Like I’ve belabored already, I didn’t get to play a lot of stuff this year. My general impression is that this year is a lot like 2014, which was a generally “meh” year that didn’t have a lot of standout titles. Or maybe there were some great games and I missed them because I was distracted. Or maybe the games I played were great, but I couldn’t really get into them because I wasn’t feeling my best.
Ugh. Enough introspection. Whatever. I didn’t get excited about a lot of games in 2021, but I did manage to have a good time with a few. Here are the first four:
This was a charming little trifle of a game. The game deals you a stack of hexagonal pieces. Each edge can be woodlands, plains, houses, water, or farmland. Your goal is to place tiles with as many matching edges as possible. The better you do at matching edges, the higher your score. Scoring more points earns you more tiles, allowing you to continue expanding the map.
This one falls into the “trivial to learn, difficult to master” space that so many puzzle games aspire to. It’s a simple idea with simple rules and pretty art. This is the perfect coffee-break game for when you find yourself getting tired of old standbys like Tetris and Minesweeper.
6. Portal 2 Reloaded
This was a nice little surprise. This free community-made mod for Portal 2 features a handful of new puzzles built around a time-shifting mechanic. In this game you have your usual portals for moving through space, plus an additional portal that allows you to jump between the present-day testing center and the dilapidated testing center of 20 years from now. Which means the puzzles in this game are slightly 4-dimensional.
In the future-space, some machines will be broken, glass will be shattered, power might be out, and piles of rubble will sometimes block your way. Going through the rectangular time portal will carry you to the other version of the facility, standing in the same spot. There are tricky shenanigans where you can leave a cube on the ground in the present and find it sitting in the same spot in the future, but moving the future cube will obviously not impact the position of the one in the past. This asymmetry takes some getting used to and forms the foundation for a lot of the early puzzles.
On top of having great puzzles, a brilliant new gimmick, and solid level design, the writing is pretty solid. The writing in fan-made Portal works is usually pretty bad. The best ones simply re-tell the jokes of the original with inferior voice acting, and the bad ones blunder into cringe territory. Eric Wolpaw – author of the original games – is a tough act to follow and his characters have a very unique voice that can be difficult to replicate.
I can’t promise that Portal 2 Reloaded attains Wolpaw-level humor, but it’s an admirable work with jokes that land. The author wisely didn’t try to bring GlaDOS into this, and instead features the voice of the “pre-recorded” announcements we heard in the introduction to Portal 2.
I’d have been happy to pay money for this, but with a price tag of zero this is a no-brainer. If you’re a fan of the Portal universe or gameplay, then this one is easily worth your time. Check it out.
5. Neon Abyss
I don’t usually go for roguelikes. I get a little too frustrated when a run ends and I have nothing to show for it.
I’m also not a huge fan of side-scrolling platformers. In my own personal journey through the hobby, I never spent time with the genre. As a kid in the 70s I was stuck with the early arcade classics of the time. Then I sort of took the 80s off from gaming to focus on programming. When the 90s rolled around it was time for shooters. Which means I basically skipped over the Nintendo years and never developed the passion for platformers that so many gamers seem to have. In fact, I’ve always been generally terrible at the genre and I find it vaguely annoying.
I’m also not crazy about games with huge checklists of crap to do. Stuff like:
- Defeat a hojillion blue slimes.
- Defeat Twenty Kabillion green slimes.
- Pick up 50 inverted widgets.
- Beat the game using the cardboard butterknife.
I don’t know. I just can’t get into games where you need a wiki and a spreadsheet to figure out how to unlock all the goodies.
All of this is to say that I have no idea how this checklist-driven roguelike platformer wound up on my best-of-2021 list. Neon Abyss is like the anti-Shamus game. Why did I like it? Was it the groovy music? The gentle (by the standards of the genre) difficulty curve?The inclusion of difficulty modes probably helped a lot. Most roguelikes take a more Soulsian approach to difficulty. The neon lights? The deity-tier pixel art? I honestly don’t know.
In this game you dive into a dungeon beneath a nightclub to fight various gods. I didn’t really worry about the endless checklists of unlocks. I just slammed head-first into the game again and again until I managed to beat Prometheus. I got the impression that there was still a lot more to do after that, but I knew I was at the limit of my abilities so that’s where I decided I’d call it quits.I BARELY beat Prometheus at the end of a very lucky run with a strong character on Easy difficulty. There’s no way I’d be able to pull that off with some of the more fragile character classes.
I had fun with it, but I can’t explain why. I realize this means I’m failing at my job as a critic. Sorry. I don’t know what to tell you. It’s been a weird year.
I had a hard time figuring out how I felt about this game. It’s not bad, but it wasn’t really what I wanted from developer Arkane and I had a hard time not holding that against it.
It’s like if BioWare made a really solid first-person shooter with a minimalist story. One one hand, the game is fine. On the other hand, it doesn’t contain any of the elements I look for in a BioWare game.
I have very particular tastes when it comes to immersive sims. I want the environment to be dark and spooky. I want the atmosphere to be thoughtful and isolating. I want the enemies to be monstrous and mysterious. Ideally, the environment itself should feel hostile to my presence.
Deathloop is pretty much the opposite of all of this. Instead of a spooky installation filled with monsters, I’m invading an island where a bunch of drunken idiots have set up a time loop so they can have a never-ending party without consequences. Instead of feeling isolated, I have a rival badass that calls me up for some bravado and trash talk.
Shit, I’ve played 20 hours of this game and I still don’t know why I’m supposed to care about breaking this stupid time loop. I guess my character is tired of the loop and wants to do something else? The System Shock games had a setup of “I am nearly the last person alive on this space station, fighting for my own survival in the face of a malevolent enemy that is compelled to destroy me.” Deathloop has the setup of “I’m bored and I’d rather go home.”
I dunno. That just doesn’t grab me.
Having said all that: It’s not a bad game. I had fun with it, but I spent the whole time wishing it was something else.
So that’s the first half of my list. I’ll post the rest later this week.
 The inclusion of difficulty modes probably helped a lot. Most roguelikes take a more Soulsian approach to difficulty.
 I BARELY beat Prometheus at the end of a very lucky run with a strong character on Easy difficulty. There’s no way I’d be able to pull that off with some of the more fragile character classes.
Are Lootboxes Gambling?
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Silent Hill Turbo HD II
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The Brilliance of Mass Effect
What is "Domino Worldbuilding" and how did it help to make Mass Effect one of the most interesting settings in modern RPGs?
Video Compression Gone Wrong
How does image compression work, and why does it create those ugly spots all over some videos and not others?
Blistering Stupidity of Fallout 3
Yeah, this game is a classic. But the story is idiotic, incoherent, thematically confused, and patronizing.