2021: my gaming year in review

This entry is part 9 of 11 in the series Gaming year in review / Game of the Year Awards

Happy New Year, everyone!

My gaming resolutions for 2021 were to try new things, and write more for this site. I wrote about several games — notably Humankind, Highfleet, Sable, Stars in Shadow, Brigandine: The Legend of Runersia, and assorted flight sims — and interviewed the developers of Stars in Shadow. I delved into deck-builders, sampled various indie games (mostly on Game Pass), and tried unique experiences such as Highfleet and Subnautica. I also kept playing one of my mainstay genres, the 4X strategy game, and revisited a genre from which I’ve lapsed, the narrative RPG.

Build deck, fail, try again

In 2021, I played three deck-building, card-battling roguelites:  Slay the Spire, Nowhere Prophet, and Fights in Tight Spaces.

At the time I would have called Nowhere Prophet my pick of the three, based on its emphasis on worldbuilding and (emergent) narrative. You lead your tribe across a post-apocalyptic colony planet in search of a promised land, managing supplies and battling rival factions along the way. Managing a desperate turnaround to win the final battle was one of my coolest gaming moments all year; and I loved that the ending reflected my choices along the way.

Right now, my favourite would be the more replayable Slay the Spire — I liked it enough to pick up the Switch version after first beating it on Game Pass for PC. It’s quick, satisfying, and never leaves me frustrated — even when I frequently die. And the game’s art style and quirky charm have grown on me.

I love Slay the Spire’s sense of whimsy. Where else would you fight a final boss shaped like a giant, dancing doughnut?

An honourable mention goes to Fights in Tight Spaces, a stylish Bond/Bourne/action movie-themed game where, with full visibility over the enemy’s upcoming turn, you use cards to manoeuvre your agent around the battlefield and strike back.

Discovering new worlds

Subnautica is one of the best science-fiction experiences in game form. It captures what it must be like to explore a new world: marvel, mixed with terror. Over time, as I build bases, upgrade my equipment, and learn more about the surrounding seas, the terror abates — but it never quite goes away, not for voyages into the unknown. If I have a complaint, it would be the “needle in a haystack” progression. I estimate I’m in the late midgame, so there should be plenty left to discover.

Challenging myself

Highfleet deserves special mention for its approach to difficulty. This is a game that demands the player learn how it works, understand systems such as detection, and learn the tools available, such as how to strike from long range. Then it throws the player in the deep end against superior enemy fleets, and early on, before I learnt, those fleets pounded me to bits. That made it all the sweeter when I turned the tables.

Flight simulators — and in particular DCS World, the modern military flight sim — might also belong here. I don’t think I will ever master the intricacies of a modern fighter in DCS. At the same time, DCS at its best is a flow experience: flying, working the radar, manoeuvring and shooting, and once, seeing a glorious sunrise as my reward.

Revisiting the 4X genre

In 2021, I played two 4X games that shine at the clash of empires: Humankind and Stars in Shadow. Humankind is at its best when I’m fighting for my life against army after enemy army, desperately buying breathing space, and then grimly preparing for the next war. Meanwhile, Stars in Shadow strips away the bloat from the 4X formula with a focused design, an emphasis on ship design & tactical combat, an AI that knows how to challenge the human, and an overall sense of charm.

Defending my capital against an early predator in Humankind.

Replaying Civ VI (this time on Switch) shortly before the release of Humankind let me compare them side-by-side. I think they’re very different, with Civ VI being better for tile and city optimisation, enlivened by great music, whereas Humankind is better with conflict and the threat of conflict. Overall, I like both, with a preference for Humankind.

I’m proud of building the Opera House in its correct city in Civ VI!

Last but not least, I had a great time replaying Shadow Empire, via a co-op succession game with a friend.

Returning to narrative RPGs

I used to be a big fan of RPGs, both Japanese and Western, before drifting away over the last decade. In 2021, I powered through Dragon Quest XI and finished the main game, after playing on and off for several years. At its best, it tells a story about character growth and resilience, wrapped up in a charming, whimsical world.

I love the localisation in the Dragon Quest games.

I also started on the Yakuza series with Like a Dragon, and replayed a decent chunk of Final Fantasy XII.

What were my favourite new games of 2021?

Out of the few new releases I played in 2021, Humankind is my pick for Game of the Year. Other notable releases included:

  • Highfleet, with its combination of imagination and uncompromising difficulty.
  • The cheerful, charming Sable.
  • Unpacking, a satisfying puzzle game that traces a person’s life over the decades by unpacking her belongings after each move.
I love the details in Unpacking, such as the boxy beige CRT monitor in the early years, and the faithful pink toy pig.

I’d like to spend more time with two games whose fluid combat and striking graphics made a good first impression on me:

  • Record of Lodoss War: Deedlit in Wonder Labyrinth — a retro Metroidvania.
  • Death’s Door — an isometric action game.

What were my favourite discoveries from previous years?

During 2021, I discovered a lot of games that had originally released in previous years, from a wide array of genres. The highlights included:

  • Subnautica — survival and exploration
  • The digital version of Wingspan — a relaxing, delightful board game about attracting birds to a sanctuary.
  • Stars in Shadow — space 4X
  • DCS World — military flight sim
  • Slay the Spire — deck-building roguelite
  • Nowhere Prophet — deck-building roguelite
  • Brigandine: The Legend of Runersia — console strategy-RPG
  • Good Job — an often hilarious physics puzzler
  • Northgard — a clever variation on the RTS, with a greater focus on building and manning a settlement. If only the font on the Switch version were larger…
  • Carto — a puzzle game with a unique mechanic: rearranging pieces of a map to change the world around you
  • Troubleshooter: Abandoned Children — an indie squad-based tactics game with some interesting twists on the XCOM formula, such as a greater focus on melee combat
  • PGA Tour 2K21 — my first ever “realistic” sports game, after I previously enjoyed Golf Story

Honourable indie mentions include:

  • River City Girls — a beat-em-up
  • Silence: The Whispered World 2 — an adventure game, short on narrative coherence but with some striking “scary fairy-tale” moments

The perennials

I revisited some games due to new DLC (Anno 1800, X4: Foundations, Total War: Three Kingdoms), updates (Shadow Empire), or buying on a new platform (Civ VI). Majesty was a childhood favourite whose HD version I replayed on Steam — after two decades, I finally beat the campaign. And Mario Kart 8: Deluxe is an evergreen favourite.

Looking forward to 2022

2022 should be exciting for 4X lovers: Distant Worlds 2 is scheduled for March, while Soren Johnson’s Old World will come to Steam in Q2.

Two of Old World’s stablemates from Hooded Horse Games, Terra Invicta and Falling Frontiers, are also scheduled to release in 2022. Both are space combat strategy games, with Terra Invicta also adding an element of “XCOM: Council Simulator” as players compete for influence and resources on Earth.

Two upcoming Early Access titles look interesting: Eugen’s WARNO, a spiritual successor to the Wargame franchise; and Nebulous: Fleet Command, another space combat strategy game. Both are due to enter Early Access in early 2022 (January and February, respectively).

And finally, Slime Rancher 2 was the highlight of E3 for me. The original game was colourful, cheerful, and by virtue of being first-person and 3D, satisfyingly tactile to explore. I look forward to the sequel bouncing onto my screen in 2022!

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Guest post: Writing and Worldbuilding in Final Fantasy XII: Story Isn’t Enough, by Matt Bowyer

A key part of a story’s appeal — whether it be a book, a game, or a movie — is its ability to transport me to a world of wonder, and almost as fascinating is peering behind the curtain to see how the creator pulled it off. In the following guest post, Matt Bowyer breaks out the magnifying glass for a look at Final Fantasy XII (2006, Square Enix). Enjoy!




“Where is this taking place, again?”

“I can picture your characters and their actions very well, but I have no idea what this area is like.”

“Make these backgrounds interactive versus static.”

“This is quite the featureless white room your characters are in.”


I feel like I do a pretty good job in building the world of my attempted novels. A lot of time and effort goes into figuring out why this country grew up around the church while this neighboring country is almost agnostic, and what conflicts would have arisen between these two lands as time passed. I regularly add to a document, filling in bits of legend and mythology alongside the evolution of trade routes and what racial slurs are used among less refined city-dwellers. And then I let my characters run all over it and forget to use that worldbuilding for anything more than a backdrop. I can get away with this if I want; a story is only as good as its characters as far as I’m concerned, and that’s where most of my focus in writing goes. It’s not something that’s acceptable in video games, though, and that’s why I have this soapbox here.


Final Fantasy XII is one of the best games ever made, and absolutely the best of the Final Fantasy series. One of its strongest qualities is its worldbuilding; the bustling desert capital Rabanastre is full of people at all times, a constant buzz of activity on every screen. It’s the most alive city I’ve seen in an RPG. The entire game is full of these incredible locales; the thick heat of the Golmore Jungle, the floating majesty that is the Skycity of Bhujerba, the quiet power at the sacred site of Mt. Bur-Omisace.


Final Fantasy XII’s bestiary adds to this deep world — kill one enemy and you are treated to a beautiful painting plus a page or so of detail about it, the migratory patterns of rotund cockatrices or the hunting habits of sand-dwelling crocodiles. But if you kill another 5-10 of that creature, you get a bit of Sage Knowledge about the world of Ivalice. It may be a legend about a specific item that drops from that creature, it may be a passage from a holy book, it may be why magick power has flourished while electricity did not, it may be a bit of sell copy for a nearby shop. It’s fantastic stuff, and I found myself drastically lowering the local lizard population so I could learn more about their teeth. But that’s not enough. A deep bestiary and a great deal of supplemental in-game writing is wonderful, but anyone can do that with enough time and a decent writer supporting their worldbuilding efforts. It’s much harder, but I feel much more important, to build that world identity in-game, in a way that engages your players more deeply than words on a screen.


Final Fantasy XII excels at this. The Skycity of Bhujerba is a set of floating islands built around a magicite mining colony founded by moogles, the earliest airship builders and pilots. Bhujerba is valuable because of the skystone magicite produced in its mines — those stones are what allow the islands to float high above the ground, and they give that same power to the many airships that sail the skies of Ivalice. The Arcadian Empire’s recent expansionism has increased the pressure on Bhujerba, and now the Skycity is officially allied to Archades – but though the city grants the Empire access to its magicite mines, anti-Imperial tension boils within.


The most important visual aspect of Bhujerba is the fact that it is a series of floating islands. Most fantasy games don’t have much need to explain this — a wizard did it, are we ordering out for lunch? — but Final Fantasy XII builds the reason for this into the plot itself, and your first trip to the city deals with its most important aspect. Your first visit to Bhujerba takes you inside the mines, where you meet a character who talks of the Empire’s interest in the skystone. The end of the excursion in the mines gives the party a particular kind of magicite which breaks the rules, placing more importance and emphasis on the role magicite plays in the game, and further underlines Bhujerba’s importance to the Empire. The player does not just read this in a document three menus deep, he learns it while exploring the mine behind the political drama. The player learns of the power of magicite when the player acquires some, and the player learns of the boundaries of the world so when those boundaries are pushed later on, that change actually means something.


One of the first things you are told upon entering Bhujerba and talking to everyone that you can — the only acceptable action in a new town in an RPG — is that no one has died falling off of the city into the water below. A bit of flavor lets you know why people live here, why they apparently have no qualms about sitting on the side of a wall inches from freefall, and also offers a bit of knowledge that will help the player solve a side quest later in the game. You will also hear rumors about mutated creatures, ghosts haunting the mines, and other bits of background flavor that lead into eventual side quests later on — again, informing the player through action, not just reading. It’s not just worldbuilding for worldbuilding’s sake, it directly involves the player. It makes the world more than just a backdrop, it makes it a place.


There are more examples of this throughout the game. The three-tiered caste structure in Archades, a city built from the ground up to the sky: the party has to navigate the politics of the city’s elite to make it to that lofty status themselves. Giza Plains: the game tells you early on about the torrential rains that wash through every season, then buries you under those rains hours later when you return, opening up new areas and closing off old ones. The Mosphoran Highwaste, full of ancient shrines to forgotten gods: later those shrines open up pathways to new, previously unreachable areas.


Nearly every area in Final Fantasy XII was built with the player in mind. The developers considered how their design of Ivalice would impact the player. Even the weather changes make a difference; blistering heat in the desert brings out fire elementals who drift lazily in the sunlight, but are quick to react to magic cast in their vicinity. The Nabreus Deadlands feature a fog that obscures enemies until they are already upon you; that fog is a result of the Mist pouring out of ravaged Nabudis, and inside Nabudis are unspeakable horrors twisted by the incredible energy unleashed upon that city before the game began. That event is also referenced by an important NPC later on in the game, another way the game involves the player in what happened.


Compare this to the more recent Final Fantasy XIII, which has incredibly beautiful locations with stunning music supporting them, and which have no more impact on your gameplay than wallpaper. Lake Bresha is a gorgeous frozen lake that Lightning and the other protagonists land in after a boss encounter, but you do nothing but run from Point A to Point B — nothing here makes any impact on your gameplay experience. There is no difference in navigating the Fifth Ark versus navigating the Gapra Whitewood — your location does nothing but change the color of the enemies you fight. For all the importance these areas have in your gameplay experience, you might as well be playing in a featureless white room.


That might work in a book, where the strength of the characters and the story can overcome ignoring the world. That will not work in a game, because there is no story in games worth telling that ignores the player.

Matt Bowyer is an aspiring author living in Kansas City who spends too much time playing video games and playing armchair designer. He can be found at www.mattwbowyer.com in between chapters and loading screens.