HeadStuff Picks: The Best Games of 2021 So Far

What a year am I right? What do you mean it’s only July? Jesus Christ…

Anyway, another July means another slightly late list of the best games of the year so far. From the full resurrection of one of the most beloved horror franchises ever in Resident Evil Village to the conclusion of the definitive stealth trilogy of the last decade with Hitman 3 it’s been a hell of a year already. Big changes have come to the gaming industry as Returnal brought rogue-likes to the big leagues as one of the first PS5 exclusives. Established series have started expanding into uncharted territory with Persona 5: Strikers entering the hack ‘n’ slash genre. After six months of jank Cyberpunk 2077 has emerged not as a game changer for the industry but as a solid, entertaining thrill ride into the aesthetics if not the politics of its chosen genre. All that and much more below…

Cyberpunk 2077

Yeah yeah I know shut up for a second, shut up! Listen! Cyberpunk 2077 at its core is a great looking, very playable RPG. It is not the sea change many expected and wanted and it was never going to be. Games that actually push the envelope like Half Life: Alyx or Gone Home or Death Stranding are recognised as game changers because they are. A cyberpunk RPG made by one of the most successful gaming corporations in the world is not a game changer. To some it’s not cyberpunk at all as the fact it was made under crunch conditions by an incredibly successful developer goes against the radically anti-capitalist themes of cyberpunk. Of course an opposing argument could be made but the truth is I don’t really care about any of that. Cyberpunk 2077 looks cool and plays well and lets me put swords into my characters’ arms.

There’s a part where a guy who looks like cyborg Rick Ross is shot in the head by a guy who looks like cyborg Toshiro Mifune. Cyberpunk 2077 knows that very few people are coming to it hoping to see Keanu Reeves’ Johnny Silverhand and player character V smash the system and give Night City back to the people while espousing Karl Marx and Leon Trotsky. They want to hack guards’ cybernetic eyes to blind them. They want guns that shoot smart bullets. They want neon-lit, rain-soaked nights. They want the aesthetics of Neuromancer and Blade Runner and Deus Ex with no complications. Cyberpunk 2077 delivers on that, I don’t know how or why we expected more. Andrew Carroll.

Hades

Alright, this one’s a bit of a cheat, since Hades, like so many games nowadays, was in early access for about two years, but with it’s recent full release on PC and upcoming release on consoles, I think it’s worth looking back on the now complete product. 

Following the character of Zagreus, a Greek god so minor that his main claim to fame in Classical Mythology is being conflated with Dionysus, as he tries to do what so many of us have wanted to do over the last year, break out of our stuffy house and see the outside. Only in Zagreus’ case, the government restrictions and stay-at-home orders are enforced by an army of the dead, more than capable of sending the surprisingly squishy godling back down the River Styx if he’s not careful.

Despite wearing it’s rogue-like heritage on it’s sleeve, Hades deviates quite a bit from the standard rogue-like structure in how it handles it’s story. Death doesn’t have quite the same sting when you live in the underworld, and for Zagreus, death is unpleasant not on it’s own merits, but because it forces him back to a home fraught with tension and a father who makes no secret of his distain. True to it’s mythological roots, Hades is less of a game about escaping the underworld and more about the clash of larger than life personalities, where getting killed by heroes and legends isn’t nearly as bad as having to make awkward relationship talk with them afterwards. Conor Rennick

Hitman 3

Looking at the position IO Interactive now finds itself in – a critically acclaimed and very well liked return to form for their flagship series finished, and moving onto the first 007 game in almost a decade – you’d be forgiven for thinking the last few years have been a ‘strength to strength’ story of triumph. In reality, that the World of Assassination Trilogy managed to reach its concluding chapter is a minor miracle.

Nonetheless, here we are. The third Hitman game in six years and another fine entry in this familiar format that doesn’t offer much in the way of altered gameplay but rather more new sandboxes in which to play with it. Honestly you’re likely well aware of what these games are like by now and if you’re into that or not. Everything that could have been said gameplay-wise about this game was also true of Hitman 2, this is still the definitive Hitman experience and immensely satisfying to converts of its action/puzzle/stealth machinations.

It essentially perfected its formula in the first entry and while there have been tweaks, the remaining two entries were happy and correct to simply give the players more of what they wanted and knew they liked. Hitman 3 can sometimes feel like a marathon sprinter gasping for air as they force their body over the finish line but when you look at where this franchise was immediately before the 2016 reset, this exercise has been a resounding success and Hitman 3 is a very satisfactory sticking of the landing. Richard Drumm.

Mass Effect: Legendary Edition

Am I cheating by putting three games – two of which are over a decade old – in the one slot on this list? Yes. Do I care? No. Mass Effect means more to me than almost any other game series barring maybe Resident Evil. The best thing about this newly polished version of the Mass Effect trilogy is that it brings everything – DLC, costumes, characters – together for the first time ever. No longer am I left out of the Batarians introduction on Asteroid X-57. No longer am I ignorant of the Shadow Broker’s true identity. No longer am I part of a conversation that consists solely of the words Shepard, Wrex and Grunt ad infinitum.

Say what you will about BioWare, say they know how to write characters well. If we’re honest the true draw of Mass Effect, of any BioWare RPG really, was its story and characters not its combat though 2 and 3 hold up pretty well. Seeing your friendship with Garrus or Shepard’s relationship with Liara play out over three games played consistently and in a relatively short space of time feels a lot more natural than waiting two years or longer between games. What’s more this game gave me hope and the realisation that when given the right amounts of time and resources BioWare can make a brilliant game. The Citadel DLC proved that. Now we just have to hope that they can pull it off with the next Dragon Age and Mass Effect. Andrew Carroll.

The Medium

There are no perfect horror games. They all have one of those little glitches or weird design choices that keep them from being perfect, fluid experiences. Even the likes of Resident Evil or Silent Hill will frustrate from time to time. The Medium is not a perfect horror game. It’s mix of Outlast-style stealth, fixed camera angles and spirit world shenanigans don’t fit together as well as they could but it tells a damn good story with compelling characters and some damn good scares. Set just after the fall of Communism in Poland The Medium focuses on Marianne an orphaned medium who, just after burying her foster father, receives a call telling her to come to the Niwa Workers’ Resort so that she can reckon with her past.

There’s no combat in The Medium, Marianne picks up a gun for the first time in the last two minutes of the game. But The Medium revels in emotional violence often setting out to explore both national and generational trauma through the themes of abuse, genocide and torture. Few of the ghosts that appear to Marianne led happy lives and it’s all we can do as players to give these spirits the small comfort of passing on. Moving is something Marianne herself seems incapable of doing and that is where The Medium’s brilliance lies, in tragedy. Andrew Carroll.

Persona 5 Strikers

After taking the world by storm, Persona 5 has become one of the defining RPGs of the last decade and an icon of modern gaming. With the series being no stranger to experimenting with different genres, Persona 5 Strikers is tackling the musou style of hack ‘n’ slash games. Developed by juggernauts of the genre Koei Techmo, known for the Dynasty Warriors series, Hyrule Warriors and Fire Emblem Warriors, Persona is a perfect fit for the formula. 

The story sees The Phantom Thieves reunite for a summer road trip across Japan. However, with the metaverse seemingly returning, the gang must suit up once again to protect the people of Japan and take down the monarchs using the metaverse for evil. From an author corrupting the masses into praising his plagiarised work, to a politician essentially mind controlling voters, the new cast of villains are welcome and feel in place with the themes of villains in the original Persona 5. The gang also gets 2 newcomers in Sophia, an adorable AI studying human behaviour, and Zenkichi a police officer tracking the team down to learn of their involvement in the strange happenings across the country. While not as deep a story as the original, its a fun ride seeing these beloved characters again, meeting new ones, and seeing them face themes of free will and self reflection from different perspectives that they overcame in the original game. 

The typical Warriors style gameplay of near mindlessly mowing down hundreds upon hundreds of enemies is still kept intact but has been brought down a bit to encourage a more strategic approach. Persona abilities, strengths and weaknesses return, along with specific character stats. So now, specific attacks, elemental advantages and stat buffing is more encouraged than the typical Warriors outing. And to emulate the feel of the traditional Persona turn based battles, summoning a Persona will freeze time to allow you to select a certain Persona, attack, and steer where it will strike. With this blend, you still have the fast paced assault of a Warriors game, with the strategy and uniqueness of Persona’s DNA within it. 

Strikers is an amazingly fun time and the closest a Persona spin off had come to feeling like a true sequel outside the RPG genre. I’d encourage any fan of the original game to dive into this one as there is more than enough to satisfy their cravings for more Phantom Thief adventures, and the genre shift is eased onto players who’ve more than likely never experienced it before. If you haven’t played the original Persona 5, Strikers will not be very welcoming. But in that case, play Persona 5 already. Dan Troy

Resident Evil: Village

There is simply no denying Capcom struck gold with Resident Evil 7: Biohazard. It revitalized a franchise that had turned its focus away from horror in favour of Resident Evil 4 action worship. So, when Resident Evil: Village made its eventual appearance and showcased a return to the action focus of previous installments, I was worried to say the least. Thankfully, my worries disintegrated the moment I picked up that controller again and dove headfirst into Capcom’s newest entry.

Resident Evil: Village is a superb follow up to Resident Evil 7 and perfectly blends action and horror this time out which many previous entries downright failed to achieve. Resident Evil 7 was almost entirely serious in tone but with Village, Capcom embrace the series’ regular absurdities. Plot proceedings venture into risky but interesting territory and boss battles are ridiculous in the best way possible. Although not as horror focused as its predecessor, Village still manages to create some deliciously impressive horror with the House Beneviento segment offering some of the greatest horror moments the series has to offer (honestly). Resident Evil: Village is a great continuation of Resident Evil 7’s lore and it is easily one of the best horror games released so far this year. John Hogan.

Returnal

Everyone loves a video game that punishes you for silly mistakes and refuses to offer any regular form of a save point ensuring high levels of anger and frustration, right? Well not exactly but every once in a while, a game like Returnal will aggressively punish you and provide a deeply rewarding experience that you can’t help but return to over and over again.

Housemarque’s Returnal is to shooters what the Souls series is to RPG’s – unrelenting but extremely satisfying when it matters most. Some players will struggle and spend upwards of 100+ hours trying to master its punishing gameplay mechanics and then others will breeze through it putting their veteran gamer skills to the test. But even with this, Returnal’s procedurally generated experience will have you refusing to give up simply because of how beautifully breathtaking and demanding the game is.

You may want to give up but if you stick it out, the rewards are enormous and that’s what matters most with a tough game like this. Adrenaline is at max and your heart will be racing and when you finally beat that boss you struggled with you’ll feel like someone attached a drip to your arm and you can’t help but sit back and embrace it all – addicted to its merciless ways. Returnal provides an experience this year all its own and is without a doubt one of the year’s best shooters. John Hogan.


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1 Comment
  1. Lady Flair says

    Cyberpunk 2077 delivers strongly on the story side of things despite pacing issues. I grew to really like Keanu Reeves’s performance as Johnny Silverhand. My favorite part was the hunt for Evelyn Parker and the romance with Judy Alvarez that happens along the way, but I also enjoyed the hunt for Hellman and Panam’s quests (which results in a happy ending with Judy if you choose The Star ending). The quests I Fought the Law and Dream On were Philip K. Dick worthy in terms of thought-provoking.

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