2021’s puzzle games brought not only the mind-benders, but they also featured some of the most striking art and design out of games of all genres. From the painterly world of Chicory to the black-and-white art style of TOEM to the visual storytelling of Unpacking, puzzle fans were treated to some great experiences this year.
IGN’s winner for best puzzle game of 2021 is…
Imagine a top-down adventure Zelda-like, but the entire game is a giant canvas where paint is used for both puzzle-solving and plot. That’s the genius of Chicory, where your artist output can grow sprouts into tall plant platforms, light up mushroom-filled caves, burn away obstacles, and guide paint-hungry worms, all while making the world of Picnic steadily more and more colorful. Its clever puzzles are never frustrating, and better yet are frequently thematically tied to Chicory’s emotional story about imposter syndrome, mental health struggles, and what it means to be a creator. Backed by the beautiful music of Lena Raine, full of cute characters and hidden secrets, and at all times mindful, grounded, and empathic, Chicory’s interactive coloring book of a world is a joy to explore. – Rebekah Valentine
For more, check out IGN’s Chicory: A Colorful Tale review.
The Best Puzzle Game of 2021
After thinking with portals, non-euclidean physics, relative gravity, and forced perspective shenanigans, I wasn’t sure how a puzzle game could come up with any more weird ways to surprise me – but Maquette’s fractal world certainly managed it. It’s lovely, vibrant levels are nested within ever-growing versions of themselves, cleverly letting you influence their layout through the manipulation of your own smaller version of that level. Drop a small key in the model and a big key will appear behind you, but take an object away and you’ll instead have your own handheld version. While that concept is entertaining enough through its brief runtime, it’s also coupled with a simple but still quite sweet story about the evolution of a relationship that makes its puzzles just a little more personal. – Tom Marks
For more, check out IGN’s Maquette review.
TOEM is a puzzle game, but not in the way we’ve come to expect. Yes, it’s a world filled with gates, unlocked by figuring out miniature mysteries in its world – but it’s less concerned with solutions than it is with self-expression. Almost all of the game’s quests are completed, at least in part, by using a camera, which effectively meant that I spent more time getting exactly the right artful shot (I might want to hang it on a wall somewhere!) than I did actually figuring out what to do. It creates a beautifully relaxing atmosphere, asking you not “How do you fix this problem?”, but rather, “How do you want to remember fixing it?” – Joe Skrebels
For more, check out IGN’s TOEM review.
Unpacking’s hidden depth may come as a surprise if all you’ve seen of this little game about unpacking boxes are the satisfying gifs of slotting away dishes in neat stacks on a shelf. On the surface, Unpacking is about finding the right place for everything that’s important to an unnamed protagonist as they go through their life, move by move, from childhood to adulthood. There’s nothing deviously complex about the task, stories of younger players putting GameCubes in the kitchen aside. Rather, Unpacking is a pleasant series of gentle organizational brain teasers decked out in lovely, colorful art stylings and a soothing soundtrack. But at its heart is an unexpectedly emotional story told entirely through those organizational puzzles, and the simple act of finding and making space. – Rebekah Valentine
For more, check out IGN’s Unpacking review.
Conceptually, Zookeeper World is a match-three puzzle game like many others before it, and that very well may not be your preferred gaming genre — but it’s also so much deeper than that, and not just because you can use your progress through its 275 levels to build out a zoo complete with playgrounds and popcorn machines and animals you can dress up in chef’s hats. More importantly than the very cute zoo building feature, the match-three conceit also plays with special combos and special obstacles with different behaviors inside of cleverly formatted and consistently challenging level designs. If you love perfecting your gaming ability to any degree, Zookeeper World is especially suited to pushing your understanding of its systems to the edge while giving you the chance to learn a new technique or get familiar with a new challenge to overcome it. And if you’re a legit zookeeper, you can redo all 275 levels over again to get a gold star in each. – Tina Amini
All IGN Best Of 2021 Gaming Categories
IGN’s Best of 2021 Awards were designed by:
Lead Design + Art Direction: Julia Rago
Motion Graphics: Will Batchelor