Somehow most of us are still locked inside of our homes and real life feels like a fever dream of monotonous, homogenous days, but keeping us from losing touch with reality are the best games of the year of 2021.
It’s been quite the wild ride for games this year; we’ve seen the lowest lows and the highest highs. My heart was broken when Halo Infinite launched and failed to provide a satisfying narrative, but the action-horror fiend in me was oh, so satisfied by the epic tale that is Resident Evil Village. Halo Infinite wasn’t the only contender to miss out on this list, as the subtle whispers of Super Monkey Ball Banana Mania lingered in the air during our first Game of the Year meeting, but were ultimately put to rest by review score alone. We also briefly thought about The Medium before tossing it aside for its unsatisfying ending.
But that’s enough about games that missed their shots. Here is Laptop Mag’s 20 best Games of the Year for 2021.
20. Twelve Minutes
This is a playable Hitchcock thriller film more than it is a game — a fascinating love letter to the likes of Memento that wraps you up in the mystery of a time loop you have to break. On the face of it, this short point-and-click experience should be clunky, but through the power of AAA production value and a gripping story, Twelve Minutes is anything but.
The Hollywood cast of Daisy Ridley, James McAvoy and Willem Dafoe bring these characters to life and the looping gameplay makes for an interesting level of experimentation. Twelve Minutes culminates in a wild game of Simon Says, as you have to remember everything you did to get to one of the many desired results.
Twelve Minutes is not just a fantastic addition to Xbox Game Pass, but a brilliant install to any library. You won’t play anything quite like this in 2021.
— Jason England
See our full Twelve Minutes review.
19. Big Rumble Boxing
Big Rumble Boxing: Creed Champions is for anyone who fancies good ol’ beat-em-up arcade games. It’s this generation’s Ready 2 Rumble Boxing and one of the best boxing games we’ve seen in a while.
You get to play as characters from the Creed and Rocky movie franchises as you fight your way to Champion status. Big Rumble: Boxing Creed Champions is easy to play and has great fight mechanics that mimic real boxing movements. Each character has a unique boxing style and a sensational signature knockout punch.
If you want to refresh your game collection, Big Rumble Boxing: Creed Champions makes a welcome addition. It’s a must buy for Creed and Rocky fans — and anyone else who is into fighting games.
— Hilda Scott
See our full Big Rumble Boxing: Creed Champion review.
18. Back 4 Blood
Back 4 Blood is exactly what you want it to be: Left 4 Dead 3. This co-op zombie shooter offers blood-soaked fun at every turn and vast replayability, thanks to the return of the Director AI that made the original so good.
The shooting mechanics have a meaty oomph to them — emphasized by the impressive visual and sound design alongside responsive controls. Extra depth is provided thanks to a deeply-rooted card system that can create some interesting variations in levels, each of which is purpose-built to require teamwork.
And sure, some of the pre-existing issues continue here. Most prominently, it can get a little repetitive, and the friendly AI is not the sharpest tool in the shed. But all of these problems melt away in the face of this spiritual Left 4 Dead successor, as it’s one of the most addictive titles you can pick up this year.
— Jason England
See our full Back 4 Blood review.
17. The Forgotten City
The Forgotten City is an indie game with a lot of heart — and time travel. Who knew that a Skyrim mod would be so popular that it birthed an entire gaming studio, Modern Storyteller, that went on to create a game from the ground up. Anyone who played the mod knew its potential, but a three-man team developing one of the best games to come out of 2021 is nothing short of remarkable.
Sure, combat can be a tad dicey, and the aging Skyrim gameplay mechanics are worn on its sleeve, but these are easily excused thanks to a clever script, fascinating interweaving storylines, and a mystery that anyone who sets their eyes on will want to see through to the end. Prepare to question your morality, invest in the lives of the doomed citizens of the Forgotten City and, well, for a bit of a history lesson — of sorts. If you’re a fan of piecing together far-fetched, yet wildly entertaining stories, look no further.
— Darragh Murphy
16. Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy
I’ve got to admit — I was more than a little nervous when I learned that Square Enix was working on a Guardians of the Galaxy title. After all, the Avengers game took a thorough beating by reviewers, including ours, when it came out. Fortunately, my fears were alleviated once I started playing Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy. Square Enix manages to tap into what makes the titular team tick without drawing too much from the Marvel Cinematic Universe. With this game, you’ll experience the humor, just-beneath-the-surface rage, and trauma that makes the GotG so endearing.
In Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy, you’ll take control of Peter Quill a.k.a. Star-Lord (and direct traffic for the core team), and in true Guardians’ fashion, they botch a job in the Forbidden Zone and get caught by the Nova Corps. Facing jail time and their ship’s impoundment, they’re on a quest to pay off their debt. However, they quickly discover a galaxy-threatening force that only their brand of violent, comical hijinks can thwart. Some of my favorite things about this title is that you can utilize teamwork to pull off some devastating damage. Square Enix has crammed plenty of comic book lore into the game in the form of collectables. And leaning into Quill’s love of music, the game has a great soundtrack. It’s a fun romp that shouldn’t take you more than 30 hours.
–– Sherri L. Smith
15. Resident Evil 4 VR
The way that Resident Evil 4 changed the game for survival horror way back in 2005 is the same that it’s doing for virtual reality in 2021. Following in the footsteps of Resident Evil 7, RE4 has made the leap to VR. And just like its predecessor, the title is an exclusive, only this time it’s on Oculus Quest. For those unfamiliar with the story, Resident Evil 4 puts you back into the shoes of Leon Kennedy, one of the protagonists from Resident Evil 2. Now a grizzled veteran with tons of zombie experience, Kennedy is a federal agent tasked with rescuing the President of the United States’ daughter, Ashley Graham, who’s been kidnapped by a cult located somewhere in Europe. Once he arrives, Kennedy comes face to face with something that had previously never been seen in the Resident Evil universe: humans infected with the Las Plagas parasite. Not only are these villagers not undead, they’re stronger, faster and more intelligent than your regular zombie.
Resident Evil 4 keeps the over-the-shoulder, third-person view that made the game so revolutionary and brings the total immersion experience that only VR can bring. Ratcheting up the immersion, players can access some of Leon’s inventory on his person, including accessing his knife by grabbing at the left side of his chest or tossing grenades by physically throwing them. You even have to physically reload your weapons. It seems like a small thing, but when you’ve got an angry horde of parasite-infected villagers bearing down on you with pitchforks and spiked bats, it heightens your anxiety. Looking for a blood-curdling VR thrill? Resident Evil 4 VR is the right game for you.
–– Sherri L. Smith
14. Kena: Bridge of Spirits
While the experience is admittedly rough around the edges, Kena: Bridge of Spirit’s greatest asset is its heart. The warm smile that washes over Kena’s face as she gently greets the adorable creatures of the forest carries the weight of a mountain. Corruption robs the world of its tender hue, and as the player watches its color slowly return, a powerful fulfillment washes over them. The world’s dwindling state tells a story; the history of the people who lived here, how their lives were taken from them, and the ways in which there’s still beauty to be found in the destruction.
Amidst Kena’s palpable spirit is a phenomenal, authentic Balinese soundtrack, a tight combat system, incentives to explore its lurid forests, and a warm, gorgeous world. Kena: Bridge of Spirits is a familiar experience, but its soul is far stronger than many of the titles it takes inspiration from. It evokes an emotional power that far outweighs much of the technical and mechanical mastery seen in other games this year.
— Mohammad Tabari
See our full Kena: Bridge of Spirits review.
13. Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart
After reaching the Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart end credits, I was satisfied, but I didn’t love the experience. The game’s narrative arcs are handled carelessly, which made it difficult to invest myself in the character development. And thanks to an over-reliance on ideas from the Future series and environments lacking imagination, parts of the experience felt tedious. Having players return to old planets makes sense to the narrative, but these are planets after all — they should be larger and have diversity not seen in prior games.
However, Rift Apart is still a blast to play thanks to its responsiveness and mobility. Players can dodge, sprint, boost, jump, teleport and wall-run in the middle of a battle to gain an advantage, which makes every encounter in Rift Apart exhilarating. Darting around the battlefield and blasting enemies with the game’s unique arsenal of bizarre weaponry never gets old. And thanks to the game’s awesome graphical fidelity and instant loading, there’s a lot to love in Rift Apart, although it’s far from the best entry in the series.
See our full Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart review
— Mohammad Tabari
12. Hitman 3
Yes, I know Agent 47’s final foray in the world of assassination trilogy got a pretty “meh” 3.5-star score in our Hitman 3 review, but this has evolved into one of the best games of the year thanks to two things: the fact it’s still one-of-a-kind and IO Interactive’s impressive content roadmap.
The classic Hitman sandbox formula is unlike anything you can play today — each playground of death is created with a wealth of gruesome, and in some occasions, downright hilarious ways to off your targets. This has been perfected over years and culminates in an array of diverse and vastly complex locales, all of which are beautifully realized thanks to the gorgeous Glacier Engine.
To top it off, IO continues to provide new reasons to return and play this game, including new elusive targets and curated contracts that put new spins on familiar levels. Most recently, the 2022 roadmap is going to give us new maps. The wealth of content on offer here is already impressive and getting better.
— Jason England
See our full Hitman 3 review.
11. Forza Horizon 5
Forza Horizon 5 presents a tranquil adventure throughout the spectacular corners of Mexico. Even if you’re not interested in cars, it’s worth playing. Beyond its staggering graphical fidelity and crisp environmental detail, PlayGround Games has done a good job making Forza accessible for those who aren’t experienced racers. On the game’s default settings, color-coded lines appear across the pavement to indicate when the player should speed up, slow down, or keep their pace.
And as the player progresses through races, the game will analyze their performance to see how often they win. If it notices the player is doing well, it will ask if they want to increase the difficulty. When first playing Forza Horizon 5, I couldn’t get close to my friends in a race. I was on average difficulty at the start of the campaign, and after getting through it slowly, I ended on expert; I can now keep up the pace in races against other players. Even if you’re not sure you’ll be good at it, Forza Horizon 5 is cleverly built to be appealing for both newcomers and veterans.
— Mohammad Tabari
10. I Expect You to Die 2
If you’ve ever wanted to step inside the shoes of an international superspy — and I mean really immerse yourself into the world of espionage — I Expect You to Die 2 is all you’ll ever need. I Expect You to Die 2 is a VR game on the Oculus Quest 2 that has the quirky, eccentric vibes of Austin Powers with its tongue-in-cheek dialogue and bombastic opening numbers, but also requires James Bond-esque perceptiveness and deductive reasoning skills. Like most espionage movies, you’ll find yourself descending down a cable into your enemy’s forbidden lair to search for clues. You’ll also get kidnapped and listen to a self-absorbed antagonist divulge his long-winded, evil plan to take you down. But most importantly, the fate of the world rests on your shoulders, so you must use your noggin to disarm nuclear bombs, escape deathly traps and stop your enemies from obliterating humanity as we know it.
I Expect You to Die 2 stimulated my brain with its mind-bending puzzles and got my heartbeat racing as I dodged bullets and darts. I thoroughly enjoyed masquerading as a stagehand and a celebrity’s assistant to thwart my enemies’ cruel schemes. What a wild ride! I Expect You to Die 2 is, without a doubt, the best VR game I’ve ever played.
— Kimberly Gedeon
See our full I Expect You to Die 2 review.
9. Monster Hunter Rise
Magnamalo is the first big boss of Monster Hunter Rise that will make you question your life, and it only gets harder after them. Climbing up the tentpole of incredibly dangerous and vicious monsters with my best friend is one of the most enjoyable things I can imagine. Those moments of solidarity in our desperation and our overflowing joy after a victory are moments that will stick with me for the rest of my life.
Like most Monster Hunter titles, Rise forces you to cooperate with your teammates to succeed, which is why I think it’s one of the best multiplayer series out there. Monster Hunter has certainly accrued a ton of new fans thanks to World, and many folks who also own a Nintendo Switch may be wondering if it’s worth picking up and what’s different about it. Sure, Monster Hunter Rise isn’t as graphically stunning as World, but the vivid, vibrant art design makes up for that. All of the mechanical improvements upon World’s gameplay easily makes Rise worthy of being the sixth mainline installment in the Monster Hunter series and one of the best games of the year.
See our full Monster Hunter Rise review.
— Rami Tabari
8. Metroid Dread
Prepare to die –– a lot. As someone who played Metroid back in the 80s, this is nothing new. But something about Metroid Dread makes those deaths all the more frustrating. It always seems that I’m just a button press from victory, which makes me double and triple-down to try until I’m finally victorious. This Nintendo Switch-exclusive puts you in the space shoes of renown bounty hunter Samus Aran as she arrives on the mysterious planet ZDR to follow up investigating a video showing the possible resurgence of X, a dangerous parasite. Once she arrives, Aran is ambushed and finds herself in great danger by way of a large Chozo warrior and the EMMI, large robotics programmed to hunt and eliminate our hero.
Stripped of her abilities, Samus has to fight her way through the planet, slowly regaining her powers as she prepares to face a massive threat. The game’s colorful palette belies the constant terror of the area’s EMMI hunting you and the absolute joy when you uncover a new power that you use to help despatch the aforementioned robotic terror. Fans of exploring Samus’ latest exploits should definitely give Metroid Dread a shot.
–– Sherri L. Smith
7. Psychonauts 2
It took over 15 years, but the successor to the cult classic Psychonauts finally arrived in Psychonauts 2. Picking up directly after the events of the first entry and the Psychonauts: Rhombus of Ruin, Psychonauts 2 finds young protagonist Raz working his way up through the ranks of the ritual organization as an intern. Working to uncover who plotted against the Grand Head during Rhombus of Ruin, Raz finds himself stumbling on a massive conspiracy to resurrect Maligula, a fearsome threat from the past. Raz has to hone his psychic abilities in developer’s Double Fine’s unique platformer in order to quell the threat.
I’ve waited so long for Psychonauts 2, and I’m glad to say I wasn’t disappointed. The world is still colorful and inviting with a compelling story and fun powers that can be used in a myriad of ways. Playing through the minds of the elder Psychonauts agents, and understanding trauma and its effects as an adult really made the game resonate that much more. I mean, who wouldn’t want to throw their doubts and regrets away with a giant telekinetic hand?
6. Life Is Strange: True Colors
Life is Strange: True Colors feels as if it was made for me. I love the characters, the story, the choices and everything in between. I fully immersed myself in this world, and became Alex Chen when I made each of those choices. I was ruthless when I had to be, kind when I could be, and badass 100% of the time.
I was enamored by Alex Chen’s remarkable character, the beautiful soundtrack, the lovely art, and the overall world design that sunk its teeth into me. I don’t know if I would feel the same way about any Life is Strange game, only because this particular one spoke to me in many ways, and the others seem so different.
When the credits rolled on Life is Strange: True Colors, I sat in my chair, wanting so much more. There are only a few games that can knock me down with a wave of depression once the escapism is officially over, and True Colors is now on that list. It’s easily one of the best games of the year.
See our full Life Is Strange: True Colors review.
— Rami Tabari
5. Outer Wilds: Echoes of the Eye
Including a DLC in our best games of the year list is unprecedented, but Outer Wilds: Echoes of the Eye is simply too powerful not to mention. The original Outer Wilds presented a staggering journey in unguided exploration throughout a small, but diverse solar system. Players only had 22 minutes each run to learn as much as they could, discovering historical secrets and solving puzzles to figure out the truths of this tiny corner of the cosmos.
Similarly, Echoes of the Eye takes players into a whole new field. It shifts expectations and pulls the scale back even further, bringing us to one space station rather than an open solar system. But even then, this adventure involved 13 hours of panicked puzzle solving. Issue is, explaining what makes Echoes of the Eye special will prevent you from experiencing its magic first-hand. Outer Wilds is a knowledge-based journey; if you already know what to do, the organic significance of its secrets will be lost. With the correct information, you could beat this in 10 minutes.
But it’s not just about knowing the solutions, it’s about figuring out how each element of this cleverly crafted adventure intertwines to create a striking picture. Every moment is accompanied by questions, and players will find the answers through their own experimentation. There are no narrative walls preventing you from proceeding the way you want, and the few scripted moments are made clear to the player within the first 20 minutes. After that, it’s up to you to learn, test, remember and theorize. Outer Wilds: Echoes of the Eye is a wonderful expansion and my personal game of the year.
— Mohammad Tabari
Wake up on a beach, engage in witty banter, fight a psychic menace and die. Wash, rinse and repeat. Such is the story of Deathloop, where you find yourself playing as Colt Vahn, an assassin caught on the mysterious Blackreef island, which is caught in a mysterious time loop that resets every day at midnight. Colt is trying to break the loop while Julianna, a mysterious woman, is gunning to stop him by killing him in the most agonizing ways possible (and taunting him mercilessly along the way). In order to break the loop, Colt learns he must dispatch eight Visionaries, talented eccentrics whose lives are the key to disrupting the loop, in one night.
Deathloop draws from Prey and Dishonored: Arkane Studios’ best known titles and adds a slick 60s’ vibe. As you progress through the game, you’ll gain a series of otherworldly powers that allow you to teleport and throw things via telekinesis, among other things. And to spice things up, there are plenty of good, old-fashioned guns in case you want to shoot your way out of a problem. How you dispatch the Visionaries and in which order is up to you –– you can employ sneak attacks, run-and-gun, pick them off individually or in a group. However, be on your guard, Julianna is always waiting around the next bend to send you back to the start of the loop with a bullet and a witty one-liner.
–– Sherri L. Smith
3. It Takes Two
It Takes Two is the essential co-op experience, presenting an amalgamation of mechanics and designs originating from the most revered multiplayer genres. It refuses to let the player rest, barraging them with plenty of excellent ideas. Although not every one of these ideas stick, they always feel different enough to justify their existence.
Both narratively and mechanically, the game expects the player to travel a mile a minute as they explore new worlds, gain new abilities and decipher clever puzzles. As a cherry on top, all of this is set to an adorable backdrop featuring a bickering couple pushed along on their journey by an irksome book of love. It’s one of our favorite games of 2021, and it’s a great choice for parties of two looking for a way to spend 13 hours together.
See our full It Takes Two review.
— Mohammad Tabari
2. Little Nightmares 2
I don’t know how the Little Nightmares team does it, but they’ve found a way to make dark, spine-tingling creepiness look charming, visually appealing and whimsical in a Nightmare Before Christmas, Harry Potter theme song type of way. Little Nightmares 2 kept me on the edge of my seat as long-necked monsters, shotgun wielding maniacs and spider-like hand critters chased Mono and Six, the game’s emaciated kid protagonists. I love that combat was added to Little Nightmares 2, finally giving me a sense of power over my enemies instead of relying on stealth maneuvers and narrow escapes. What really sets this game over the edge is its mind-warping ending that most people never saw coming, fostering lively discussions of theories and arguments on the Thin Man’s backstory.
With the perfect combo of heart-thumping jump scares, a thought-provoking plot, engaging gameplay and freakishly gorgeous visuals, Little Nightmares 2 is definitely one of the best games of the year.
— Kimberly Gedeon
See our full Little Nightmares 2 review.
1. Resident Evil Village
I expected to have a good ol’ time in Resident Evil Village, but I wasn’t anticipating it to become my favorite entry in the franchise. Resident Evil Village plays like a mix between Resident Evil 7 and Resident Evil 4, but it felt like I was playing an Uncharted game at certain points. Resident Evil Village is also one of the few games that can run on next-gen consoles with ray-tracing enabled and average around 60 frames per second.
Working in tandem with the gorgeous art direction is the sound design. From the horrifying musical stings that alert me of danger to the heavy footfalls of a 9’6-foot tall vampire lady strutting over to step on my neck, I was on edge at nearly every moment. Capcom managed to flip the isolated plot of Resident Evil 7 and spin it into the fairy tale-esque story that we get from Resident Evil Village. It’s like watching a fantastical gothic horror film unfold. And while the protagonist, Ethan Winters, can be as bland as a bag of bricks, he’s arguably one of the most relatable characters in the Resident Evil universe.
See our full Resident Evil Village review.
— Rami Tabari