2021 has been a funny old year for video games. Many had predicted as much, considering how rough the last couple of years have been for everyone. Plenty of big titles expected in 2021 were delayed until next year, citing development issues that cropped up due to the ongoing pandemic.
Even so, many great games launched this year, with a real breadth and variety that we haven't seen for a while. The long-awaited Psychonauts 2 finally released, and even Halo players had something to celebrate with the release of Halo Infinite.
This list is concerned with games in the action-adventure genre, meaning action-focused titles with additional elements added to provide more variety and depth. That can often mean puzzles, or perhaps open environments that can be explored. Many games released this year fit this bill, but here's our picks for the top five action-adventure games of 2021.
Ratchet and Clank: Rift Apart
Players had very few reasons to switch on their PS5s this year, with only a few exclusives making use of the next-gen console's shiny new features. Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart is probably the best showcase of what the PS5 is capable of currently. It's an absolutely gorgeous thing to behold, with an inter-dimensional theme that helps to keep the visuals constantly fresh and evolving.
Gameplay is the best its been in a Ratchet game, and the inclusion of Rivet the Lombax makes for a surprisingly heartwarming story. It's great to see the return of 3D platformers like Ratchet & Clank in recent years. Better still that Sony has elevated it as one of its core franchises. Here's hoping for another sequel in the future.
Marvel's Guardians of the Galaxy
It's fair to say that there was a fair bit of apprehension when Square Enix first announced Marvel's Guardians of the Galaxy. With how The Avengers game turned out, many were hoping for a straightforward single-player campaign free from microtransactions, games as a service buzzwords and dodgy marketing. Remarkably, that's exactly what we got.
By focusing on Star-Lord as a playable character, Guardians of the Galaxy manages to tell a genuinely brilliant story supported by the best versions of these characters we've seen so far. When paired with the excellent 80s soundtrack, the Mass Effect-esque combat really sings. Featuring cameos from all over the Marvel universe, Guardians of the Galaxy is a must-play for comic book fans. In our Guardians of the Galaxy review, we called it a "Flarkin' Great Time."
When looking back over each year's gaming offering, it's easy to focus on big-budget AAA titles. Oftentimes, there are great indie surprises to be found, with 2021 being a fantastic year for smaller games. Death's Door took most people by surprise when it launched, with its Zelda meets Dark Souls aesthetic and beautiful score.
You play as a small magpie sent to collect souls from powerful beings, with the hopes of opening the mysterious Death's Door. Rewarding exploration is punctuated by tense boss fights that make use of all the tools and skills you've earned along the way. Death's Door may seem small to begin with, but over the course of its story, it tackles heavy issues and gives players plenty to explore. Check out our Death's Door review.
Samus is back in Metroid Dread, continuing the story left off by Metroid Fusion back in 2002. It's a stunning return that takes the horror leanings of the early games and gives them a modern twist. The new E.M.M.I enemies are genuinely terrifying, and often kill you within seconds of you making contact.
Thanks to an updated slide mechanic, and some excellent precision platforming, Metroid Dread features the fastest and most capable Samus yet. It even manages to tell a coherent story, by Metroid standards anyway. As a 2D Metroid fan myself, I couldn't have asked for a better mix of old and new. Here's our Metroid Dread review.
2021 was a tough year for many of us, meaning we turned to familiar franchises for comfort and stability. It just so happens that many fan-favourites made their returns this year. Metroid, Halo, and even Psychonauts came swaggering back into view, to widespread critical and commercial acclaim. Psychonauts 2 could just as easily have crumbled under the weight of expectation, having been announced way back in 2015. Financial concerns and a commendable commitment to ethical game development meant that the project stalled multiple times before release.
Given its tumultuous development, it's remarkable just how fantastic Psychonauts 2 is not only as an adventure game, but as an example of what Double Fine Studios is capable of. It tells a much-needed tale of how empathy can bridge gaps and heal traumas, in a way that's decidedly careful and sensitive throughout. It's a little bit on the wonkier side of things in terms of gameplay, but in a way that's admittedly pretty charming, harkening back to the days when weird 3D platformers ruled the roost. Inventive weapons, creative level design and some world-class writing make Psychonauts 2 not only the best game Double Fine has ever produced, but one of 2021's best game. For more thoughts, you can check out my full Psychonauts 2 review.
To round things off, I wanted to bring up two Honourable Mentions. The first is Hitman 3, which I'm definitely stretching the tag of action/adventure to talk about, but it's a great game and there's no best Stealth category. The conclusion to IO Interactive's Hitman trilogy adds some of the series' best maps, while also providing fan service for those invested in Agent 47's story. Here's our full review.
Finally, we have The Gunk, which launched on Game Pass recently. It's from Image and Form, the excellent studio behind the SteamWorld games. It absolutely nails the feeling of being on an alien world, with smart writing and a surprisingly salient story to back it up. You traverse a strange landscape using a vacuum tool to hoover up gunk. This changes the world around you, allowing you to progress deeper into the wilderness. The Gunk is short, sweet and a beauty to behold. Definitely check it out if you have Game Pass.