Scottish comedian Christopher Macarthur-Boyd provides his list of the top ten games of 2021
Christopher Macarthur-Boyd is a Scottish comedian. He has spent his 2021 wrestling with the existential horror of making people laugh while the world is ending. You can follow him on Twitter here.
10. Diablo II - Resurrected
It is important to note: I have not played Diablo II: Resurrected. However, it is still the tenth best game of the year for me, due to the fact that my life-partner/common-law spouse actually worked on the cut-scenes for this game. This is the first time someone that I regularly sleep in the same room as has worked on a video game, and it is an actual thrill. The bit where the demon guy makes the priest guy explode, with demon magic? Very cool. You may have heard rumours that the online multiplayer function of the game does not function at all. You have definitely not heard rumours that the cutscenes are bad. They are class. That was my girlfriend that did some of that. Not bragging, but yeah.
9. Ender Lilies: Quietus Of The Knights
A lot of times – not just in gaming, but in many aspects of my life – I try something new and I think to myself, “God, I hope this is as good as Hollow Knight.” Ender Lilies: The Quietus of the Knights is not anywhere as good as Hollow Knight, but it is quite similar. Monochromatic frail hero traverses a souls-esque castleroidian landscape of ruins and bosses. Very much a case of serviceable gothic methadone when the golden-brown of Hallownest is what I really wanted and needed.
8. Pokemon Brilliant Diamond
(Spider-Man: No Way Home spoilers ahead)
Had a bit of a crisis playing this game. Rattling through a remake of a game I played as a teenager, while waiting on Grand Theft Auto: Definitive Edition to come out, and eagerly anticipating the return of Tobey Maguire’s Spider-Man to the silver screen – I couldn’t help but think: Is this all life is, now? Gobbling up rehashed slop-shop regurgitations of mega-franchise instalments from when there was still hope in my heart?
Distracting myself from the recession and greying of the hair on my head, as well as the thickening of spiderleg-like pubes on my ballooning stomach, with nostalgia for the late-noughties? Having said that, the graphics are okay. Quite nice of Game Freak (or ILCA, I suppose) to really refurbish the Underground and make it so the early-game monster diversity is a bit richer. Nobody wants to get to the Elite Four with Ponyta, the only non-starter fire-type in the original Sinnoh Pokedex. Now, you can get a Houndoom as well!
7. Black Book
Very cool side-scrolling beat-em-up game set in the world of Bernard Black’s fagsmoke-seeped bookshop. If only! If you aren’t familiar with it, Black Book is actually a spooky Russian-folklore-tinged turn-based deck builder RPG with little sections of a criminal investigation that are like if Columbo was a proto-Slavic hag seer. Not as mechanically sound (or fun) as Steamquest: Hand of Gilgamech, and not as truly rougelite-like (or fun) as Slay The Spire, but it takes elements from both of them and scratches a certain itch. Moodily atmospheric and satisfyingly procedural with a scrappy charm that does a lot of heavy lifting.
6. Voice of Cards: Island of Dragon Roars
Another turn-based deckbuilder RPG! Also not as good as Steamquest: Hand of Gilgamech or Slay The Spire, but still quite good. This is a little bit slicker than Black Book, as a collaboration between Square Enix and Nier/Drakengard godhead Yoko Taro really ought to be.
Some lovely twists and turns in the story and the hand-drawn artwork for each individual character is as sumptuous as one of those Klimtian desserts that are coated in gold leaf. (Without spoiling too much, I will say: I do sometimes wonder why Japanese role-playing games aren’t more popular with Rangers fans when their universe’s equivalent of the Catholic Church is always the main baddie. Final Fantasy X should be in every true blue diehard protestant gamer’s top ten of all time.)
5. New Pokemon Snap
I suppose this falls under the same bracket as Brilliant Diamond – a retread of the original Pokemon Snap for the Nintendo 64 from 1999. But I never played that, so meh! Ninety-five percent of my interaction with pocket monsters has been beating them up in turn-based combat, so it was delightful and soul-nourishing to have a game where you’re just coasting along on a little on-rails safari-ball like in Jurassic World, watching them go about their day. Bibarel building a dam, Skorupi spinning in a sandstorm, Wailmer surfacing on the ocean and hydro-pumping out of their blowholes. So much more character than the mainline games. I had an absolute ultra ball.
4. Grand Theft Auto Trilogy: Definitive Edition
Right, this is the sixth lowest-rated game on Metacritic for the whole of 2021, which is insane. According to the world at large, this is only bested in the rubbishness stakes by such dross as Taxi Chaos, Balan Wonderworld and eFootball 2022. I think that’s insane patter. This is three very good game-changing games, albeit poorly ported. Yes, a lot of the subtle background jokes have been A.I. upscaled out of existence. Yes, it crashes at a rate of 0.5 on the Cyberpunk 2077 scale of utter error. Yes, the common glitch of your ally Cesar’s fingers growing to nine times their normal length is bewildering and eerie. But it’ll take more than that to ruin the buzz of cruising around San Andreas’ countryside listening to Patsy Cline on K-Rose, or zooming through Vice City’s surf on a speedboat with Judas Priest’s ‘You Got Another Thing Coming’ blasting.
The vibe is impeccable, even if the port is not. You could argue that the way it takes the games of my youth and distorts them into something not-quite-right is a Proustian commentary on the fallibility of memory. I won’t argue that, but I will say that the gunplay is much more manageable than the original PS2 versions, and that’s enough for me.
3. Metroid Dread
I really respect this game much more than I love it. Speaking of Judas Priest, it really reminds me of what that band did on their 1990 album Painkiller. Having practically invented the aesthetics of heavy metal in the late seventies by combining the spiked leather of the gay fetish scene with the occult sound of hard blues rock, they found themselves lapped by younger, hungrier and heavier bands in the late eighties like Metallica and Slayer.
Painkiller was their attempt to match that then-modern sound, and it breathed new life into them. That’s what Metroid Dread is like, for me. While the metroidvania genre has been perfected, updated and advanced by series like Ori and Hollow Knight, this is the original queen of the genre showing up to lay claim to the throne, combining classic gameplay loops with elements of survival horror by introducing the instant classic enemy E.M.M.I. Very cool. Didn’t finish it because it was too hard.
I remember being an hour or so into my first playthrough and thinking, “Wow, this is such an old- fashioned game.” You’re a wee guy with a sword and you’re fighting floating eyes and demons. A tale as old as Doom, or Eurydice, if you want to go that far back. Then you start befriending the various gods, heroes and denizens of the underworld with a relationship system so deep that it makes Persona 5 look like Cyberpunk 2077 – “Complete missions to unlock tank handjob.”
The actual process of fighting your way through Tartarus, Asphodel, Elysium and the Temple of Styx while building your loadout of deific boons is satisfying in and of itself, but the moment where you reach the surface for the first time after beating the end boss is so beautiful. I definitely cried the first time I did it. Ludonarrative harmony with the plight and trials of Zagreus overwhelmed me. What a terrific game. I’m a shield/bow main, by the by.
1. Disco Elysium: The Final Cut
What if the point-and-click mystery-solving of Broken Sword, the awe-inspiring absurd beauty of The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, the percentage-based number-crunching frustrations of XCOM 2, and the gumshoe theatrics of Dashiell Hammett’s Sam Spade all combined into what is potentially the greatest game of all time? Incredible, incredible, incredible. The soundtrack from British Sea Power is a perfectly heart-wrenching blend of brass and bleep-boops while the exquisite hand-painted expressionist artwork by Alexander Rostov brings to life the muggy fury of a brutal hangover. I never played the pre-Final Cut version without the bassy narration of Harry DuBois’ every thought and action by Lenval Brown, and I can’t really imagine it either.
This game made me well up a fair few times. There’s a moment at the end of the first day of the investigations where you have the option to debrief with your partner and smoke a cigarette on the balcony of the Whirling-In-Rags hotel, and maybe it’s the incredible writing, or maybe it’s just the fact that I was going through a fairly difficult time in my life, but I started to blubber at a certain point in that conversation. Very clever, very fun, deeply human and humanistic. I wish everything was as good as this, but it’s not.