There are lots of extremely obvious reasons why 2021 is already a vastly better year than 2020, of course. But while many of us are still stuck inside — or just feeling unsure about venturing back outside — there’s been plenty of digital diversions filled with surprises and delights.
Just so everyone’s clear: This is by no means a comprehensive list of every single “best” game of 2021 so far. We can only play so much and there are surely piles of absolute gems that we missed. But what follows is a rundown of the 10 games Mashable’s team has actually played and enjoyed enough to shout about it at anyone who will listen.
Let’s do this thing.
1. Hitman 3
Hitman 3 is developer IO Interactive putting its best foot, and work, forward. The game of building increasingly elaborate murder mousetraps has never been so playful and inventive with its core concepts, and the whole experience is elevated as a result. In one level, you can pose as a private detective and investigate a Knives Out-inspired murder mystery as you secretly engineer a hit. In another, series protagonist Agent 47 is left without any clear sense of who his targets even are.
Lots of games have kicked around for 20 years or more, but few have managed to reinvent themselves while staying true to their beloved roots as effortlessly as Hitman.
2. Super Mario 3D World + Bowser’s Fury
A Switch re-release of the excellent Wii U game Super Mario 3D World is nice, and welcome. But it’s the second half of this package that offers a hopeful glimpse of what the storied Nintendo plumber’s future adventures might look like. Bowser’s Fury takes the basic premise and core elements that define any Mario game — Bowser being a jerk, head-spinning run-and-jump puzzles, and transformative power-ups — and sticks them into a new, open world framework that sees you, as Mario, wandering around a cat-themed archipelago in search of stars called “Shines.” Every so often, you also go toe-to-toe with Bowser in kaiju-style brawls.
With play-changing weather events, secrets galore, new twists on old ideas, and a completely reworked philosophy on power-ups, Bowser’s Fury is hopefully just the first step toward bigger changes ahead for our friend Mario.
3. Subnautica: Below Zero
Don’t call it “underwater Minecraft.” That’s only half the picture.
In 2018, Unknown Worlds Entertainment released Subnautica, a game of underwater survival, exploration, and base-building set on a hostile alien world. Below Zero isn’t quite a sequel and it’s definitely not an add-on — you can play it as its own game, without having to own or play the earlier game first. Sort of like Bowser above, it almost feels like a taste of what to come.
Below Zero‘s new, iced over setting is smaller than before, giving Unknown Worlds more freedom to build a coherent story. It’s not always a resounding success, but Robin Ayou’s hunt for her missing sister — and eventual contact with intelligent alien life — is a superb complement to the self-made rags-to-kickass submarines gameplay that made Subnautica so sticky to begin with.
4. Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart
The most glaring issue with Insomniac Games’ latest Ratchet & Clank adventure is that it’s over too quickly. The studio behind Spider-Man and Miles Morales brought along lessons learned from the two Marvel games, filling Rift Apart with a sense of purpose that keeps players from straying too far off the main path. Even the optional stuff you can chase has a point.
It also doesn’t hurt that this freshened up take on Ratchet unfolds inside a game built exclusively for the PlayStation 5. Exuding the vibe of a playable Pixar movie, Ratchet and Clank’s adventure across dimensions serves up dazzling planetscapes and visual effects along with gripping set pieces that’ll leave you shouting with excitement and glee.
5. Oddworld Soulstorm
After seven long years, Soulstorm finally reunited gamers and Oddworld Inhabitants; and oh, what a reunion that turned out to be. In this sequel to Oddworld: New ‘n’ Tasty! — a 2014 remake of the original Oddworld: Abe’s Oddysee — hero Abe must continue leading his spontaneous Mudokon rebellion following the enslaved aliens’ escape from RuptureFarms.
It’s just as difficult as any other game in the series, but increased player abilities and improved environments mark a new era of excellence for the platformer. You’ll lead dozens of your followers not just through the iconic Slig-laden death traps of games gone by, but also through sweeping cinematic scenes that make all of Oddworld feel more real. —Ali Foreman, Entertainment Reporter
6. Little Nightmares II
Little Nightmares II is rough around the edges, but that’s honestly half the fun. In this ambitious sequel to the 2017 game , players re-enter the cute-yet-creepy realm of childhood fears come to dangerous life. Raincoat-wearing hero Six returns as an AI companion in a much scarier follow-up adventure led by new protagonist Mono, a little boy with a bag on his head and a bunch of fun tricks up his sleeve.
It’s not always the smoothest game to play, with slippy platforming and occasional AI nuisances. But the very act of struggling to execute tasks also enriches the experience of “being” Mono — and considerably heightens the scares. —A.F.
7. Resident Evil Village
Resident Evil Village is a fucked up fairytale. It turns away from the clichés we’ve come to expect in horror films, like the swampy nightmare of an extended Texas Chainsaw Massacre homage in Capcom’s soft series reboot (and Village‘s predecessor), Resident Evil 7 Biohazard, to focus instead on storybook archetypes. The result is a sprawling fantasy adventure through a bizarre, fright-filled world unlike any other in the series — and totally untethered by any unspoken “rules” of the franchise. —A.F.
8. Chicory: A Colorful Tale
Chicory: A Colorful Tale is a puzzle adventure game that comes from the just as colorful minds behind Wandersong. Although it looks like a simple coloring game on the surface, it’s really a much deeper exploration of the artistic struggle!
You play a dog that has to wield a giant, magical paintbrush to restore color to the world, all while solving puzzles and making many friends along the way. It’s such a joyous, lighthearted game that also doesn’t shy away from relevant issues, which it explores through its quirky characters. It just goes to show that we all need a little more color while still going through these bleak times. —Elvie Mae Parian, Associate Animator
9. New Pokemon Snap
New Pokémon Snap is a new and improved sequel to Pokémon Snap, the 1999 game that also revolved around taking pictures of Pokémon. It’s a much bigger game than the original, with more than triple the amount of Pokémon to photograph and way more options in terms of courses, interactions, and photo editing.
You can feed the little critters with Fluffruit (an apple-looking thing that is emphatically not an apple, since it is light and soft enough to cause no harm to Pokémon when tossed), illuminate them with glowing orbs that change their behavior, get their attention by scanning them, and even play them a little song in case they feel like dancing. With its low-stakes setup and increased variety, the overall experience of playing New Pokémon Snap is a super chill series of adventures that add up to a constantly surprising and immersive Pokéxperience. —Alexis Nedd, Senior Entertainment Reporter
Developer Housemarque built something truly special in Returnal. The PlayStation 5 exclusive alien shooter is as gorgeous and smooth to play as you’d expect, but that’s just the starting point. The real win for Returnal is the way its absolute mindfuck of a story weaves directly into the gameplay, which inserts the fundamental ideas from arcade classic Robotron: 2084 into a beautifully realized alien landscape of tentacled monstrosities and kaleidoscopic arrays of deadly enemy fire.
The real thrill, however, is the slow-but-ever-steady drip-feed of story keeping you constantly on the hook. This is Hades by way of cosmic horror and it’s so, so good.
Honorable Mention: Devotion
Adding Devotion to this list is technically against the rules, since Red Candle Games’ horror-adventure first released in 2019. But the game was effectively censored out of existence by Chinese authorities after a small piece of art in the game was found to be critical of China’s autocratic leader, Xi Jinping. Disappearing from stores just days after it originally released, Devotion finally became available for purchase again in March 2021.
It remains an excellent game, and it merits a mention here because everyone, everywhere finally has an opportunity to play it. The Taiwan-set family horror story unfolds in a single apartment complex over a period of years in the 1980s. It’s a time-twisting narrative game at heart, though you’ll have to solve a series of clever and mechanically diverse puzzles in order to see how it all unfolds. Definitely take a chance on this one, it’s a worthwhile journey.