose yourself in someone else’s world is pretty rare, so you should totally go for it. —Patrick Gill
Available on Nintendo Switch.