The Best Games of 2021 (So Far): From Mario to Returnal

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It’s been a strange year for video games so far. The long-term effects of the coronavirus pandemic on game development didn’t really rear its ugly head until the start of 2021. That led to a sudden wave of delays, emptying out the year’s release calendar one month at a time.

Despite that, 2021 has seen a string of surprising hits, from established franchises to entirely new properties. We haven’t been buried in new releases in the past six months, but there’s been something worth checking out every few weeks. For those who are looking to play catch-up this summer before the holiday rush, here are the best games we’ve played in 2021 so far.

It Takes Two

Josef Fares, the eclectic game director famous for his unfiltered rants, likes to make big claims. When his multiplayer game A Way Out released, he seemed confident that it would change gaming as we know it. It didn’t, though the game received positive enough buzz. So when It Takes Two was first announced at The Game Awards and Fares started rolling out the effusive praise, some were understandably skeptical. He wasn’t overpromising this time though; It Takes Two actually is that good.

The co-op adventure shines thanks to brilliant multiplayer mechanics that are always changing. In one level, players are solving puzzles with a hammer head and nail gun. In another, they’re shooting down waves of wasps. Every hour of the game is totally unique and always makes sure to treat both players as the main character. While some have taken issue with the game’s oversimplified divorce narrative, it’s hard to argue with it from a pure gameplay standpoint. It has the confidence of a classic Nintendo platformer.

Read our It Takes Two review

Monster Hunter Rise

Players attack an enemy in Monster Hunter Rise.

The Monster Hunter series isn’t very friendly to newcomers. It has complex action, a myriad of materials, and a headache-inducing interface that’ll turn away even the most seasoned gamer. Monster Hunter Rise still has those barriers, but it’s the closest the series has come to offering an accessible experience yet (thanks in no small part to the fact that it’s on the Nintendo Switch).

Monster Hunter Rise includes all the hallmarks fans have come to know and love, like oversized weapons and giant monsters. But it’s the new features that make it shine. The Wirebug mechanic adds new mobility options to the game that make it easier to traverse maps. Rampage battles are a neat addition, adding tower defense battles to the mix. Toss in some excellent online multiplayer, and you have the recipe for a successful installment in the beloved franchise.

Read our Monster Hunter Rise review

Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart

Rivet using hover boots in ratchet & Clank Rift Apart.

Heading into 2021, the PS5 had a problem. Everyone wanted to get their hands on the system, but there weren’t a lot of new games to play on it. With games like Gran Turismo 7 and God of War getting delayed, it seemed like the console would have trouble landing a killer app in its first year. Enter Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart, which is this console generation’s first bona fide system seller.

The 3D action platformer does what the series has always done best: It delivers thrilling set pieces and lots of creative weapons to toy around with. What makes Rift Apart really stand out, however, is its use of the PS5 hardware. It’s a technical masterclass that uses the system’s ultrafast SSD to create dimension-hopping magic tricks. It’s the first game that really makes it feel like we’re in a new era of gaming — and it’s fun as heck, to boot.

Read our Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart review

Super Mario 3D World + Bowser’s Fury

Mario escapes a fire-breathing Bowser in Bowser's Fury.

Super Mario 3D World was one of the last Wii U holdouts to make its way to Switch, but it was worth the wait. The platformer was always quietly one of the best games tucked away on Nintendo’s failed system, and it was high time it got a second chance with a wider player base. Those who never had a chance to play it got to experience one of Mario’s most joyous and vibrant adventures yet.

It’s not Super Mario 3D World that makes this package a must-own, though; it’s the original pack-in game that comes with it. Bowser’s Fury is an excellent Mario game in its own right, giving players a mini Super Mario Odyssey sequel that takes place in a series of islands. It’s a short experiment with the Mario form, but one that feels like the future of the series. The open world setup perfectly fits the genre, as Mario can hop from island to island collecting Cat Shines. Expect the next mainline Mario game to take some cues from it.

Read our Super Mario 3D World + Bowser’s Fury review

Returnal

Returnal

Returnal is the kind of left-field hit that makes the gaming industry so exciting. Developed by Hosuemarque, the sci-fi roguelite was always a curiosity in Sony’s State of Play presentations. It certainly made a statement with its creepy atmosphere and 3D “bullet hell” gameplay. As it turned out, Returnal was every bit as intriguing as it looked, giving the PS5 a fascinating original property.

There’s a lot to love in Returnal. The third-person shooting is fast and furious, it creatively mashes up genres, and it features a genuinely harrowing narrative. It’s a game that doesn’t feel like it was pushed into an AAA template. It’s a wholly original project that combines influences to create something entirely new. It’s also the best showcase of the DualSense controller outside of Astro’s Playroom, using haptic feedback to bring its alien world to life.

Read our Returnal review

Scarlet Nexus

A battle in Scarlet Nexus.

Speaking of surprise hits, Scarlet Nexus truly came out of nowhere. The RPG was featured in some of Sony’s earliest PS5 presentations, but news went a bit quiet as its launch drew nearer. That could have been cause for concern, but fortunately Scarlet Nexus turned out to be a fantastic hidden gem.

The game is most notable for its combat system, which allows players to chain together absurd combos and unleash a bevy of elemental attacks. It feels a bit like PlatinumGames titles like Astral Chain that put an emphasis on sharp action. A mystifying story and memorable characters pull the whole package together, turning it into an RPG that should be in any RPG fan’s backlog this summer.

Read our Scarlet Nexus review

Hitman 3

Agent 47 in Hitman 3.

When it comes to the Hitman series, there’s a fitting cliche: If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. On paper, Hitman 3 is virtually identical to the previous two games in the series. It features the same excellent stealth gameplay that turns assassinations into one big puzzle. It’s more of the same, but that’s hardly a complaint with a franchise this rock solid.

Instead of reinventing the franchise, Hitman 3 simply ups the ante by offering some of its strongest levels to date. Agent 47 sneaks his way through a sprawling vineyard, a massive Dubai skyscraper, and more. The best of the batch is the game’s Dartmoor level, which is a full-on “whodunit” movie where Agent 47 can assume the role of a detective trying to solve a family murder. Or he can ignore that quest entirely and poison his target’s tea. That freedom makes it a memorable conclusion to the World of Assassination trilogy.

Read our Hitman 3 review

Before Your Eyes

The protagonist of Before Your Eyes lays in bed as his family watches on.

For those who want to go deeper beyond this year’s high-profile releases, there are plenty of excellent indies to check out. Chicory: A Colorful Tale is a gorgeous painting adventure, Overboard! is a brilliant reverse murder mystery, and Apple Arcade subscribers shouldn’t sleep on Fantasian. There’s one indie that you really need to see to believe, though. Before Your Eyes is a game that’s entirely controlled with the blink of an eye.

The game features a truly one-of-a-kind premise. It hooks up to a webcam and tracks a player’s blinks. That system is used to tell a story about a character at the end of his life reliving his memories. Every time the player blinks in real life, they skip ahead in time — you’ll literally blink and miss it. What begins as a clever control experiment turns into a remarkable story that takes some unexpected emotional turns. You may find yourself struggling to keep your eyes open as the tears well up.

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