2021 was the year of delays for nearly everything - except RPGs. From NEO: The World Ends With You to Tales of Arise, Atelier Ryza 2, Bravely Default, and more, there was almost too much to keep up with - almost.
We managed to do it, though, and if you’re still on the fence about which ones are worth your time, we’ve put together a list of the top five best RPGs of 2021 to help you on your way.
NieR Replicant isn’t a new game, but it is a fresh take on what Western audiences played over ten years ago. In place of Papa NieR is Child NieR, the original hero in the Japanese release who’s determined to save his sister from a mysterious disease.
The change in perspective makes a significant difference in how we perceive NieR’s relationships with other characters, particularly the enigmatic and foul-mouthed Kaine. While it’s still clearly an older game, with a few too many empty environments, the visual improvements and remixed soundtrack make it easy to forget. Just don’t expect a happy conclusion in any of NieR Replicant’s five endings.
Shin Megami Tensei V
Persona 5 made JRPGs more mainstream than ever, with its style, deeper character relationships, and socially relevant plot. Shin Megami Tensei V, however, is happy to be just a better Shin Megami Tensei game. It might not win over thousands of new fans with that approach, but it’s still an excellent improvement in almost every way. SMT is the series that made “let’s kill God” a staple. SMT V says “God’s already dead - now what do you do?”
It’s admittedly light on narrative, but what you get is a fascinating blend of philosophies and ideas culminating in a battle for the fate of humanity’s free will. SMT V fills in story gaps with its equally fascinating demons, a complex set of spirits representing beliefs and fears from throughout human history with more personality than most of the game’s human characters.
Ys IX: Monstrum Nox
For more than 30 years, Nihon Falcom sent perpetual wanderer Adol Christin on a series of adventures, but Ys IX is the first time it felt like a proper adventure. Not that you’d think so, on the surface at least. Ys IX eschews the vast (and empty) settings of previous Ys games and takes place almost entirely in one location: Balduq.
What it lacks in space, though, it makes up for in layers of secrets and mysteries and one of the best supporting casts in the series, a ragtag band of outcasts determined to fight back against increasing authoritarianism and uncover the darkness plaguing their homeland.
The Yakuza series makes a habit of tackling serious issues in a lighthearted way, but RGG Studios adopted a different approach with Judgment. While the original focused on corrupt authority, Lost Judgment scales its focus down to a more personal level and examines the far-reaching consequences of bullying. It delves into the traumatic effects not just on victims, but on those connected to them and how it quickly devolves into a brutal cycle of violence and revenge.
It’s a topic most games never try approaching, and while Lost Judgment has plenty of the series’ usual bizarre antics and side stories, including drunk skateboarding as a side quest, there’s a groundedness in the narrative that makes its message resonate more than I expected. It’s difficult to handle at times and earns its content warnings, but it's more human than any other RPG this year or in recent years and absolutely worth experiencing.
Tales of Arise
Tales of Arise is about rising up and creating a new beginning, which is fitting, considering that’s exactly what the game is for the long-running Tales series. Bandai overhauled everything, from the narrative to world design, combat, and visuals - especially the visuals. Whether it’s the scorched wastelands of Calaglia or Viscint’s lush, beautiful flora, Arise is absolutely stunning at times.
Bandai trimmed the series’ worst excesses and delivered a more focused narrative built around understanding what it means to be free and what we owe our fellow humans. While the characters still embody familiar tropes, they also feel more human and relatable than ever, thanks in no small part to the vastly improved character animations.
Arise is also the culmination of almost a decade of Bandai tweaking Tales’ combat, and the result is a slick, if sometimes overwhelming, action system that puts dozens of combos and outrageously flashy special moves at your disposal. There’s nothing quite like Arise, and it’s easily both the best in the series and the year’s best RPG.