AppUnwrapper’s Favorite iOS Games of 2021 (GOTY List)

Appunwrapper.com turned 10 years old in 2021 and it’s still a bit hard for me to process. I feel so lucky to be able to do this for a living. Thank you to everyone who has supported me over the years, especially those contributing to my Patreon. And of course to the developers who keep making games worth playing. This was also a scary year for me. My cat needed surgery and it could have gone really badly but we got the best case scenario and she’s doing great. So whatever else happened this year, I personally felt very lucky. I also got to play a lot of games and wanted to share my favorites with you. I started my Game of the Year lists in 2015, and continued with 2016, 2017, 2018, 2019 and 2020. 2021 gave us some fantastic iOS games, between Apple Arcade and standalone apps. But you may have also noticed that I stopped covering Apple Arcade games a few months ago. I cancelled my subscription near the end of the year because the new additions weren’t offering me much. One of the most highly anticipated games that was announced back at the start of the service never came to iOS at all, instead releasing on other platforms. Most of the new games in the second half of the year were free-to-play with the in-app purchases removed or premium paid games I already owned. So you will find some Apple Arcade games on this list, but not nearly as many as last year. Also, keep in mind I’m a very big puzzle and adventure fan, so my list will skew more towards those. Now, without further ado, I present my favorite games of 2021.

Baba Is You

Baba Is You initially released on PC in 2019 and it’s one of those rare games I wasn’t willing to outright skip until it came to my platform of choice. I reviewed it back then and mentioned how I’d likely still be playing it when it releases on mobile. I actually bought a Nintendo Switch so I could play it — and some other games — on something more mobile than my PC. But my wish came true this year and developer Hempuli brought this absolute gem to both iOS and Android devices. It translates beautifully to a touchscreen, as I mentioned here, and I made a lot of progress now that I have the game in my pocket. I still have a long way to go, as this is no easy game and I don’t want to look up any answers. The only complaint I have with the iOS version is that there’s no iCloud sync, so I’ve been forced to play on my iPhone even when I’m home and near my iPad. But it’s a minor complaint in the grand scheme of things. It feels like I waited forever for Baba Is You on mobile and having it in my pocket has been such a gift. So I can’t think of anything else more deserving of being my Game of the Year.

Genshin Impact

I’m aware that Genshin Impact did not release in 2021, but is it continuously being updated and it’s the game I spent the most time with — over 400 hours this year alone — so I want to talk about how my relationship with it evolved over the last year. As some of you may know, I’m adamantly against free-to-play games that are heavily reliant on mictrotransactions. I’m especially turned off by the idea of buying in-game currency with real money to beat the slog. Most of the time, I simply delete a game when it starts feeling like I can’t make any meaningful progress without opening my wallet. And that nearly happened with Genshin, or at least I almost cut back on my hours.

For those of you who don’t know, it’s a big 3D live service, continuously updated open world action adventure game that doesn’t lock any actual content behind a paywall. But it does use gacha mechanics for special characters and weapons. This means you make “wishes” and basically gamble away in-game currency to try to get the characters you want. If a character is the star of a limited banner, though, you can guarantee getting them if you save up enough of that currency — or buy enough of it. Well, back in April, there a was a character named Zhongli who was getting his second banner. His main strength is that he has the best shield in the game. I had very few limited characters at the time and one of them was an archer that I struggled to use because she would get interrupted easily. I wanted Zhongli because his shield would make her easier to play. I saved up for him, but in the three weeks his banner lasted, I only managed to get enough primogems — the premium currency — to guarantee one 5-star character. It had a 50% chance of being him, but instead I got one of the standard permanent characters.

A few friends kept telling me to buy the Welkin, which is a $5 monthly purchase that gets you a set amount of extra primogems every day you log in. But doing so felt like I was abandoning my principles and I refused to do so. It also wouldn’t have been enough to guarantee him at that point. So I took my loss and sadly watched on as my friends enjoyed their Zhonglis and I remained Zhongli-less. I vowed that I would cut back on my play time and go back to playing more casually, as I really burnt myself out trying to hunt down every last free primogem I could find in the game.

Then, some weeks later, a new character arrived called Kazuha. I almost skipped him because I already had a 5-star limited character in his element. But I liked him so much from the test run that I decided to use my leftover guarantee from Zhongli to get him. And it changed everything for me. He’s not just my favorite character in the game. He’s probably the most fun I’ve had in any action adventure game. His main skill is that he creates a burst of wind that pushes him up and then he can plunge right down. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve logged in just to jump up and down with him because it feels so satisfying. On top of that, they gave him a great personality with a voice actor that’s calming and soothing. I’ve had him for six months now and haven’t tired of him yet.

So, shortly after I got Kazuha, I decided to start buying the Welkin in case other characters come along that are as game-changing for me. I didn’t want to miss out on anyone purely out of principle. So I decided that, as much as I don’t like the gacha system, I’m willing to spend $5-10 per month on a game that’s giving me so much entertainment. These characters aren’t just low effort reskins of each other. Each one feels unique to play, has their own animations, voice acting, backstories and so on. The world itself is also absolutely stunning and there’s so many hidden things to find that I’m still discovering when I thought I already scoured the place. There are new events on a regular basis that don’t cost any extra, and I feel like I’m getting some return on my investment by being able to get more characters than I would otherwise.

I still refuse to buy currency packs, and I wish the game was less stingy with resources needed to build characters. But I can’t deny how much entertainment I get out of this game. I may not like how the company makes their money, but I’m willing to put up with it because of how much love they’ve poured into the game. Even the soundtrack is fantastic, one of those rare few that I never mute even after hundreds of hours listening to it. On top of that, they’ve given each player an entire area of their own to decorate with buildings, accessories, and even animals we can catch. There’s so much quality content, so if it costs a few dollars a month to get more out of it, I’m happy to pay that instead of quitting or missing out on all but a few characters.

This blurb ended up being a lot longer than I planned, but I wanted to take advantage of this space to explain what I find so compelling about Genshin Impact and also explain why I, someone adamantly against gacha games and buying in-game currency with real cash, have made an exception here. I’m not saying that everyone should play it. If you don’t trust yourself to spend more than you can afford, I definitely think you should stay away. But if the only reason you’re unwilling to even try it is because it’s a gacha game, you’re missing out on a fantastic open word game with so much to offer. So, despite it having released last year, the continuous content updates with new areas and new characters have given me hundreds of hours of entertainment and I can’t deny that it was one of my favorite games to play this year.

SP!NG

SP!NG is one of the few Apple Arcade games from this year that sucked me in and wouldn’t let go. SMG Studio did a fantastic job creating a highly accessible one-touch arcade game that’s designed specifically for mobile. The goal in each level is to get your character to the exit, picking up all the coins on your way. But you don’t control your character directly. Instead, you use the environment to throw it around, mainly little anchors that grab onto it and spin it around. When you get close to an anchor, you simply tap and hold to grab on and then release to send your character flying. Each level is short, so failure isn’t too discouraging. You also don’t need to get all stars to move onto the next level, so it’s friendly to both casual players and the more hardcore fans. The game has gotten so many content updates throughout the year, as well. It now has hundreds of levels, a whole slew of different themes, and some extra difficult content that I can’t even complete. It bums me out that I can’t play it anymore without an Apple Arcade subscription. If you do have access to Apple Arcade, even if just for a trial period, this is definitely one game you should check out. I even have a walkthrough guide for many of the levels if you need help.

Titan Quest: Legendary Edition

Another game that I invested a lot of time into this year was the iOS port of Titan Quest: Legendary Edition. HandyGames put a ton of work into making it feel great on both iPhone and iPad and even included iCloud sync so you can swap between both devices. This version includes all the DLCs that you’d pay extra for in the original version of the game. There aren’t a lot of original premium hack-n-slash RPGs these days on iOS, but Titan Quest really scratches that itch if you don’t mind that it’s a 15-year-old game. There’s a huge world to conquer that’s full of all kinds of monsters to battle. You can choose from a number of different masteries to make the game feel more like your own. I like pets, so I chose Nature in order to have some wolves and a fairy to fight alongside me. But what really makes it stand out, especially on mobile, is that there’s tons of loot to find. With most mobile games moving towards gacha and more direct ways to earn equipment, it’s such a pleasure to be able to loot weapons and armor again. You never know what you’ll find next and that’s a big part of what keeps you going. I haven’t finished the game yet, but I played for over 50 hours already, so there’s quite a bit of content. If you’re craving an old school hack-n-slash with proper loot, you can’t go wrong with Titan Quest. I also have more thoughts and videos here if you want to know more.

Overboard!

I played two Inkle games this year, but only one of them was on iOS. Overboard! is a sort of reverse murder mystery, where you’re the one who’s trying to get away with the murder. You pushed your husband off a cruise ship and now need to find out what the other passengers know so you can work out how to avoid prison. It’s a clever concept with some hilarious narrative branches and it’s just a blast to play through while trying to find different endings. And it’s all wrapped up in a super stylish package. I have a proper review here if you want to know more, but if you’re at all interested in narrative-based games, this is a must-play.

Moncage

Moncage was a game I got excited about soon as it was announced. It looked right up my alley and was planned for iOS from the start. It was worth the wait, because the perspective-based puzzles were brilliant and it’s one of those games that feels like magic when it all comes together. Once I started, I had a hard time putting it down and two hours were gone before I knew it. I did end up using some in-game hints when I got stuck because I was impatient, but the hints system is designed so well that I didn’t even regret it too much. Again, I have a full review for Moncage, so I’ll let you read that. But this was definitely one of the highlights of my year.

What Remains of Edith Finch

I initially played and reviewed What Remains of Edith Finch on my Nintendo Switch and loved everything about it. But I was curious at the time how they might port it to touchscreens one day since the controls are a big part of the experience. I was thrilled when the game got an iOS port this year and a very thoughtful one at that. They developers didn’t just slap some onscreen buttons onto it and call it a day. The movement is a floating joystick and you directly interact with the environment through touch. The port was done so well that in many ways it felt even better to play on my iPad than with a controller. You can read more of my thoughts in my iOS review, but this is a game that everyone should play on their platform of choice. Just try not to read too many spoilers because there are a lot of little surprises that make the experience worthwhile.

The Chronos Principle

The Chronos Principle might not seem like much at first glance, what with its very minimalistic art style and limited color palette. But it would be a very misguided to skip it based on that, as it’s one of the more ingenious puzzlers I’ve played. The idea is that you record the movement of your main character and then send out a clone that copies that pattern. But you can continue moving your character while the clone’s movements are playing out, using it to help you get where you need to go. I enjoyed the game so much I couldn’t stop playing until I finished. And again, I have a proper review here if you want to know more.

Cards! – MonkeyBox 2

TheCodingMonkeys’ Cards! is an almost entirely textless choose-your-own adventure game made up of cards. At each junction, you get to choose one of three cards and then you watch how it plays out. There’s items to discover and you can even restart a chapter using a new item you found to see if it helps you get further. The art style is super slick and the game is full of surprises. It was a joy to play and I can’t wait to see what the developer comes up with next. Again, you can read my full review here, but really you should just grab the game and play it.

Five Dates

Over the last few years, full-motion video (FMV) games have made a comeback and Wales Interactive is responsible for a sizable chunk of them. They also, thankfully, bring many of them to iOS. Five Dates released around Valentine’s Day and has you playing as a pretty average guy trying to make online dating work for him during the pandemic. There’s a lot of freedom to make each playthrough unique based on the interests you assign to the main character, the women you choose to date, and the dialogue choices you make with them. So there’s a ton of replay value, including achievements to find. It’s one of the better FMV games I’ve played, with believable acting and a script that brings the characters to life. If you’re a fan of interactive movies, just go ahead and play it. But you can also read my full review for more information.

Dark Nights with Poe and Munro

Another FMV game that came to iOS this year was the spin-off from The Shapeshifting Detective called Dark Nights with Poe and Monroe. It features the two radio co-hosts from the original game through several self-contained chapters that have them dealing with all sorts of strange, possibly supernatural, situations. They were my favorite part of The Shapeshifting Detective so I was thrilled to see the game ported to iOS. I loved seeing the two characters together again, and I was especially impressed with how seamless all the clips blended together even when you make a choice. I think you should play the original game first for context, but otherwise this was a thoroughly enjoyable game for me.

SNKRX

Another game I had trouble putting down was SNKRX, an ingenious blend of multiple genres. It’s a roguelike in which you control a snake that’s made up of different heroes. Each hero has its own passive abilities that work automatically while you just control the movement of the whole snake. The idea is to try to last as long as you can, and if you beat the game, there’s a New Game+ option that makes it harder. After each level you survive, you can use the coins you earned to buy new heroes from the shop. If you get multiples of the same hero, they’re upgraded with new skills. A lot of the strategy comes from finding synergy between different units and trying to build an unstoppable team that can make it through the toughest battles. But you also have to get lucky that the units you want show up in the shop. On top of it all, there’s a great soundtrack that keeps you pumped up and ready for another run. There’s really nothing else like SNKRX out there and I highly recommend grabbing it if you like fast-paced games.

Townscaper

Townscaper is more of a toy than a game, but it’s an incredibly well-designed toy. It was released on multiple platforms, but the mobile version is basically the perfect way to play it. You can use either orientation, so it’s even playable with one hand in portrait on an iPhone. It’s a super laid-back city builder in which you just tap a spot on the grid to build and the algorithm decides how it should look based on a number of factors. You can change the color and also remove pieces to make even more interesting designs. But the real depth comes when. You scroll the grid for a specific shape you want and start finding things like floating cities and lighthouses. It’s just a very satisfying little toy to play with and worth having on your device to just fiddle around with when you’re bored. Again, I have a full review here if you’re interested in knowing more.

Doctor Who: The Lonely Assassins

Doctor Who: The Lonely Assassins is a “found phone” game that takes place in the Doctor Who universe and ties in with the TV show. It’s somewhat of a sequel to one of the most popular episodes, Don’t Blink, which introduced an alien called the Weeping Angels. They look like angel statues but when you close your eyes they move closer and closer. And when they touch you, you get transported back in time. They’re truly frightening and the episode is a masterpiece in storytelling. So it makes sense to build on that for a Doctor Who game. It has you revisiting the house where they were initially found and tracking down missing people from the original episode. It really is impressive how they managed to tie it all in and make it feel like you’re part of the show. It’s one of the better “found phone” games I’ve played and I’m sure a big part of that is because the Simulacra developers, Kaigan Games, worked on it. If you’re a Doctor Who fan, you really can’t go wrong with this one. I also have a full review here if you want to know more.

Say No! More

Say No! More is another game that’s more of an experience, one that’s a good fit for those who aren’t too concerned with having a challenge or even any real gameplay. It’s a satirical narrative game about learning to say “No!” to people, both socially and in the workplace. It was one of my more memorable experiences this past year and provides a very worthwhile message that many need to hear. You can also read my full review if you want to know more.

NUTS – A Surveillance Mystery

NUTS is one of the only two new Apple Arcade games this year to make this list. It had a bit of a rough start due to the touchscreen controls, but the developer was quick to act and, after an early update, it felt great to play on my iPad. The game has you setting up cameras during the day to catch footage of squirrels overnight. The idea is to use the footage to track them and study their behavior. It’s a very laid back game with a surprisingly compelling hook and the unique art design really makes it stand out. It’s available on multiple platforms, but if you have an Apple Arcade subscription, it plays very comfortably with a touchscreen. You can read more about it in my full review here.

Lamplight City

I started playing Lamplight City back when it first released on PC in 2018. I liked what I’d seen, but I just didn’t want to sit at my computer for a point-and-click adventure. Thankfully, it got an iOS port this year and I took the time to play through it all the way to the end. I had a few small complaints, but overall, it was a solid adventure game with logical puzzles and a strong narrative. I also think that an iPad is the best place to play a point-and-click adventure because it’s just so comfortable to hold it in your lap and tap on objects. If you’re a fan of the genre and haven’t played it on other platforms yet, I highly recommend picking up the mobile version. You can also read my full review here.

Behind the Frame

Behind the Frame is one of the prettiest games I played this year. It’s inspired by Ghibli films and really feels like you’re playing inside one. It’s a very easygoing puzzle adventure game where you play an artist trying to work on what’s supposed to be her masterpiece for a gallery. But she gets distracted by her neighbor’s cat and things start getting strange. I don’t want to spoil the story, but it leaves some things up to interpretation and makes the game worth replaying. The puzzles themselves are on the easy side, but as whole it was a lovely experience that’s easy to recommend. Once again, I have a full review you can read.

Detective Mimo

I didn’t really know what to expect going into Detective Mimo but I was pleasantly surprised to find a puzzle adventure game that breaks the fourth wall continuously and subverts expectations. You play as a cat detective named Mimo who has to try stop a renowned bank thief. The puzzles are varied and often quite tricky, there’s lots of Easter eggs to find, and even alternate endings. And, of course, lots of cats and cat-related humor. If you like point-and-click adventures and are looking for something a little different, this would be a great choice.

Arctictopia

It may not have the best name, but Arctictopia was a pleasure to play through. Each level asks you to get the mother polar bear to her baby by hopping across melting ice. It’s a perfect one-handed puzzler that includes an unlimited undo button and no move counter, so you can just focus on working out the solution. A lot of levels do have bonus goals of collecting other animals on your way. I appreciated the option to go for the trickier goals or just try to pass the level if you’re having trouble. The difficulty curve was a bit off, as I’d often be stuck on a level for a while just to breeze through the next one. But there’s a decent amount of content with new mechanics added at a steady pace so it never gets stale. It’s not the hardest puzzle game I played this year, but it’s very good comfort pick that doesn’t have any pressure points that made me want to stop. I don’t think it got a lot of attention, either, which is a shame. It really is worth checking out if you like relaxing puzzlers that don’t waste your time.

Kitty Q

Kitty Q is an educational point-and-click adventure geared more towards children than adults. But it’s also from the brilliant mind of Philipp Stollenmayer, who makes some of the most unique mobile games. It’s meant to teach children about quantum physics by having you solve puzzles to help free Schrödinger‘s cat from the quantum realm. It’s super charming, includes outfits for Kitty Q to wear, has an ear-worm of a theme song, and is completely free. Whatever your age, there’s some entertainment and education to be had from the game, so don’t pass it up.

Adventure Escape Mysteries – Psychic Squad

Haiku Games actually released three new Adventure Escape games this year, and all three were solid, good quality games. They’ve really come a long way since their first ones. But what really stood out this time was the pre-release race they had for Psychic Squad. They sold a limited number of tickets for the game that would allow players to access it ahead of the global release. Those who had tickets would play the game before anyone else and race to finish it first. Hints were deactivated during the race, so you had to solve everything yourself without any help. I participated and it was quite a rush trying to finish it fast. I usually take my time and work on my walkthrough while I play, but since I was under a time constraint I had to just barrel through as fast as I could. Some puzzles stumped me for a bit and slowed me down, but I was still pretty satisfied with my completion time. I would definitely do something like this again. It’s also a well-made game that can be played completely for free with optional IAPs for hints, just like all their others.

The Longest Road on Earth

This last game I’m highlighting is The Longest Road on Earth, but more for its soundtrack than anything else. The game itself had some great moments, but overall dragged too much for me and felt like a bit of a slog. But the soundtrack grabbed me from the very first second and held my attention to the end. I liked it so much that I listened to it on its own and it was my music of choice for weeks on end. I still listen to it here and there, just not in constant repeat like I did initially. Even if you don’t think the game is for you, please give the soundtrack a try. You can also read my full review to learn more.

And that’s all of them! This is by no means an exhaustive list of all the worthwhile games released in 2021. The best way to keep track of games I’d recommend is by reading my weekly roundups, where I discuss all the games I’ve played that week. I don’t write as many full reviews these days as I used to, so that’s the best way to find out what I think about a game. You can also subscribe to my YouTube channel, as I’ve been recording gameplay video for almost every game I play. I’m also very active on Twitter, where I’ll run the occasional giveaway and share notable sales. And once again, thank you to everyone who has supported me through Patreon so far and anyone who chooses to do so in the future. Have a happy new year and may 2022 be another strong year for mobile games.

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Note: Sometimes a promo code is provided for a game, but it does not affect the review in any way. At AppUnwrapper, we strive to provide reviews of the utmost quality.

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This Post Has 4 Comments

  1. Dr Renier Palland

    This is a really great list! Very surprised to find Five Dates (amazing game) high up there! When I read on Twitter you were slogging through your annual GOTY list, bar any annus horribilis moments, I KNEW your game of the year was going to be “Baba is You”. A truly remarkable game that I’ve been playing for ages.

    I didn’t expect Detective Mimo to make the cut though. I downloaded it on my android (Google Play Pass), but I switched it off after a few minutes. Maybe I should give it another go.

    And yes, I also cancelled my Apple Arcade. It’s pointless. I’d much rather pay less and have Google Play Pass – oldies but goodies – for more gaming.

    Happy new year to you!

    And thank you for always being so kind towards me.

  2. Washie

    When can I play the game

  3. Sara

    Thank you for your 2021 List! You influence so many of the games I play throughout the year. I am definitely going to check out all your recommendations, esp. any that are Adventure/Puzzle. Also, thank you for helping me when I have gotten stuck on some puzzles! You are amazing. The only thing I am wondering is if you are going to go back to Apple Arcade when The Last Campfire comes out with a Sequel! I bet you will!

  4. EJ Heinzer

    Do you have a walkthrough for Myst House Escape by Byte team for iMac?

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