The final stint for the Gamer! Beware! 2021 awards and the crowning of, in my opinion, this year’s best
Best Multiplayer Game of 2021 — Valheim
2021, functioning as 2020’s less than stellar expansion pack, was the year of multiplayer. With weekends relegated to the act of sitting indoors, many people flooded to the internet and online gaming for their social interaction. This was no less true for my own personal experience and my Friday to Sunday lockdown gaming sessions continue to this day. Our (me and my university friends) initial tipple was 2017’s SCP: Secret Laboratory, a randomly generated, free-to-play, asymmetric multiplayer horror game that proved infinitely entertaining. However, after we each sank over one hundred hours into the title, we collectively sought to play something new. Enter Valheim, the surprise hit and unexpected champion of multiplayer gaming in 2021.
On paper, Valheim could not have been further from the games I usually find myself playing. The moniker of open-world, survival sandbox game is frankly, immediately unappealing, bringing to mind similarly insipid mega-hits like Rust and ARK: Survival Evolved. Valheim¸ however, deftly avoids the pitfalls of the genre, elevating the entire experience to new giddy heights (for the most part at least). With less of a focus on pure mechanics and more of a focus on structured progression, atmosphere, mystery and world-building, the game remained in our gaming rotation for a good seventy hours. Like the best open-world multiplayer experiences, Valheim encourages organic, self-made entertainment, while still providing a clear, overarching goal for those who desire one. In this case, and at the time of playing, the main objective was to defeat five central bosses, the ‘enemies of Odin’. Before that, however, you’ve got to figure out how to clothe and feed yourself, as well as build a decent shelter to rest in. One of my favourite memories of the game took place in that initial play session. Eight shirtless, starving Vikings had successfully constructed a wooden shack to sleep in, but disaster struck as soon as we entered; it was cold, too cold to sleep. Immediately, in the dead of night, we set to gather the materials for a campfire. After scurrying about the nearby forest, we built the fire in the center of the room, and all lay down to rest. It wasn’t long before we noticed the smoke from the fire begin to pool at the top of the structure and slowly start to fill the sleeping area. It was an even shorter interval of time before we all started choking. The uproarious laughter and panic that ensued is etched into my memory forever, along with the image of eight muscled men desperately filtering out of a wooden shack, into the embrace of the night and the surrounding ‘greyling’ creatures.
I could list tens of other stories just as memorable during my time with the game. Valheim excels at creating these hilarious, cooperative moments between players, which simultaneously serve as learning experiences for the various gameplay mechanics and systems. The awe and spectacle of building your first raft and hitting the ocean is expertly combined with the need to get to grips with steering the damn thing. Valheim is at its most fun in these moments of immediate, clumsy experience; it is a game that benefits from the player knowing nothing in advance, from going in completely blind. In doing so, you will find yourself consistently awed by the Viking setting, which adds another layer of mystique and charm to the whole experience. Expect sweeping, dreamy meadows, dark forests and poisonous, corrupted swamps filled with the undead and huge, violent trolls. Each new, undiscovered biome is a treat, each mining expedition its own little story and each boss battle a tooth and nail scrap for survival in the harsh, beautiful world of Valheim.
Runner-up — The Jackbox Party Pack 8
Pretty much a guaranteed good time at this point, The Jackbox Party Pack 8 continues the series tradition of entertaining, fast-paced multiplayer fun that anyone with a working phone can pick up and play. While the games on offer here aren’t quite as good as the Jackbox Games magnum opus, The Jackbox Party Pack 6 (this is a universal truth and I will fist-fight anyone who disagrees), there are certainly more hits than misses. ‘The Wheel of Enormous Proportions’ provides perhaps the best pure trivia experience we’ve seen from the Party Pack games and features some very entertaining questions/categories, while still allowing the opportunity for the underdog to come from behind and secure a win through random chance. ‘Poll Mine’ is a potent fuel to the fire of any friendship group, bound to result in some wonderful arguments as you all attempt to guess the collective answer rank of a polled question. And ‘Job Job’ meets the quota for the ‘Quiplash’ style comedy experience, allowing the linguistically gifted of the group to construct word-by-word answers to job interview questions using previously answered player prompts. The remaining two games are ‘Drawful Animate’ and ‘Weapons Drawn’, the prior acting as an all too familiar spin on the now ubiquitous Jackbox Pictionary clone and the latter being a confusing, overstuffed murder-mystery that lacks the immediate enjoyment necessary of a Party Pack title.
Best Game of the Year 2021 — Psychonauts 2
I’ll be honest, it would only take Psychonauts 2 being half as good as the first game to guarantee it being my game of the year; that’s my bias laid clear on the table. The fact that the game is, for all intents and purposes, just as good as the first (and in some areas better) is more than I could have ever hoped for. I distinctly remember the surprise of seeing the sequel announced at the 2015 Game Awards. I was still in university at that point in my life, my friends and I were all huddled around the ancient flatscreen TV freezing cold, second-floor sitting room. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing or hearing, Psychonauts, the cult classic, the game that almost didn’t exist, was getting a fully-fledged sequel. Shortly after the announcement, the game was confirmed to be crowdfunded via Fig, which did little to curb my excitement. What did, however, was the numerous delays that followed throughout the years. In retrospect, this was clearly to polish the game and ensure it was as good as it could be, but to someone who was shocked it even existed to begin with, these were bad omens. It took until this year, 2021, for the game to finally release. I awaited the reviews with bated breath — they were good, they were really good. With a certain amount of trepidation, I started Psychonauts 2 at 1 AM GMT on release day; it was better than I ever could have imagined.
Psychonauts strength was always in its setting and writing. The concept of a 3D platformer with levels made up from the warped psyche of a bunch of different adults is the kind of genius that can only truly flourish in the medium of video games. The first Psychonauts is genuinely funny and creative on every front, feeling like a mix of the best Saturday morning cartoons, Tim Burton films and Tim Schafer’s previous outings Grim Fandango and Full Throttle. Psychonauts 2 trades some of the nihilistic witticism of the first game for an altogether more serious, focused story. It is a game that, as many people have pointed out, genuinely has something to say about mental health and trauma, but does it in such a mature, understated way, while still being an entertaining, bombastic action-platformer. The central theme (and by extension lesson) of Psychonauts 2 is that everyone can heal and that heart-breaking human experience can gradually alleviate; not through the process of a magic ten-year-old entering your brain and flipping a switch, but by the passage of time, patience and the understanding of others. Sure, it’s not as straightforwardly funny as the first game, but what we get instead is a genuine, fleshed-out plot, which rolls on from the first game so deftly, you’d never think that there was a sixteen-year gap between both (not counting the VR only Rhombus of Ruin, of course). Schafer’s writing is such a vivid, considered combination of humour and pathos that I truly believe it is impossible to not fall in love with all of the new characters, and fall in love with the old ones all over again.
The gameplay has seen something of an improvement from the first title. Movement and platforming feel smoother and weightier, making for some breezy and enjoyable platforming gauntlets — and I say that as someone who thought the original controlled perfectly well. Psychonauts 2 does put a greater focus on combat, however, expanding the utility of Raz’s psychic powers so can they be used to fight a multitude of new and returning enemies. Combat is far faster and far more prominent than it was in the first game, becoming a key part of the central gameplay loop, as opposed to an afterthought. The new levels are as wildly creative and visually spectacular as you would expect from Psychonauts, featuring everything from a trippy, Yellow Submarine-soaked musical world to a faux-gameshow hosted by insane puppet versions of some of the game’s central characters.
If I had one criticism, I think it’s a bit of a shame that a lot of the old-school adventure game elements have been removed from Psychonauts 2. The first game featured several items that needed to be used in conjunction with certain characters or places in order to progress, point and click style. While a little superfluous, these items at least added another layer of optional dialogue to proceedings. I absolutely adored trying every little item out on every character and, for my troubles, getting an absolute ton of unique dialogue. This is really a nit-pick, however, as Psychonauts 2 features absolutely tons of character interaction, optional conversations and post-game discoveries — far, far more than even the original.
At the end of the day, Psychonauts 2 is the rare returning sequel that is just as good as the original. With all odds stacked against it, it proves that Double Fine’s Psychonauts was not lightning in a bottle and that Schafer and co. could skillfully craft and recapture everything that made the game great while expanding on it at the same time. Of course, I would love nothing more than to see Psychonauts 3, but what we have, what we’ve been given, is pretty much close enough to perfection as is.
Runner-up — The Forgotten City
Easily the best game this year with a time-loop mechanic, The Forgotten City plays out like a ridiculously well-written episode of Doctor Who (which I know little of, and like even less, but I think is an apt comparison). A game which proves, without a doubt, that a strong, well-written and acted pulpy narrative can carry an entire experience — that gameplay, as a concept, can encompass so much more than just moment-to-moment action (combat, platforming, etc.). Endlessly intriguing and almost impossible to put down once it gets its hooks into you, The Forgotten City has one of the most fun and original plots in recent gaming memory. Oh, and the Roman setting is exquisitely realised, that’s a big bonus for all you history buffs.
Honourable Mentions — (That may, or may not, be written about in the future).
Resident Evil: Village
Final Fantasy VII: Episode INTERmission
It Takes Two
Shin Megami Tensei V
Guardians of the Galaxy
Kena: Bridge of Spirits
Chicory: A Colourful Tale
The Great Ace Attorney Chronicles