The Gamer! Beware! Very Official 2021 Game Awards (Part 1)

Let’s begin this little piece with the most inoffensive, generalised statement possible; 2021 was a pretty good year for video games. Was it any better or worse than previous years? No, not really — every year is a pretty good year for video games. 2021 saw a lot of Triple-A first-person shooters (as usual), a smattering of indie gems, a surprisingly generous amount of platformers and relatively few RPGs. For the most part, I managed to at least experience a majority of the critical darlings this year and formulate the worst thing imaginable in response, an opinion. A few of the titles I was looking forward to ended up disappointing, a few lived up beyond my expectations, and most hit that plateau somewhere in between. Regardless, I will not proceed to arbitrarily categorise and rank my video game experience this year by the only metric worth a damn, an end-of-year award ceremony. In the spirit of [current year], let’s start with something purposely downbeat and bound to ruffle a few feathers.

Most Disappointing Game of 2021 — Tales of Arise

I’d like to precede any words concerning Tales of Arise by making sure that everyone reading knows that I am a huge fan of the franchise. I do this not in some vain attempt to convince you that I possess any sort of critical authority over the series, but to convey my initial excitement for what ended up my most disappointing gaming experience of 2021. On paper, Tales of Arise had all the ingredients to be one of the best games in the series. It looked good, it had decent character design, a new refreshing battle system and received a solid four-to-five-year development cycle. That last point is particularly noteworthy, since the nigh on yearly releases of previous titles in the series resulted in relatively samey, cookie-cutter games, which unfavourably earned the franchise the moniker of ‘the Assassin’s Creed of JRPGs’ in some circles. So, Bandai Namco had a winner on their hands? Well, yes. Despite my personal distaste for Tales of Arise, there is no denying its critical and commercial success, winning ‘Best RPG’ at the (very official) Game Awards 2021 and being the fastest-selling game in the franchise by a long shot (one million units in under one week).

So why don’t I like the game? Maybe I’m just overly nostalgic, maybe I’m too stuck in my ways, but I think that Tales of Arise lacks a decent story and a distinct character of its own. For a series renowned for its samey entries, it almost feels blasphemous to criticise a new title for daring to stray from the path, but Tales of Arise, in its desire to reinvent the wheel, trades the distinct anime charm and cheese for something dull, repetitive and ultimately redundant. The game takes itself pretty seriously and it desperately wants you, the player, to take it seriously as well. The central themes of the narrative are essentially racism, slavery and identity, which are all certainly well worth exploring within the context of a video game. Unfortunately, unlike the previous entry in the series, Tales of Berseria, which tackles serious ideas through the lens of a lusciously over-the-top half shounen, half seinen globe-trotting adventure, Tales of Arise delivers its commentary straight-faced and with an uncharacteristic lack of personality. Series staple ‘skits’, which in previous games were usually brief, comical conversational interludes that helped flesh out the characters and establish inter-party relationships, are now mostly dry reiterations of plot beats that happened seconds before. The central group of characters, while well-acted (shout-out to Ray Chase in particular for expertly toeing the line between maturity and naivety voicing main character, Alphen), do not feel distinct enough from each other personality-wise. You have all the classic tropes you need, the young, feisty fighter, the initially cold love interest with a heart of gold, the aloof aristocrat — these characters should be interacting, arguing and generally growing as the game progresses. Instead, for the most part, relationships tend to be fully formed from the start, or not exciting enough for the player to feel invested in. This party rarely argue, or disagree, they just tend to trundle from point a to point b with a universal goal and a shared amiability. I never thought I’d feel this way, but I genuinely began to miss the ‘anime bullshit’ of previous entries — as silly (and often frustrating) as it was, at least it was trying; I’ll take heart on its sleeve authenticity over reserved tedium any day. If there’s one thing that Tales of Arise desperately wants you to know, it’s that slavery is (shock and horror) bad, and it will happily beat you over the head with this truism until you’re seeing stars.

In stark contrast, the gameplay and the graphics might be the best the series has ever seen. Locations are usually lush and diverse (if a little generic) and the combat is fluid, exciting and layered. Indeed, the addition of a dodge roll immediately makes encounters feel a lot more dynamic, with frantic, fun fights that rarely sacrifice strategy for spectacle. At the end of the day, however, I’m just not the kind of guy who plays RPGs for the gameplay, I play for story, characters and atmosphere, which I feel Tales of Arise ends up dropping the ball on completely.

Runner-up — Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart

An entirely playable (and frankly gorgeous) 3d platformer that feels like it hasn’t evolved much past the tropes and design choices introduced in the PlayStation 3 Future Saga trilogy. It’s a little disappointing that a series that was known for its biting sense of humour has slowly had its edges dulled to a smooth, generic nub.

Best Game Not Released in 2021 — Xenogears

Having never officially released outside of Japan and the US, I had to wait until the ripe age of sixteen before I got my first taste of the cult classic JRPG Xenogears. I distinctly remember the excitement of setting up an American PSN account and filling it with Amazon US credit so I could download the digital version onto my PS3 (as well as Chrono Cross, Parasite Eve, etc., etc.). An excitement forged in the fires of a million ‘best JRPG ever’ lists and countless forum posts detailing the insane, ambitious and rich story so unfairly denied the United Kingdom. I played about ten hours over the next few days and came to a singular conclusion — overrated, I didn’t like it. After an exciting enough intro (with fully animated cutscenes, no less), the game began to meander and, to my teenage brain at least, seemed to be going nowhere fast. I was particularly unhappy with the translation, which I deemed shoddy. Characters seemed to refuse to speak to each other using grammatical contractions, which ruined the flow of conversation and left every encounter strange, stilted and unnatural. The gameplay bored me — the ‘gears’ bored me, and the music couldn’t save me from putting Xenogears down for the next ten years.

I began my third attempted playthrough of Xenogears in April of 2021, fully prepared, no matter the time investment, to get it finished. Humbled by time and research, I now understood the importance of Xenogears’ translation and the insane work and dedication of industry legend, Richard Honeywood (the same Honeywood who went on to translate Final Fantasy VIII — XI, Dragon Quest VIII and many more), who essentially localised the game solo. The pace didn’t bother me this time, in fact, I began to luxuriate in the slow, deliberate plotting. The atmosphere is rich, the theming and reference are deep, and most importantly, the game is ridiculously ambitious. Xenogears truly soars when you begin to dig below the surface, its most impressive features becoming apparent through the fine details — the naming of the towns, musical motifs, an odd word here or there, a reference to a biblical event, or psychological theory; the list is endless. I still found the combat slow and a little dull, but I was now hooked on seeing what lay around the corner, what theme would be tackled next, what philosophy the next character would subscribe to. Even the infamous second disc was not enough to put me off my stride, Xenogears had its hooks in me — I didn’t care that the second half of the game was relegated to short bursts of gameplay interspersed with long cutscenes, it just meant more story to enjoy. The characters, while interesting in places, are not the stars of the show (except for Citan and maybe Billy, those guys rock), instead serving as the necessary conceptual vehicles for the bigger picture. I dare not say more, simply because I believe everyone should experience this game fresh, with as little prior knowledge as possible.

Xenogears isn’t the best JRPG ever made, hell, it’s probably not even the best one on the original PlayStation, but it just might be the most ambitious, and in some ways, that’s just as good.

Runner-up — Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice

Exceptional in almost every way, Sekiro delivers blistering and challenging combat, married to a tantalisingly realised fantasy version of Sengoku Japan. If there was an award for the purest satisfaction I experienced playing a game in 2021, it would without a doubt go to Sekiro. While I expected excellent, balanced gameplay, I was truly swayed by the atmosphere, something I should’ve come to expect from, I don’t know, every single previous FromSoft game? The game exudes the decaying, terrifying beauty that has almost come to be taken for granted in the Souls series. The creature design is exquisite, featuring possibly the most terrifying, breath-taking giant snake you can experience in any medium. It also has a large, headless monkey that pelts you with its own faeces — Sekiro truly has it all.

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