best of 2021

The Best Video Games of 2021

With triple-A publishers regrouping and recalculating, a rush of indie studios took center stage.

Photo-Illustration: Vulture; Photos by Devolver Digital, Turtle Rock Studios, Torn Banner Studios, Bethesda Software and Consumer Soft Products
Photo-Illustration: Vulture; Photos by Devolver Digital, Turtle Rock Studios, Torn Banner Studios, Bethesda Software and Consumer Soft Products

We kicked off 2021 expecting a dry year for video-game releases, finally giving us all the time to chip away at our backlogs. But it’s now December, and I, at least, am once again hopelessly behind. Huge triple-A releases like Age of Empires IV, Forza Horizon 5, and Halo Infinite just made landfall, and indie studios continue to keep pace with Inscryption, The Artful Escape, and Sable. I haven’t had time to play most of them. Same as it ever was. In a year in which the calendar was unclogged by various COVID-related delays, we’re all still underwater. Peering over the edge into 2022, we’re already bracing for the absolute gauntlet in January and February. Horizon Forbidden West and Elden Ring both come out in the same week! How will any of us survive?

Cataloguing our favorites of the year, we were again reminded of how the evacuation of certain canonical, discourse-sparking games afforded other, smaller players in the industry the chance to thrive. This year did not contain anything major from Rockstar or Naughty Dog or Nintendo. Instead, we watched as the community circled around the oddball underbelly of the Steam charts — inventive shooters; wistful RPGs; a dodgeball game, of all things — stuff that would’ve been beaten into submission if a new Breath of the Wild were hanging over us. Will 2021 be remembered as one of the great years for video games? Probably not, but it might go down as one of the most memorable.

10.

Scarlet Nexus (PC, PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Xbox One, Xbox Series S/X)

I am hopelessly incapable of explaining the Scarlet Nexus plotline. It has something to do with our brains, the encroaching authoritarianism of personal tech, and the macabre corporations that may or may not be turning people into horrific Escherian abominations beyond the city walls. There is definitely some time-travel stuff in there, and I think the moon is important somehow. Oh, also, the story is divided up into two different, hefty, crisscrossing campaigns, starring dueling protagonists who both need to be completed in full before achieving even the faintest grasp of the narrative.

I am usually not a huge fan of the cutscene-heavy JRPG, with a cast of teenage weirdos who spout dialogue that is entirely composed of elliptical exposition, but Scarlet Nexus is so brazen in its attempt to create a new multiverse-filled, Attack on Titan–like empire that I couldn’t help but give myself over. The combat is bananas; our psionic freedom fighters fling massive payloads of rubble toward apartment-size monsters before diving in with their deadly cyber-katanas. Eventually, my character unlocked an ability called, hilariously, “brain drive,” which might be the single most impressive visual feat I saw all year: The world melts away into a sublime synth wave of euphoria, replete with ludicrous damage boons. Afterward, we all head back to base and engage in quiet, soul-searching coffee dates with our new friends, which bring to mind the filler episodes I endured back in my heaviest Toonami days. I desperately hope Scarlet Nexus sparks a fandom and earns a sequel, because seriously — I would really like to know what’s going on.

9.

Deathloop (PC, PlayStation 5)

Arkane Studios has been trying to create its masterpiece for decades, and it almost pulled it off with Deathloop. We take control of a hit man adrift in a sumptuous burnt-orange pleasure palace — burnished with linty wallpaper, psychedelic chandeliers, and fluorescent dive bars — and quickly discover that we’re waking up on the same beach, on the same day, over and over again. To break the time loop, we’ll need to assassinate eight targets in a single 24-hour period. Deathloop shines as we slowly uncover the subliminal logistics of this cursed clockwork island — all of our accumulated heuristic knowledge folding on top of itself until we’re outside the Matrix. (If you sabotage those fireworks in the morning, surely one of our targets is going to accidentally detonate himself in the evening.) It’s a brilliant premise, buttressed by some indelible world-building, but when I was finally ready to topple all the pieces like dominoes, I felt a little unsatisfied. For a game that often feels so dynamic and unpredictable, there is only one critical pathway to escape groundhog day. All of these infinite possibilities, filtered to an oddly constrictive endgame. Still, Arkane is one of the most ambitious voices in gaming, and Deathloop’s journey is abound with so much enticing astral espionage, so many creative ways to mangle best-laid plans, that it resembles a Coen brothers–esque allegory on how much a life can change between sunrise and sunset. Here is a paradise; bring it to its knees.

8.

Old World (Mac, PC)

The two greatest strategy games in industry history are Crusader Kings and Civilization. This year, designer Soren Johnson married both of those traditions together. All of the action in Old World takes place on a dusty map that spans from the kingdoms of the Mediterranean to the deserts of Mesopotamia. You will wrest control of one of the ancient era’s prime regents in order to orchestrate troop movements, broker alliances, and harvest the cereals and ores resting within your borders. This all plays out like a classic 4X PC game — the Civ strain — but Johnson cleverly melds in a dose of juicy throne-room drama, which gives Old World its vicious swagger. The barons on the field are no longer nondescript scions carrying out orders, because as history dictates, sometimes our vassals are petty, brainless, or vindictive. Maybe you retch in horror as the prince-in-waiting demonstrates a psychopathic Joffrey streak; maybe you’ve created an exemplar philosopher-queen, superior in all qualities, only to be taken unceremoniously by cholera. Plenty of strategy games let us witness the grand unfurling of human development, but few let us take a peek at the grubby politics hiding underneath.

7.

Death’s Door (Nintendo Switch, PC, PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Xbox One, Xbox Series S/X)

You could make the argument that no game in the history of the hobby has been more influential than The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past. So Death’s Door, with its quaint top-down perspective, shrewd puzzles, and chunky mêlée combat, is honoring a tiresome altar. But the two-person team at Acid Nerve revealed a cockeyed, Miyazaki-ish verve that caught me off guard from the jump. We are not controlling a Hero of Time or a Chosen Undead. No, our protagonist is a lowly bureaucrat of the Grim Reaper, carrying out the busywork of the stodgy underworld. The first boss is hyped as an ancient leviathan; when you enter its chambers, you instead find a very large, very angry grandmother. It goes to show how anyone can absorb Nintendo’s game-design chops while still putting their own spin on the company’s frustratingly pensive takes on the adventures of Link and Zelda. Let’s hope Death’s Door rubs off on the mother ship.

6.

Knockout City (Nintendo Switch, PC, PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Xbox One, Xbox Series S/X)

One of my favorite sensations in gaming is the subtle, unspoken vernacular between two rivals in a multiplayer match. You read their slight twitches of the analog stick, feints, hesitations, footwork, identifying the barest possible soft spot before diving in for the kill. I did not expect those crafty gambits to be so beautifully replicated in a freaking dodgeball game. And yet Knockout City absolutely mesmerized me over the summer. The game takes place in a pastel taurine-soaked paradise — a utopian future in which dodgeball has become the most prestigious bloodsport on the planet — and mechanically, you’ll immediately be transported back to middle school PE. The basics are exactly what you expect; chuck a ball at the other team, and hope nobody catches it. As more players developed their strategies, Knockout City quickly transformed into a nervy fighting game full of baits, counters, and knee-buckling pump fakes. So many other sports games abstract their core concepts into mushy blandness. Madden has as much in common with a third-person shooter as it does with football, but Knockout City actually resembles dodgeball. Who knew how fun that could be?

5.

Halo Infinite (PC, Xbox One, Xbox Series S/X)

It feels like everyone in the country is playing Halo Infinite right now, likely a result of Microsoft’s bold move to make the game’s multiplayer portion completely free for all comers. All of our favorite toys are right in place: You can puncture shields with the plasma pistol and switch to the battle rifle for a head shot, which is the exact combo I’ve relied on since roughly 2004. But honestly, Infinite’s miraculous renaissance likely has nothing to do with its gameplay bona fides. This is more or less the same Halo we’ve been playing for decades, but after the franchise was derailed by middling releases, development troubles, and an extended period of wounded soul-searching, it’s strangely liberating to watch our once-and-future Spartans ascend to the throne once more. Members of the Halo generation are now in their 30s and 40s, and once we’re off our shift and the kids are in bed, we’re still crowding around the Xbox like teenagers. The name is spot on; Halo truly is infinite.

4.

Chivalry 2 (PC, PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Xbox One, Xbox Series S/X)

In the tutorial for Chivalry 2, as you’re learning about the parries and ripostes necessary for victory in high medieval combat, the game also specifically identifies the “Battlecry” button. You are encouraged to press Battlecry as often as possible — summoning a repressed, emasculated yelp out of our hero — as you charge into the fold. It is one of the few moments in which Chivalry 2 tips its hand and admits that, underneath all of the legitimately adroit combat, this is an extremely stupid video game. Two massive armies clash under vague circumstances, and together they replicate the Black Knight scene until one team eclipses the victory threshold. Your head will be chopped off by a claymore; your enemy will try to punch you to death with their right arm after you removed the left; you will engage in tense martial duels — both sides expertly neutralizing each other’s offense — until one player shrugs and chucks their sword directly at the rival noble’s head. It is possible to become outrageously good at Chivalry 2. I’ve seen people play this game on an astonishing e-sports-adjacent level. But that’s not what you’re here for. That’s not what anyone is here for.

Chivalry 2
$17
$17

3.

Cruelty Squad (PC)

Cruelty Squad is a living thing. No game this year, or maybe ever, cashes in on such a profoundly upsetting clarity of vision. Cruelty Squad is Rainbow Six left to fester for decades in the Joker vat. Its color palette is all puke yellow and critical-error red. The world is composed of apocalypse malls, blackened apartment complexes, and peyote-flecked suburban neighborhoods — all rendered through a septic, lo-fi veneer that brings to mind the ugliest PS One days. Yes, there is a video game here; you complete a mission by bagging a bounty and returning to base, but the magic of Cruelty Squad is most often found in its interstitial horrors: a room made of Funko Pop! dolls, a grappling hook that rockets out of your appendix, a churning stock market that happily processes reclaimed organs. Cruelty Squad needs to be seen to be believed — and then never spoken of again.

2.

Back 4 Blood (PC, PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Xbox One, Xbox Series S/X)

It’s so good to see Turtle Rock Studios at the peak of its powers again. The developer spent years in the wilderness following the miraculous success of 2008’s Left 4 Dead, and after a clumsy streak of failed experiments and irrelevant VR ventures, the humbled company returned to its bread and butter. Here is a gigantic map besieged by zombies; try to make it to the next safe house with most of your body intact. Back 4 Blood doesn’t iterate much on the Left 4 Dead formula. Instead, it almost feels like a consecration of a series that lingered for far too long in absentia. A huge arsenal, gobs of viscera, and the indelible cocktail of panic and laughter as one of your friends is hopelessly overwhelmed by the horde. This is a homecoming.

1.

Wildermyth (Mac, PC)

Video games are not supposed to be capable of what Wildermyth accomplishes. The six-person team at Worldwalker Games wanted to adapt the ethereal, interpersonal magic of pen-and-paper RPGs like Dungeons & Dragons to code. You could argue that this has been the true north of the industry since the floppy-disk era — a litany of classics such as Might and Magic, Baldur’s Gate, and Ultima were birthed directly from 20-sided dice and grease-stained character sheets. But there was always a hard limit to the possibilities of that ambition. Tabletop RPGs are special because everyone around the table is filling in small pieces of the fable in front of us. Video games, on the other hand, can usually only tell one story.

Wildermyth is one of the few exceptions to that rule. This is a tactical, turn-based strategy game — we move a small party of adventurers from tile to tile and take aim at encroaching villains — and it excels in those functions. But what makes Wildermyth special is the untold number of plotlines, side quests, and character moments simmering underneath the hood. All of them aim to simulate a cozy, fireside D&D session. You’ll start a Wildermyth campaign with a randomized party of lost souls equipped with brawn, brains, and a few personality quirks. With an art style that resembles the watercolor composition of the mid-2000s webcomic golden age, we watch as they grow and change alongside the challenges ahead. In my first Wildermyth tale, my mage and my ranger fell in love and had a child. Ten years later, the ranger was cursed by an eldritch god, making her more reserved and less buoyant, putting a strain on their relationship. The pair worked past it, though; later on, their eldest daughter joined my team for the final battle. These moments don’t feel skin-deep or algorithmic — everything in Wildermyth is absurdly bespoke, as if the team wrote a million little narrative elements that miraculously fuse together in perfect, thoughtful combinations. It’s the most exciting game of the year, and it may just bring us one step closer to total singularity.

Honorable Mentions

Throughout 2021, Luke Winkie maintained a “Best Video Games of the Year (So Far)” list. Many of those selections appear above in his top 10 picks. Below are the rest of the games that stood out to Winkie this year:

Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy (Nintendo Switch, PC, PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Xbox One, Xbox Series S/X)

This was a shocker. The MCU’s early foibles with video games have been spotty at best. Last year’s Avengers packed a decent combat system and a compelling narrative into an absurdly dull grind — embodying all of the worst instincts of triple-A development. Publisher Square Enix was still licking its wounds when it unveiled Guardians of the Galaxy, once again recruiting an ersatz cast of not-quite-Hollywood actors to fill the roles of Star-Lord, Rocket Raccoon, Groot, Gamora, and Drax. I expected the worst, and what I found was a genuinely moving single-player narrative that seemed desperate to atone for the sins of its forebearer. The combat is mediocre, and I endured a ton of technical issues during my playthrough on PC, but Guardians contains an intimacy that is rare for the medium. Rocket is afraid of water due to some long-standing phobias; unfortunately, there’s only one way across the river. Gamora is embarrassed about her action-figure collection, and it’s up to Star-Lord if he wants to be a dick about it. The Guardians films thrive when the stakes are small, and Square Enix mirrors the magic brilliantly.

Metroid Dread (Nintendo Switch)

As the world turns, more people are coming around to a noble truth; Metroid was always better in 2-D than 3-D. Yes, plenty of people loved the Metroid Prime trilogy on the GameCube and Wii — the less said about Other M, the better — and I’m sure we’ll get that endlessly delayed sequel sometime this millennium. But the masses have spoken: Give us Samus Aran in an oozing, purple corridor, where she can shrink down into a ball and snake through a wormy crevice. That’s the only thing we’ve ever really needed. The Metroid Dread name existed all the way back in the mid-2000s, so unsurprisingly, the design feels like it has fermented deep within Nintendo’s coffers. As always, Ms. Aran is marooned on a carnivorous planet and fending off translucent, brain-sucking parasites. But this time, there’s a greater threat than the aliens afoot. Porcelain-white mechas, known as the EMMIs, are on the prowl, and they’re capable of one-shotting our poor bounty hunter. This gives Metroid a perverse element of cat-and-mouse covertness — suddenly, we’re no longer the most powerful being in the galaxy. The game is called Dread for a reason.

Psychonauts 2 (PC, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Xbox Series X/S)

Tim Schafer has been trying to make a sequel to Psychonauts for 15 years, and he finally pulled it off in 2021. Yes, it’s been eons since sprightly, Nickelodeon-style platformers ruled the roost — particularly on a Microsoft platform — so I understand any cynicism about how well the Psychonauts mystique has aged. But within a few hours, you’ll be jumping into the minds of the various eccentrics, plucking at their sloshing brain chemistry, quietly altering their opinion about cilantro. Psychonauts has consistently managed to layer some fun, think-y questions about the nature of consciousness over its simple mechanics, and that bears plenty of fruit in the sequel. Explore the psychic landscapes and face off against the physical manifestations of panic attacks and schizophrenia! If only it were that easy in real life.

Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart (PlayStation 5)

Insomniac has been cranking out excellent Ratchet & Clank games for almost 20 years without ever capturing a global critical Zeitgeist. That was a raw deal. These 3-D shooter-cum-platformers have been great since the PS2 days, but they never quite crossed the Rubicon enough to be considered in the Hall of Fame conversation. But all of those biases are shattered with Rift Apart, which is the single best-looking product available on new hardware. Insomniac leverages the PS5 to pump out a gorgeous, cyberpunk cityscape: The streets refract and reflect the piercing neon lights; loose cargo floats lazily in a deep, warm sea of stars; and big rubbery aliens — each of them with more personality than some main characters — mill about in the margins like the New Hope cantina scene. The game is a technical marvel, which pairs beautifully with the Pixar-ish tone that Ratchet & Clank has consistently aimed for. I can only hope this spurs on a renaissance for every other early-2000s Playstation mascot. Where’s our scintillating 4K Sly Cooper reboot, Sony!

Mass Effect: Legendary Edition (PC, PlayStation 4, Xbox One)

It’s been a tough few years for BioWare. The great, venerable RPG shop suffered through a disaster in Anthem a Destiny-ish ripoff that was unceremoniously killed off by EA earlier this year after attracting tepid review scores and a nonexistent player base. That tragedy came after 2017’s Mass Effect: Andromeda, a reboot of maybe the most beloved game series of the 21st century, which was rife with bugs and seemed dead on arrival. Legendary Edition, then, is a mea culpa. The original Mass Effect trilogy is restored and preserved in a single package, allowing pilgrims to relive the Shepard arc from start to finish. It feels like a homecoming.

If you’ve never played a Mass Effect game, you owe it to yourself to see if Legendary Edition grabs you. This is a vast sci-fi epic that — like the best space stories — thrives in its quietest, personal moments. As more lost souls join the crew of the starship, you’ll find yourself looking forward to the interstitial phases of straight chilling that come between world-saving moments. Standing on the deck, suspended in the void, chopping it up about life, love, and death with one of your buddies. No game has ever captured that same serenity.

Resident Evil Village (PC, PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Xbox One, Xbox Series S/X)

Capcom went back to the drawing board with 2017’s Resident Evil VII. After years in the wilderness, with the series increasingly resembling a garden-variety shooter with a handful of jump scares, the studio discovered a newfound appreciation for its base instincts. Resident Evil Village, like the previous entry, is a straight-up survival horror game. Ethan Winters possesses limited ammo, limited healing abilities, and limited brain cells as he treks through a haunted Eastern European mausoleum. Capcom exchanges its traditional zombies for a whole gamut of classic Victorian evils — vampires and werewolves abound — as it once again discovers that gameplay sublimity can be found on a much smaller scale. Screw the unruly swarms of undead in World War Z or The Walking Dead; there’s nothing more brilliantly terrifying than being trapped in a castle with an eight-foot-tall lady who really wants to eat you alive.

Outriders (PC, PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Xbox One, Xbox Series S/X)

People Can Fly, the studio behind Outriders, previously worked on the Gears of War franchise when it was owned by the megapublisher Epic Games. You can see those fingerprints all over its first new IP since regaining independence in 2015. Outriders is a third-person cover-based shooter, which will likely sit well with any veterans of E-Day out there. But People Can Fly also borrows liberally from Destiny, Warframe, The Division, and practically every other prominent shooter that shot up the charts over the previous five years. Players begin their journey in Outriders by selecting a class, which fits neatly into the standard warrior-caster-rogue triptych that has nourished every RPG since the birth of Dungeons & Dragons. You will earn a gradient of powerful loot to augment your abilities and soak down bosses who possess a ludicrous amount of hit points. That may sound fairly staid, but all these elements come together nicely. People Can Fly already has one of the best shooter pedigrees in the industry, and as it continues to accoutre its most ambitious game yet with expansions and updates, Outriders has a real chance to become a phenomenon.

It Takes Two (PC, PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Xbox One, Xbox Series S/X)

Hazelight Studios (Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons, A Way Out) has thoroughly dedicated itself to the art of the two-player cooperative game, and it may have its first masterpiece with It Takes Two. A marriage is on the brink somewhere in suburbia, and a heartbroken daughter cracks open a magical book that shrinks the battling couple down to Polly Pocket size for some bewitched relationship counseling. The would-be divorced pair is tasked with navigating a series of esoteric, inventive, and often hilarious platforming puzzles as they slowly rediscover the original spark that brought them together. Like the other games from lead designer Josef Fares, It Takes Two is simultaneously symbiotic and asymmetrical. In one level, a player will be loading their partner into a cannon so they can bash their head against a target. Later on, you may both be grasping the same oversize pencil, attempting to balance the graphite evenly through a cereal-box-style connect-the-dots puzzle. Nearly every gameplay idea in It Takes Two is a hit, further proof that there’s still plenty of creative juice to squeeze out of couch multiplayer. 

Monster Hunter Rise (Nintendo Switch)

There are two ways to play a Monster Hunter game. True diehards can spend hours researching the various weak spots of the kaiju they’re preying on before carefully constructing an airtight build that will bring the beastie to its knees. Other players tend to run into battle completely blind with a sword and a shield, throwing hands with a skyscraper-size dragon using guile and guts alone.

It’s a testament to Monster Hunter’s newfound emphasis on approachability that both of these tactics are generally effective, and with the latest sequel on Switch, the door has been cracked open even wider for any emboldened hinterlander acolytes. Monster Hunter Rise remains a video game about engaging in shockingly pugilistic combat with a colossal cast of jurassic behemoths, but many of the franchise’s early eccentricities have been ironed out. Rise introduces a grappling hook that revolutionizes the series’s plodding movement schemes. Your frontiersman now has the ability to saddle up on the back of a tamed beast, considerably reducing the downtime between fights. Capcom, the game’s publisher, has made a point of streamlining the resource-management heft, which means this Monster Hunter requires less of the same menu-screen navigation that previous generations endured. After five games, the powers that be have discovered that Monster Hunter is at its best when you’re actually fighting monsters. In that sense, Rise is a thrilling success.

Dorfromantik (PC)

Urban-planning games are finicky. Every SimCity veteran knows what it’s like to stare at your electricity tab for half an hour, evaluating just how annoyed your commercial residents might be if you opened up a nuclear power plant in their backyard. (The answer, invariably, is very annoyed.) But Dorfromantik ditches all of that upkeep; all you need to focus on is your next tile. The game works like the tabletop classic Carcassonne, in which players lay out hex after hex, slowly transforming their kitchen counter into a verdant European country village. You score bonus points for matching edges and building out biomes (forests slot next to forests, rivers connect into lakes, and so on), and Dorfromantik does a good job of egging players on with dynamic challenge thresholds that mutate the gameplay with new tile archetypes. Mostly, though, Dorfromantik has earned an audience by being preternaturally zen. There are no overwhelming spreadsheets, anxious food shortages, or rival clans encroaching on your territory. No, this is a video game about placing a pretty windmill on a map and watching it spin. Nothing could be better suited for 2021.

Loop Hero (Mac, Nintendo Switch, PC)

Loop Hero is one of the strangest games ever made. You could define it as a dungeon crawler — after all, an adventurer trudges through a desolate wasteland populated with carnivorous spiders, sinister vampires, and marauding goblins — but all of the action happens completely passively. The player will never raise a shield or cast a single spell; instead, every enemy encounter is automated by the algorithm. The only authority you have in Loop Hero is to make your lonely traveler’s journey incrementally harder in order to ensure that they grow stronger. Perhaps you drop an infected swamp or a haunted cemetery in their path to test their mettle and enrich them with more powerful suites of arms and armory. After all, when the champion eventually reaches the end of this sojourn and faces off with the boss, they better be seasoned for the challenge.

All of this likely sounds super-abstruse, and it is. Loop Hero is absurdly meta: a video game about the experience of playing video games. But once you eclipse the learning curve, it has a sublime way of sinking into your skin. There’s an anxious thrill in pushing your hero to the limits — and a calamitous grief after it becomes clear that you’ve gone one step too far. The forces of evil overwhelm the only protagonist this haggard universe has ever known, and it’s all your fault. Back to the camps, where the player plots the precise blend of kindness and cruelty that will lead them to the promised land.

Maquette (PC, PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5)

Maquette is the latest game from the contemplative publisher Annapurna Interactive, and its recursive game world needs to be seen firsthand. The player arrives in a melancholy, Myst-like plaza built over a scaled-down model village that mirrors its surroundings perfectly. Everything is reflected. Drop a house key in a corner, and a much smaller key can be found in the same spot in the replica. Put the regular-size key in the model, and a humongous key falls from the heavens in the real world. This mechanic is the crux for all the puzzles in Maquette, and the deeper you sink into its vibrations, the more philosophical the game gets. Without spoiling anything, there’s a reveal halfway through the narrative that left me questioning what I could reasonably define as reality in this parallax, ever-expanding universe. Is there any better use of a few hours than contemplating the subjective nature of existence?

Bowser’s Fury (Nintendo Switch)

Nintendo reinvented the venerable Legend of Zelda franchise in 2017 with Breath of the Wild. The company abandoned the tired linear staples of the series in favor of a massive open world laden with furtive side quests and regional quirks, which allowed players unprecedented liberty to explore at their own pace. Bowser’s Fury doesn’t possess nearly the same scope as Breath of the Wild, but it is evidence that Nintendo is keen to apply those same retrofitting instincts to its oldest, and most famous, mascot.

Bowser’s Fury is bundled with the rerelease of Super Mario 3D Land on Switch (also a great game), and it represents the first major iteration of Mario’s core gameplay structure since the Nintendo 64 era. Mario is no longer sprinting through self-contained, static levels; instead, he’s hopping through a strange archipelago populated entirely by cats and being told that the world is his oyster. You collect the stars in any order you like and can hike off in any direction you want. There’s a feature in Grand Theft Auto that makes the names of the local municipalities (Vinewood Hills, Del Perro Beach) pop up on screen as you tool around Los Santos. Bowser’s Fury does the same thing, except that the provincial color of the greater Mushroom Kingdom includes districts like Scamper Shores and Pounce Bounce Isle. We’re still probably a few years away from the next formal Mario sequel, so we hope Boswer’s Fury is a taste of what’s next. Please, Nintendo, let us traverse the full expanse of the Donut Plains and the Forest of Illusion.

Valheim (PC)

We rarely go more than a month without a new Minecraft disciple blowing up on Steam, but Valheim has already demonstrated some real staying power in Early Access. The fundamentals are familiar: The player takes the guise of a Viking who’s a fresh import to a virgin world (in this case, a Nordic purgatory) and is tasked with the simple burden of subsistence. Immediately, you start harvesting berries, cutting down trees, and propping up stone kilns to stay alive. What makes Valheim different, in my estimation, is the fidelity of the controls. The combat and traversal in other survival games are implemented as means to an end — something to do before getting back to the more important work of mining and grinding. But here, crouching through a marsh and tailing a deer for supper feels far more polished and emergent. It allows for a greater level of immersion in my quaint backwater hovel than I usually find in games of this ilk. Nobody will forget their first voyage across dark water, sail glistening under a handmade wooden boat in the moonlight, as they discover what lies beyond this mysterious continent.

Hitman 3 (Nintendo Switch, PC, PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Xbox One, Xbox Series S/X)

You ought to savor this one. IO Interactive has already announced that Hitman 3 will be the last game in the series for some time, which means this entry serves as the conclusion to one of the most beloved trilogies in recent memory. 2016’s Hitman and 2018’s Hitman 2 built profoundly detailed clockwork dioramas filled with zillions of dubious characters and interactive doodads that the titular Agent 47 needed to sift through in order to find his mark. Maybe we’re chasing down a pair of vicious socialites who happen to be tucked away at a Bilderberg-esque party on a rocky Nordic island? Perhaps we’re in Paris for the biggest runway show of the year and tasked with dispatching a supermodel turned intelligence merchant? As always, the player uses circuitous, often baffling assassination methods to get the job done. You haven’t lived until you’ve used an industrial wind machine to blow a target off a building to their death.

Hitman 3 honors the tradition laid out in the previous two games, this time sending Agent 47 to Berlin nightclubs and the neon streets of Chongqing to furnish his grim career. The whole trilogy exists in the same gigantic file on both consoles and PCs, which means players have access to a huge swath of legacy content at the click of a button. If IO’s brand of elaborate, MacGyver-style high jinks isn’t your thing, Hitman 3 won’t make a believer out of you. But it’s hard to imagine a better send-off for fans of the franchise.

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