When the Tom’s Guide staff sat down to pick the best games of 2021, we realized that we had an embarrassment of riches. The PS5 and Xbox Series X are finally coming into their own; the Nintendo Switch OLED has breathed new life into classic series; the best gaming PCs are more powerful than ever before, provided you can actually find a GPU. This year in gaming offered something for everyone, whether you want inventive first-person shooters, ambitious racing games or punishing roguelikes. We even had time to highlight a few remastered favorites.
Granted, not everyone’s favorite game of 2021 will be on this list. But every game on this list represents a Tom’s Guide staffer’s personal favorite, an experience that they played through and wanted to share with the whole world. Read on for the best games of 2021, and then give them a shot for yourself, if you haven’t already.
1. Deathloop (PC, PS5)
With a pulpy, retro '60s spy comic art style, a great soundtrack and Dishonored-style powers, Arkane’s Deathloop was always going to be a winner in my eyes. But it’s arguably one of the best PS5 games around. Some players may have been expecting Dishonored with guns, but Deathloop is much more than just a product of Arkane’s back catalogue. Sure, you can sneak around, and earn an achievement for that. But the satisfying gunplay, movement and kinetic powers mean that protagonist Colt is just as happy sliding into a room, dual machine pistols blazing, as he is silently gutting an Etarnalist with a machete.
The four explorable locations might seem limiting, but visiting them at different times of day opens up a myriad of things to explore. And the repeating day means that Colt grows from a confused newcomer into the alpha predator of Blackreef. Forget breaking the loop; Deathloop is really a game about empowerment. — Roland Moore-Colyer
2. Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart (PS5)
Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart and the PS5 work in symbiosis to brilliant effect. A well-regarded name among PlayStation exclusives, combined with the latest hardware, does a brilliant job of showing off both. The transitions between Rift Apart's levels, sometimes showcasing entirely different environments, one after another, is proof of the PS5's power. It also gives a new twist to the two-decade-old series.
The game itself mixes a bit of platforming and puzzling with a whole lot of fun shooting, thanks to Ratchet and Clank's trademark goofy evolving weaponry. This is also the first R&C game in a long time to have a decent story, letting the titular duo play a supporting role to some new characters, who will no doubt help keep the franchise alive for many more sequels to come. — Richard Priday
3: Metroid Dread (Switch)
Metroid Dread may not have the flashiest graphics or the captivating storyline you would find in most big-budget titles. But its addictive gameplay loop is second to none. From blasting away insectoid alien monsters, to running away from the frightening E.M.M.I. robots, Metroid Dread has no shortage of exciting situations. It tests your reflexes constantly throughout its 10-hour-plus campaign, and leaves you begging for more.
This entry takes many mechanics found in Metroid: Samus Returns on the 3DS, and adds new skills that complement Samus’ impressive repertoire of abilities. The steady frequency at which you receive new abilities keeps you pushing forward, if only to see what you’ll get next. If you’re looking for a pure, undiluted gaming experience that provides a tough-but-fair challenge, Metroid Dread is hard to top. It is arguably the series’ finest moment since Super Metroid. — Tony Polanco
4. Guardians of the Galaxy (Multiple Platforms)
Guardians of the Galaxy faced an uphill battle before launch. This is due to the poor reception Marvel’s Avengers received last year. Everyone expected another "Games as a Service" slog. Thankfully, Guardians of the Galaxy turned out to be everything Avengers wasn’t: a fun, narrative-focused single-player experience that evoked the spirit of the franchise that inspired it. It’s a shame that some players are still apprehensive about this title, because it really is an exhilarating experience.
As I said in our Guardians of the Galaxy review, this title is a Marvel Cinematic Universe film in video game form. It has all of the humor, action and memorable music that made the franchise a hit. You could argue it’s just as good, or better than its source material, due to it being interactive. Guardians of the Galaxy’s stylized graphics, exceptional voice acting and rocking soundtrack make it among the most enjoyable titles of 2021. — Tony Polanco
5. Forza Horizon 5 (PC/Xbox One/Xbox Series X/S)
There hasn’t been a bad Forza game, but Forza Horizon 5 still manages to take the franchise to new heights. The game brings the series to Mexico, offering more cars and environments that we’ve seen in a Forza game before. Plus, it puts next-gen hardware to good use, and offers up phenomenal visuals as a result.
More to the point, the game feels like a natural evolution of what Forza Horizon 4 had to offer. The gameplay is much the same, but with refinements and fine-tuning that make it more enjoyable than ever. Cars also feel a lot more realistic this time round, meaning this entry offers a level of immersion that the previous game didn't.
Moreover, the formula still feels fresh and the cars are fun to drive, even after almost 10 years of Forza Horizon games. — Tom Pritchard
6. Mass Effect: Legendary Edition (Multiple Platforms)
Mass Effect is a legendary franchise, with the original trilogy concluding in 2012. But BioWare remastered the games and bundled them together in Mass Effect: Legendary Edition. Mass Effect 1 saw sweeping changes to the UI and gameplay, all of which the game sorely needed. The Mass Effect: Legendary Edition is certainly worth the time and money you'll invest, since you get three games for the price of one. There’s easily over 100 hours of gameplay on offer here. Whether you’re new or returning to Mass Effect, the Legendary Edition is perfect for experiencing this landmark in video game history. — Jordan Palmer
7. Resident Evil Village (Multiple Platforms)
If you have time to play only one game this year, play Resident Evil: Village. A sequel to Resident Evil 7: Biohazard, the game continues the tale of the woefully unlucky Ethan Winters, who tried to get away from all of the Umbrella Corporation's nonsense by starting a family in Europe, far away from the bayou where he and his wife were locked up.
Unfortunately, everything goes bad, fast, and he finds himself in a village that is essentially a tribute to all kinds of horror movies. The towering Lady Dimitrescu may have earned all the headlines, but the most memorable and harrowing baddie in the game will have you running for a hiding hole later on. Brilliantly designed, with a great balance of horror and action, Resident Evil Village was my top pick for game of the year 2021. — Henry T. Casey
8. Hitman 3 (Multiple Platforms)
Hitman 3 is the ultimate stealth game, in that it doesn't require player characters to creep around constantly hunched in the shadows. Instead, Agent 47 can move around unnoticed, just like sneaking in real life. This means you can scope out a plush Dubai skyscraper or a bleak British mansion in full view, disguised as one of many guards, helpers, entertainers, valets or even a PI.
You do this while constantly building up an ever-evolving plan to dispatch your targets — usually people of the worst kind, such as criminal lawyers — either with subtle prompts, or just your own wits. Pulling off a silent assasiantion and walking calmly to an extraction point is deeply satisfying. When things go wrong and you have to improvise, Hitman 3 becomes comically dark — think James Bond, but with fewer quips and more toilet drownings — making it the essential stealth game. — Roland Moore-Colyer
9. It Takes Two (Multiple Platforms)
It Takes Two was the dose of pure gaming joy that we all needed in early 2021. Its celebration of human connections resonated in a huge way. Developer Hazelight Studios likely never imagined It Takes Two would mean so much when it first started creating the game in a pre-COVID world.
It’s a shame that the game's mandatory co-op requirement creates a barrier to entry, which has likely forced many players to skip it. It Takes Two is easily among the most creative and consistently enjoyable games released this year. Around every corner is a new sight or inventive gameplay mechanic. The game encourages camaraderie with your partner, and creates some seriously memorable co-op moments.
Only the corny story, and very annoying Book of Love character, hold It Takes Two back from true greatness. Grab your closest friend or family member, and make sure to give It Takes Two a well-deserved chance. — Rory Mellon
10. Returnal (PS5)
In 2021, many gamers wondered whether the PS5 was really achieving its potential as a next-gen system. But Returnal shines brightly as a game that absolutely would not be possible on less powerful hardware.
It’s not just Returnal's gorgeous graphics, slick performance and foreboding 3D audio, but also the game's use of the PS5’s DualSense controller that stand out. Returnal's implementation of the DualSense's haptic feedback and adaptive triggers require firsthand experience to fully appreciate. Even months later, Returnal remains the greatest showcase of the PS5's true capabilities.
The thrilling bullet-hell combat and the extremely compelling rouge-lite structure combine to make Returnal a game that is difficult to put down. Speaking of difficulty, you’ll die a lot — an awful lot — but you’ll come back for more as the fist-pumping moments of victory after each agonizing defeat really stick with you. — Rory Mellon
11. Tales of Arise (Multiple Platforms)
Tales of Arise isn’t just one of the best games of 2021; it’s also one of the best games in the long-running Tales series overall. In this lengthy Japanese RPG, you play as Alphen, an amnesiac swordsman, who teams up with a sharpshooter named Shionne to save the world from a collection of despotic dictators.
With deep real-time combat, a big world to explore and plenty of ways to customize your team, Tales of Arise is consistently fun, challenging you to refine your combat techniques and develop better strategies as you advance. However, the game really shines in the narrative department, thanks to a charming cast of characters and a clever sci-fi/fantasy story that constantly bucks expectations. Tales of Arise is the first game in the series to achieve mainstream success right out of the gate, and it’s a fantastic entry for newcomers and veterans alike. — Marshall Honorof
12. Psychonauts 2 (PC/Xbox One/Xbox Series X/S)
This year, we finally got a sequel to 2005’s cult classic Psychonauts, and boy, did it deliver. You play as a young psychic named Razputin, who dreams of joining the legendary Psychonauts spy agency. Throughout his adventures, you’ll need to utilize Raz’s full kit of psychic powers to overcome various puzzles and challenges. But don’t let the art style fool you. While Psychonauts 2 may look like a children’s game, its story is emotional and captivating, addressing topics such as LGBTQ+ representation and mental health as it unravels.
In our spoiler-free Psychonauts 2 review, we highlight how the game beautifully combines the magic of the original with more modern gameplay elements. This results in a game that keeps you on your toes throughout the whole experience. And no need to worry if you haven’t played the original; the sequel recaps the previous adventure very well at the beginning of the game. — Denise Primbet
13. Age of Empires IV (PC)
When the Tom’s Guide staff discussed its potential Game of the Year picks, we called Age of Empires IV a “crowd-pleaser.” Age of Empires IV doesn’t reinvent the historical real-time strategy genre, opting instead to refine it. The game offers eight medieval civilizations that can gather resources, build militaries and advance through the Ages, researching novel technologies and sieging each other’s fortified castles along the way.
If that sounds a lot like Age of Empires II, that’s by design. Age of Empires IV puts players at ease with familiar subject matter and gameplay, then challenges them to master each civilization’s unique strengths, from the mobile villages of the Mongols to the mighty elephants of the Delhi Sultanate. While multiplayer is still a big draw, the real star of the show here is the Campaign mode, which rewards players with documentary-style videos about real medieval warfare, technology and art. — Marshall Honorof
14. Inscryption (PC)
I don’t enjoy spooky games or deckbuilding games, but I adored Inscryption when I played through it earlier this year. This indie gem from developer Daniel Mullins Games is a remarkable blend of genres, incorporating elements from horror games and escape room puzzles. The end result is a compelling roguelike deckbuilder that’s more than the sum of its parts.
If any of that sounds intriguing to you, I recommend you stop reading about this game and just go play it. Inscryption does a masterful job of building suspense and keeping you guessing about the true nature of its story for hours, carefully meting out narrative curveballs without breaking the core loop of building a deck that suits your playstyle. It’s easily one of the best games I played all year, and I envy anyone who gets to play it for the first time with fresh eyes. — Alex Wawro
15. New Pokémon Snap (Switch)
It feels like fans have been asking for a new Pokémon Snap game for years, and in 2021, Nintendo finally delivered. The aptly named New Pokémon Snap isn’t all that different from the original 1999 game, but it does account for the legions of new Pokémon that we've learned about since then, as well as the technology available on the Nintendo Switch.
It’s up to you, the player, to traverse the brand new Lental region and capture shots of all the Pokémon in their natural environments. Plus, given the different criteria you have to meet to get the perfect shot, there’s plenty of replay value.
New Pokémon Snap isn’t the longest game to come out this year, but it is a heck of a lot of fun to play, and that's the most important thing. Plus it’s a pleasure to capture shots of Pokémon with sleek 2021 graphics. — Tom Pritchard