It’s challenging to sum up in a few words the year of gaming in 2021. There was a familiar and comforting feeling seeing games that we’ve anticipated for years finally launch. Yet this was also a year in which the pandemic’s impact was keenly felt, with several AAA games being pushed well into 2022 and beyond. The upside is games that might have been overlooked now had a better chance to find an audience. And that’s created a varied selection of excellent games that rose to the top throughout 2021.
Whether it be the coincidental release of several games all set within a time-loop, the satisfying return of classic gaming franchises in peak form, or even the unexpected gems that have big things to say about the importance of mental health, gaming — and the sense of escapism it offers — had extra weight in 2021. In many ways, this was the year that video games, as the saying goes, just hit different.
So with that, these are the CNET’s favorite video games of 2021, including honorable mentions and our chosen Game of the Year — as decided by the staff at CNET.
For reference we’ve chosen a Game of the Year, a runner-up and eight additional, unranked, games to round out our top 10.
We also added three honorable mentions because 2021 was a very good year for video games. Let’s start there…
Halo Infinite came out a little too late to make it into our Game of the Year discussions, but we’d be silly not to include it here.
Halo Infinite should have been a disaster. It suffered multiple delays, lost many of its key developers and by all accounts had a nightmarish development period. But as an end product, Halo Infinite is startlingly good. It’s polished, endlessly engaging encounters work seamlessly in its new, gorgeously rendered open world. Better yet, it takes Halo back to its roots: Strange and alien, but familiar. It’s the Halo that exists in your imagination and it rules.
Oh, and outside of weird Battle Pass issues, the multiplayer is awesome. – Mark Serrels
The less you know about Inscryption before playing it, the better your experience with it will be. Without spoiling anything, Inscription is an extremely stylized take on the familiar genre of turn-based card battle games. However, the game cleverly uses the conceit of a deck-building game as the backbone for its surprisingly unnerving and meta storyline, which truly goes places that you would least expect. Think Magic The Gathering crossed with the most unnerving elements of internet horror stories. Seeing it unfold is shocking, and it’ll be hard to forget just how far down the rabbit hole this game goes by its completion.
Don’t look up anything; just play it and really let yourself be taken in by what this inventive and enigmatic game has to offer. – Alessandro Fillari
Death’s Door does everything right.
A top down, combat focused RPG, Death’s Door is razor-focused on its combat, stripping everything else back to their base elements. Imagine Link to the Past with dialled in, layered combat systems and you’re halfway there. Death’s Door is a game that wears its influences on its sleeves, but ultimately becomes more than the sum of its parts. A must play. – Mark Serrels
The top 10
This cozy organizational puzzle game is easily one of the year’s most unexpected hits. Over the course of various apartments and houses — some big, some painfully small — we witness a snippet of the protagonist’s life at formative stages, telling a beautiful story of self, relationships and growth. With masterful sound design constructed with over 14,000 different audio files, the game feels comfortably familiar from the very first time you place an object. – Steph Panecasio
has so many layers to it. You think you’re getting a gorgeous looking sci-fi shooter that could make for fun afternoon entertainment, but you end up with a game set in a cosmic time-loop that has elements of psychological horror and intense action-RPG gameplay too. It also has an incredibly touching story about loss and grief with its protagonist Selene. This is all amplified by the game’s fantastic use of the PS5’s DualSense and 3D Audio to enhance immersion, making it a stellar showpiece for the console. Returnal offered that “this is next-gen” moment I was waiting for ever since buying a PS5. Its handling of both an enigmatic story and slick shooting gameplay that pushes you to get better with each playthrough made it such a stand-out in 2021. It’s a must-have for PS5 owners. – Alessandro Fillari
Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart
So you’ve got new hardware: what new wild things can you do with it? “Living in a movie” seems like a goal video games shoot for every generation or so. But Rift Apart’s completely seamless feel, vast effects, and its world-hopping manic energy make it such a wonderfully dynamic experience, it practically screams “next gen” all by itself. Insomniac Games leaned into the PS5’s haptics, fast SSD capabilities, and graphics to deliver this year’s perfect living cartoon adventure. It’s also a preview of what games could do next. – Scott Stein
It Takes Two
Finally, a good reason to own a second controller! It Takes Two is a co-op adventure game with all the fun and emotional depth of a good Pixar film. You choose between one of two characters, Cody or May, a married couple on the brink of divorce that somehow find themselves trapped inside the bodies of their daughter’s dolls. The two must work together to solve puzzles and find a way out of their “Honey, We Shrunk Ourselves” inspired predicament. It Takes Two is truly at its best when enjoyed with a partner, preferably with someone you know. It’s fun, heartfelt and accessible to gamers of all different skill levels. – Logan Moy
Resident Evil Village
Following up the pure terror of Resident Evil 7 was a hefty task, but Resident Evil Village does so beautifully. Throwing hapless hero Ethan Winters into a series of spooky situations, itin the series to give this adventure plenty of variety in its scares and action. As the events in Village escalate, it can be difficult to know where the game will go next. But being chased around the castle by social media icon is pure survival horror bliss, and it never once lets up. – Sean Keane
Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy
A big-budget popcorn movie of a game, especially one tied into the Marvel juggernaut, is an odd choice to be my favorite game of the year. But this take onfar exceeded my expectations as an all-around piece of entertainment. The voice acting and writing are so good, and the narrative through line is so strong, it’s the only 2021 game I kept going back to just to see what the characters would say and do next.
The game part is the least of it, basically a walking simulator with occasional boss fights. But it builds a surprisingly deep world, with plenty of nods for old-school comic fans. I’d be totally ok with ditching the movie cast in future MCU installments for the voice actors here. – Dan Ackerman
As I sit here writing this blurb, I’m listening to Deathloop’s soundtrack on Spotify. I didn’t line it up because I needed inspiration to sing the game’s praises — I’ve legitimately been listening to‘s tunes over the past two weeks. The groovy-yet-atmospheric score is one of many features that makes Deathloop special. Creative multiplayer, a gripping story and compelling characters are a few others. Deathloop is an enigma: even now, months after playing the game, I struggle to properly articulate precisely what makes Deathloop so remarkable. In a sea of technically outstanding games, it stands out as being more. It is, as the youth say, a vibe. – Daniel Van Boom
As the series’ first brand-new sidescrolling entry since 2002’s Metroid Fusion (not to mention its first designed for an HD console), anticipation was high for, but the game managed to surpass even the loftiest expectations. Dread is not a radical departure for the series, but rather a grand culmination: an expertly crafted adventure filled with secrets to uncover and formidable bosses to overcome. The core Metroid gameplay remains as enticing as ever thanks to the vast, intricately designed map, which gradually unfurls as Samus acquires new powers, while the bounty hunter herself feels more agile and satisfying to control thanks to her new slide and parry abilities. The end result is easily the slickest Metroid game to date, and a great reminder of why the series spawned an entire genre of imitators. – Kevin Knezevic
The Forgotten City
In many ways, The Forgotten City is a small game. It takes place in a confined, ancient Roman city. It was primarily made by a team of only three developers and it takes a mere handful of hours to play through. But this charming adventure game will loom large in my memory for a long time.
Forgotten City starts with a strange setup: You’re stuck in a time loop trying to figure out which member of this ancient city is going to sin. If anyone does, everyone dies. From there, the game spins a delightful mystery filled with wonderful writing and surprisingly deep introspection about the meaning of sin and morality and our responsibility to each other. Forgotten City shows how good writing can elevate the genre and is a must play if you enjoy great stories in your gaming.– Andrew Gebhart
In a year filled with excellent Game of the Year candidates, Psychonauts 2 accomplished what seemed impossible: It took a massive leap of faith when it launched as a crowdfunding campaign in late 2015, spent six years flipping and twisting like an acrobat in the air as it came together, and then stuck the landing. It’s not easy to do that, especially being the sequel to Psychonauts, with the cult following and lofty expectations that entails. To have captured everything that was special about the original, while simultaneously expanding the Psychonauts universe and telling a more grown-up story centered around the hubris of youth, the mental trauma our more selfish choices can inflict (both on ourselves and others), and the subsequent ripple effect across multiple generations? That’s a delicate tightrope walk. And Raz, Psychonauts 2’s acrobatic protagonist, was born for that kind of challenge… literally.
Double Fine’s sequel to the first Psychonauts is everything a great platform-adventure game should be. Engaging in psychic combat and solving platforming puzzles across a variety of levels — ranging from a hospital casino to a psychedelic exploration of human senses — is both visually arresting and mechanically satisfying. It’s also a completionist’s dream, with figments of the imagination, combat mods and other collectibles to pick up. And the finishing touch is a large cast of lovable weirdos, each with their own idiosyncrasies, hopes and dreams. It’ll definitely make you laugh — you might even shed a tear or two when it’s over. Psychonauts 2 basks in the glow of its whimsical weirdness; aside from its predecessor, there’s nothing else like it. – Ashley Esqueda