The console gaming market undoubtedly became more competitive in 2021, especially as Microsoft's Xbox Game Pass subscription service continued to offer some huge value to players willing to shell out for it each month. In response, Sony continued to leverage its might to bring exciting and innovative games to the PlayStation 4 and 5. This was yet another year in which "exclusive" was the name of the game for Sony, and that strategy continued to pay off--some of the best games of the year held the title of "PlayStation Exclusive."
This year, Sony brought more first-party games to bear that showed the capabilities of its new-generation technology, while also suggesting where games are headed in the future. But while its big-budget first-party games, like Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart, might have made the biggest splash, they're not all that PlayStation had to offer. Sony also continued seeking out fascinating new experiences from developers of all sizes to bring to its consoles, and that helped to make 2021 a strong year for Sony--even if not everyone who wanted a PS5 could find one.
Despite the fact that old-gen consoles continue to march on, we saw games this year that simply couldn't have existed on the PlayStation 4 the way they do on the PS5. Though many titles continue to straddle the gap between old and new, there were experiences in 2021 that feel like they're pushing gaming into the future as they leveraged the power of Sony's newest machine. Below you'll find our list of the year's five best PlayStation exclusives, but don't forget to also check out our top 10 games of 2021 as well.
Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart
If anything has shown off the graphical power of the PS5, it's Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart, a game that feels like it couldn't have existed in quite the same way before now. Its central conceit is that reality has broken, with alternate dimensions slamming into each other and mixing together with chaotic, often hilarious abandon. Practically, this means heroes Ratchet and Clank find themselves separated by dimensions and using new abilities to jump through holes in the spacetime continuum as they search for a way to repair it. The PS5's graphical prowess and quick-loading capabilities make falling into and out of different dimensions stunningly seamless, which makes it feel like you're exploring a whole multiverse of locations, or tunneling through wormholes to cross impossible gaps or get the drop on enemies.
There may not be a prettier game on the market than Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart, which uses the PS5's hardware and some brilliant art direction to create something that looks like a playable animated feature. It's also often a blast, bringing that new hardware to bear on developer Insomniac's long-running 3D platformer formula. As Steve Watts wrote in our review, "Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart is flashy and technically impressive without feeling self-important. It's just as silly, sweet, and earnest as the Ratchet & Clank series tends to be, while the new generation of hardware makes this entry look and play better than ever." A heartfelt story, fun characters, rampant humor, and ludicrous weapons come together to make Ratchet & Clank one of the PS5's best, and one of the few games that truly feels "next-gen" in 2021.
The video game market has swollen with games adapting the replayable ideas of the roguelike genre--elements such as one-off visits to ever-shifting levels that force you to find your equipment along the way and hope for good luck. With Returnal, developer Housemarque used its years of innovative thinking in bullet hell games to make an indelible mark on the world of roguelikes, while creating something that feels strange and unique in the PS5 library.
Returnal is a rogue-like bullet-hell game, adding those elements to a third-person shooter. But it's more than the ingredients of that mixture, thanks to fluid, deft controls and an incredible amount of effort spent on presentation. Art direction and sound design take you into an incredibly alien sci-fi world, where Returnal weaves its mystery--how can a place be so alien and yet so familiar? "Returnal is constantly unsettling and consistently challenging," Mike Epstein wrote in our Returnal review. "Its mysterious story and demanding action feel intense, urgent, and fresh." With Returnal, Housemarque demonstrates its command of the arcade arena, finding ways to make elements of top-down twin-stick shooters feel right at home in a 3D game, and demonstrating that the right combination of elements can make everything familiar feel strange and new.
Listen: We don't give out a lot of 10 out of 10 review scores here at GameSpot. Deathloop got one. That should put it on your radar. But if you need more convincing, know that Arkane Studios' immersive sim time loop game is, in a whole lot of ways, a pinnacle of the genre. It's a game that drops you into a world and forces you to get to know it, trusting that as you come to understand the ins and outs, the rules and exceptions, the players and the powers at work, you'll become this world's master. Your ultimate goal is to play Deathloop perfectly. What's remarkable is that Arkane gives you the tools to do so and trusts that, eventually, you will succeed.
It's not just that Deathloop is an excellent experience in using firepower and supernatural power to inflict your will on hundreds of enemies. The game is defined by the depth invested in its characters, protagonist Colt and antagonist Julianna, and the many terrible "Visionaries" you're tasked with eliminating. Its art direction imagines a world that is perpetually on the precipice of crumbling, full of people for whom death has no meaning and the party never ends. It's full of tiny details and hilarious moments as systems collide--often resulting in characters being annihilated. "Perhaps the most laudable part of Deathloop," Tamoor Hussain wrote in our Deathloop review, "is how it takes so many seemingly disparate things and creates harmony between them. Gameplay systems that feel isolated become pieces of a bigger puzzle, and when you see how they seamlessly connect together, you realize how special an achievement it really is."
Chicory: A Colorful Tale
With Chicory: A Colorful Tale, PlayStation owners get something a little different. Rather than wreaking beautiful havoc, as in Deathloop, or avoiding ever-present death, as in Returnal, Chicory is a game about adding something of your own to the world. Wielding a magical brush, you can literally paint the black-and-white 2D landscapes around you--both to solve puzzles as you work through the game's world of Picnic, and simply to restore a little beauty and express originality as you play.
Painting is an essential element of Chicory, but it's more than just an opportunity to add a little color to everything you see in whatever way you see fit. The game uses the mechanics of art to explore deeply human themes and feelings, from the struggle to create something great, to the feeling that you'll never live up to the expectations of others--or yourself. Smart, impactful writing finds emotion in both its main story and the many digressions you can take with the characters you meet throughout the world. "Chicory: A Colorful Tale is a game about self-exploration, frequently presenting earnest themes that can be challenging to engage with given how relatable they can feel," Alessandro Barbosa wrote in our Chicory review. "But it's also an exercise in confronting these insecurities and barriers that prevent you from enjoying what you put out into the world and rediscovering its importance in the process." Perhaps best of all, Chicory is a game that can be played cooperatively both locally and online, making it a touching game you can experience either alone or together with someone else.
Kena: Bridge Of Spirits
There's something comfortingly familiar about Kena: Bridge of Spirits--at least at first. The game draws inspiration from a wide range of similar 3D action-platformers, but don't be fooled by its animated feature-like art style, or by the influences worn on its sleeve. Kena's strength is in the way it combines great ideas from throughout the genre together to make a challenging game that feels just as good to play as some of the pinnacles of action-adventure. Deceptively difficult and mechanically dense, Kena will put you through your combat paces, and hitting a stride in linking together dodges, parries, critical hits, and melee beatdowns is an incredibly satisfying experience. As we wrote in our Kena: Bridge of spirits review, "While Kena: Bridge of Spirits is full of familiar-feeling combat and exploration, its ability to find different ways to look at those ideas makes for a beautiful, emotional, and exciting journey."
Fun as it is to battle through Kena: Bridge of Spirits' many enemies and tough bosses, though, it's the design of its world that defines it. As protagonist Kena, you venture through a destroyed village, the site of a past calamity, and help the wayward spirits who once populated it to find their way to peace. That often means uncovering their stories and helping them to forgive themselves for their failures in life, while also battling the struggling, corrupted monsters their pain has twisted them to become. On-hand to help you are the Rot, a gaggle of cute spirits who can distract enemies in a fight or help you solve puzzles, and their constant companionship helps to make the world feel alive and growing. Kena is really a game about rebuilding and restoring what was lost--about moving on and forgiving. Its somber story, beautiful world, and excellent combination of mechanics both well-known and fresh make it stand apart from other, similar games in 2021.
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