2021 was an absolutely thrilling and busy year in the video game space. Our top 10, which you can read here, defines that. Still, with so many games releasing in any given year, it’s hard to give each their due. Checkpoint covers a lot in a given year. What to say of the games that didn’t make our top 10 but were sleeper hits amongst the team? Those that scarcely received votes because not many people played them? In saying that, here are some of the Checkpoint team’s hidden gem recomendations for games from 2021. They may have went a tad more under the radar, but are still worth your time.
Dungeon Encounters may just be one of the best dungeon crawling games you haven’t played yet. Featuring the likes of composer Nobuo Uematsu and some of the legendary people behind titles like Final Fantasy Tactics and Final Fantasy XII: The Zodiac Age, it’s hard to believe this Square Enix adventure didn’t see a high adoption rate. Largely, it’s because this is a game that’s so bold in the way it commits to untraditional genre ideas. While having its own nice visuals and character sprites, Dungeon Encounters isn’t invested in showing deep, involved picturesque worlds. Instead, it hones in on incredibly solid gameplay.
Dungeon Encounters has players charting 99 floors of a dungeon. The design here is simplistic, moving across transparent tiles and filling them in as you traverse them. Along your journey you meet a growing cast of characters that you can swap in and mix out, levelling as you so choose. Enemy encounters, items, abilities and shopkeeps are all clearly identified on your map, and play a great role in working out what to prioritise obtaining or avoiding. Be too reckless and engage in too many battles and your run will be cut short. Even though the combat on offer is a joyous turn-based affair, offering some of the best implementations of the ATB mechanic yet, sometimes picking your battles is key.
With smart, masterful design choices and a charming simplistic art style, Dungeon Encounters is one well worth checking out for dungeon-crawling lovers. Read more about it in my review here.
Wildermyth could very well be the most underrated game of 2021. It’s an incredibly well-written, character-driven, procedurally-generated tactical RPG, full of choices and actions that have genuine consequences in the world you’re operating in. You lead a band of heroes as they grow from reluctant farmers into unique, legendary fighters, and it’s you who will shape them into who they become, the relationships they will form, the personalities that will evolve, and the legacy they will leave.
What makes Wildermyth truly special and exciting for tabletop adventure fans is that the prodecurally-generated nature means that characters can really evolve over your time with them. These characters will form relationships with one another, good and bad. Some will leave you for other quests while others stay with you until they eventually pass away from old age, or in combat. If one falls in combat, it might not be the end – but they may be impacted forever by their near-death experience. And beautifully, future generations will remember them if they do perish, so you’ll hear tales of your past characters in future playthroughs as the world keeps growing and changing.
Don’t let the gorgeous hand-painted papercraft art style fool you, either. Wildermyth is narratively complex and has turn-based tactics gameplay that can be tough as nails. You’ll come for the deep and personal storytelling, but you’ll stay for the intense battles that will test your limits, and the evolution of the heroes and villains you’ll encounter. While plenty of games have a clear beginning, middle, and end, the possibilities with Wildermyth are truly endless. It’s a must-play.
The Eternal Cylinder
I never thought that I would get emotional about a game featuring tiny elephantine aliens trying to outrun an evil piece of geometry, but here we are. The Eternal Cylinder, created by Rock of Ages developers ACE Team, demonstrates that you can go a long way towards getting a player immersed with the right combination of stunningly beautiful and bizarre art and creature design and fantastic writing.
It’s the steadily expanding world and unfolding mysteries that drew me in, wanting to discover the next new biome or creature that I would encounter. Its unorthodox setting and narrative won’t be for everyone, but for someone looking for a more unusual kind of survival game, The Eternal Cylinder is definitely one to look out for.
Chicory: A Colorful Tale
When I first started Chicory, I was excited for a fun game about painting the world, something cute and lighthearted to play during lockdown. I didn’t expect it to end up being one of the most emotionally mature and heart-wrenching experiences I had this year. It tackles hard topics like imposter syndrome, depression, and anxiety so expertly without ever sacrificing its bright and smooth-edged art direction.
I felt all the highs and lows in the game so immensely, and the gameplay itself is entertaining and ever-evolving with new abilities unlocking frequently enough to keep you entertained. The soundtrack is also phenomenal with a score that perfectly fits all of the emotional turning points in the game while still keeping the overworld music light and bouncy. It’s a game filled with loveable characters, amazing dialogue, and a plot that feels both world-shaking and incredibly personal at the same time. Make sure to give it a go, it surely deserves it
Mix together a dodgeball cartoon, a school tournament anime story, and Pokémon-like world encounters and you get Dodgeball Academia. This game follows young and confident Otto who wants to be the very best of all the dodgeball students. He makes new friends, new enemies, and learns new super-powered moves for probably one of the best dodgeball games ever.
What really feels great with Dodgeball Academia is the blend between sports battles and world exploration. The combat is very fun with plenty of powerful moves and strategies without being overwhelming or difficult to learn. Then, walking around the school campus and speaking to the students is a delight. There is always a funny sidequest or off-hand conversation when literally rolling around this place.
Where the Heart Leads
If I could give an end of year “biggest tear-jerker” award, I would give it to Where The Heart Leads. It’s a narrative adventure charting the lives of the Anderson family through the eyes of younger son Whit. It’s got too much in common with Kentucky Route Zero not to compare the two: they both play similarly, and they’re both criticisms of capitalism in America. But where KRZ uses beautiful images and magical symbolism to represent its themes, Where The Heart Leads is blunt to a fault, showing in intimate detail how money can get in the way of passion, and affect relationships between loved ones. It’s such a straight-up drama, it could’ve been a TV show or a play. However, the benefit of an interactive medium is that you get to make every painstaking decision on Whit’s behalf, and play the consequences out.
The impeccably written characters help nail every emotional beat, though nobody in this game, or really any game released in 2021, resonated with me more than Sege Anderson. Whit’s brother is never explicitly stated to be neurodivergent, but the coding is strong. His family struggle to understand him, and even Whit finds him a burden at times, but they never stop loving him. Sege’s character arc – or at least the one I picked out for him – made me, an emotionally repressed man, have a big cry by the end of the game, and I’ll remember that for quite some time. Here’s my review if you’re interested.
Buddy Simulator 1984
Lonely? Need a friend? Well, Buddy Simulator 1984 is just what you need! Your Buddy cares about you and therefore will try its best to upgrade your gaming experience as you spend more time together. Yup, they want to develop and grow with you, which is the foundation of every healthy relationship and Buddy knows this! Traverse a black and white pixelated adventure land that is narrative focused with your Buddy and help poor townfolk slay monsters because YOU, as your Buddy will remind you, are the hero of this tale! You’ll come across interesting characters, like a hat riding a skateboard, who you can team up with in turn-based battle against the bad guys.
Your Buddy is your host in the form of text-based conversations and they will provide their opinion… but you don’t have to listen to what they say… you can make your own decisions… but your Buddy knows you best because they are your best friend, right? So you should listen to them and not make any quick decisions… because your Buddy has feelings and made this game just for you and you don’t want to upset your Buddy now, do you? Depending on how you interact with your Buddy it will react in four different ways, giving the player a possibility of four unique endings. So, be careful, because they may just go cra… I mean, be careful, because you and your Buddy love each other and want to be friends 4eva!
Kena: Bridge of Spirits
If I had more than a few paragraphs, there’s a lot I’d love to tell you about Kena: Bridge of Spirits. One thing I’m sure you already know is that this game is gorgeous. It’s easy to get burnt out on the industry chasing high-fidelity graphics, but Kena is much more than that. The animation and sound design showcased here is so full of life and character that I’m still shocked this is the first major release from Ember Lab, a studio previously known for animated shorts and a Coca-Cola branded iPhone game. The studio’s short film experience is particularly evident in Kena’s cutscenes, with shot composition a clear cut above what most games are capable of. The artistry here goes well beyond pretty pixels.
While stunning visuals have carried games in the past, Kena isn’t content to stop there. In addition to its masterful style, this is a solid action game with varied mechanics and a real learning curve. Don’t let the cutesy looks lull you; I did not expect to get stomped this hard by something that looks like a Pixar movie. While it may not be up to the challenge of a hardened Soulsborne-slayer, the default difficulty in Kena: Bridge of Spirits does not pull its punches. There is plenty of challenge to keep you on your toes and mastering your skill-set throughout the compelling and touching narrative—because of course, it has that going for it too. If you are here for just the looks or the story, don’t be afraid to drop that difficulty down; there’s so much to love in this game that cutting the challenge still leaves Kena with plenty to offer.
The mark of a great independent title is core gameplay that is simple but effective. The ability to do a lot with a little is a necessity for indie games, but this can be a solid foundation for something spectacular. It’s hard to believe that a game so stripped back would shoot into my personal GOTY radar. Inspired by Rhythm Heaven’s simple tap, lift and flick approach to gameplay, the developers simplified it further: the entire gameplay is single button taps, space for solo play, and the shifts for co-op. The first iteration is simple: Here are six beats, tap out the seventh. But the work to distract and to throw off isn’t just set dressing, it’s where the game shines. One boss has a “WiFi blocking virus”, which leads to some wonderful glitched-out music and video, which is a real challenge to your internal metronome. Much of the game’s flair is in setting up simple ideas then throwing you off: beats may skip or “swing” (ie long-short beats, not equally spaced), multiple rhythmic lines play simultaneously, and more.
All this doesn’t even touch on the production values. The pixel visuals are beautiful, but the audio is the centerpiece. These range from cheesy love EDM tracks to acoustic narrative pieces about the stress of working a hospital shift, to some solid licensed tracks like Andrew Huang’s “Know You”. There is a great meshing of narrative and music here. This is all from a game that is still in early access, so expect even more from this game going forward. However, regardless of the work yet to be done, Rhythm Doctor, as it currently stands, is one of the best rhythm games I have played in years.
Alex Kidd in Miracle World DX
The original Alex Kidd in Miracle World is a classic, legendary game. Usually, I am a bit of a purist and 99% of the time I’ll take the original over the remake, just name the game. But this time there are improvements in literally every way, keeping the core gameplay and feel of the original but improving it with some tiny little tweaks, some of which are so complimentary you may not even notice them. The game features brand new, absolutely gorgeous graphics, a fantastic soundtrack and new levels that feel like they could have easily come from the original.
From the moment you take control of Alex, it is evident that developers Jankenteam and Merge Games have done an incredible job with Alex Kidd in Miracle World DX. They have managed to thread the needle and create something that sits perfectly between a remake and a reimagining. Alex Kidd in Miracle World DX balances perfectly the updates an old game needs whilst still staying true to what made the original such a landmark title. I just can’t fault it, and I won’t. For more info check out my review here.
With that, there’s the Checkpoint Staff’s deeper cut picks for 2021. What games did you really enjoy this year? Be sure to let us know!