The best games of 2021 (so far)

Why wait until the end of the year to hear about its best games?

Knowing which games are helping to define the year in entertainment, or pushing the state of the art forward in some capacity, is a great way to get a sense of where the industry may be headed. It’s early in the year, so this list is a little thin. It’s almost like there are other factors that may be slowing down development on top of the launch of a new console generation. Still, it’s never too soon to cast a spotlight on the best work of the year.

You may notice the inclusion of games that were either fully released or made available in early access prior to 2021. Because many games change from patch to patch, let alone year to year, we may include previously available games that receive a significant update within the year or become available on a platform that substantially impacts how that game is experienced.

Without further ado, here are Polygon’s favorite games of 2021, to date.

Persona 5 Strikers

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Persona 5 Strikers feels like a true Persona game while belonging to a different genre altogether.

When the characters all dive into a new Jail — themed after a draconian castle, a carnival, and more — we still move through the shadows. This may be a Musou game, but we’re still Phantom Thieves. As in the RPG, I sneak up on enemies and initiate combat with stealth attacks. But when the battle erupts, I’m relieved of my menus and thrown into a mostly real-time brawl.

A dozen Shadows erupt from the enemy I just attacked, and a small arena forms around where I initiated combat. Instead of issuing commands, I’m mashing buttons or inputting combos to make Joker slash through enemies with his knife. At any time, I can swap to one of the other three Phantom Thieves in my party.

Ryuji can execute powerful charge attacks, or Makoto can ride her motorcycle Persona through a group of enemies — a Persona being a manifestation of each Phantom Thief’s inner being, usually based on a historical or literary character. Makoto’s Persona, the motorcycle Johanna, is based on Pope Joan, while Joker’s persona is based on Arsène Lupin, the gentleman thief.

I can summon my Persona mid-combo or hold a button to select a number of moves to strike my foes. And that’s when the action stops. These battles may be big and fast, but this is still a Persona game. Different Personas and Shadows have different elemental weaknesses, and I can freeze time at any point to pull a powerful Wind attack out of Zorro, Morgana’s Persona. By striking an enemy’s weakness, my team and I can execute a powerful All Out Attack, damaging all enemies nearby.

This is the general flow of Persona 5 Strikers’ combat. The Phantom Thieves and I battle in fast-paced brawls and then pause to strike an enemy’s weakness. And Strikers really nails the feeling of Persona 5’s combat, for being a different genre altogether. I’m thinking about how to balance my SP (mana) with how much damage I can inflict with my regular attacks during every battle.

Persona 5 Strikers and its combat kept me engaged for the game’s entire runtime — about 50 hours. —Ryan Gilliam

Hitman 3

Agent 47 standing on a balcony overlooking an atrium in Hitman 3 Image: IO Interactive

In one sense, Hitman 3 is a relatively simple more-of-the-same sequel: a set of five new locations, plus an epilogue, with new targets for Agent 47 to take down using some new toys and tactics.

In another sense that’s just as valid, it’s a bold evolution of the Hitman franchise’s narrative elements. In fact, the story that IO Interactive wanted to tell in concluding its World of Assassination trilogy in Hitman 3 occasionally takes precedence over the series’ sandbox gameplay ethos. As 47 starts to assert his own free will, the player occasionally loses some control — and the trade-off, which results in a more directed campaign-esque experience, is well worth it. IO makes good on three games’ worth of character building for 47 and his teammates, delivering a level of narrative payoff that I never expected from a series that is known for interspersing goofy hijinks between moments of operatic spy drama.

Hitman 3 also offers new kinds of thrills in its sprawling assassination playgrounds, and many of them are informed by the story. Through setups like the engrossing murder mystery at an English country manor or the hunter/hunted dynamic in the Berlin mission, the game feels like a more unified, cohesive, and inventive experience than its predecessors. It’s a brilliant capstone for this trilogy and the entire Hitman franchise, and that’s even before you consider the ability to import levels from Hitman and Hitman 2 and play them all with Hitman 3’s technical upgrades. This may be the last we see of 47 for a while, but it’s a fond farewell. —Samit Sarkar

Valheim

A Viking warrior stands next to their shack Image: Iron Gate Studio/Coffee Stain Publishing via Polygon

Crafting and survival games often involve a rough start and a bitter grind before players can get to the sweet experience of building massive bases, hunting dangerous bosses, and conquering a hostile world. Even survival game success stories like Rust have received updates after release to make things easier and more accessible for new players.

Valheim, in contrast, is $19.99 and highly accessible. Players take on the role of Vikings who were granted an eternal afterlife by Odin himself. One of Odin’s ravens shows up to provide tutorials, and the game distributes tools slowly as you get the basics of terraforming, farming, combat, bosses, and crafting. You can’t get in too deep without understanding your starting tools, and that provides a good on-ramp for the game. Luckily, you don’t have to spend long punching trees to earn wood before you can get into the real action.

I’ve only encountered minor bugs during my 20 hours in the game. I can play with up to nine friends, and it’s super simple to connect to another person’s server. I can even hook up a controller without any problems. These may sound like small feats, but they’re also issues that even AAA games like Fallout 76 struggled with implementing, so it’s a huge relief to dodge that sort of mess.

Valheim is also mechanically forgiving, without any of the usual survival game obstacles like prohibitive repair and expansion costs or expiring food. There are terrain manipulation tools and a construction system that lets players build elaborate structures and sprawling settlements. Building can be a bit fiddly, but players can either free-place wood or snap pieces together depending on their preference, which leads to something that is mostly easy and flexible. PvP is a toggle; unless I opt in, I don’t have to worry about another player wrecking my house or sinking an ax into my back while I farm.

Games like Rust and Fallout 76 have built huge communities around their survival gameplay loops, but they’ve also left other players in the cold, either with tough design decisions meant to increase difficulty or technical issues. Valheim doesn’t do anything new or out-there, but it doesn’t need to. Iron Gate Studio has created a simple but deep game that works on every level, and that’s enough to blow up on Steam. —Cass Marshall

Super Mario 3D World and Bowser’s Fury

Mario wears a cat suit while Bowser Jr. looks longingly at his frenemy. A beautiful gold coin lingers in the foreground, ignored by the duo, in Super Mario 3D World + Bowser’s Fury Image: Nintendo EPD/Nintendo

I won’t go so far as to say Super Mario 3D World is my favorite entry in the storied franchise. I will say it’s the entry I am most likely to recommend to both newcomers and lapsed fans returning to video games in adulthood. The four-player online multiplayer feature helps. And there’s a genuine comfort to the reliability and consistency of the adventure, like listening to Fleetwood Mac’s Greatest Hits.

To stretch out that comparison to its snapping point: While most folks prefer the Greatest Hits album, the most obsessive Fleetwood Mac fans (read: me) will prefer listening to Tusk, the band’s experimental album that’s not 100% bangers, but radiates personality from its ambitious and sometimes misguided intent. I accept that I can’t spend this whole review talking about Tusk, Fleetwood Mac’s best and most underappreciated album, but, patient reader, I can tell you about Bowser’s Fury: the Tusk of Mario games.

At first, Bowser’s Fury doesn’t appear to be so different from other 3D Mario games. Mario stands on a beach, surrounded by coins and platforming blocks and the usual baddies. But in the far distance sits another set of platforms, and farther in the distance, more platforms still. Imagine Super Mario 64, but instead of discrete stages, each location is one island in a grand archipelago.

The scope overwhelms, similar to Super Mario Galaxy’s stages crammed with satellite planets, in which Mario looks like a small speck in an infinite void. And similar to the original Super Mario Galaxy, the scope of Bowser’s Fury’s open world doesn’t allow for the artistic precision of other Mario games.

To put it another way: If most Mario games are meticulously designed obstacle courses in which every object and piece of art is precisely where it needs to be, Bowser’s Fury’s open world resembles a toddler’s room after a day of playtime: color and toys and distractions everywhere. It’s messy and lived-in, but if you take a breath, you’ll notice the space has its own charm and warmth. —Chris Plante

Qomp

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No one asked for the Pong Cinematic Universe, but the PC game qomp is here to provide it anyway. It may be one of my favorite games of the year so far.

I was mesmerized by the game’s opening moments. It looks like a clone of Pong, but I wasn’t in control of either paddle. I did realize that I could hit a button and change the direction of the ball, however, and that became my first challenge: making sure the ball got past those paddles, because I was sick of being hit back and forth.

It’s time to escape, and that escape is going to take up the rest of the game, which can be beaten in two to three hours, depending on your skill level.

The world of qomp is a mostly black-and-white maze of obstacles and enemies, and the only way the player can interact with it is by hitting that one button to change the direction of the ball. That’s it. It’s a matter of timing, patience, and visualizing angles. Everything comes down to where the ball is headed, where it will go if you hit the button to change its trajectory, and where it needs to go next to stay on the path to freedom.

In a world of forever games and constantly updated releases that all but require you to play every day to keep up, qomp is a welcome respite, the sort of game you can play for a few hours, have fun, and then put it down. The game has perfected its own limited scope. It’s not about being big; it’s about being good. -Ben Kuchera

The Climb 2

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The Climb 2 on Oculus Quest 2 is Crytek’s second pass at bringing solo climbing to virtual reality, and it’s a doozy. The first game focused on natural features located in a mostly static environment, but the sequel introduces cityscapes and livens up the experience with interactive animals and other distractions, surprises, or delights. During one particularly surprising moment, I found myself face to face with a rattlesnake, which promptly bit me, causing me to lose my grip and fall to my virtual death.

That calm from being so far up, and so far away from other people and the distractions of modern life, combined with the sweat-inducing fear of falling, creates an appealing escape if you have the stomach for it. -Ben Kuchera

Loop Hero

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Loop Hero is a strategy game that’s also a fascinating meditation on parenting. The game takes the focus away from controlling the hero directly; instead, it’s your job to craft their environment, weapons, and abilities to get them ready for the road ahead. You can’t do it for them, but you can improve their chances of success.

The game drops you into a confounding setup. The world has ended, and no one quite knows or remembers what happened, or why. A lone hero is stuck traveling in a loop, but you don’t play as them; they operate completely on autopilot, fighting each monster they encounter, until either they die or you direct them to retreat to camp to preserve their collected resources. Each loop they complete will heal a percentage of the damage they’ve taken, and the power of their enemies and the loot they drop also increases with every loop.

Loop Hero inverts what you’re used to paying attention to in a game. Your hero and the battles they’re taking part in? You have no control over that, at least not directly; all you can do is organize their loadout. Meanwhile, the world itself? You create it. It’s someone else’s job to survive in it.