Last year, perhaps due to several periods of lockdown and furlough, I was able to sink significant amounts of time into Sea of Thieves, regularly sailing with the same crew for days, weeks and sometimes a few months at a time. The game was a phenomenal sandbox and one that was always incredibly tense due to the presence of other players, who quite often took their roles as pirates far too seriously.

Though it was my choice for Game of the Year last year (and do bear in mind that my choice doesn’t reflect the year of release – it’s my personal choice for the game I’ve most enjoyed in the preceding 12 months), an influx of new and aggressive players sucked the joy out of a number of game sessions, making each one a frustrating exercise in trying to get simple tasks done and being hampered almost every time by players going way beyond the spirit of fair play. Aggressive players are par for the course in a game based around the dangers of the lawless, open seas, but the tactics and approach used by certain members of the community left a really bad taste in the mouth, making me lose my appetite to play the game at all. Since those few sessions, I haven’t picked up Sea of Thieves once – nor do I gave the desire to – so it most certainly wasn’t in the running this year.

It’s not even a mainstream console game that takes the title for me this year. I was fortunate enough to get hold of an Oculus Quest 2 in early 2021 – and it’s this VR title that’s regularly blown my mind and kept me coming back for more.

So my Game of the Year for 2021 is (drum roll please): Synth Riders.

It’s a game that’s drenched in immersive, cyberpunk atmosphere, a rhythm action title that has a stunning library of music available and a wealth of modes to get stuck into. Developers Kluge Interactive have regularly added free updates along with new songs (some free, some as paid DLC), so coming back to the game after a week or two can sometimes see the experience improved immeasurably – such as when a resolution and frame rate improvement was added, which made everything so much clearer and smoother, thus adding to the sense of immersion.

It’s a textbook example of how to get rhythm action games right – there’s only a few mechanics to learn, yet you can increase the difficulty to insane levels or even switch to modes that’ll have you hitting glowing neon spheres coming at you from everywhere, not just approaching the front of your avatar. Chasing high scores and perfect runs is incredibly addictive too.

The music selection is absolutely on point too, though admittedly that’s probably because I am already a synthwave fan. However, there’s more than just synthwave – with a decent selection of titles from more rock-flavoured artists such as Muse and The Offspring, or jazzier bands such as Caravan Palace. All three of those aforementioned groups also have a song which can be played as an ‘experience‘ – a mind-melting cascade of colour, sound and light that’s akin to being immersed in a surrealist rollercoaster ride. It’s incredibly intoxicating, even though these experiences are divorced from the main game’s feedback loops and scoring mechanisms, you’ll come back to them again and again just to be flung into a fully immersive cyberpunk fever dream.

And that’s generally what the whole game feels like: a trip into a digital world that looks exactly how William Gibson described his proto-VR internet of The Matrix in his groundbreaking 80s genre-defining novel, Neuromancer.

Though I rarely stray from the lower difficulty levels or standard game modes myself – finding them far too difficult to cope with, my limited rhythm clearly betraying me here – there’s plenty here for more skilled and dedicated players; just check out some YouTube playthroughs of some of the songs on the highest difficulty, some of which have even got the notes turned off completely (meaning that the player has to memorise when to hit the spheres without any visual assistance) and you’ll see that it’s possible – but good luck to you if you can reach that level of skill at the game.

The synaesthetic experience of visuals, sound and rhythm has never felt better than it does in Synth Riders – and it’s a game that I’ve found hard to step away from throughout 2021; I have no doubt that it’s going to take up a significant amount of my gaming time in 2022 as well. Pure gaming perfection.

Synth Riders is available now on Oculus, PSVR and Windows-enabled VR devices.

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