Hot Wheels Unleashed (Milestone, 2021, PC/PS4/PS5/XBO/XSX/Switch)
This is certainly one of the biggest surprises of the year. Combining a developer previously only known for serious motocross and rally sims with varying fan receptions with a license that's much more associated with duds than worthwhile games, has somehow resulted in a game that's a little bit Mario Kart, a little bit Wipeout, and shockingly good.
HWU takes some obvious inspiration from Mario Kart 8 with its tracks that use magnets to escape gravity and a drift system that rewards you with boost the longer you can hold your slide. There aren't any items, though, so your performance is entirely down to how well you can use those boosts to get around the track. Hazards like a giant spider that shoots webs or a yeti that leaves ice patches all over the track will occasionally get in your way and can be more frustrating than fun, but they at least add variety to the races.
You get new cars mostly through blind boxes that could easily have been a vector for microtransactions, but thankfully they're earned exclusively through in-game cash and progression. It's easy to get loads of money to spend on these if you just do the free parts of the battle pass and most cars can be upgraded to a reasonable level of competitiveness, so you should be able to get a handful that you like relatively quickly.
If you're looking for a casual arcade racer, HWU ticks pretty much all of the boxes you could hope for. My only major complaint about the game itself is that those hazards feel unfair on some tracks, but unfortunately there's an elephant in the room outside the game: the price. HWU is stunning to look at and can certainly pass for a AAA game in screenshots, but I got through the campaign in about 8 hours and there's not a ton else to do except multiplayer. Even the $35 sale price I bought it at feels a little steep for what it is, and I can't recommend it at $50 unless you are absolutely desperate for a game like this. Still, if you can get it discounted enough, it's a great little racer.
Time to beat: 8 hours
Arietta of Spirits (Third Spirit Games, 2021, PC/PS4/XBO/Switch)
This is a Zelda-style game that feels like a more modern Minish Cap in terms of movement. Your roll has about the same distance, but can go in any direction, and similarly your regular walk speed is a bit faster and more flexible.
Oddly, though, there's basically no progression. You'll get a sword early on and eventually one ability that uses magic charges, but otherwise you'll only get stronger through health upgrades. While there are things analogous to dungeons, they don't really have puzzles and are more about moving through combat rooms to find whatever plot item you need to reach the next location.
Combat is something of a mixed bag. There's no reward whatsoever for killing most enemies, but you need drops from certain kinds of them to unlock the game's equivalent to heart containers. It's not really ideal for most fights to just be in the way, but thankfully the bosses fare much better. These are mechanically interesting even though your abilities are mostly static, and they're generally well-balanced to be long enough to be a bit of a challenge without overstaying their welcome. Those fights and the art are the best parts of Arietta.
The store page lists an average playtime of 5 hours, but I came in at 3.4 in what was just shy of a 100% playthrough. I don't think you could get to 5 unless you're dying a lot, but there is a one-hit KO mode that unlocks after you beat the normal mode to extend the playtime for anyone who wants more.
Lastly, there's a story. That is about all I can say about it. It goes through characters too quickly and ends up resolving its plot threads in such a way that most of them aren't actually related, which makes you wonder what the point of it all was. Don't expect to get much more out of it than a justification for what's happening on screen.
All in all, it's a perfectly passable Zelda-like. It's a little bit unlucky to have released in the same year as the far better Death's Door, but you could do a lot worse if you've already played that and want another new game in the same genre.
Time to beat: 3-4 hours
Sumire (GameTomo, 2021, PC/Switch)
Sumire's art takes clear inspiration from Vanillaware titles like Muramasa: The Demon Blade and Odin Sphere, which makes it unsurprising that it's frequently stunningly beautiful. You play as Sumire, a girl who is going through a rough patch as her beloved grandmother has just passed, her parent's relationship has broken down, her best friend has become a bully, and her crush is moving away. Oh no!
But then the flower in the screenshot above magically appears and promises that Sumire can see her grandmother again if she just spends one perfect day facing her problems head-on. Over the course of about two hours, she meets a cast of magical characters and places, but nonetheless finds largely realistic resolutions to the troubles on her list. Sumire isn't going to tell you that one phone call can make all your troubles go away, because it can't, but it's very much about saying what you need to while you can.
It's difficult to say more without spoilers, but suffice to say that it's fantastic. It seems like it takes on an impossible number of heavy themes for a two hour game, but it addresses them all meaningfully and thoroughly by making sure not to waste a second of its playtime. If you want more after seeing the credits, you have choices about how quite a few different scenarios play out, and there's a karma system that can give you different endings.
I thought I was just about settled on my game of the year. Now I'm not so sure, and the next game isn't helping matters, either.
Time to beat: 2 hours
Impostor Factory (Freebird Games, 2021, PC)
If Sumire was difficult to talk about without spoilers, then Impostor Factory is essentially impossible. It's kinda-sorta a sequel to To the Moon and Finding Paradise, and although the store page equivocates about whether or not you should play it before those, the real answer is that you absolutely shouldn't. There are no circumstances at all in which I'd recommend that - both previous games are short and fantastic (they are both in my top 20 games ever) and this simply will not be the same experience without their context.
That also makes it a somewhat pointless game to review. To the Moon and Finding Paradise both have "overwhelmingly positive" reviews on Steam and this is not a radical departure from what they did, so if you're in a position to be considering playing it, you almost certainly already know if you want to. It's more of that. A little different mechanically, but with the same themes, quality writing, and music that you'd expect.
If you're not in that group, then the "from the moon" view of this series is that each game is, in one way or another, a look back at a life in which something didn't quite go to plan. They're about coming to terms with choices made and choices that could have been, and increasingly also what memory means when you're facing the end. If any of that sounds appealing, all three games are quite cheap and can be completed in a few hours each, so I really can't recommend it enough.
Time to beat: 3 hours