Overlode head of multimedia picks his indie and AAA darlings of the year
What a topsy-turvy year for games this has been – for me at least. My most anticipated titles ended up my most disliked, while games I scorned at E3 showcases ended up in this top ten list. I am a man that loves indies and big budget FPS, and both had heavy hitters this year with one seemingly beating out the other, until my game of the year came out of nowhere swinging.
I suppose my morale of 2021 is to manage your expectations, and try new things. This was the year I got the incredible PlayStation 5 which will be a key element to this list, but also a year where I played more games than I ever have, mostly thanks to this site. So Overlode patrons, and Jordan Middler screaming at me to play more games, I thank you kindly. Now, let’s get started.
One of my favourite accomplishments an indie title can do is establish a simple but great mechanic, and deliver it with wonderful polish and style. The squirrel photography game NUTS is a good example, or the small room card-brawler Fights In Tight Spaces. But nothing was as charming or well-rounded as Overboard, a game about getting away with your husband’s murder.
I adore a murder mystery, and the simple flip of formula is so much fun to experiment with. A little like the great Knives Out, you’re placed in the killer’s perspective trying to either cover up your tracks or blame someone else. It’s well-written and funny, but more interestingly well-designed when it came to UX/UI. How you navigate the ship and repeat scenarios after failures was always smart, and you never seemed to run out of things to find or do. I’m not very good at killing my husband in Overboard, but I had a blast attempting it.
9. Marvel's Guardians of the Galaxy
When this was shown at E3, I watched as Not Chris Pratt blasted jelly cubes in non-descript alien-looking fields and thought “Aye, this one’s a miss.” But caving to my fellow co-founders interest, I discovered that Guardians Of The Galaxy is much more about its excellent ensemble design, and the world they pass through.
While I’m not in love with the constant Marvel quipping it is more charming than it is irritating, and I was constantly impressed with how the AI reacts to your every movement. I never felt like I was waiting for my team to catch up or that I was herding sheep – I was a leader, but I felt like one of a pack. The animations are stunning, especially the physical performances in cutscenes. The narrative was surprisingly fresh and enjoyable, and while the combat was middling at first it grew as the team levelled up.
While I truly disliked the ending, I couldn’t put this game down. It’s an incredible campaign with gorgeous settings and engaging storylines, and made me very happy to be proven wrong.
God, I am rubbish at this game. But how couldn’t I include a game mashing gorgeous sci-fi and a well-designed roguelike? Repeatedly crashing on an alien planet and looping these layers of bullet-hell is a treat on PS5, with fresh and innovative ways to make the roguelike genre something new. The third-person shooter element is of course a first, but combined with risky decisions like parasites and malfunctions makes this shooter feel extremely unique.
I find the opening of the game to be far too restrictive however, with only one of the weapons feeling useful and the narrative ranging from drip-fed to ‘catch the next bit in 5 hours’. The gameplay cannot be besmirched however, as it hits an incredible balance of punishing but fair and intuitive. While I don’t have much patience for Returnal, I have to respect a legendary sci-fi roguelike when I meet it.
7. Halo Infinite Multiplayer
As someone that’s only played Halo on my dad’s original Xbox, it’s safe to say I’m not a midnight ticket-buyer. But after Battlefield 2042 flopped, Activision/Blizzard revealed to out-scum themselves and nobody wanting to play Valorant with me, I had to try it. Before the campaign released I was fully taken by Infinite’s multiplayer – it was casual, fun, old-school yet modern. As a Titanfall-obsessed player who loves movement FPS it scratched that itch while bringing back a feeling of small-scale multiplayer sportsmanship I really thought was lost.
No, I won’t play the campaign. I have things to do.
6. Chicory: A Colorful Tale
While I had middling expectations of a ‘colouring in game’, I was very much taken in by Chicory: A Colorful Tale. It’s written in a cute, funny, but most importantly genuine way. The drawing mechanics quickly grows legs to show fun platforming and exploration tools, and the concept of taking over a genius artist’s role using a PS5 analog stick was always entertaining.
But what’s what Chicory is all about, and why I loved it. It’s a game about drawing outside the lines, experimentation, and not only discovering your own style but realizing everyone else is trying to as well.
While I laid out plenty of criticism in my review, Sable only grows as one of my favourite 2021 gaming experiences. In a world without violence or conflict, you’re sent into a world where quests and favours aren’t just the game keeping you busy, but a vehicle for understanding what your character wants to be in this world.
The quests broke my expectations with often great charm and creativity, but the navigation design and UX/UI let me down and often confused me. The gliding and music is incredible, and nothing matches up to the way this game looks. I could glide in Sable all day, and I still can’t believe games can just look like this. Once I found enough badges from my quest, I loved how it’s up to the player to decide when to make a life decision, and go back home. I found that, and so much about Sable, very special.
4. Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart
While only a polite enjoyer of 2016’s Ratchet & Clank, I found Rift Apart to breach so many higher levels of gameplay, visuals, and sheer entertainment value. The game looks incredible, probably second best to Ghost of Tsushima: Director’s Cut on PS5, giving more colour and lighting than my photo mode trigger fingers can even handle. The gameplay is similar to before but still very fun, with an arsenal of weapons I found myself using all of in a variety of ways, a factor I always respect in games with lots of weapons.
The level design was always changing and evolving through worlds and I loved swapping between Ratchet and Rivet’s quests and stories, and never really got tired of the charm and theatrics of its narrative and encounters. Lots of my experience relied on it being my first real feel for the PS5’s potential, but I felt the game leaned into that and created a bond between it and the console that married perfectly.
3. Hitman 3
The developers of the rebooted Hitman series are in such a groove that I never want them to ever stop. I adored Hitman 2‘s scale and creativity, but Hitman 3 outshines it in a way I didn’t think was possible. All the elements of a great Hitman title are here, with hundreds of options, weapons, disguises and storylines to combine. But what made this sequel special to me was how much fun they had with the genre, turning it into more of a Bond pastiche that winks at the camera.
It opens with a mammoth mission similar to what Hitman 2 pulled off, and then curveballs into one of my favourite game experiences of the decade no doubt: solving an Agatha Christie murder as Agent 47. But even then it develops into a smaller scale that nods to Hitman Blood Money and Absolution, games I love that Hitman 3 remixes to be even slicker and deeper. While I was paying zero attention to the story, Hitman 3 is assassination perfection.
Talking of assassination perfection. Read my review to understand my full adoration for this game, but Deathloop combines stealth, chaos and style in a way no game ever has, criticizing and fixing the Dishonored formula to craft something new. Its looping days split into segments brings an element of Hitman to the Dishonored fun, and builds a delightful cast of characters to investigate and kill.
Its design is stellar, with the narrative melding brilliantly through some witchcraft magic. While its superpowers mostly borrow from previous titles, its loadout function turns every day into a potential new approach instead of winging with what works so far. If you mess up, its chaotic gunplay is just as fun as stealthing around with a knife and silencer. The performances from Colt and Julianna, the mix and match of playstyles and the environmental design makes this one of Arkane’s best achievements to date.
While many of my anticipated indies of 2021 disappointed me (sorry Genesis Noir & Jett: The Far Shore), Inscryption came and saved the day. A cursed card-battler found on a disc in the woods, Inscryption has an unmatched vibe with a dark humour I couldn’t take my eyes off of. The game itself is intuitive and very fun, with no element going to waste as even excess damage and pulling your own teeth out can change up your game.
What makes Inscryption my game of the year is its repeated genius at doing things to make me gasp out loud. Getting out your chair to find clues around the room, the moment cards come alive and begin to talk to you, or when you discover that the end of the game is only act one – that’s what makes this game a master work.
I don’t want to spoil Inscryption any more, as discovering these moments for yourself mixed with its creepypasta meta-humour is too much fun to steal from others. But from start to end, Inscryption plays with expectations, fears and gameplay mechanics while taking you on a journey celebrating gaming itself. It’s why I love indie games, and games in general.