2021 Gift Guide: Video Games for the Holiday Season
One of the somewhat cruel and unusual things about 2021 is that while it’s been incredibly difficult to obtain video game systems, notably the backwards-compatible Xbox Series X and the PS5, this has also been a particularly fantastic year for new video game releases. While there are some exceptions, for the most part this quality stems from studios revisiting longstanding franchises for either sequels or conscientious remasters, which results in a slate of new titles that almost comes across like comfort food. From Samus and Ratchet to Commander Shepard and Link, there’s a lot of familiar territory this year.
The familiarity also comes about in surprising ways, though. An unofficial, spiritual sequel to a popular franchise stumbled into the gaming arena, while another horror series borrowed generously from one of its older, most popular installments in creation of a very overt callback game. And then, a studio answers the impassioned requests of fans for a sequel to a decade-and-a-half old property. What’s remarkable is that barring a few expected quibbles with modern-era glitches or perhaps some features that could’ve been beefed up or done better, the wide spectrum of games have all received rampant acclaim, to a degree where it was tough leaving off games from this list instead of finding stuff to add.
Below, you’ll find a list of over a dozen video games worth giving for the holiday season, with links to each game’s page on Amazon to make purchasing easy. Be sure to pay attention to the system format for the game this year, though, as the visual differences between Xbox and PlayStation games of different console types can be somewhat minimal. You’ll know a Switch game when you see it.
For the Open World Lover With an Open Mind
Following a period where it seemed like every big game had to be a sandbox time-sink as a prerequisite, it seems like that demand for everything open-world seems to have hit a decline. If a game has an open aspect, now it’s usually in service of novel gameplay or quirky personality to justify it. Below are a pair of games that actually make the player want to continue exploring the nooks and crannies of the world they’re in.
No More Heroes 3
- After nearly a decade away from the series proper, Travis Touchdown returns from the middling success of a spinoff title for No More Heroes 3. With this return, the series also reintroduces several popular aspects from previous titles, notably a more open world for exploration.
- No More Heroes 3 takes place two years after the spinoff game and takes the action to a grander scale, pitting Travis Touchdown against invading aliens who have established a new tier of assassins to eliminate and drawing him back to the fictional California city of Santa Destroy.
- Travis must earn enough money to move up the ladder of assassins, and he does so by traveling across 5 distinct islands completing side tasks and grinding, utilizing his “beam katana” and wrestling repertoire to get him through the brisk, amusing third-person combat scenarios and pop-culture references.
- IO Interactive has poured a lot of energy into making the rejuvenated Hitman franchise a satisfying mix of old-school stealth pleasures and modern polish and open-world freedom, and they’ve reached a pinnacle with Hitman 3, opting for fan-pleasing refinement over rocking the boat with changes.
- The story follows Agent 47 as he flips allegiances and works to take down Providence, a cabal of powerful political and industrial forces pulling strings from the shadows. Expect lots of big twists and turns, which is where most of the risk-taking for the game takes place.
- While the plot makes significant moves of the espionage variety, the freedom of the gameplay and its willingness to not take itself too seriously lets Hitman 3 feel like familiar territory, allowing for a wide variety of ways to complete missions and create chaos if desired.
For the Patient Gamer Awaiting the Return of Fan-Fave Franchises
It’s impressive to see the longevity and staying power of video game characters and settings, as we’ve reached a point in the culture where a property can lie dormant for a decade or two – or three! – and come back with a vengeance if there’s enough passion and demand. All three of these properties have undeniable fanbases behind them, and the resurgence of two of them isn’t exactly unexpected. However, the fact that the first game on this list exists at all is a marvel, a delightful fruition of fan requests stemming from an initial game that, while it’s built a cult following since release, didn’t sell well.
- A devoted fanbase has been waiting patiently for a second entry in the Psychonauts narrative, continuously asking the folks at Double Fine Productions when they’ll get back there. Well, the mythical has finally turned real with the third-person action platformer Psychonauts 2.
- Players once again gain control of Raz, a wayward and agile acrobat with psychic powers, whose fascination with joining the mental-power research and regulation agency Psychonauts has landed them in their office, the Motherlobe. There, he uses his powers to help root out a double agent.
- In a fashion befitting the wacky personality of Double Fine, Psychonauts 2 weaves together a compelling premise with clever, bizarre puzzle-platform levels, while also striking a meaningful chord involving mental health in the process.
- It’s been a while since a new Metroid game has been released, but it’s been even longer since a new 2D Metroid game – that isn’t a remake — has rolled onto the scene. Metroid Dread goes back to the series roots and delivers a fresh side-scrolling adventure with Nintendo icon Samus Aran.
- Originally conceived as a Nintendo DS follow-up to a Game Boy title from the early 2000s, Dread follows Samus as she investigates the alien planet ZDR after parasite-killing EMMI robots fail to complete their mission. Ambushed and lacking full powers, Samus must battle local enemies and sneak past the EMMIs.
- Dread gets the Metroid formula back to its roots with 2D side-scrolling level design with a modernized feel, placing Samus in the position of both hunter and hunted through old-school skill progression through levels and new stealth components. It does everything a classic Metroid game should do, well.
Ratchet and Clank: Rift Apart
- Despite their rampant popularity during the PS2 and PS3 eras, Ratchet and Clank only showed up once during the PS4 era for a reboot/reimagining of the first game, titled Ratchet and Clank. Their devoted fans have been waiting anxiously, and now they’ve received Rift Apart on the PS5.
- Rift Apart serves as a meeting-point sequel to both 2013’s Into the Nexus, the last game produced for the PS3, and 2016’s Ratchet and Clank. During a battle with Dr. Nefarious, several dimensional rifts open and relocate the characters to alternate realities; Clank is found by Rivet, a female Lombax like Ratchet.
- Using a new device called a Rift Tether, both Ratchet and Rivet can zip between portals to realities, a new gameplay tactic introduced within the series’ signature run-‘n-gun antics and bountiful artillery. A mix of old and new weapons, locations, and combat mechanics ensure Rift Apart has something for all.
For Those Who Enjoy (Re)Playing Beloved Games Polished in HD
Sometimes developers make remastered versions of games simply because they want to ensure fans will keep playing and remembering the same game for years, preserving legacies by essentially making archive versions of their games to keep up with the times. Other times, however, studios take risks and get their hands dirty with improving certain titles by listening to fan feedback, and the result ends up being a noteworthy upgrade and a reason for people to revisit that goes beyond nostalgia. Both the titles below have that going for them.
Mass Effect Legendary Edition
- Nearly a decade after the series reached a polarizing conclusion, the folks at BioWare have begun the process of revisiting the Mass Effect franchise with this Legendary Edition collection for newer consoles. All three games from the original trilogy have been included, along with their respective DLCS.
- Players gain control of Commander Shepard, who can be a customized character creation or a preset, as they race against time to stop the Lovecraftian Reapers from wiping out civilization. The player makes choices – from who live and dies to brokering deals and building relationships – that’ll have degrees of impact throughout the whole series.
- The original Mass Effect received a drastic overhaul in visuals and gameplay without fundamentally changing how it operates, while the other two games have been more subtly polished. Like this, including the extended version of the ending and all the character and story DLC, Mass Effect feels complete and still presents one of the most engrossing and adaptable sci-fi arcs in gaming.
Legend of Zelda Skyward Sword HD
- Once considered the black sheep of the modern Legend of Zelda creations, Skyward Sword has enjoyed some laid-back reevaluation amid Breath of the Wild’s successful tweaking of the franchise. This HD remaster takes some voiced issues to heart and shapes it into a fresh, worthwhile adventure on Switch.
- Skyward Sword follows many of the familiar story beats of other Legend of Zelda games, yet its focus on the early aspects of the history of the Hyrule kingdom and the Skyloft setting in the clouds give it an extra dose of storytelling intrigue. Link still needs to rescue Zelda, hacking-‘n-slashing across time.
- Skyward Sword HD may not have drastically improved visuals, but other aspects of the new version make it well worth a second look, from tweaking the autosave feature to making it so the game doesn’t require motion controls (the Joy Cons can still be used this way). Link’s still in baggy trousers and the level design and exploration show their age, but this Switch version improves the conditions to enjoy it.
For the Nostalgic Horror Lover
Whether it’s by being stranded among zombies in a European village or teaming up with buddies to wipe out infected humans, the horror games included below rustle up memories of game past through wildly different methods.
Resident Evil Village
- Arguably the best entry in the Resident Evil series succeeded by isolating itself in a small European village invaded by a zombie-creating parasite. Capcom decided to try and recapture this magic with Resident Evil Village, taking place a few years after the last one and featuring protagonist Ethan Winters.
- From a first-person viewpoint, Village lets the player openly explore the stuck-in-the-1800s European village, allowing them to use the setting for tactical combat against the enemies. Aside from the now iconic vampire Lady Dimitrescu and her sisters, Ethan battles against werewolf like creatures in an effort to rescue his daughter.
- Resident Evil: Village brings the scale back to a stripped-down, scarier place in how Ethan explores the area and scrounges together an inventory of resources, combining iconic aspects from earlier games – there’s unsurprisingly a lot of Resident Evil 4 in here — with what’s worked in the current iterations.
Back 4 Blood
- The folks responsible for the Left 4 Dead franchise, Turtle Rock Studios, have returned after a decade to deliver the spiritual third entry in the franchise. Back 4 Blood is the result, and while it isn’t pound-for-pound an exact continuation of those popular games, the developers got about as close as they can.
- Somewhat differently, Back 4 Blood takes place about a year after a parasitic outbreak has claimed much of humanity, where groups of survivors known as Cleaners try to clear out post-apocalyptic surroundings. This progression makes the atmosphere a little lighter while coordinating squad attacks.
- Sure, Turtle Rock deliberately models much of the co-op gameplay off Left 4 Dead, but they’ve also incorporated modern RPG-ish aspects like deeper weapon customization and skill cards to update the gameplay. Coupled with plentiful maps and a quality attitude, Back 4 Blood largely feels like the sequel everyone’s wanted.
For Those Dazzled By Conceptual Sci-Fi
Whether it’s temporal anomalies, tapping into the power of human brain, or the idea of superheroes being a bunch of poor renegades traversing the galaxy for their next payday, these games latch onto unique science-fiction concepts and apply relatively conventional gaming control ideas to them. The results are thrilling entertainment against the backdrop of engrossing sci-fi atmospheres.
- Stealth, steampunk, and the supernatural interweave in the games of Arkane Studios, the team behind the Dishonored series. Deathloop continues that legacy, telling a story of assassinations and time loops that plays into the studio’s narrative strengths while hooking the player with novel mechanics.
- With a setting that’s more identifiable and realistic than Arkane’s previous worlds, pegged to the ‘60s or ‘70s, Deathloop follows an assassin who must eliminate 8 different targets on an island in the same time loop … or else the timeline will reset. Naturally, another assassin is also hunting the main character to thwart their progress.
- Paying attention to details and routines is one of the keys to success in Deathloop, which incorporates a familiar caliber of strategy to Arkane’s previous games, observing how obstacles move and knowing what weapons to use for different scenarios. It opts for a credible variety of solutions to endless possibilities, and that’s ideal for a concept with a bunch of moving parts already. Deathloop is a timed PS5 exclusve; Xbox users should expect to pay it next year.
- Some might be quick to dismiss Scarlet Nexus based on the anime stylings of the characters and the conversation panels, but they’d be overlooking a much more engaging action-RPG experience from Bandai Namco that taps into fast-paced action, open-roam exploration, and science-fiction concepts.
- Echoing the stellar sci-fi action game Control, Scarlet Nexus focuses on agents for a supernatural defense force who also have psychokinetic abilities. The world-building differs in how society has developed around the potential of the human brain, and how citizens with elevated abilities are recruited to defend civilization from hostile aliens.
- Scarlet Nexus makes the most of its relatively standard anime-style plotting and conversational rhythm by dialing up the smooth superpower combat and chaotic battles with unique enemies. And it only grows more interesting as the player gains access to further abilities and explores the futuristic Japanese landscape.
Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy
- While the enthusiasm for Marvel’s The Avengers may have petered out much quicker than most had anticipated, that shouldn’t hold one back from jumping into Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy, which has one very clear thing going for it: it’s focused on delivering an engaging single-player experience.
- In a post-galactic war environment, the story finds the Guardians of the Galaxy – Peter, Gomora, Rocket Raccoon, Groot, and Drax — strapped for cash and willing to go to sketchy lengths to make some. They end up pissing off the wrong person while on a mission to make a quick buck, which chains together the events that’ll shape this new raucous adventure.
- This game from Eidos and Square goes down a different path than the Avengers game by molding the story around light RPG elements, allowing the story to branch from choices made and dialogue chosen in prompts. Wrapped around serviceable, if repetitive third-person sci-fi shooting, Guardians of the Galaxy makes an effort to fill the space opera RPG void left in the absence of others like Mass Effect.
For the Console Gamer Who Misses Out On Great PC Titles
Console players lucked out this year, as they’ve been granted the honor of being able to play two of the best PC titles to come out in recent memory, in very short order. They couldn’t be more different, either: one’s a colorfully action-based dungeon crawler with levels of difficulty, and the other’s a bleakly moody and dialogue-heavy RPG with layers of complexity.
- This roguelike dungeon crawler has amassed a strong following since its release, touting it as one of the best current games that couldn’t be played on Xbox or PlayStation. After much celebration, Hades has finally been ported over to those systems a year later, in both digital and physical formats.
- After gaining control of the Prince of the Underworld, players navigate through the beautiful, complex maze of the constantly changing realm as the Olympian gods cheer you on. The path is challenging and unpredictable, but gifts from the gods help the journey, if you can keep them. Die, and boons are reset.
- Between the ever-changing dungeon and the boons to other character-driven paths the game can take, Hades has been designed with countless runs in mind, and it generates enough excitement to do so. That also makes it worthwhile to get this physical edition for the shelf, which includes a 32-page character compendium and a digital code for the soundtrack.
Disco Elysium: The Final Cut
- While Hades gets the adrenaline flowing through its action and unpredictability, Disco Elysium has been making a name for itself in the opposite spectrum. A dialogue-driven RPG that’s almost entirely stat-based and driven by dialogue or situational decisions, it has been celebrated as one of the best of the genre since its release.
- As a boozed-up detective, the player navigates the subtly futuristic realm of Elysium to pursue the case, which opens up a wealth of conversations and only the tools in the character’s noggin to navigate them. Skills are all about temperament, and as the character moves up in level, overdeveloped aspects of their personality can come into conflict with one another while trying to “succeed” in a conversation. Min/max isn’t effective here.
- Due to the fluid nature of the skills and the wealth of options at the player’s disposal – the game and setting originated as a tabletop RPG, after all – Disco Elysium carries heaps of replay value for the right type of player, with the Final Cut’s addition of fully voiced characters and new quests elevating that.