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2021 Video Games: RPGs, Classic Series & New Favorites

Video games! The hobby I spent the most time doing this year. I also played way more games than I usually do as well? 2021 was my first time tracking my games played and boy did I play a lot. Add in starting to do more dedicated Let’s Plays with Emily and that number really jumped. It’s funny to notice how my tastes have changed in adulthood and how I seem to be going in the opposite direction of most people. Now that I govern my own schedule I’m able to jump into long RPGs. I finally have the time to cross some off the backlog and keep up with new releases. I really did myself a disservice early in the year by juggling 3 at once but I had such a great time balancing them. My desire to play more RPGs hasn’t slowed down either and my list of games to play mostly consist of them. It’s always good to have balance though and god bless the games that are here to offer tight and shorter experiences. People that complain about dollar value and time played miss the point; not all games need to last forever. Games like Ratchet & Clank are so incredible partly because of their shorter experiences. That’s why they can pack so many incredible variations one after the other. The single biggest change in my taste though is the move away from multiplayer games. The pandemic kind of broke that for me and I instead wanted to play lots of other games rather than getting good at one singular game. That’s why Pokémon Unite was a gift, an easy to pick up and play multiplayer experience. That’s not to say it doesn’t require skill and I made my peace with not being placed amongst the top tier of players. It’s a nice game to pick up and play every now and again.

Games culture this year though is still as rotten as ever. Workers in the games industry are still being assaulted by long hours, mismanagement, and gross misconduct especially towards minorities and women. Watching the Activision case slowly unfold to reveal a completely rotten culture from top to bottom has been, if not surprising, at least solid evidence to point to how the entire system is broken. No AAA developer, or even smaller developers, are immune to poor employee treatment and fundamentally bad working environments. There’s a reason the tweet about wanting “shorter games with worse graphics” went viral. Here’s hoping for more unionization in the space even if that won’t completely fix the issues inherent with modern game development.

Without further ado, here’s a list of games I’ve probably already written about:

Tokyo Mirage Sessions FE Encore

Tokyo Mirage Sessions

This game sounds very convoluted but it’s actually really straightforward. Take the dungeon crawling and socialization systems of persona, add in Fire Emblem characters and make the whole about the idol system in Japan and you have Tokyo Mirage Sessions. It’s a strange idea to crossover but it feels right at home in the Atlus lineup. This game is like Persona light with the same sort of turn based combat systems built right in. The addition of special moves that layer on top of each other that are activated when you hit an enemy’s weak point means battles are over in a flash. This can also mean the combat gets a bit tedious as by the end you’re looking at a stack of 17 cutscenes all triggering one after the other. The socialization layer is light as well as the game builds in enough time to visit every single one of your friends before taking on the next challenge (no more making tough choices on how to spend your days). The Fire Emblem additions are really more nods to the other games and show up as your party’s Persona’s. The story is similarly breezy, monsters are stealing the talent from people in the real world, but the premise around the different arts in Japan is fascinating. You’ll run through singers, television and film backdrops as the protagonists work through their anxieties about their craft and growing up. It’s all really fun and the concert cutscenes are tremendous. It might be too breezy for people looking for a tougher RPG, but if you’re ok with it, it’s great fun. Too bad the main takeaway from it was the infamous “vagina bones” post.

Read my blog on Tokyo Mirage Sessions and concerts here.

Kaeru No Tame Ni Kane Wa Naru (The Frog For Whom The Bell Tolls)

Kaeru No Tame Ni Kane Wa Naru

Did you know that one of the best Zelda’s, Link’s Awakening, had a predecessor on the Game Boy? I certainly didn’t before Abnormal Mapping played through it, since it was never officially released in the US. The game, which I’ll now shorten to “Frog Game,” takes that same 2d platforming and exploration and completely rips out the combat. Instead the exploration of the world and levels are a giant puzzle. Each piece of the castles and locales are calibrated to have you move through it section by section. Combat, such as it is, is settled automatically. You’ll run into an enemy and an automatic fight will ensue and the winner is decided based on your strength and remaining health. What this means in practice is that you’ll have to hit each enemy with the correct amount of strength and health to proceed in an area. That means your movement has to be paced to pick up strength and health power ups so that you can then proceed forward. You’re also cursed to transform into a frog, and later a snake, that has its own unique spin on the puzzle. I’ve never encountered another system like it and it was very fun figuring out the precise order to move through the dungeons. It’s also a really funny game that keeps the scenarios varied like assisting miners, calming snow monsters or helping out Nintendo developers.

Super Mario 3D World + Bowser’s Fury

Super Mario 3D World Bowser Car

3D World is such a joy. It’s a fun blend of 2D Mario Platforming with 3D depth of field. Having levels slowly transition from traditional Mario platforming to moving characters on the z-axis plane adds a great new element of surprise. Emily and I had such a blast playing through the levels and we really appreciated the way it helped us along (we’re both not platforming game experts). We’ve found ourselves dipping back into it every so often as we slowly work on grabbing every single star in the game. We’re not completionists so that’s a true sign of a good video game.

Bowser’s Fury meanwhile is a cool experiment on 3D Mario. It takes the smaller platforming segments of modern 3D Mario games and places them in outposts in an open world map. It was fun picking and choosing where I wanted to spend my time and riding Pleasey to the next exploration spot. Using the 3D World power ups and toolset made the levels all the more richer like ice skating down a track and using the cat suit to climb buildings. The big cat Toku battles became a bit grating since they were so frequent. Every other part of this game though was a home run and I hope it informs Nintendo’s future plans.

Read about Emily and I’s co-op adventures.

Live A Live

Live A Live Cover

The biggest complaint about JRPGs is the length. To be fair, most of them are an investment of about 40 hours. What if I told you there was one that had multiple distinct stories from a variety of genres? The fantastic Live A Live is exactly that, 7 JRPG campaigns that cover everything from Science Fiction to Cavemen. One you’re a ninja infiltrating a fortress the next you’re a cowboy protecting a frontier town. They all use the same battle system, an active time battle set on a grid. You have to position your characters in specific locations to launch attacks; some will attack diagonally while others have to be right next to the enemy. Each campaign is only a few hours long so you get a lot of variety before they overstay their welcome. The stories are all fun variations on classic genre touchstones like Alien, classic westerns and even Street Fighter. The game then wraps up with a traditional RPG map where you’ll collect your heroes to finish the fight (there’s even a secret boss rush mode where you play as the final bosses).

Fantasian

Fantasian Boss Fight

I’ve written twice about Fantasian, Mistwalker’s fantastic throwback JRPG. It’s probably my favorite game of the year, a perfectly tuned campaign that I devoured over 60 hours of. The craziest part is that it was all on my phone and has set an unreasonable standard for mobile games. Fantasian has flown relatively under the radar minus a very active and helpful Reddit community (thank you for all the help and advice). I hope that this gets a release outside of Apple Arcade so more people have a chance to play. Suffice to say here’s some great things:

  • Beautiful and detailed dioramas with lots of variation
  • The FFX battle system, a personal high watermark of RPG combat
  • Tough and challenging boss fights
  • First person side dungeons!

Please play this game. Also read my write up of the first release and the final release.

Dark Souls Remastered

Dark Souls Bonfire

Dark Souls is definitely hard and requires a fair amount of repetition to fully understand the combat and how to approach/defeat bosses. The series reputation is earned but it obfuscates the most interesting parts of the game. Learning and exploring the environments was so rewarding and piqued a part of my brain that I rarely used in games. Through repetition I understood where all the enemies were and how to effectively navigate through them. The variety of secrets nestled throughout the maps were a great bonus and added to the rich texture of the world. Lodran has a sense of place and doesn’t require you to understand every little piece of lore to make an impact. Every location from Blighttown to Anor Londo feels lived in or used to be lived in. The fact that I even remember all these locations says something (my mind is bad at retaining specific details months later). I meant to get through other games in the series before Elden Ring but my list of games went too long. I really need to boot up Dark Souls II soon though…

I wrote a bit about my surprise fun with Dark Souls earlier this year.

Final Fantasy VIII Remastered

Final Fantasy VIII Rinoa and Squall

Final Fantasy VIII is about overcoming your trauma by opening up to other people which means a lot of people on the internet deride it as being too saccharine. It’s also a game about generational trauma, cycles of violence and abuses of power and the effects that has on our protagonist’s generation. Put it another way; this game rips. The odd child of the PlayStation 1 era Final Fantasys has a mixed reputation with detractors calling it over complicated and derisively too anime (have you played any of the other games?). It’s a fantastic game though, a hybrid of fantasy and future settings where children are trained as soldiers in large military academies. Squall is an angsty teen, another part of the game’s reputation, who’s closed off nature is undercut by his running guilty inner monolog. He wants to open up to people but he’s running away from himself and he uses his negative self image to stop from processing his trauma. Over the course of the game Squall and his friends learn to reckon with their pasts and others pasts as well, understanding how they’ve failed and how that’s threatening the world around them. There’s also the tender romance of Squall and Renoa but also missed connections across generations. It’s really affecting and the various courtships across the game reflect the personal growth that the characters go through.

The active time battle system from FFVII is given a twist with the draw and junction system. Instead of learning magic you’ll receive spells by drawing them from enemies in battle or found in spouts throughout the world. It’s a lot like a card system where you collect spells like Firaga and Haste. You receive a limited supply per draw so you’ll balance using your turns to redraw spells and attacking enemies. These spells are also used in the Junction system, where you equip your characters with spells to buff their stats (ie slot blizzard in attack). You’ll also equip summons, “Guardian Forces or GFs” in game, to also affect stats and abilities. It can seem pretty complicated but there’s optimization options to help automatically slot magic (or you can also manually tool each party member). It wouldn’t be a modern Final Fantasy game without big set pieces and this has incredible moments from the opening invasion, secret cities, escaping a prison that buries itself in the sand and much more. Final Fantasy VIII wraps up with a wild dungeon, a gothic castle where you have to solve puzzles to unlock your abilities. Don’t believe the haters; VIII is a top tier RPG. 

Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart

Ratchet & Clank Rift Apart

The reigning action platforming king has returned. These games are perfectly tuned with fantastic gunplay and huge set pieces and Rift Apart is no exception. Rift Apart has you running across galaxies and playing with dimensions as Ratchet & Clank find themselves separated in an unfamiliar dimension. This allows the developers to play with their established franchise, throwing tons of winks and nods through the inverse copies of favorite characters (glad Mr. Zirkon opened a bar). The best part is the addition of Rivet and Kit, the alternate versions of Ratchet & Clank. Both characters anchor a surprisingly emotional story of Rivet overcoming past trauma and Kit’s reckoning with her robotic design. It’s still light hearted fun but emotionally resonant in the ways the best children’s blockbusters are. You’ll still be blasting tons of enemies and unlocking strange and wild weapons. Some of the giant set pieces are staggering like grinding and fighting a large robot on a mining planet. This is one of the best games to come from an already fantastic series.

Read a deeper discussion on the story from my time with the game over the summer.

Final Fantasy VII Remake Episode INTERmission

Final Fantasy VII Remake Yuffie

A new slice of the VII Remake focusing on Yuffie! Music to my ears. The DLC shifts the combat from bouncing between characters to controlling just Yuffie and she’s a one woman army. She’s unbalanced in a fun way, able to control all the elements with her abilities through melee and ranged combat. She gets a companion, a new character named Sonon, that is AI controlled and can be called on to activate synchronized abilities. The two chapters that make up the DLC take place alongside the main game where Yuffie and Sonon move from the Slums into Shinra Headquarters to retrieve Materia. Along the way Yuffie excitedly bounced from fight to fight like a plucky Shonen protagonist without the more grating side of the braggadocio. She’s a great character and refreshing from the more self serious party of the mainline game. That doesn’t mean the dense lore of VII isn’t there with the addition of characters that were previously in the side sequel Dirge of Cerberus. It’s a small taste of what’s to come, but that shortened experience really highlights what makes the Remake special.

I also wrote more about my side adventures playing Fort Condor.

Pokémon Unite

Pokemon Unite Goal

A MOBA with shorter games? Easy to pick up mechanics? Enough skill ceiling to keep you coming back? O I see those have existed for some time, but they didn’t have Pokémon. I’m so glad Unite was good mainly because it kept from picking back up my DOTA 2 habit. Whenever I have a free moment, it’s easy for me to pick right back up and jump into the fray with Blastoise. It’s so approachable that I don’t feel discouraged spending time away from it. The matches are also quick enough that losing doesn’t immediately kill my mood. And who doesn’t love playing as Pokémon? The continued support and new additions make this game all the richer. Big downside though; still rotten with microtransactions and pay to win incentives. A Free to Play game this very much is.

Take a trip back in time to when it launched.

Outer Wilds: Echoes of the Eye

Outer Wilds Echoes of the Eye

Two very big horror chickens, Emily and I, we’re so enthralled by this spooky addition to one of the greatest games ever made. It’s the fastest we ever recorded a Let’s Play and each day we were chomping at the bit to unravel more. The new haunted setting with its wood architecture and dilapidated structures brought us in just as hard as the planets of the main game. It also made us incredibly on edge for the majority of it as the dark tone permeated throughout the station. The story and a-ha moments were just as impactful even as it told a relatively smaller story (hard to match the main game’s story of a galaxy). The clues were spread a little too thin though and we found ourselves bashing our heads a lot. Overall though it was well worth the trip back into Outer Wilds. My favorite part? Us accidentally running head long to embrace the very things that cause the jump scares. We learned our lesson about approaching strangers. 

Read my write up and find a link to our let’s play.

Great Ace Attorney Chronicles

Great Ace Attorney Chronicles Lord Stronghart

Who knew that the best Ace Attorney games would be set in the past. The western release of the Japan only 3DS games are an absolute delight. The story of Ryunosuke Naruhodo suddenly finding himself on a path to becoming a lawyer is a lot of fun and the most ambitious Ace Attorney story to date. Each case subtlety builds intrigue in ways that aren’t readily apparent when you’re playing them. Past Ace Attorney games have had interconnected cases but these games build off each other. These games are also the most overtly political, questioning the actual “justice” of a budding legal system. I was caught off guard with how overt the politics were in the game and some of my misgivings from the first game were even addressed in the second. I don’t want to make these sound super serious; the series’s comedic charms are still very much here and even more refined. The characters are really what sells these games, from the ridiculous criminals (shout out to the Skulkin Brothers) to the Sherlock Holmes analogue (hilariously localized to Herlock Sholmes to avoid litigation). The new jury system also adds a hilarious flavor with a rotating crew of local people. Not to mention these games look great as well and seeing the characters react and move in 3D added excitement to the proceedings. My only worry after sinking 80 hours into these; that aren’t more of them to play.

Read about my misgivings with the politics of the first game. Boy did that second game make me eat crow.

The Metroid Series: Super Metroid, Metroid Fusion & Metroid Dread

Metroid Dread

I had never played a 2D Metroid before this year and I am so glad I fell down the rabbit hole. I was initially skeptical about playing Super Metroid since I’m really bad at platformers and don’t have a ton of experience with ones from the SNES era. It sunk its hooks in me quickly and I found myself voraciously playing through it over a weekend. That’s one of the nice things about these games; they’re short. These Metroid games keep the pace up and never overstay their welcome. They don’t feel slight either, allowing you to investigate and explore the areas for secrets and power ups if you’d like to. Finding items requires you understanding Samus’ skill set and implementing your knowledge, making it super rewarding. All three games are absolute classics and some of the most fun I had playing games all year.

I wrote more in depth about each game in my Metroid Year retrospective.

Inscryption

Inscryption

A game in the time honored tradition of “this game is so good and you should play it blind.” I don’t want to spoil anything too deeply here, I’d rather save that for it’s own dedicated blog. I will however rundown the high level details; this is a deck building roguite where you are playing as a person who’s playing a card game with a mysterious stranger. Their face is shrouded in darkness as is much of the cabin that you’re in. As you continue to play the game and get farther and farther, the game starts bringing in puzzles and lots of new twists to the gameplay. Those twists are exciting but the act of just playing the card game is a blast. The game will subtly point you towards different strategies and mastering the rules of the game is rewarding. Inscryption also lets you break the game in fun and novel ways. This game had me laughing at all the weird ways I accidentally backed into a game breaking strategy. Of course every time you get your feet under you something strange happens…

Inscryption is also packed with wild lore, so much that it’s spilled out into an ARG. The video game itself is exciting enough all throughout its surprisingly long run time. Even if you’re not a fan of card games, Inscryption has enough gameplay twists to keep you satisfied.

Nier Replicant Version 1.2247…

Nier Replicant

I was among the large influx of people who discovered Nier and Yoko Taro through Nier Automata. It exceeded my expectations, an action RPG that played with gaming conventions with weird explorations of humanity through sentient machines. I’m not sure why I didn’t jump immediately on the Nier rerelease when it came out earlier this year but I’m glad I ended the year on it. It was strange seeing characters that would repeat in Automata show up in this game and made me have a larger appreciation for the lore of this series. I found the story just as moving and was surprised how distinct it was from its sequels. Replicant is all about found family and what it means to practice forgiveness for others and ourselves. The main trio of Nier, Kaine and Emil all come together through their shared trauma. The kindness they show one another allows them to show kindness to themselves even when they’ve committed heinous and violent acts. Nier is about how the world shaped these people into weapons, either directly or indirectly, and their own culpability. It’s about moving forward and processing your grief in an unjust world. Nier also explores themes like man’s inhumanity to man, man pushing nature beyond its breaking point, what constitutes personhood, the human desire for more life, the beauty of life and shared humanity. Even when the story itself is relatively straightforward there’s ample thematic material to mull over. And all of this takes place in a Zelda-ish action adventure.

Part of the appeal of Nier Automata was the way it played with video games as a medium which is something that was incorporated from the original game. Playing through Replicant I found the same sort of playfulness if slightly less polished. The side quests are fun variations on traditional RPG quests, whether that’s unreliable quest givers sending you on wild goose chases to avoid you or having someone’s toxic relationship unfold each time you exit and revisit a village. These are nestled in among the more standardized versions of fetch quests so when the changes arrive they call attention to themselves. They’re commenting on the way you interact with NPCs in a RPG, the same way Weiss (your magic book) chastises you for going out of your way to grab every side quest. When you think a simple gathering of fruit is going to be simple, the quest giver lays an unexpected tragedy at your feet. The farther along the game goes, the more the townspeople refer to you as “that guy who will do any errand.” 

The main quest has wider genre variations. Rescuing villagers from the Forest of Myth requires you to enter a text adventure where you are solving riddles to free them from a magical virus. Your first visit to Emil’s mansion is straight out of Resident Evil. It locks the camera in fixed angles and the entire setting is monotone. Paintings change, sinks fill with blood, and random stone people litter the landscape. There’s also a dungeon with a Diablo style camera view as you slice and dice your way through it. The enemies even rely mainly on shooting “bullet-hell” like blobs that you have to avoid and attack. Nier is a game and series that loves games deeply and enjoys using different pieces and building them into it like Legos.

A lot of people will have heard of this series because of the games multiple play through structure. Nier Replicant has you playing through it at least 3 times with very little variation in those last playthroughs. It’s a rough draft for what Automata refined as Automata created new scenarios for you to run through each time. Replicant can require a guide at times to help sand off some of the rough edges (definitely necessary to complete all the quests). The story content gained from your first repeated playthrough is devastating, laying out a different viewpoint from the main character’s. Nier Replicant can often feel like a gut punch and is written in a way that you can extend pathos to all the characters you come across. Nier Replicant is a rewarding experience because of its unique themes and novel way of exploring them in a video game.

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