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The best games of 2021 chosen by NPR

(Clockwise) Wildermyth, Forza Horizon 5, Metroid Dread, Deathloop, Psychonauts 2
NPR
(Clockwise) Wildermyth, Forza Horizon 5, Metroid Dread, Deathloop, Psychonauts 2

Our poll of NPR staff and contributors produced dozens upon dozens of favorite games — but twenty received more nominations than the others. Each of those — the comfy, the competitive, the scary, and the strange — are highlighted below. We've also tagged games that are appropriate for kids, and for those who may be new to the hobby.

Animal Crossing: New Horizons 2.0

Happy Home Paradise and the 2.0 update for Animal Crossing: New Horizons are like adding an ice cream layer to an already wonderful birthday cake. It feels different, but is still welcoming and cozy in the way that we expect (and honestly, need!) ACNH to be.

— Rakiesha Chase-Jackson, project manager: Member Partnership

*Kid-friendly, For New Gamers

Cozy Grove

A salve for pandemic-weary senses, you play as a "soul scout" marooned on an island full of mercurial ghosts, looking to help them rediscover their memories in exchange for badges. In the name of mental health, there's a limit to what you can accomplish in a single real-life day (though a quick Google search can reveal how to circumnavigate that cap, and keep the cozy going).

Emily Alfin Johnson, content partnership lead, Digital News

*Kid-friendly, For New Gamers

Deathloop
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Deathloop

Deathloop

Colt's been having a bad day. He keeps waking up on the shore of an Arctic island, and everyone wants to kill him — from pop-art goons to the game's other playable character, Julianna. Rightly praised for brilliant voice acting and a diverse cast (both Colt and Julianna are Black)--Deathloop's mayhem and mysteries kept bringing me back, again and again.

James Perkins Mastromarino, producer, Here & Now

Disco Elysium: The Final Cut

Disco Elysium: The Final Cut is a masterpiece in the role-playing genre. Set in the fictional city of Revachol, you play as a hungover, amnesiac cop tasked with solving the mystery of the dead body hanging behind a hostel. The original Disco Elysium came out in 2019, but the Final Cut adds a full voice cast that breathes new life into an already incredible script.

Keller Gordon, contributor, NPR's Join The Game

Forza Horizon 5
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Forza Horizon 5

Forza Horizon 5

I love Horizon 5, warts and all. Even though it suffers disconnections, broken missions, and even worse bugs, the core gameplay is an absolute blast. The car physics is fun from the start, and satisfying to master. The drifting is especially fun. Horizon's Mexico is also gorgeous. Colorful cities make way to mangrove forests, dune-filled deserts, and even an active volcano. The game gets better by the week with new cars and many, many patches.

— River Williamson, software engineer, Digital Media

*For New Gamers

Halo Infinite

A description of Halo Infinite is a description of why I've loved playing these games for over 20 years. Halo Infinite just does all those things I love better and with greater focus. Weapons, equipment and movement mechanics are balanced and give the player agency over how to win (and lose) in a way that the outcome feels fair and always fun. Sure, the campaign can have the playful tone of a Saturday morning cartoon, but it can also punch you in the throat with "the feels." This game has heart.

Alexander Diaz, technical program manager, Digital Media

Inscryption

Inscryption is an ode to genre-bending: part roguelike deckbuilder, part escape room, part psychological horror. In this metafictional game-within-a-game, you and your pack of scrappy woodland critters are trapped in a cabin and forced to play a series of card games in exchange for your freedom. I easily became obsessed with the atmosphere, gameplay, and velvety black narrative of Daniel Mullins' creation. This game is best entered cold — your character at first knows nothing, and neither should you.

Margaret Cirino, intern, Short Wave, TED Radio Hour, How I Built This

It Takes Two

It Takes Two is the perfect co-op game. As the title suggests, you can only play it with another person. As main characters Cody and May. you work together to reverse the magic that turned you into bug-sized dolls. You explore locations with your now gigantic house to acquire new powers that get you through puzzles (like flying with a fidget spinner). With every gorgeous map filled with creative details, funny banter, minigames, and delightful detours, there is never a moment that is not fun.

Kaity Kline, contributor, NPR's Join The Game

*For New Gamers

Life is Strange: True Colors

Life is Strange: True Colors is a fitting name. It's a culmination of everything the emotionally-charged series has worked to achieve in the past, but it's also a beautiful and heartbreaking adventure that wears its heart on its sleeve.From its gripping story to its realistic portrayals of trauma and human relationships, True Colors is a masterful exercise in storytelling that you'll not soon forget.

Brittany Vincent, contributor, NPR's Join The Game

Mass Effect Legendary Edition

Mass Effect Legendary Edition allows new and veteran players to experience the original trilogy. The narrative is still compelling and doesn't have to be played alone! The best part of this game is sitting alongside my brother tag-teaming as Commander Shepard. We'll treasure that time for years to come.

Aja Drain, intern, It's Been A Minute & Code Switch

Metroid Dread
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Metroid Dread

Metroid Dread

Samus returns. Our favorite cool girl with an arm cannon and roly-poly powers is back in Metroid Dread, a continuation of a story that had its last installment in 2002. It'll excite fans of the original but is also accessible enough to interest players who may only know Samus as a sleek Super Smash Bros. character. Also involved: armored birds, killer robots, "physical amnesia" and Samus sprinting nonstop. It's an all around fun experience that was worth the wait.

Nell Clark, editorial assistant, Morning Edition

Pokémon Brilliant Diamond and Shining Pearl

Nintendo's remake of its 2006 classics have better mechanics and better graphics, but anybody who buys these games knows that's not what they're really about. These games are fundamentally about reliving — childhood, old friendships, the days when your biggest worry in life was Cynthia's Garchomp. Brilliant Diamond and Shining Pearl aren't perfect, but neither is the past.

Sean Saldana, production assistant, Morning Edition

*Kid-friendly, For New Gamers

Psychonauts 2
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Psychonauts 2

Psychonauts 2

I played the first PS2 Psychonauts game when it came out in 2005, 16 years ago! I was charmed by its characters, story, creative levels, and most of all, its humor. Psychonauts 2 matches and exceeds all of the best parts of the first game, while strengthening the gameplay and adding fun new mechanics.

Jason Grosman, software engineering manager, Digital Media

*Kid-friendly, For New Gamers

Resident Evil 8

Where past games were too scary for me, Resident Evil Village was my perfect ease into the series! Sneaking around Castle Dimitrescu, hunting down Angie in the horrifying House Beneviento, and the final fight with Mother Miranda herself were game highlights for me, and truly fueled some nightmares for a while there. I am happy to report that I am a stupid man-thing who is completely sold on the franchise, and eagerly awaiting the upcoming DLC.

— Louie Micheli, accounts receivable manager, NPM Finance

Returnal

If the movies "Edge of Tomorrow," "Alien," "Annihilation" and "Moon" had a video game baby it would be Returnal. It's very hard and creepy but also addicting like any good rogue-lite. You will die a lot. You will curse. But its grippingly weird story will keep you going.

James Delahoussaye, producer, TED Radio Hour

Shin Megami Tensei V Shin Megami Tensei V is a fun, challenging, and gorgeous game. 2021 was a big year for RPGs, especially Japanese ones, and this game sits at the very top of the list. The series is known for its brutal difficulty, but this entry's new modern mechanics make it more accessible than ever.

George Yang, contributor, NPR's Join The Game

Super Auto Pets

In Super Auto Pets, players build a team by buying adorable animals and then face off with others' to see whose set of pets reigns supreme. The premise is easy to learn, but hidden under those smiling emoji faces is a constantly shifting meta-strategy as players discover how each animal's unique abilities work together. There's something captivating about testing and rearranging a variety of pets that makes hours feel like minutes.

— Alexandria Lee, communications platform manager, Audience Relations

*Kid-friendly, For New Gamers

The Forgotten City This time-loop adventure is Caligula meets Groundhog Day. If a single person sins, the entire city is punished and the day resets. The trial and error in decoding the fickle morality of the gods never feels repetitive and the game's mind-expanding final act — as the developers warn, avoid spoilers — will linger much longer than its 10-hour playtime.

— Joseph Price, senior product manager, Voice Platforms

*For New Gamers

Valheim

Valheim blends survival sandbox tropes with unique innovations. As a Viking warrior who has died and been brought to the purgatorial realmof Valheim, you'll be tasked with slaying the foes of Odin, improving your skills in combat and around your base, and sailing to explore a vast world. Play with up to 10 friends at once on a single server, go it alone, or import your character (with or without their items) and bring them to your friend's world.

— Nina Fill, executive assistant, Digital Media

Wildermyth
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Wildermyth

Wildermyth

Wildermyth's style and tone didn't grab me at first, but once I gave it a chance I found a richly written and smartly constructed role playing game. It pulls off a beautiful design magic trick that transforms randomly generated party members into fully formed characters, who carry scars and relationships and memories through entire lifetimes.

Jess Kung, production assistant, Code Switch *For New Gamers

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corrected: December 20, 2021 at 12:00 AM EST
A previous version of this story incorrectly called the first Psychonauts a PS1 game. It was a PS2 game.
James Perkins Mastromarino
James Perkins Mastromarino is Here & Now's Washington, D.C.-based producer. He works with NPR's newsroom on a daily whirlwind of topics that range from Congress to TV dramas to outer space. Mastromarino also edits NPR's Join the Game and reports on gaming for daily shows like All Things Considered and Morning Edition.
Jerome Socolovsky is the Audio Storytelling Specialist for NPR Training. He has been a reporter and editor for more than two decades, mostly overseas. Socolovsky filed stories for NPR on bullfighting, bullet trains, the Madrid bombings and much more from Spain between 2002 and 2010. He has also been a foreign and international justice correspondent for The Associated Press, religion reporter for the Voice of America and editor-in-chief of Religion News Service. He won the Religion News Association's TV reporting award in 2013 and 2014 and an honorable mention from the Association of International Broadcasters in 2011. Socolovsky speaks five languages in addition to his native Spanish and English. He holds a bachelor's degree in mechanical engineering from the University of Pennsylvania, and graduate degrees from Hebrew University and the Harvard Kennedy School. He's also a sculler and a home DIY nut.