The PCGamesN Game of the Year 2021: our top ten picks

Don't mind the delays, 2021 still had plenty of great PC games

PCGamesN's Game of the Year 2021 pick is Deathloop

Third time’s the charm, right? 2020 didn’t exactly pan out all that well for the world, 2021 has gone much the same way, so 2022 has surely got to be the year we get things back on track as a species.

Thankfully, we’ve had videogames to steer us through the hard times, and while there have been duds – and we mean duds – many more releases have raised the quality bar for their respective genres. We’ve had one of the best couch co-op games of all time, a card game that defies description, a new peak for MMO storytelling, and finally, a good videogame adaptation of Groundhog Day. And to think, Elden Ring, Dying Light 2, and Total War: Warhammer 3 were all originally slated for 2021, too.

Before we dig into the picks, let’s go over the methodology behind our selection. Every PCGamesN staffer had free reign to select their favourite five games of the year. Their top pick got five points, second place four points, and so on. We tallied up the points for all of the submitted games (sorry, Riders Republic, I really tried), logged it in a spreadsheet, added some pointless formulae for style points, and emerged with a very clear winner – followed by nine games that are also really good. So what you’re about to read is a list of the best PC games of 2021, as determined by mince pie-fuelled mathematics.

For the purposes of suspense, this list is presented in ascending order, so go ahead and scroll to the bottom if you’re really desperate for our Game of the Year 2021 pick.

Sable's main protagonist standing on edge of watchtower with cliff backdrop

10. Sable

Numerous delays have made us wait for Sable, but this indie game couldn’t have come at a better time. Journeying through the vast deserts of Midden in Shedwork’s coming-of-age tale, trading stories with strangers, and figuring out who you want to be, is a comforting escape from another year of pandemic-induced isolation.

You are Sable, a teenager about to embark on a rite of passage called the Gliding with nothing but a hodgepodge hoverbike and a vague set of objectives to guide you. On your travels, you’ll spelunk through spaceships, help beetle enthusiasts find poop, and take on the role of a vigilante to spook some guards. Each completed odd job goes towards earning a mask that represents a profession, and once you find the right mask for you, one that truly fits, you can return home. The exact point at which you bring your sci-fi gap year to a close, though, is your call to make.

You can see the influence of The Legend of Zelda: The Breath of the Wild while exploring, but this is a gentler kind of adventure. A stamina bar determines the heights you can climb and how long you can run, but at no point will you come into physical conflict with anyone. After all, Sable is no hero; she’s just an ordinary person finding her way in the world. Check out Iain’s Sable review for more.

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FFXIV Endwalker's Warrior of Light surrounded by Ascians

9. FFXIV Endwalker

Final Fantasy XIV Endwalker serves as the culmination of a decade-long story. Yeah, there’s all that plot about Hydaelyn, Zodiark, and the end times, but there’s also the story of Final Fantasy XIV itself. This is a game that rose from the ashes of a disastrous launch to become, if not the best MMO around, then easily the most beloved.

Endwalker follows in the formula that Square Enix has been slowly perfecting over the past decade: six new zones, two new classes, an array of dungeons and trials, and an epic, largely single-player storyline to guide you through it all. But even if this expansion sticks closely to that formula, no other game this year has provided so many ‘slap your desk’ story moments. Wait, is that a thing? It is now. Endwalker is a desk-slapper – an expansion that expertly builds on the years of storytelling that came before, leaving you with no recourse but to pound your desk in time with its myriad twists, turns, and triumphs. Check out our FFXIV Endwalker review for more.

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It Takes Two's May and Cod riding on toads

8. It Takes Two

While co-op isn’t all that rare in gaming, there are only a select few co-op games that feel incomplete without a second player. It Takes Two is one of those rare examples. It’s a game in which having a co-op partner is core to both its narrative and gameplay design, while still enhancing the moment-to-moment fun of its constantly changing mechanics. Much like its protagonists, Cody and May, you’ll joke and squabble between yourselves before ultimately coming together in celebration, having conquered whatever new mechanic, obstacle, or puzzle It Takes Two throws at you.

Perhaps its greatest strength is that its levels are perfectly paced, constantly shifting between asymmetric, simultaneous, and competitive co-op so that you and your partner are never allowed to settle into frustrating routines or roles. Sure, It Takes Two doesn’t do anything all that groundbreaking, but Hazelight’s co-op adventure surprises and delights so much over the course of its ten-hour main story that it doesn’t need to. Plus, it’s on Xbox Game Pass, so there’s very little stopping you from finding a friend and giving it a go.

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Screenshot of battlefield and soldiers in Humankind

7. Humankind

Taking on Civilization is no small ambition, but Amplitude says it has been building towards this goal since the studio’s inception. Humankind’s take on historical 4X strategy is familiar, but departs from the genre’s grandparent in several key respects that produce something genuinely new. And it does this while also being one of the prettiest strategy games in recent memory, with its gorgeous pastel art style and muted tones making for a distinctly soothing experience.

While the Civilization series aims to represent the historical traits and strengths of its leaders and nations, Humankind is perhaps a truer simulator of leadership itself, providing you with regular opportunities to review the progress of your people and adjust to the vicissitudes of the volatile world they inhabit. Starting in the Neolithic era, you’ll change cultures as you progress through the millennia, representing the processes of migration, assimilation, division and reunification, and of course conquest that have shaped nations throughout history. All the while, Humankind never misses a chance to remind you that you’re weaving together the story of an entire people. Check out Rich’s Humankind review for more.

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Hitman 3's Agent 47 standing in Chongqing llevel

6. Hitman 3

There’s scarcely any higher praise we could give Hitman 3 than ‘it’s more Hitman.’ IO Interactive’s assassination sandbox game trilogy concludes with some of the series’ strongest level design ever, from the top of Dubai’s tallest skyscraper to the neon-soaked streets of Chongqing. Hitman 3 dials up the ambition and pressure in key missions, with surprising narrative twists folded into each rewardingly detailed puzzle box of murder.

Hunted by assassins in a massive Berlin nightclub or playing detective in a gloomy old mansion on the moors, the ever-impassive 47 has to improvise in delightful ways in Hitman 3. Now that the full set of World of Assassination missions is available together, Hitman 3 is like a favourite novel we keep on a shelf near the bedstand, ready whenever we get the urge to bump off a few of the world’s most deserving plutocrats again. Check out Jordan’s Hitman 3 review for more.

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Incryption gameplay featuring game's card table

5. Inscryption

Inscryption isn’t just a roguelike card game. And yet, it sort of is. Throughout its ten-hour campaign, Inscryption throws curveball after curveball at you, constantly toying with your expectations, teasing you with red herrings, and reinventing itself in plain sight. When you finally roll the credits, the game you’re playing has very little in common with the simple card battler you started with, but the round-by-round cadence – the push and pull between you and the mysterious figure sitting opposite – is familiar all the way through.

There are creepypasta-inspired story sections, fourth wall-busting boss battles, genuinely inventive roguelike mechanics, and devious escape room puzzles. It’s a lot to balance in one relatively short game, but it all works because there’s a superb card battler whirring away underneath, with robust deck building and a snappy pace. Developer Daniel Mullins has even added an endless mode to satisfy fans who just want to play Inscryption’s first few hours again and again – it really is that good.

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Resident Evil Village's Lady Dimitrescu surrounded by daughters

4. Resident Evil Village

Capcom managed to build up hype early in Resident Evil Village’s marketing cycle solely by exploiting – inadvertently or otherwise – the internet’s collective horniness for 9ft tall dommy vampire mummies.

It was something of a masterstroke, as we made it to Village’s launch day with surprisingly little knowledge about the rest of the game. Those hoping the imperious Lady D would chase them around weren’t disappointed, but let’s not forget what Resident Evil is: a survival horror series that’s meticulously designed to scare the crap out of you, and Village succeeds in this regard time and time again. The titular hillside hamlet is the real star of the show, with its surrounding villas serving as haunted mansion set pieces that will live long in the deepest, darkest recesses of your memory.

While Village doesn’t reinvent the formula quite like Resident Evil 7: Biohazard, its emphasis on action makes it feel fresh and nostalgic all at once, like Capcom bashed the expert pacing of Resident Evil 4 into 7’s mould. And rather than dilute the horror, Village’s terrifying set pieces are among the scariest moments in videogames. Check out Dustin’s Resident Evil Village review for more.

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Psychonaughts 2's Razputin Aquato running towards camera

3. Psychonauts 2

Psychonauts 2 proves that level design can tell a story. A hospital turned gambling den isn’t just an opportunity to steer a pachinko ball through a medical diagram of the human body; it’s an exploration of gambling addiction and the morality of manipulation. The whole game is stuffed with levels like this, each boasting a deeply personal narrative that’s relayed through clever, constantly changing gameplay.

The same is largely true of the first game, but the sequel benefits from a much more empathetic and mature understanding of mental health – it’s been 16 years, after all. Raz learns very early on that his job isn’t to ‘fix’ anyone, but to help them understand their issues so they can tackle them in their own way. Sure, the gameplay may not be as sharp as the best modern 3D platformers like Ratchet & Clank, but it’s always fun, the world is littered with collectables, and there’s heart and humour behind every little detail. Check out Dustin’s Psychonauts 2 review for more.

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Combat encounter with blue Valheim troll in Black Forest

2. Valheim

Multiplayer survival games are a dime a dozen, but every now and then one bubbles up out of the blue and captures the collective attention of PC gamers the world over. Valheim’s charming low-poly models and gorgeously rendered lighting, water, and weather combine to lend an apt and utterly enchanting air of misty unreality to its Viking afterlife. Yes, this is a survival game, but unlike many others it doesn’t get hung up on grit or authenticity, and it’s all the better for it. Even the most rote tasks feel magical and unearthly: you’re building a shelter, but you’re doing it beneath the sky-spanning branches of Yggdrasil. You’re avoiding predators, but they’re massive trolls that look like they belong in a PS1 game.

Through this dreamlike lens, the untold threats that lie beyond the relative safety of the meadow where you spawn feel thrilling and disquieting like in a dark fairytale. Nevertheless, surviving isn’t easy, and the difficulty escalates as you play, with more powerful enemies showing up on your doorstep to smash your carefully organised loot room to bits as you work through Valheim’s various boss fights.

Your character is a fallen Viking warrior who must prove themselves to Odin before they can reach Valhalla. Appropriately enough, Valheim sends you on adventures that feel like a Norse heroic idyll: leading a band of allies through murky swamps by torchlight, sharing furs at the foot of a mountain, slaying droves of Draugr, and returning home to roast meat by the hearth. Valheim masterfully captures the spirit of these epic sagas, and allows us to set sail upon them for ourselves, with our friends by our side, the sky awash with stars, and unknown challenges waiting on the horizon. Pure adventuring bliss.

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Deathloop's Cole sneaking through arcade area with handgun

1. Deathloop

After the past two years of pandemic outbreak and lockdown, it’s impossible to imagine a more perfect Game of the Year for 2021 than Deathloop, a game about trying to escape from a day that repeats itself forever. But Deathloop manages to transcend its ironically serendipitous timing, and nails so many fundamental elements of what makes games fun.

By rights, Deathloop ought to be a complete mess. It blends punchy first-person shooting with stealth and immersive sim exploration, throwing in a Dark Souls-style invasion mechanic just for kicks. A live-action game of Among Us is taking place in one of the reappropriated mansions on Updaam, and you can collect weapons of varying rarities. All of this happens over the course of one day, and your actions in the morning will have an impact on the lay of the land in the evening. That’s a lot of plates to keep spinning at all times, but Deathloop absolutely pulls it off.

As it dances freely between genres, Deathloop is also putting on a brilliant display of modern art history. A jazz-funk soundtrack punctuates each gunfight perfectly as you telekinetically blast drunken arthouse failsons off tastefully deconstructivist balconies. Bauhaus graffiti plasters the streets of a stony North Atlantic fishing village, where you can explore avant garde mixed media exhibits before tracking down one of Deathloop’s claque of eccentric villains.

At the centre of all this are two instantly fascinating, likeable characters: protagonist Colt Vahn and his constant nemesis, Julianna Blake. It’s thanks to their performances, by Jason Kelley and Ozioma Akagha respectively, that Deathloop hits with an emotional punch to match its mechanical and artistic heft. The constant banter between Colt and Julianna ensures every run through Deathloop’s repeating day feels fresh and meaningful.

Even with all the delays there were plenty of good games this year. But when we think back on the ones that defined 2021, it’s Deathloop that best captures the year’s chaos, the odd sense of having been here before, and the potential games have to be more than mere distractions – even when real life sucks badly enough to heighten our need for a little escape. It’s not just our Game of the Year; it could easily be the first definitive game of the 2020s. It should come as no surprise that we also gave it a perfect score in our Deathloop review.

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