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My gaming highlights of 2021 | Retro Stu

2021 may have seemed like a 2020 DLC but there was still some joy to be had! Here's my top 5 games (in no particular order) that I played last year.

1. Blasphemous

For someone who had never really played much in the way of Metroidvanias, I really threw myself in to them in 2021 and Blasphemous was one that really got it's claws in me.

The game sees you take on the role of the "Penitent One" in the world of Cvstodia, a world steeped in lore, as you seek to find a sacred relic which can only be obtained through performing the "Three Humiliations" to show you are worthy of said relic.

Despite being a metroidvania it's often described as souls-like and in typical souls fashion, the fighting system relies on a mix of attack and defence (don't tarry that parry!). Whilst you can hack and slash your way through parts of it you do need a good defence going into certain and areas and fights. If hack and slash wasn't enough, you do get some pretty gory finishing moves on enemies too - are some a bit over the top? Sure. Do you need to do the finishing moves? No, so if they are too much for you, just don't do them! But for all it's blood and gore, it's actually a visually stunning gaming - the pixel art is incredibly detailed and you can find gorgeous aesthetics among even the most grotesque of boss designs.

It's not the longest of games but when you add in the fact the devs released a free DLC in December last year - there's plenty there to make it total value for money.

2. Lost in Random

If you like story rich games that feel more akin to taking part in an interactive movie then this is the first of 2 such games on my list.

Lost in Random provides such a gloriously Tim Burton-esque style world for your character, Even, to search for her sister, Odd, who was taken by the Queen of Random on her 12th birthday. Believing Odd has been trying to reach her a year on from being taken, Even sets out to bring her sister home. She can't do it alone though, and through a chance encounter she meets Dicey, who is, you guessed it, a die. The purpose of Dicey? Well, in order to fight enemies you go through the game building up a card deck - there are five different types of cards (Weapon, Damage, Defense, Hazard, and Cheat), offering different abilities and power ups. Each card will have a number on it and being able to use the card depends entirely on what number you get from rolling Dicey. Don't be fooled though, it's not your standard deck builder, despite having to play cards it's still up to you to deal damage to enemies. One card for example could be a sword, but it's only temporary so you have to strike enemies while you can! I've never been the biggest fan of deck builders but when it mixes in real time action like this I'm all for it.

Away from the gameplay the other thing that needs a big mention is the voice acting and sound design. I was absolutely in awe throughout my play of this, particularly from the guttural growl effects of the Shadow Man and other characters. I don't want to give too much away in terms of storyline because I honestly feel this game is a must play and it's one I'll be revisiting again and again.

3. The Messenger

Now I wasn't sure whether this game was going to make it given I played it very early on in the year and played a lot of good games since, but honestly - it's probably the game that kicked off my big Metroidvania addiction.

The game begins in an 8 bit style, with your village being destroyed by the Demon King. Before you can fight the demon, a character dubbed "Western Hero" tasks you with delivering a scroll thus bestowing upon you the title of "The Messenger". You travel through various worlds and on your journey you'll be provided upgrades via the shopkeeper and learn new abilities to help you gain access to previously unvisited lands.

I really can't mention too much of the storyline because I don't want to ruin the premise for anyone but I will say that the attention to detail paid to changing the game from 8 bit to 16 bit and back again whenever you travel through portals later on in the game is just superb. And it's not only the graphics that change - the music even switches from 8 bit to 16 bit too!

Which brings me on to my next point - the music, oh my god the music. I listen to a lot of Spotify but the fact the Messenger soundtrack appeared on my top listened albums of the year says a lot at just how great the artist, Rainbowdragoneyes, did with it. Even now I'll catch myself humming a tune from the soundtrack without even realising I'm doing it - it's that catchy, and just elevates the game above being a good game to a really enjoyable one. If the soundtrack wasn't as good as it is, would this game have made my top 5? Probably not.

4. Kena: Bridge of Spirits

A late comer to my 2021 playthroughs but straight into the top 5 without a doubt. I mentioned Lost in Random being a cinematic experience, well this game goes beyond. This really is like playing a Pixar movie - but a Pixar movie with so much more heart and soul than you expect, tied in with some brilliant fight mechanics. I've seen it described as Pixar Dark Souls - and whilst the general enemies (salutes) are not overly taxing, the boss fights certainly can be troublesome and definitely relies on mastering both attack and defence. The "Pixarness" comes from the general look and smoothness of the character design but ultimately it's the adorable helpers you have known as "The Rot" that add that touch of "awww" to the game. The Rot aren't just there to look cute though (despite the fact you can buy hats in the game to dress them up) they are vital in helping you heal not only yourself but also ridding spirits of their afflictions when you defeat them in boss fights.

Some of the storylines may seem a touch obvious now with hindsight, but during my play I really did not catch on to some of the more subtle details and was left with the occasional gut punch right in the feels and I am grateful for that - it just goes to show how immersive the devs made this story.

What makes this game all the more impressive is the fact it is the first game from Ember Lab and it rightly won "best debut indie game" and "best independent game" at the Game Awards. If this is the bar they have set for their first game I cannot wait to see what they go on to create from the lessons they will have undoubtedly learned from this success.

5. Hades

Hades. Nuff said.

But seriously, you didn't think my top 5 wouldn't include this Supergiant masterpiece did you?

By now everyone will have heard of Hades so you'll likely know what makes this game so incredible.

For me, I'm going to describe it the way I've described it from the start:

  • Music - a work of art. Darren Korb is a musical genius.

  • Art style - a work of art. Incredible attention paid to every facet of level and character design.

  • Story - a work of art. So many threads to follow and relationships to unfold.

  • Game play - a work of art. Simple to learn, a joy to master.

  • Voice acting - a work of art. Absolute top choices made for every character.

Combine all these separate works of art - you get an undoubted masterpiece in my opinion. Separately each part would win in it's category, together it's a juggernaut of a game that offers so much and for the price it is an absolute steal.

I've never been one to chase full Steam achievements or even consider speedrunning a game but I became totally enamoured with Hades that I did just that - I wanted every achievement, I'm still chasing all the songs to unlock, all the great hall upgrades but even when I've got them, you better believe I won't stop going back to escape the Underworld.

So there you have it my top 5 games that I played in 2021 - though there are some very honourable mentions that I will have to do a follow up on (shout outs to Hollow Knight and Death's Door for starters!) but here's to 2022 and discovering some new and old gems alike!

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