Collage featuring characters from a number of different video games
Graphic: James Bareham/Polygon
headline lockup: 'The 50 best video games of 2021'

The 50 best video games of 2021

In some ways, this year felt like more of the same. 

The COVID-19 pandemic continues and supply chains remain choked. Isolation may not be the norm, but for many, it is still the default. The release schedule felt altogether calm, as an increasing number of blockbuster video games moved out of this year and into the next. 

But in trying to find a unifying thread for the games that defined the last 12 months, I’m struck by the fact that this year wasn’t really calm at all. In fact, it was a weird, wonderful, disorienting labyrinth of dazzling titles. With fewer AAA attention magnets, and a renewed collective appreciation for the escapist and social benefits of the medium, it felt like we were all more willing to try something that fell outside of our comfort zone.

Some games were about combating self-doubt. Another was about crushing rich people in Argentine wineries. My personal favorite was about storytelling itself, and our ability to weave our own interior narratives out of emergent fantasy adventures.

I’m hard-pressed to describe so many of 2021’s best games because, well, so many of them are hard to describe. It became what felt like a weekly occurrence here at Polygon for someone to unmute their microphone during a Zoom meeting and say something along the lines of: “So, I played this game called Inscryption this weekend. I’m not sure what it is, exactly. But you all need to play it.”

As I see them all laid out on this page, I also recognize that many of the year’s best titles were about hope. Unpacking explored humans’ talent for making a home, even as we grieve. Unsighted posed that age-old question: If we’re all going to die, then why care about anything at all? In one way or another, a slew of our favorite games were about the ways we deal with catastrophe, and move forward in its wake.  

Video games are a towering monument to our collective imagination — they’re part haunted castle, part Freudian psychoscape, part interactive museum whose exhibits each bleed into the next. Genres are helpful in the brochure, but they can only get you so far — at a certain point, you need a bit of patience, a lot of curiosity, and maybe a tour guide or two.

That’s where we come in. Whether you’ve been following along with each new release throughout the year, or you’re popping in now to see what you missed, the following is a collection of games that we think encapsulated 2021. Some had something to say about our cultural landscape, and some were just really damn fun. And while many might fit cleanly into a single genre, many more defy a basic label. And that’s exciting.

Anyway, enough from me. Let’s get to the good part.

—Mike Mahardy, senior editor, reviews

How the Polygon top 50 list works

Over the past month, the Polygon staff voted, debated, re-debated, and resigned itself to the series of compromises that is our top 50 games of 2021. Any video games that were released in 2021, received major updates in 2021, or achieved renewed cultural relevance in 2021 are eligible for this list. Any hidden gems we stumble upon over the next few weeks will be eligible for next year’s list.

Next week, we’ll also begin rolling out in-depth essays about the top 10 games on this list, along with trend pieces, opinion articles, and retrospectives about the year as a whole.

More detail for #50, Immortals Fenyx Rising will be read when this box is activated.
Fenyx, the hero of Immortals Fenyx Rising, flanked by Zeus and Medusa
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50. Immortals Fenyx Rising+

When Immortals Fenyx Rising was released in December 2020 — mere weeks after our voting deadline for last year’s top 50 — the most uncharitable descriptions of the game essentially called it a Breath of the Wild clone with a coat of Greek mythology paint. Somehow, this description both over- and undersells what really makes Immortals special — other than its stupidly spelled name. 

It’s true that Immortals Fenyx Rising’s huge, explorable open world can’t reach the creative heights of 2018’s Zelda sequel — that game’s true successor on this list is Halo Infinite. But Immortals is more self-consciously gamey than Breath of the Wild, and with great results. It’s got a full-fledged RPG system complete with combat that deftly mixes magic and weapons, and upgrades that make scouring the world worthwhile. It even translates the weird and often hilarious Greek pantheon into a cast of characters that are always fun to hear from as they narrate your story and talk to your character.

Perhaps the most surprising part of Immortals Fenyx Rising, however, is its downloadable content. The game featured three add-ons; one called A New God was basically a continuation of what came before it. But the second pack, Myths of the Eastern Realm, transported players to the world of Chinese mythology with the story of a totally new hero. The third DLC pack, released just a month later, was called The Lost Gods and changed things up once again. In The Lost Gods, players returned to the world of Greek myth, this time with a new hero and a new gameplay perspective. The Lost Gods is a top-down brawler that’s completely different from the original game, as well as the DLC that came after it. If Immortals Fenyx Rising started in 2020 as a very good game, 2021 has made it, well, if not great, then at least one of the most fun and interesting games this year, and well worth revisiting if you missed it the first time around.

Austen Goslin

Available on PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Xbox One, Xbox Series X, Nintendo Switch, Windows PC, and Google Stadia

More detail for #49, Final Fantasy 7 Remake Intergrade will be read when this box is activated.
Yuffie, the star of Final Fantasy 7 Remake Intergrade
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49. Final Fantasy 7 Remake Intergrade+

Every day, I wake up, and every day, the sequel to Final Fantasy 7 Remake is not announced. It haunts me. As a hardcore fan of the franchise, there’s nothing I want more than to see Cloud and the gang outside of Midgar. However, Square Enix gifted us a little bit of DLC in the form of an upgraded PlayStation 5 version, and you know what? This is fine, for now.

I was more than happy to play Yuffie’s story, since she was always one of my favorite characters and someone who desperately needed more characterization. Square Enix did her justice, fleshing out her backstory and personality beyond the crumbs we got in the original game. The worst part about Intergrade was when it was over, as it just reminded me that I have to wait (again) for more Final Fantasy 7 Remake.

Julia Lee

Available on PlayStation 4 and PlayStation 5

More detail for #48, Mundaun will be read when this box is activated.
A rear view of Curdin, who has returned to his hometown for his grandfather’s funeral in Mundaun
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48. Mundaun+

Mundaun starts off quietly, but the hand-drawn graphics immediately set a stark tone. An unsettling sense of dread starts to creep in as soon as you arrive in the titular Swiss village, and a horrifying vision from a supernatural painting incites the rest of the mystery. Mundaun is slow and ponderous, and even the action is clumsy and inelegant. But everything the game lacks in polish, it makes up in character. Protagonist Curdin is returning home to investigate the mysterious death of his grandfather. Of course, in true horror fashion, everything goes to hell immediately.

There’s a particular itch that Mundaun scratches nicely. Early on, I pet a goat behind the ears. Later on, I’m whispering secrets with a severed goat head. Horrifying, tortured beekeepers lumber at Curdin as he explores the Alps. Each environment, depicted via pencil shading, is distinctive and memorable. The experience is a clever take on horror that is absolutely drenched in atmosphere.

Cass Marshall

Available on PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Xbox One, Xbox Series X, Nintendo Switch, and WIndows PC

More detail for #47, Back 4 Blood will be read when this box is activated.
Four Cleaners stand behind a pile of dead Ridden
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47. Back 4 Blood+

Left 4 Dead launched almost 15 years ago, but it didn’t kick off video games’ zombie craze. At the time, some folks even wondered if it hadn’t already peaked. And yet here we are, in 2021, with the game’s original maker, Turtle Rock Studios, reminding us that there is plenty of life in the undead.

Underneath Back 4 Blood’s late-aughts scaffolding of asymmetrical, PvE cooperative combat, one finds modern architecture, like content tiers, gear scores, and even deck building. Players start their rounds by playing perk cards, and the library they choose from is also the best record of their progression. The cards keep every round feeling fresh, even if you’re running it back on the same map.

Like a typecast child star or a 1980s one-hit wonder, Turtle Rock could be forgiven for seeing Left 4 Dead as an unfair burden. But with Back 4 Blood, the studio has embraced it fully, as well as the responsibility of keeping its contributions relevant to a modern audience, rather than assuming that anything that was once a hit is automatically timeless.

Owen S. Good

Available on PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Xbox One, Xbox Series X, and Windows PC

More detail for #46, Tender: Creature Comforts will be read when this box is activated.
A character swipes through the in-game intergalactic dating app
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46. Tender: Creature Comforts+

Tender: Creature Comforts, a narrative mobile game created by Gideon Lazarus, Jie En Lee, and Kenny Sun, is essentially a fake dating app. It works exactly how you’d imagine, the game’s name alluding to its likeness right up front: Tender instead of Tinder. There are other games that use Tinder-style mechanics — swiping — to tell a story, but Tender happens in the app itself. It’s not simply lifting that mechanic: Tinder-style swiping is a core experience in Tender, one that mimics the realities of virtual dating.

It works so naturally thanks to key designs from the developers. It doesn’t feel like a game at all; it feels like using a dating app, right down to the pacing and intimacy of these conversations. You see, Tender takes place over days — maybe longer. Conversations happen in real time, and you have to wait for potential dates to respond. That adds to the uniqueness of the experience: You play on Tender’s time. The writing, too, is some of the best in video games this year; to see romance tackled so deftly in such a precise, compact experience is stunning.

Nicole Carpenter

Available on Windows PC, Mac, iOS, and Android

More detail for #45, Cookie Run: Kingdom will be read when this box is activated.
A collage of dessert-based characters from Cookie Run: Kingdom
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45. Cookie Run: Kingdom+

Cookie Run: Kingdom is so much. There is so much crammed into this game: kingdom designing, resource farming, item crafting, RPG battles, PvP, gacha, and some other things that I’m sure I’m forgetting. Every time the developers add some new system, my eyes roll to the back of my head in agony, and yet ... I open the app every day and play.

It’s hard to explain what keeps me playing Cookie Run: Kingdom. Is it the cute characters and the costumes that they can get? Is it the fear of letting my guildies down if I don’t log in? Is it the desire to power up and see those numbers rise? I don’t know, but I cannot put the game down. I have played this game every day since February, and I still love it. OK, maybe the fact that the Cookie Run Twitter and TikTok accounts keep posting thirst traps of cookies does make me log in more often.

Julia Lee

Available on iOS and Android

More detail for #44, The Artful Escape will be read when this box is activated.
Francis Vendetti, the protagonist of The Artful Escape
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44. The Artful Escape+

Two years ago, Annapurna Interactive released a trailer for The Artful Escape that’s been messing with me ever since. At first glance, I was hooked. From the surreal world to the musical cues syncing up with gameplay, it looked like a platformer that reveled in musical sequences, which I’ve often wanted to see more of in games.

A while later, I realized that trailer was a little misleading, and the game wasn’t a platformer — at least, not in the traditional sense. It turned out to be an adventure game that transformed into the world’s easiest platformer for big musical moments. That didn’t hold quite the same appeal for me, since it seemed less like a music game and more like a game that had occasional musical moments.

When I played The Artful Escape, though, I realized that the adventure game stuff doesn’t mess it up in the least. Instead, it creates the valleys that the game needs to fully max out its peaks. And wow, does it go hard on those peaks, offering up some of the most over-the-top, luxurious, self-indulgent, entertaining moments of any game this year.

Matt Leone

Available on Xbox One, Xbox Series X, and Windows PC

More detail for #43, No More Heroes 3 will be read when this box is activated.
Travis Touchdown, the returning protagonist, poses for the camera
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43. No More Heroes 3+

It feels kind of pointless to write a recommendation for No More Heroes 3. If you played No More Heroes and No More Heroes 2: Desperate Struggle, you’re already indoctrinated. You waited a long decade for the third chapter of this eclectic assassin saga, and you’ve already basked in its unchained, unpolished glory. For us, this is a game of the year. 

But I will not, under any circumstances, recommend this game to newcomers. It would just be an ugly cascade of meaningless sounds, colors, shapes, and ideas. It might change you in ways you don’t want to be changed. Beware.

Patrick Gill

Available on Nintendo Switch

More detail for #42, Persona 5 Strikers will be read when this box is activated.
Joker and his cohorts from Persona 5 make their return in Persona 5 Strikers
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42. Persona 5 Strikers+

Persona 5 Strikers shouldn’t work, but it does. It combines Dynasty Warriors combat with the characters and introspection of Persona 5. But this isn’t like the other licensed musou games. Strikers spends most of its time pulling players through its story and dungeons. The giant fights break out as encounters, rather than just battlefield brawls. It’s not a game about objective-focused capture-the-point wars. Instead, it’s a Persona game with a combat twist. 

Strikers is a true hybrid. It pulls everything you know from Persona combat and just takes away the turns. It also serves as an extension of the Persona 5 storyline, with most of the same characters, and it succeeds at showing off the Phantom Thieves as proficient, seasoned heroes. Even better, it offers villains that aren’t rapists and murderers like in Persona 5, but normal people who’ve lost their way. It manages to tell a great story that only serves to enhance the original.

The combat in Strikers is a joy, just as you’d expect from the musou genre, which is known for its battle systems. But it’s not the point, and the game knows when the player is better suited by a long conversation than a 100-hit combo. That restraint helps make Strikers feel like a real Persona game, even if it has a different format.

Ryan Gilliam

Available on PlayStation 4, Nintendo Switch, and Windows PC

More detail for #41, Boyfriend Dungeon will be read when this box is activated.
The protagonist of Boyfriend Dungeon, who can use weapons created from transformed humans
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41. Boyfriend Dungeon+

Boyfriend Dungeon can be completed in an afternoon, and yet it contains multitudes. It’s a dungeon crawler, it’s a dating sim, and it’s also a dark and unsettling portrayal of what it’s like to get stalked and harassed by someone you don’t want to date. The game combines dungeon crawling with dating by offering up a suite of paramours who can turn into weapons that the player character wields on the battlefield. The weapon you choose to use has a personality and a human form, and if you treat them right, they’ll become your protector, your bestie, your lover, or some combination of those things.

With only two dungeons, Boyfriend Dungeon’s strength is in its dialogue and dates, although the fighting feels fine. The game includes a gender-diverse cast (despite the “boyfriend” in its title), lets you date multiple people with no friction arising, and also allows you to pursue friendship-only routes if you prefer. In other words, the player has a lot of control and choice — except when it comes to the game’s villain, Eric, who will inevitably stalk and harass the player character. If you stop responding to his texts, he’ll stop talking to you, but you have to complete all of his dialogue trees and learn about the full extent of his wrongdoings if you want to see the credits roll on Boyfriend Dungeon.

It’s unusual to play a dating sim with dungeon crawling and a villain with a mysterious plan that unfolds over the course of your adventure. Boyfriend Dungeon doesn’t nail every step along the way to its climax, but its ending left me surprised by how much it actually had to say. Here’s hoping it inspires more genre mashups and daring storytelling choices.

Maddy Myers

Available on Xbox One, Xbox Series X, Nintendo Switch, and Windows PC

More detail for #40, Dorfromantik will be read when this box is activated.
An aerial view of Dorfromantik’s ever expanding world
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40. Dorfromantik+

Dorfromantik roughly (Google) translates to “Romantic Village.” It’s an apt description, especially the Germanic etymology, because Dorfromantik represents the epitome of German board game design.

No, this is not an actual board game, nor do you play it with other people. But the feel of laying down tiles, earning points, and growing your romantic village feels just like a cozy board game night. It’s easy to lose hours to what is, on its face, an incredibly simple game. You place hexagonal tiles on the board while completing straightforward objectives like “grow this village to 27 houses” or “make this river 5 tiles long.” Even though the objectives are minimal, they push you to organically build out the countryside in a visually pleasant arrangement: Grand forests, winding rivers, and burgeoning cities form without much forethought. The pacing is so meditative and the music so calming that it’s hard not to be transported right into the idyllic countryside you’ve been assembling all night long.

Clayton Ashley

Available on Nintendo Switch and Windows PC

More detail for #39, Mass Effect Legendary Edition will be read when this box is activated.
A Reaper descends during an attack in Mass Effect: Legendary Edition
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39. Mass Effect Legendary Edition+

I am sure there are dozens of blurbs on year-end lists out there about people replaying Mass Effect more than a decade later. So let’s spice things up — my playthrough of Mass Effect Legendary Edition was actually my first full playthrough of the entire series, and I absolutely fell head over heels in love: with the world, with the characters, with my own Commander Shepard, and with the entire fatalistic story of the Reaper invasion. 

Mass Effect has an incredibly grand scope: As Commander Shepard, you must save the entire damn galaxy from ancient and all-powerful harbingers of destruction. That is compelling and exciting, but what really makes Mass Effect so memorable is the small interactions between characters and the relationships you get to build — which makes the emotional impact of some of your choices hit all the harder. Seeing your choices play out across the trilogy is perhaps one of the most satisfying parts of Mass Effect, but what really resonated with me in my Very Paragon Playthrough was how many of those key decisions came from connecting with others and bridging old rivalries. Then again, considering the morality mechanics, you have the option to not do any of that “hope and love in the face of destruction” stuff and still come out strong, which really speaks to the narrative mechanics that make the trilogy so unforgettable.

Petrana Radulovic

Available on PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and Windows PC

More detail for #38, Eastward will be read when this box is activated.
One of the many locales from the road trip journey of Eastward
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38. Eastward+

There is so much to like about Eastward, the EarthBound- and The Legend of Zelda-inspired pixel role-playing game from Chinese developer Pixpil. Players were initially drawn to the title because of those inspirations, which Eastward wears proudly; there is no hiding its influence. But more than Zelda or EarthBound, Eastward stands on its own as a complicated, compelling journey, well, east.

Eastward is the story of John and Sam — a father/daughter-esque duo that’s strange and powerful. John, a miner, is quiet but hits things with a frying pan. Sam, for her part, is white-haired and has mysterious, otherworldly powers. It’s a single-player game, so players use both characters simultaneously to solve intricate puzzles and defeat challenging bosses. That unique gameplay experience, set in an intriguing and weirdly inviting world, makes it a top choice. Of course, Pixpil hasn’t nailed everything: The game has some problematic depictions of fat people that feel cruel in a game that’s otherwise very heartwarming.

Nicole Carpenter

Available on Nintendo Switch, Windows PC, and Mac

More detail for #37, The Great Ace Attorney Chronicles will be read when this box is activated.
Ryunosuke Naruhodo, the lawyer from The Great Ace Attorney Chronicles
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37. The Great Ace Attorney Chronicles+

The Ace Attorney franchise is now around 10 games deep (depending on which spinoffs you count), and given that the games all feature recurring characters and plot lines, it can be tough to keep track of it all. And that’s not even factoring in the challenge of saving the wrongly accused from a life in prison!

The Great Ace Attorney Chronicles makes things a bit easier by setting itself in the distant past (specifically, the 1800s), which means that all of the faces you know haven’t been born yet.

The setting doesn’t just make it easier to hop right into the action — it also deeply affects the story. Classism, racism, and misogyny were all even more rampant back then than they are today, and the game doesn’t shy away from tackling tough issues with thoughtful deftness. Fantastic localization and some genuinely charming characters make this visual novel a great introduction to the format.

Russ Frushtick

Available on PlayStation 4, Nintendo Switch, and Windows PC

More detail for #36, Nier Replicant will be read when this box is activated.
Nier Replicant’s cast of characters l;ooks out over a barren landscape
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36. Nier Replicant+

Nier Replicant brought back the original Nier from 2010 with an HD remaster, and with it came the perfect reason to revisit the game — or, for some, experience the cult hit that inspired Nier: Automata for the first time. The story follows Nier, a young boy looking to cure a disease called black scrawl that has infected his little sister Yonah. And although it’s more than 10 years old and a little rough around the edges, it showed why this game would set the foundation for what fans would come to expect from later Nier titles. 

Yes, Nier Replicant is a bit of a slow burn — Polygon’s review noted that it takes around 10 hours for the story to find its groove — the journey is one well worth taking. It incorporates play styles in innovative and daring ways: One section of the game plays like a Diablo clone while other sections play like bullet-hell arcade shooters, and there is even a portion where you read through descriptive text and play through as you would a text-based Twine game. It’s an expansive adventure that brings together all sorts of video game genres. You just need to be willing to suffer through some fetch quests, is all.

—Ana Diaz

Available on PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and Windows PC

More detail for #35, Moonglow Bay will be read when this box is activated.
The rookie angler — and friends — try to catch a fish in Moonglow Bay
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35. Moonglow Bay+

Do you love fishing, cooking, and renovating a dying small town? Well, let me introduce you to Moonglow Bay. The name suggests a spiritual relationship to Stardew Valley, and its tone is similarly wistful, cute, and a little sad. Happily, Moonglow Bay’s gameplay stands on its own. Here’s how it goes: You fish. You return home and cook the fish into beautiful meals. You sell the meals in a little vending machine! You take that money and reinvest it in the town, fixing up local storefronts, cleaning up trash, and bringing hope to a hopeless town. This little loop ate up an entire weekend of my precious life — and I’m not the only one.

I found immense satisfaction in discovering new species of fish, and in calculating which meals to cook and sell to earn the most money. The fishing mechanic can be alternately challenging and hypnotic — a far cry from the initially frustrating fishing in Stardew Valley. And as a lover of journaling, I particularly adore the game’s journal. It records open quests, but also a log of all the fish you’ve identified and which rod and lure combos to catch them with, as well as all your recipes. Anecdotally, I’ve read that Moonglow Bay is still a little rough when it comes to mouse-and-keyboard support. I played it on PC with an Xbox controller and didn’t have any problems. Also worth mentioning — it’s on Xbox Game Pass, like every good game this year. So get out there and go fishing!

Simone de Rochefort

Available on Xbox One, Xbox Series X, and Windows PC

More detail for #34, Toem will be read when this box is activated.
The protagonist, and photographer, from the puzzle-adventure game Toem
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34. Toem+

Photography games don’t necessarily appeal to me, so Toem took me completely by surprise. The game’s camera is the tool you use to solve all kinds of puzzles. Toem asks you to think creatively about its quests. A character is looking for inspiration for a song — well, what does a photo of that look like? The game also succeeds at being extremely funny. In an early level, I got a horn attachment for my camera. The slapstick possibilities of the horn are endless; it’s the greatest use of an in-game honk since Untitled Goose Game. Toem is cute without being overly sweet, clever without being obtuse — and it’s beautifully animated, to boot.

Simone de Rochefort

Available on PlayStation 5, Nintendo Switch, Windows PC, and Mac

More detail for #33, Returnal will be read when this box is activated.
Selene Vassos stands in front of a wall of ASTRA Corporation helmets
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33. Returnal+

Recent roguelikes have taken what was originally a difficult genre and made it far more approachable, with progressive upgrades and difficulty settings. Returnal, from developer Housemarque, goes another way. It’s an enormously punishing 3D action game that leaves very little room for error. And yet, thanks to a wild sci-fi storyline and stunning visuals, Returnal introduces the genre to a much wider audience.

The game caught some reasonable criticism at launch with its total lack of a checkpointing system, as crashes could wipe out a few hours’ worth of a run. But thanks to some post-launch support, Returnal now lets you quit at any point, and will also let you restore progress should your PlayStation 5 have a rough day.

With this one major issue removed from the equation, Returnal stands tall as one of the most innovative takes on the roguelike genre, and one that continues to leave an indelible mark, many months after release.

Russ Frushtick

Available on PlayStation 5

More detail for #32, Genshin Impact 2.0 will be read when this box is activated.
Kamisato Ayaka and Yoimiya from Genshin Impact 2.0
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32. Genshin Impact 2.0+

I have waited a long time for Inazuma, or rather, what felt like a long time. In actuality, it was only around 10 months. After hearing murmurs about Raiden Shogun and her vision hunt decree, the hype slowly grew, but Genshin Impact itself had hit a lull back in the spring. Just as intended, the release of a new major region reawakened the Genshin Impact fan in me.

The new area, which is continuing to get updates as I write this, was filled with new enemies, new puzzles, and new stories. The enemies served as a challenge for even a seasoned player, requiring people to think and dodge rather than just smacking them repeatedly with our strongest characters. I rushed through to clear the newly added area, and it left me hungry for more, just like the game did when it was first released. If each new area is going to be as expansive and fun as Inazuma was, I’ll be playing Genshin Impact for years to come.

—Julia Lee

Available on PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Windows PC, iOS, and Android

More detail for #31, Super Mario 3D World + Bowser’s Fury will be read when this box is activated.
Bowser looms over the landscape in Bowser’s Fury
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31. Super Mario 3D World + Bowser’s Fury+

Super Mario 3D World + Bowser’s Fury reminded us all that the 3D Mario games were pretty good, actually, and gave fans who missed them on the Wii U and Nintendo 3DS another shot to try them out on the popular Nintendo Switch console. In addition to the original Super Mario 3D World (which debuted on Wii U), this release packed in an entirely new game called Bowser’s Fury, where Mario helps Bowser Jr. save his father in a short open-world adventure. 

Revisiting the original 3D World is pure chaos if you play with others. While another 3D Mario game on the Switch (Super Mario Odyssey) has a limited two-player mode, 3D World offers a fleshed-out multiplayer mode where you play entire levels with your friends. You can collaborate on some sections — another player can hold down a switch that makes a jump easier, for example — but the multiplayer has a bit of a competitive edge too. You can sprint through levels to get lots of points and abandon your friends in tougher sections, if you’re quick enough. What fun!

Ana Diaz

Available on Nintendo Switch

More detail for #30, Guilty Gear Strive will be read when this box is activated.
Guilty Gear Strive
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30. Guilty Gear Strive+

I love playing Guilty Gear Strive, even though I’m not very good at it. This is the most accessible entry in the Guilty Gear series so far, but it’s still a lot to take in. Characters double jump, air dash, and sprint around the screen at full tilt. You’ve got multiple meters to spend on supers, special defensive options, and a rainbow of “Roman cancels” that modify the properties of moves or distort the flow of time. 

But the good news is that you can just ignore most of that stuff and hit buttons until you’re ready to get good. Strive understands that a vital first step in creating a fighting game fan is helping them fall in love with the characters — and boy, these are some characters. There’s a dolphin-riding airship captain, a vampire samurai, and a human battleship. Each of Strive’s rock’n’roll weirdos has a distinct style and purpose, and the astounding faux-2D animation brings them to life with incredible appeal.

And if you decide that one of these weirdos is your soulmate and you need to master their skills, there’s more good news. Unlike lots of fighting games, Strive has a tutorial system that explains everything from fundamentals to advanced tryhard tactics. One second you’re just admiring the big battleship man, and the next, you’re learning how to RC kara cancel a Potemkin Buster. Congratulations, you’re a fighting game fan.

Patrick Gill

Available on PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, and Windows PC

More detail for #29, Loop Hero will be read when this box is activated.
Another villain in Loop Hero’s post-apocalyptic world
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29. Loop Hero+

In a standout year for loop-themed games, as well as roguelikes with deck-building elements, Loop Hero is utterly unique. In Loop Hero, you don’t control the hero — you instead make changes to the environment, which allows them to eventually become strong enough to defeat a final enemy. The hero simply walks this looped path, auto-fighting enemies on the track and reaping various rewards that let players upgrade armor and weapons.

Here’s where the cards come in. Players have a deck of different region cards that can be placed as tiles along the path. Each of these regions pits the hero against a particular challenge or enemy, and all of them interact with each other — putting a vampire mansion by a village will turn it into a “ransacked village,” for example. Other tiles will evolve after meeting certain conditions, spawning enemies that will kick your ass. Part of the fun is learning how to anticipate these, and strategically make it all fit together.

Make the loop too easy, and you’ll never get the adequate power-ups, armor, and weapons to become strong enough to survive the boss. Make the loop too hard, and you’ll die before you even get there. It’s so easy to keep playing, thinking “just one more loop” as you inch closer and closer to victory. And it’s all tied to a broader dystopian story: Everyone else in base camp has forgotten what the old world was like. Only you have the power to slowly rebuild it, one painful loop at a time.

—Nicole Clark

Available on Windows PC, Mac, Linux, and Nintendo Switch

More detail for #28, Sable will be read when this box is activated.
The titular protagonist explores the world of Sable alongside her hoverbike
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28. Sable+

Sable is less about becoming strong and more about opening yourself up to the greater world around you. This open-world adventure follows Sable, a young girl who undertakes a coming-of-age ceremony called the Gliding where she leaves her home encampment to explore a desert world. As you ride your hoverbike through its dunes, you’ll encounter daunting and beautiful scenery — the sights include leviathan bones suspended like bridges in the sky and a forest filled with mushroomlike rock formations.

This game was created with a specific eye for its natural beauty. As you glide across from dawn to dusk, the world pours out warm pinks, yellows, and oranges of its welcoming desert. The visuals pair nicely with the ethereal soundtrack by indie rock artist Michelle Zauner (lead singer of Japanese Breakfast). What’s more, you don’t conquer or really “beat” anything. (There’s no combat in Sable.) Instead, you climb and hover in a bubble from place to place and just listen to people’s stories. It’s not an action-packed adventure in the traditional sense, but there’s plenty of wonder and awe to go around.

Ana Diaz

Available on Xbox One, Xbox Series X, and Windows PC

More detail for #27, The Forgotten City will be read when this box is activated.
A conversation with Galerius from The Forgotten City
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27. The Forgotten City+

The time loop device at the heart of The Forgotten City — resetting all mistakes while leaving the player with the knowledge of what led to them — means that even the most blithering, dithering player can easily unwind a favorable ending from this narrative puzzle. In the game, Roman citizens all live in fear of being turned to golden statues should any one of them commit a sin. Conveniently, these sins are never explicitly enumerated. Players must rely on their own values, in a way, to expose those who threaten the entire city.

And yet, solving The Forgotten City’s many mysteries can’t even begin to answer the larger questions posed by this former Skyrim mod. Is freezing everyone’s thoughts and actions, under threat of collective punishment, really that much different from turning people into literal statues? Why must so much of human interaction resolve with a zero-sum outcome? Is it impossible for anyone to live without sin? How could a society even function on such a knife’s edge?

The Forgotten City ends up being about 10 hours long, if you’re aiming for the canonical ending (and not speedrunning it). For those who felt like the game led them to solutions too easily, The Forgotten City’s portions may have felt small. Still, it’s an undeniably rich serving of intrigue, problem-solving, and meditations upon huge, existential topics.

Owen S. Good

Available on PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Xbox One, Xbox Series X, Windows PC, and Nintendo Switch via cloud streaming

More detail for #26, Animal Crossing: New Horizons 2.0 will be read when this box is activated.
Kapp’n relaxes in his motorboat
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26. Animal Crossing: New Horizons 2.0+

Most of Animal Crossing: New Horizons’ updates have been fairly unimpressive. They’d get me to crack open the game for another day or two, only to re-abandon my island shortly afterward. But 2021’s 2.0 update, alongside the Happy Island Paradise add-on, has made me an active island inhabitant again. 

The addition of missing furniture from old games, the small quality-of-life changes, the ability to add more bridges and ramps to your island — it was all what I wanted in the original release of the game. I dreaded the thought of rebuilding my island with the new items, but it also entranced me. As somebody who loves to collect items, hunting down the new Gyroids and cooking DIY recipes keep me logging in every day. That’s not to say that 2.0 has perfected the game. There’s still lots I would love to see added, but this update got me playing Animal Crossing daily again, and that’s a big feat.

—Julia Lee

Available on Nintendo Switch

More detail for #25, Pokemon Unite will be read when this box is activated.
Blastoise, Pikachu, and Greninja pose in front of the camera
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25. Pokemon Unite+

Pokémon Unite brought the friendly face of Pokémon to the massive genre of top-down arena battlers. On the surface, the game is an approachable competition that has you learning its fundamentals and finishing matches in a matter of minutes. The standard mode pits two teams against each other as they vie to collect and score as many points as possible. As you play, you’ll have your pick of recognizable monsters like Blastoise, Greninja, and Gengar.

However, Pokémon Unite is more than a friendly face. Beneath the quirky veneer is a fresh challenge with a high skill ceiling for players willing to put in the time. Upon release, the game had some problems, especially with in-game purchases. But developer TiMi Studio Group has continued to address balance issues and build out an impressive cast of fighters. In a world where other giant gaming companies released spinoff arena games in a bid to draw in a larger audience, Pokemon Unite became the standout.

Ana Diaz

Available on Nintendo Switch, iOS, and Android

More detail for #24, Shin Megami Tensei 5 will be read when this box is activated.
The protagonist of the post-apocalyptic demon-gathering game Shin Megami Tensei 5
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24. Shin Megami Tensei 5+

Shin Megami Tensei 5 is absolutely pissed that you’re here. Why, it asks, do you think you’re so special, that you think you can survive in this demon-filled post-apocalypse?

The game has a point: Its unnamed protagonist literally cannot survive after finding himself transported to a sand-covered hellscape vision of Tokyo, where God has been killed and his throne is up for grabs. Instead, he must fuse with a supernatural entity to become the Nahobino, a man/demon hybrid with the power to recruit demons — should he be able to convince them. 

As in previous Shin Megami Tensei games, this is the meat of Shin Megami Tensei 5: the careful navigation of dialogue choices and bribery it takes to convince fickle demons to join your side, knowing full well you are likely to screw it up and get your ass kicked instead. Like a tremendously mean version of Pokémon, the pleasure is in slowly building a team designed to tackle the hardship in front of you, one that is so effective that your opponents don’t even have the time to act. But if this is what makes Shin Megami Tensei 5 compelling moment to moment, what sticks in your mind is the doomed world it unfurls in, asking you to build a new moral compass in a place where there seems to be little use for such things. God’s throne is empty; what happens next?

Joshua Rivera

Available on Nintendo Switch

More detail for #23, Age of Empires 4 will be read when this box is activated.
World leaders from Age of Empires 4
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23. Age of Empires 4+

Real-time strategy games are having a moment. I’d argue that they might be on the cusp of a renaissance. Age of Empires 4 is great ammunition for that argument.

Relic Entertainment’s newest RTS outing feels like it was made during the golden era of real-time strategy games, when LAN parties lit up dormitory floors and a Command & Conquer game could move 1 million copies in a month. Age of Empires 4 encompasses thousands of years of battles, grudges, and historical intrigue. It’s epic in scale and refined in its mechanics. Its factions are diverse and asymmetrical, and they lend the game a different flow each time you raise the flag of a new army. 

More than anything, Age of Empires 4 just feels big. Its campaign missions are laden with historical drama, and each clash is as much a test of economic might as it is of martial prowess. The documentary-style videos lend a production value that’s been absent from the vast majority of RTS games over the last decade. Age of Empires 4 is a grand reminder of just how colossal real-time strategy can feel when a studio has the necessary time and resources to bring it to life.

Mike Mahardy

Available on Windows PC

More detail for #22, Valheim will be read when this box is activated.
An adventurer raises his hammer in the survival-oriented world of Valheim
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22. Valheim+

Valheim has a curious duality. At times, it feels like the most approachable survival game ever made, one that avoids the genre’s typical frustrations, like annoying multiplayer trolling or a lack of direction. At the same time, the world of Valheim is full of dangerous creatures and unforgiving landscapes that will test your mettle and push you to seek help from other players. It’s a game where you can spend an inordinate amount of time carefully crafting a quaint Viking village, or venture off on an exciting adventure where you’ll take on sea serpents or kill a literal god.

It helps that the world of Valheim is gorgeously rendered with a charmingly lo-fi aesthetic, one that heightens the game’s mystery. Though online guides are certainly a welcome assistance, there is an immense amount of joy in wandering Valheim’s world and discovering its secrets on a whim. 

As much as the game can be enjoyed as a solitary experience, I was lucky enough to play it with a group of friends, sharing in the joy of discovery. Much like the game world itself, our play sessions were filled with peaks and valleys, like thrilling boss fights and restful breaks at our handcrafted village. Though I will always enjoy remembering our exciting confrontations with skeleton gods and ice dragons, it’s those quiet times at home base that I’ll treasure even more.  The cold nights we spent huddled around our crackling hearth as a rain storm roared outside. The long days where we repair our armor, sharpen our blades, and ready a big pot of sea serpent stew as we excitedly discuss where we’ll venture next.

Clayton Ashley

Available on Windows PC and Linux

More detail for #21, Chivalry 2 will be read when this box is activated.
A knight from the physics-based, often hilarious Chivalry 2
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21. Chivalry 2+

Chivalry 2 is Battlefield 1242, and it absolutely rules. 

Big teams armed with medieval weaponry clash in objective-based game modes. The clever melee combat system is quick to pick up, but is deep enough to keep you interested after hours of slashing and smashing. It’s gory and violent, but it’s buoyed by slapstick overtones. 

Thanks to a hammy physics engine, every slain opponent flops and tumbles like a vaudeville clown. Even getting killed is chuckle-inducing, as the camera snaps to third person and shows your hapless knight taking a deadly pratfall. Anything can become a weapon, from a candelabra to a handful of horse dung to a fluttering, squawking chicken. Limbs fly and heads roll, but it’s all in good fun.

Patrick Gill

Available on PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Xbox One, Xbox Series X, and Windows PC

More detail for #20, Ratchet and Clank: Rift Apart will be read when this box is activated.
Rivet lands in front of enemies in Ratchet and Clank: Rift Apart
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20. Ratchet and Clank: Rift Apart+

The Ratchet and Clank games have been reliably great since the days of the PlayStation 2, and Ratchet and Clank: Rift Apart is no exception. It follows the dynamic duo to a new dimension as Dr. Nefarious enacts yet another dastardly scheme. Once they arrive, they discover that this new world is run entirely by Emperor Nefarious — a more talented version of the duo’s frequently defeated doctor — as well as alternate versions of the series’ recurring cast of friends and foes. Ratchet and Clank also meet Rivet, this universe’s sole surviving Lombax (and one of the series’ best additions to date).

Rivet could have just been the “girl version” of Ratchet, but instead, she’s a unique character who also opens up a pathway for deeper and more heartfelt conversations than Ratchet has ever gotten to have. Once the only living member of their species in their respective universes, Ratchet and Rivet now feel a little less alone. It’s surprisingly earnest, especially for a series with a game called Up Your Arsenal. But it feels right at home, thanks to the game’s excellent writing and voice acting, as well as its superb character and facial animation. 

Of course, along with the story improvements, Rift Apart still keeps the series’ incredible sense of fun alive. The world is full of clever puzzles and dramatic set-pieces. Twenty years into the series’ history, developer Insomniac Games is still finding new ways to bend the rules of level design. The new arsenal also features a handful of fantastic weapons that utilize the PlayStation 5’s unique features and controller as well as any game has so far.

Austen Goslin

Available on PlayStation 5

More detail for #19, Deathloop will be read when this box is activated.
Julianna aims her weapon at Colt
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19. Deathloop+

Much has been made about Deathloop’s art style, emergent combat, and experimental mission structure. But its defining characteristic, to me, is its ambition. 

Unfolding on the island of Blackreef over the course of a single, repeating day, Deathloop is an exercise in careful exploration. By returning to the island’s various districts at different times of day, I can access new shortcuts, discover new weapon stashes, and overhear a new bit of gossip that I might otherwise have missed. I can arrange a sequence of lethal events that will culminate in the demise of Deathloop’s eight villains, like a trail of dominoes leading to a corpse.

This can all be overwhelming. It can all be a lot. If you miss a crucial detail during one run, you might have nothing new to build upon in your next loop. In Deathloop, it is easy to get stuck.

But still, Deathloop pulls off this massive magic trick in a way that only developer Arkane Studios could. It doesn’t keep all of its plates spinning throughout its run time — the onr labeled “late-game twist” shatters on the ground particularly hard — but it comes pretty damn close. Arkane has been taking incremental steps to evolve as a studio for decades now. Deathloop is a massive leap.

Mike Mahardy

Available on PlayStation 5 and Windows PC

More detail for #18, Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy will be read when this box is activated.
Marvel’s titular band of misfits crashes into a battle
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18. Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy+

Video gaming’s feel-good hit of 2021 is also its biggest surprise. Perhaps Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy is a feel-good hit because it was such an unexpected surprise. The ensemble action-adventure doesn’t overwhelm the player by granting them all five Guardians as playable characters; just Peter Quill is under the user’s control. And yet, thanks to some shrewd gameplay choices and a round-hearted story, you get a game that showcases all the fun of directing Gamora, Groot, Drax, and Rocket, while honoring the team’s strong personalities and bittersweet, misfit origins.

In our time with the game, we were delighted as much by the streamlined gameplay loop, which involves every member of the group with a minimum of hassle, as we were by Mary DeMarle’s story and script, which highlight the emotional necessities of every character. Open-ended, downtime exploration and dialogue are given just as much importance as rock-’em-sock-’em action, and we found ourselves bonding with our comrades, even choking up at some of their sentimental gut punches. Halfway through the game, the story calls for the team to split up and go their separate ways. In the pangs of that moment, the other four were so much more than attacks and buffs on a weapon wheel. We needed them, if only to have someone to talk to.

Owen S. Good

Available on PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Xbox One, Xbox Series X, and Windows PC

More detail for #17, Tales of Arise will be read when this box is activated.
Alphen and Shionne, the primary heroes of Tales of Arise
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17. Tales of Arise+

Tales of Arise is a 60-hour fireworks display that never once stopped dazzling me.

As the newest entry in the long-running anthology series, Tales of Arise hews closely to the formula established by its predecessors: The lone hero leaves his home to travel across various biomes and collect objects of power, all while amassing an eclectic party of warriors, mages, and misfits. There are pitched battles and boss fights. There are acrobatic duels. 

These tropes from Japanese role-playing games might feel rote, but Tales of Arise deploys them with such ferocity that they feel new again. By the second act, the combat had become so colorful and explosive that I gave up keeping track of what every party member was doing, just so I could revel in the audacity of it all. The game slips seamlessly between battles, crafting, and self-contained dungeon exploration. It’s a masterclass in pacing, such that you’re lulled into a flow state only minutes before a cutscene in which a good guy uppercuts a villain into the ceiling of a cathedral, which then explodes, because of course it does. 

Other games might take their time building toward a furious crescendo. Tales of Arise reaches it right from the start, and never lets up.

Mike Mahardy

Available on PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Xbox One, Xbox Series X, and Windows PC

More detail for #16, Ruined King: A League of Legends Story will be read when this box is activated.
The titular villain near a shipwreck, presumably in Bilgewater
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16. Ruined King: A League of Legends Story+

Set in the League of Legends world of Runeterra, Ruined King: A League of Legends Story  tells a tale loaded with Champions from Riot’s MOBA game. For League of Legends players, it’s a feast of references and relationships rarely showcased in the original source material. But it’s also accessible for new players, showing off a world rich in history without ever requiring prior knowledge.

The world of Ruined King is just a part of what makes it great, though. The turn-based combat is also one of the more unique combat systems I’ve seen, with the casting time of each skill playing a major factor in the flow of battle. Each character can be built and customized in different ways, giving players good reason and incentive to try out various team compositions.

Ruined King also represents a great start in Riot’s wider initiative to pull players into this world, and to showcase why League of Legends has been so successful for so long. Ruined King is a new avenue into that world that doesn’t involve 12-year-olds screaming at you for missing out on an important teamfight. So where Ruined King excels as an RPG, it’s an even better tool for introducing new fans to the world of Runeterra.

Ryan Gilliam

Available on PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, and Windows PC

More detail for #15, Overboard! will be read when this box is activated.
The protagonist — and murderer — from the looping crime game Overboard!
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15. Overboard!+

80 Days and Heaven’s Vault developer Inkle took on the time loop — a staple genre of 2021 — in a way that’s challenging without being obtuse. It helps that Overboard! is also hilarious in a way that makes me eager to replay these past few days at sea, the ones in which I, uh, murdered my husband? 

Yes, yes, Overboard!’s premise is that I’m a wealthy woman who has just murdered her husband (by tossing him overboard), and I’d like to get away with it and get on with my life, insurance money in hand. There are plenty of ways to do so, all of which mean doing very bad things. As Polygon’s Cass Marshall said in our review of the game, it’s an absolute blast to play the bad guy here — most of the other people on board are worse, including your late husband.

Overboard! is a relatively short game, which is why the time loop works. It’s not a huge pain in the ass to slog through what you’ve replayed, to tweak small interactions or conversations to get closer to concealing your role in said murder. There were a lot of time loop games in 2021; it’s a genre that’s hard to make work. Overboard! not only worked, but excelled, standing out not only within its genre, but as one of the best games of the year.

Nicole Carpenter

Available on Nintendo Switch, Windows PC, and iOS

More detail for #14, Monster Hunter Rise will be read when this box is activated.
One of Monster Hunter Rise’s yokai-inspired monsters
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14. Monster Hunter Rise+

Monster Hunter has always been a coconut of a series. It’s got tender, tasty cooperative monster brawling surrounded by a bristly, impenetrable shell of fiddly menus and legacy mechanics. In 2018, Monster Hunter: World’s franchise refresh simplified and streamlined the experience. In 2021’s Monster Hunter Rise, Capcom added in charming yokai-themed monsters and handed players a rocket-powered chisel for unprecedented nut meat access. This metaphor is kind of falling apart.

The point is, Monster Hunter Rise sheds even more old baggage to get you into the action quickly, and also layers on advanced techniques to reward skillful play. Movement is one of the greatest pleasures in Monster Hunter Rise. You can choose to speed around on your Palamute dog mount, or take to the skies: The new wirebug, a grappling gadget that adds incredible depth (and height!) to each hunt, allows you to double, triple, and quadruple jump around the map. 

The mechanical goodness is bound together by delightful aesthetics. Monster Hunter Rise’s animation always shines — from villagers toiling in their workaday jobs, to the weighty swing of a greatsword, to monsters roaring and reeling. It looks as good as it feels, and feels as good as it looks. It’s my personal game of the year.

Patrick Gill

Available on Nintendo Switch

More detail for #13, Unpacking will be read when this box is activated.
The first room in the zen-like “moving game” Unpacking
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13. Unpacking+

Unpacking unfolds just as the title describes: You unpack moving boxes in a series of new spaces ranging from apartments to dorm rooms to family homes. This pixel art puzzle game has a cozy and meditative feel, as players click on each packing box to pull out various items and then place them in open spots around the home. Though there are some basic requirements for the room an object goes in, there are tons of ways to be creative about the actual placement. (And the game has over 14,000 foley audio files, which puts the scope into perspective). 

But this simplicity also belies a deeper story, as it becomes clear that these moves are undertaken by one person at different phases of their life. You unpack in a childhood bedroom, move into a first apartment, and move in with a significant other, to name a few. Each of these major life transitions is hinted at through the location and the new items you’ve acquired between moves, and whether there’s actually space for your stuff at these new places tells its own story. What starts out as a simple but satisfying Tetris-style game becomes a bittersweet, nostalgic journey through major life events.

Nicole Clark

Available on Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, and Windows PC

More detail for #12, Forza Horizon 5 will be read when this box is activated.
A car speeds along one of Forza Horizon 5’s Mexican highways
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12. Forza Horizon 5+

It’s easy to be dismissive about sports games and racing games — to look up every now and then, and go, “Oh, they made another one of those, huh?” But there’s a number of reasons why Forza Horizon 5 captured the zeitgeist this fall like no previous entry in either the Forza Horizon or Forza Motorsport subfranchises.

It’s a terrific technical showpiece for the Xbox Series X, of course, with a 60-frames-per-second performance mode that doesn’t sacrifice much visual fidelity from the 4K mode. U.K.-based developer Playground Games beautifully captures the widely varied geography and biomes of Mexico, and handles that depiction of America’s neighbor to the south with a heartening degree of cultural awareness and sensitivity. The game begins with a kick-ass intro sequence that gets the blood pumping. And although its array of activities can occasionally overwhelm the senses, it also means that there’s always something to do, always another event or objective around the bend.

Of course, Forza Horizon 5’s success is also due in no small part to Xbox Game Pass, a service whose user base now numbers in the tens of millions. That alone doesn’t make a game great, though. You might have decided to try Forza Horizon 5 on a whim, just because it was available to you for “free.” But if you gave it any significant amount of time, there’s a good chance it grabbed you like offroad tires gripping dirt paths carved through the Mexican jungle.

Samit Sarkar

Available on Xbox One, Xbox Series X, and Windows PC

More detail for #11, Outer Wilds: Echoes of the Eye will be read when this box is activated.
An explorer in Outer Wilds’ new expansion
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11. Outer Wilds: Echoes of the Eye+

[Ed. note: The following contains minor spoilers for Polygon’s 2019 Game of the Year, Outer Wilds, and minor spoilers for Outer Wilds: Echoes of the Eye.] 

Outer Wilds: Echoes of the Eye is not quite as good as the base game it grew out of. But when that base game is a 10, a nine out of 10 is very good. Echoes of the Eye is a fascinating recursive twist on the original puzzle/adventure game, but its real triumph is what it adds to the thematic structure of Outer Wilds as a whole. 

In Outer Wilds, you replay the final 22 minutes of your life over and over, each time hoping to discover a new secret to point you toward finding answers in a self-contained galaxy. The game says we should fear death only if we have learned nothing — that the holiest purpose of life is to seek knowledge without fear, and pass it on to those who come after. Everyone you meet shares this philosophy. 

Echoes of the Eye unfolds the story of beings who found great knowledge, could not accept it, and locked it and themselves away in rejection of reality. It weaves Outer Wilds into a ghost story that is also a fall from Eden, and leaves the ultimate decision to the player: Are these people redeemable? Can their original sin be forgiven? Should their legacy, too, be passed on?

Susana Polo

Available on PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and Windows PC

More detail for #10, Unsighted will be read when this box is activated.
The group of automatons that can lose sentience if the player waits too long in Unsighted
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10. Unsighted+

Unsighted weaponizes time against you. In its distant future, robots have been granted sentience by an alien material called Anima that crashed into Earth. Unfortunately for this budding robotic culture, the resource is depleting fast, so every robot — from your friends to the shopkeepers to the strangers roaming the village repeating the same handful of lines — has a ticking clock, counting down to the moment they lose sentience. 

The bulk of Unsighted is a solid 2D Zelda-style adventure with an above-average cast of characters and some pretty (but sometimes difficult-to-navigate) art direction. But the ticking clock gives familiar dungeons and fetch quests an unfamiliar urgency. Do I really want to look for a bonus weapon in an abandoned building, knowing that every second I spend off the main path will mean the demise of another character, probably one who could help me on my journey? 

Packets of this precious Anima have been lightly hidden throughout the world. With it, I can choose who lives and who dies — including my own character. Whatever the case, the fix is temporary. A packet of Anima is just a temporary solution, an extra 24 hours.

It’s because of this conceit that I avoided Unsighted for a couple of months, worried that these choices would be too stressful, too guilt-inducing. But rather than be overwhelmed, I found serenity in the hopelessness of it all. In the end, I couldn’t save everyone — I couldn’t even save many of my favorite characters. But I used every resource, and every moment, to achieve a conclusion bigger than me or any individual person. 

It’s all a bit grim and thorny, putting so many lives in the hands of the player. But isn’t that what most video games do? Unsighted simply has the guts to follow through, reminding us that being the hero at the center of the world means making no-win decisions. Here’s a power fantasy in which power is a finite commodity.

Chris Plante

Available on Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, Windows PC, and Xbox One

More detail for #9, Psychonauts 2 will be read when this box is activated.
Raz dons his goggles in Psychonauts 2
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9. Psychonauts 2+

Fans of Double Fine’s original Psychonauts probably would have been happy for a sequel to simply exist; after 15 years of stalled development, crowdfunding, and a company acquisition, there were times when Tim Schafer’s follow-up felt destined to be one of those lost projects that existed only in concept art and press interviews. But it happened ... and in the most vivid and poignant way possible. 

Every element in Psychonauts 2 feels like a priority. The story that draws acrobat-turned-psychic-spy Razputin Aquato through the twisty consciousnesses of his cohorts feels like a John le Carré thriller by way of Adventure Time. Schafer, who has honed a distinct comedic voice since the days of the Monkey Island games, populates the world with kooky characters you actually want to speak to, and surreal landscapes — a ghastly library, a concert featuring a Phish-like jam band, a grotesque human mouth — that make every random item worth tracking down. 

The play goes down easy, with familiar mechanics amplified by set-pieces that operate like optical illusions, caricatured enemies that embrace cartooning, and a soundtrack by Peter McConnell that reframes John Barry’s Bond philosophy through klezmer. Double Fine grounds all these seemingly disparate choices with an emotional hook: We are all, deep down, good people who can easily be rattled by life-or-death decisions and the confusing world around us. A platformer set inside the mind could be superficial — the brain looks frickin’ cool! — but Schafer and the Double Fine team went deeper to create a game that’s breezily fun and effortlessly thoughtful.

Matt Patches

Available on Xbox One, Xbox Series X, PlayStation 4, and Windows PC

More detail for #8, Wildermyth will be read when this box is activated.
A band of adventurers with various ailments and abilities in Wildermyth
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8. Wildermyth+

The most wonderful moments in Wildermyth don’t actually happen in the game. They don’t even happen in the player’s mind. They unfold in the space between the game and the player, trading on decades’ worth of fantasy narratives and tabletop storytelling techniques to create something that’s equal parts pixels and imagination.

I once called Wildermyth a “Fellowship of the Ring simulator,” and I stand by that description. It’s a turn-based tactical RPG in which you build a band of adventurers to battle an encroaching evil. Between skirmishes, you’ll parse through procedurally generated pen-and-paper-inspired short stories that can splinter in every direction. Sometimes these campaigns last for an in-game decade. Sometimes they last for half a century. Your adventurers make mistakes, suffer injuries, and gain scars. They grow old and retire.  

I don’t mean any of this figuratively — this is a game in which character development is paramount, and as your heroes save the world (or fail trying) and enter the realm of legends, they’ll become part of your own unique mythos. You can recruit heroes from previous campaigns, and although they’re older, scarred, and sporting a tree branch for an arm, they bring the skills and wisdom of past adventures to bear. 

The best emergent storytelling in video games relies on the player’s imagination. And few games, if any, have sparked my imagination like Wildermyth.

Mike Mahardy

Available on Windows PC, Mac, and Linux

More detail for #7, Death’s Door will be read when this box is activated.
An early game boss in Death’s Door
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7. Death’s Door+

Death’s Door is a top-down, isometric adventure game that updates a traditional Legend of Zelda formula with a bit of Dark Souls flair. You play a tiny crow who works as a reaper, a harvester of souls for the governmentlike agency that runs the afterlife. Of course, you quickly discover that there’s a grand conspiracy afoot: Death himself has been taken prisoner, and you can save him only by exploring the depths of cleverly designed dungeons that are all guarded by menacing bosses.

In a year with several great adventure games, Death’s Door stands out by getting all the little things right. The combat is quick, satisfying, and precise, with enough varied enemies to make each dungeon feel unique. Its steady difficulty curve eases you into its most punishing challenges, and the Soulslike upgrades help you keep powering up. Puzzles are detailed enough to require thought and experimentation, but they never frustrate. Perhaps most importantly, the game’s art is absolutely gorgeous, with a foreboding style that ties together the game’s often adorable characters with the grimness and humor of its world.  

None of this is new or groundbreaking, necessarily. But what Death’s Door lacks in originality, it makes up for by nailing all of the little details, which eventually add up to one of the best and most memorable top-down adventure games in years.

Austen Goslin

Available on PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Xbox One, Xbox Series X, Windows PC, and Nintendo Switch

More detail for #6, Hitman 3 will be read when this box is activated.
Agent 47 at Hitman’s Mendoza winery location
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6. Hitman 3+

Like its hairless chameleon of a protagonist, Hitman 3 can be any number of things it needs to be in a given moment. 

In one context, it is a finale, the last installment in what developer IO Interactive has dubbed the “World of Assassination” trilogy. This makes players’ first time on Hitman 3 murderous merry-go-round feel both like a victory lap and a moody rumination on what came before. It starts at the top of the world, in a Dubai skyscraper, and eventually brings you down to the dance floor of a Berlin nightclub called, literally, Club Hell. 

Play the game some more, and other contexts emerge. In one, it is perhaps mainstream gaming’s most successful satire, a thorough (and often hilarious) dressing down of the wealthy where the joke is underlined by the player’s actions — as opposed to the medium’s favored method of stuffing browbeating jokes into an overwrought script. In another, it is a game so successful at enabling player expression that at times it feels like the only game to do so. It organically presents you with assassination possibilities so deranged and unlikely that the player can very reasonably conclude that they’re a genius.

Like the games before it, Hitman 3 rewards elegance and despises mess, challenging players to find more and more novel ways to navigate its clockwork worlds, and expressing distaste for anyone who wants to play a game about a man with a gun. There are plenty of those. There is only one Hitman.

Joshua Rivera

Available on PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Xbox One, Xbox Series X, Windows PC, Google Stadia, and Nintendo Switch via cloud streaming

More detail for #5, Resident Evil Village will be read when this box is activated.
Lady Dimitrescu in her castle in Resident Evil Village
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5. Resident Evil Village+

Whereas Resident Evil 7 wholly reinvented the franchise with a masterful reset in 2017, earning it the No. 5 spot in that year’s game of the year lineup, Resident Evil Village gets to the exact same spot without quite matching its predecessor’s high marks. Some of this comes down to lineups, sure, but I like to think that some of it is also about our expectations. Resident Evil Village picks up where RE7 leaves off, in terms of story but also gameplay. While RE7 built up to its action-packed conclusion, Village has you armed and loaded right away — and it’s a better action game for it. 

The titular town is really a hub world, connecting the game’s various bosses — and the four pieces of Ethan’s daughter, Rose, who has been … uhhh, decanted into four flasks — and it’s those villains and their respective villas where Village excels. From the meme-worthy Lady Dimitrescu to the truly unsettling Baby in House Beneviento, Village is full of memorable baddies and the set-pieces to go with them. The newest entry may not have benefited from the novelty of reinvention, but in managing to maintain the franchise’s hard-won momentum while adding in its own major contributions (e.g., the Tall Vampire Lady), it has delivered something just as satisfying as a successful reboot: an exceptional encore.

Chris Grant

Available on PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Xbox One, Xbox Series X, Windows PC, and Google Stadia

More detail for #4, Metroid Dread will be read when this box is activated.
Samus Aran, deep underground in Metroid Dread
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4. Metroid Dread+

The Metroid series has housed some of the most influential video games in history. But it hasn’t seen the same release cadence as Nintendo’s other major franchises, like Mario and the Legend of Zelda. Metroid Dread, in the hands of MercurySteam, is the first completely new 2D Metroid title since Metroid Fusion in 2002, and it’s so good that it raises a frustrating question: Why have we waited so long for a new Metroid game?

MercurySteam takes full advantage of the new era. Samus controls like never before, with new acrobatic moves, refined aiming, and a counterattack that will go down as one of the year’s most satisfying mechanics. The background comes alive with hints of a boss to come, or, in some of the game’s best scenes, with the boss itself. The game’s story is more nuanced and probing than in any other Metroid entry. 

In addition to all the modern upgrades, MercurySteam also nails the fundamentals of a Metroid game. It’s a modern shell over freshly polished bones, with the developer perfectly balancing convenience with the series’ classic difficulty.

Dread is a game worth waiting decades for, and proof that polish, tight mechanics, and a bit of modernity go a long way.

Ryan Gilliam

Available on Nintendo Switch

More detail for #3, Halo Infinite will be read when this box is activated.
The Master Chief stands in the middle of Zeta Halo’s open-world
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3. Halo Infinite+

The Halo franchise has been a powerhouse of the gaming industry for two decades now. Its entries have won countless awards and accolades, and have been named Game of the Year and even Game of the Decade. All of which is to say: Halo is iconic. So it might not be surprising to see Halo Infinite, the sixth main franchise installment, so high up on this year’s list.

But Halo Infinite’s ranking here isn’t just a legacy nod. What makes Halo Infinite special is the way that it feels simultaneously like two decades’ worth of Halo, and also entirely new. It’s both a reinvigoration and a reinvention of the franchise. Our favorite genetically enhanced protagonist is still solving the galaxy’s problems by shooting hordes of alien baddies in this game — but it’s also so much more.

Infinite brings Halo to a semi-open map with a combination of story missions, secret locations, and emergent world events. There’s still plenty of super-soldiering to be done, but you’re also rescuing Marine squads pinned down by enemies, destroying propaganda towers, and reclaiming UNSC bases. Halo Infinite is the story of an entire (open) world, rather than that of just one soldier.

Besides, the mere addition of the now-famous Grappleshot — Master Chief’s wrist-mounted grappling hook, which allows for acrobatics previously unseen in the series — is enough to put it in the running for Game of the Year.

—Jeffrey Parkin

Available on Xbox Series X, Xbox One, and Windows PC

More detail for #2, Chicory: A Colorful Tale will be read when this box is activated.
The player character leaves Chicory’s home in Chicory: A Colorful Tale
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2. Chicory: A Colorful Tale+

For a game about a cute little dog with a paintbrush, Chicory: A Colorful Tale hits hard. The anthropomorphic canine you inhabit begins the game as the janitor for a famous artist, a bunny named Chicory. She has been blessed (or cursed) with wielding the Brush, a magical tool that brings color to the entire world. When Chicory is overcome by the stress of her task, she foists the Brush onto you.

From there, you can run wild and color the world to your whims: purple trees! pink cobblestones! magenta tank tops! But wielding the Brush also means catering to a lot of different people’s needs, from the cafe owner looking for merch designs to the gallery owner hoping for approximations of historical works of art. Then there’s the larger metaphysical threat looming on the horizon: Chicory’s burnout has resulted in a monstrous darkness creeping over the land.

It’s rare to play a game where the central verb, painting, is also the emotional crux around which its themes and world revolve. Chicory has other verbs — exploring, talking, solving puzzles — but mostly, it’s a game about painting the entire world however you like, with utter abandon. It sounds so simple, and yet it’s no wonder that Chicory had a meltdown over it. This is a task that can never truly be “done.” You’ll always wonder if you did it right, or if “doing it right” is even possible. But it turns out, all you can do is your best while you have the chance.

Maddy Myers

Available on PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Windows PC, and Mac

More detail for #1, Inscryption will be read when this box is activated.
The card dealer from Inscryption’s first act
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1. Inscryption+

Inscryption is a game about games, centered around a narrative with as many layers as a Russian nesting doll. 

It begins as a standard roguelike deck-building game, and this first act is meaty enough that I was hooked by the time developer Daniel Mullins pulled the rug out from beneath my feet. As I proceeded through the following acts (each of which bends the rules of what a card-based game can be), it’s clear that there’s a much larger metanarrative at play. Mullins delights in borrowing tropes and shorthand from viral alternate-reality games and creepypasta, and weaves these weird threads into the fabric of Inscryption’s campaign. What initially seems like an innocuous detail can turn out to be a major plot point. What feels like an extraneous mechanic is later imbued with deeper meaning.

So while Inscryption caught me off guard, I quickly fell in love with it, and couldn’t pull myself back out again. This is one of those wonderful pieces of art that could not work in any other medium, and it plays best without being spoiled beforehand. The narrative is loaded with surreal twists, and there’s nothing else quite like it this year. It’s brilliant in ways I still haven’t fully grasped.

—Cass Marshall

Available on Windows PC