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Game On: The best and worst video games of 2021

Dec. 30, 2021 Updated Thu., Dec. 30, 2021 at 3:27 p.m.

The quality of video games released in 2021 was incredibly polarizing, but two games in particular stand above – and below – the rest. One of them is Square Enix’s Balan Wonderland.  (Square Enix Co.)
The quality of video games released in 2021 was incredibly polarizing, but two games in particular stand above – and below – the rest. One of them is Square Enix’s Balan Wonderland. (Square Enix Co.)
By Riordan Zentler For The Spokesman-Review

As the year comes to a close, it’s a good time to take a look back and assess the best and worst video game releases of 2021. Unfortunately, for this year, I found it easier to decide on a worst game than a best game. But that’s just because while there were a variety of great titles in 2021, one stinker stands out distinctly from the rest of the bad releases.

That stinker is none other than Balan Wonderworld – Square Enix’s failed foray into the mascot platformer genre fronted by Sonic the Hedgehog creators Yuji Naka and Naoto Ohshima. Despite the capable hands and minds behind the game, it was released with myriad fundamental issues – nothing that can be patched out with a simple update or hotfix.

I’ll start with Naka’s baffling insistence on mapping the controls to a single button – the protagonist can gain new abilities by acquiring costumes, which can be switched between to navigate levels as needed. It’s a decent concept utterly ruined by the two-second delay between costume switches and the lack of a dedicated jump button.

Once you’ve donned a costume, you have just one ability. It could be breathing fire, creating platforms of ice and so on – whatever the case, you usually lose access to the most simple and important ability in any platformer – jumping. Taking damage also causes you to lose your costumes, so you can easily end up in a scenario where you can’t progress to the next area or even the previous one, leaving you with a single option – walking off a cliff and starting over.

Beyond this massive oversight, there’s also terrible level design throughout and a certain degree of false advertising. See, Balan himself is a charismatic, quirky magician similar to NiGHTS, another iconic character designed by Ohshima. He’s all over the promotional material for Balan Wonderworld, but you never actually get the opportunity to play Balan. Instead, you’re stuck controlling a typical dime-a-dozen silent anime protagonist.

The whole game is a missed opportunity. Despite the obvious time and effort that went into creating it, the game is a miserable experience. Balan Wonderworld bombed on release, with its worst offender being the Nintendo Switch version, where it received a 36/100 aggregate review score on Metacritic. Worse still, everyday gamers didn’t enjoy it much more than the critics.

The best game of 2021 is a tougher choice. I thoroughly enjoyed the two-player puzzle solving of It Takes Two, and while Splitgate technically launched this year, it was playable via early access for two years beforehand, so I have a difficult time considering it “new.” For me, that leaves Halo Infinite, an excellent return-to-form for the legendary first-person shooter saga.

In all honesty, I didn’t expect much from 343 Industries after the mediocre products Halo 4 and Halo 5: Guardians, but it seems the team finally figured out what makes a great Halo game – they dropped the flashy cinematic cutscenes and Call of Duty-style changes and returned to all the old mechanics that make Halo so satisfying, all the while adding a creative suite of weaponry and equipment to the mix.

Halo Infinite’s campaign is open world, and it works surprisingly well. While the level design isn’t as streamlined as previous entries, the combat offers a greater variety of tactical approaches than ever. The movement mechanics are improved, too – navigating the open areas is far less of a chore when you have the ubiquitous grapple hook and a plethora of fun vehicles at your disposal.

My only criticism of Halo Infinite is that despite being delayed for an entire year, it still isn’t technically a complete game. There’s no two-player option for the campaign, no level editor, and there’s only a small sampling of multiplayer arenas for throwing down. 343 Industries has stated its intention to rectify all those issues, but it’s a sad indicator of how most AAA video games are releasing these days – half finished.

For 2022, it’s my hope that publishers will stop forcing developers to release games before they’re truly ready. If that means I have to wait for some of my most anticipated games until 2023, then so be it.

Riordan Zentler can be reached at riordanzentler@gmail.com.

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