In this article, we take a look at the Top 10 Metroidvanias to play in 2021. This list includes fairly recent releases as well as older titles that have withstood the test of time, and are available on a wide variety of platforms making them accessible to a large audience. Check out our Top 10 CPRGs to play in 2021, and our previous Metroidvania: making a comeback coverage as well.
Top 10 Metroidvanias to Play in 2021
Metroidvania is a subgenre of platformer-heavy action and adventure games. The name is a portmanteau of Metroid and Castlevania, two highly respectable franchises in their own right which inspire the core designs and mechanics of the subgenre. The hallmarks of the genre are large, non-linear, interconnected worlds and progression-based exploration. Metroidvanias typically feature progressively revealed maps with plenty of secrets and locked areas that can only be reached after you’ve acquired a new ability, item or equipment, all of which are often found behind a boss encounter. It’s worth noting that while the genre is not defined by this distinction, many Metroidvanias are 2D or 2.5D sidescrollers.
Starting off the list, an older game that we feel deserves more recognition is Outland from Housemarque whom you may know from the bullet hell-heavy action games Resogun, Matterfall and the incredible Returnal which released just last week. While more linear than many games in the Metroidvania genre, Outland follows the familiar gameplay structure of platforming, combat and boss battles with puzzles and power-ups interspersed throughout.
Unique to Outland is the polarity mechanic, which fans of the classic shoot ‘em up Ikaruga may recognize. Shortly after beginning the game, the protagonist gains the ability to switch between light and dark polarities at will, uncovering the core element that drives the game’s combat and platforming. Enemies can only be harmed by the opposite polarity and they too will employ polarity-based attacks that the player can dodge by switching to the same polarity.
True to Housemarque form, Outland also plays much like a bullet hell shooter where the player weaves in between waves of projectiles while looking for an opening to attack or recover. The melee action consists of simple, but effective sword slashes and is given complexity by the polarity switching, making for fun, frantic and challenging gameplay.
The polarity switching is not limited to the fighting however, as Outland’s exploration and puzzle solving also makes extensive use of the mechanic. Certain objects in the environment respond to your polarity such as elevators that ascend with light and descend with darkness, hovering platforms that hold your weight only when in the correct polarity, and barriers that dissipate when dashed through in the opposite polarity, among many others.
Outland is certainly one of the more unique takes on the Metroidvania genre. Aside from gameplay, it boasts impressive, if minimalistic, visuals that deviate from the retro-pixel style that permeates the genre and despite being a decade old, its art style has aged well and retains a modern look that’s sleek and moves fluidly. It’s a shame many people missed out on it back in 2011 as there wasn’t enough done to promote the title. The game is available on PC and older platforms.
Dust: An Elysian Tail (2012)
Dust: An Elysian Tail is a hack n’ slash action-adventure game that takes place in a beautiful, hand-crafted world inhabited by anthropomorphic creatures. You play as the titular character Dust who awakens with no recollection of his past or identity and is immediately thrust into a growing war.
Gameplay revolves around familiar mechanics of exploration and power-up collection, and there are some light RPG elements and crafting, with stylish and flashy combat taking center stage. Combat feels silky smooth with responsive controls and the animations are simply gorgeous to behold.
Unfortunately, the boss encounters are a bit of a disappointment for the genre considering how well they tie to the story.
Despite the light, cutesy art style, Dust is riddled with weighty subjects like morality, internal conflict and redemption that make for a compelling narrative expertly brought to life by a fully-voiced cast of colorful characters. It’s rare for a game like this to have such an extensive story but Dust fully delivers and is gripping from start to finish.
Perhaps the most incredible thing about the game is the fact that, aside from outside help with the vocals and music, Dust: An Elysian Tail was made entirely by one lone developer and by that merit, deserves a spot on this list. The game was released to generally positive reviews almost a decade ago and its lovingly crafted world, gameplay, story and characters still hold up to this day. Dust is available on all major platforms as well as Nintendo Switch and IOS.
Guacamelee! (April 2013)
Described as a hybrid 2D Metroidvania-style action-platformer and brawler, Guacamelee exploded onto the scene when it was first released for the Playstation Vita back in 2013, reigniting interest in sidescroller games after the Castlevania franchise moved on to a more 3D action-adventure game design and ultimately disappearing from the spotlight.
Guacamelee puts you in the role of Juan, a humble farmer who meets his demise while an evil skeleton kidnaps his love interest during the opening minutes of the game. Juan is sent into the underworld where he meets a mysterious figure who hands him a mystical mask, transforming him into a powerful Luchador and bringing him back to the world of the living to exact his vengeance and rescue his beloved.
While the story sounds like your standard rescue-the-damsel-in-distress affair that doesn’t take itself too seriously, Guacamelee offers a large, vibrant world punctuated by momentous luchador wrestling combat as well as challenging puzzles and exploration. The game bestows upon you plenty of abilities that you will need to gain access to sealed areas and progress in the game. These abilities include double jumps, ground slams and even the comical chicken transformation that allows you to traverse small corridors and openings. As a bonus for Metroid fans, Juan gains these abilities by breaking “Choozo” Statues, which are a direct nod to Metroid’s Chozo Statues.
Combining quirky humor, satisfying combo-based combat, and a vivid, colorful aesthetic based on Mexican culture and folklore, Guacamelee sets itself apart from similar titles but faithfully clings to the design mechanics that gave birth to the genre. The success of the game also spawned an excellent sequel in Guacamelee 2, which picks up where the first game left off and builds on it in clever ways. Both games are available on PC, Playstation 4, Xbox One and Nintendo Switch.
Axiom Verge (2016)
Axiom Verge is easy to pass off as a Metroid clone and with good reason. Its visuals and structure are almost a direct callback to the original game on the NES while also drawing similarities to classics like Contra and Bionic Commando. But if imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then Axiom Verge is doing right by its inspirations.
Axiom Verge provides a great sense of character development that is evident in your character’s progression from a helpless scientist trapped in an alien world to a powerful adventurer with a giant arsenal of tech and weaponry, almost like a certain heroine from other similar titles.
Exploration in Axiom Verge feels incredibly rewarding as you’re constantly fed an array of abilities and equipment that grant access to previously unreachable locations and defeat the game’s many awesome and challenging bosses. It also helps that each firearm you collect has specific, creative uses in both combat and exploration, and they are all uniquely distinct from each other.
From a narrative standpoint, Axiom Verge explores themes of extreme isolation and questioning the nature of reality which lends itself to a key mechanic in the game that deliberately warps and distorts the environment. It’s all cleverly done and makes for an exciting sci-fi adventure that pays homage to its predecessors. Axiom Verge is available on all major platforms.
Death’s Gambit (2018)
Death’s Gambit draws inspiration from Metroidvania games, the Souls series, and 2D platformers. Featuring RPG mechanics, such as skill trees, 7 classes, a level up system for stats, item stat requirements, and special abilities to unlock, Death’s Gambit brings a 2D “Souls” feel to side-scrolling.
The gameplay of Death’s Gambit is an excellent merger of genres. Each class has a talent tree that provides you with new abilities as you play the game. You gain talent points by killing bosses, allowing you to create builds around your class, stats and the many weapons and equipment available. Further, players can progress to New Game Plus and experience the extra challenge of “Heroic” bosses.
Death’s Gambit is quick to grab you with its atmospheric design and interesting NPCs, so that you will surely be wondering where time went. The developer is working on free DLC that is currently being tested and due to release soon, adding new talents, bosses, upgraded mechanics and a lot more. This is probably a great time to start following the game if you haven’t tried it yet! Death’s Gambit is available on Playstation 4 and PC
Blasphemous is a gruesome action-adventure title that plays heavily with religious themes and iconography. Its fictional world of Cvstodia is beset by a supernatural force known only as The Miracle which manifests itself as blessings or curses on the land and its inhabitants. As a result, the denizens of Cvstodia subject themselves to a perpetually seek penance. As the Penitent One, the player takes on a pilgrimage to fulfill his ultimate penance.
Blasphemous is stylistically beautiful and thematically consistent throughout, though the subject matter and themes may be uncomfortable.
The game incorporates staples of the Metroidvania genre with a large emphasis on combat. Animations are smooth and satisfying to look at and every now and then you are treated to an elaborate, brutal execution performed by the protagonist. Bosses are distinctly bizarre and creepy while also providing the biggest challenge to the player.
There are some light, Dark Souls-inspired elements that pertain to combat and death, but the penalties are not particularly imposing. Blasphemous features a large non-linear world that is rife with secrets and unlockable areas that encourages exploration and backtracking while constantly throwing engaging encounters your way.
Blasphemous has a lot going for it, if you can stomach the unsettling imagery. It is certainly a unique take on the Metroidvania formula and utilizes modern game design while retaining an oldschool aesthetic and feel. Blasphemous is available on all major platforms.
Ori and the Blind Forest (2015) & Ori and the Will of the Wisps (2020)
Ori and the Blind Forest & Ori and the Will of the Wisps are faithfuls iteration of the tried and true Metroidvania formula. The world is composed of huge 2D landscapes of interconnected areas that gate progress behind locked doors and barriers, requiring you to unlock abilities and backtrack to these areas later on. The maps are littered with secrets and hidden power-ups for you to collect as you gain more abilities.
One ability in particular that stands out and is an absolute joy to perform is the Bash, which allows the titular Ori to launch off an enemy, their projectiles or lanterns found in the environment. This pauses the action for a brief moment, allowing the player to aim Ori’s trajectory before propelling them a short distance and launching the enemy or projectile in the opposite direction.
This opens up a variety of exploration and combat options that is made all the more satisfying by the fact that both Ori games are a mastercraft in animation and control responsiveness. The nimble Ori cuts across the environment with a graceful, almost dance-like fluidity.
This grace is complimented by outstanding controls, allowing for the subtlest movements of the control stick to maneuver Ori into exactly the right place. These tight controls come in handy for the intense, no-room-for-error escape sequences taking place in self-contained dungeons that mark the end of a chapter.
Ori and the Blind Forest is one of the shorter games on this list, but the fluid gameplay combined with the emotionally charged narrative presented in small story beats and environmental storytelling, as well as the gorgeous visuals and art direction, all come together for a truly remarkable, captivating experience. Those itching for more can also pick up the recently released sequel Ori and the Will of the Wisps. Both games are available on PC, Xbox One and Nintendo switch.
Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night is a testament to the power of crowdfunding and just how much fans crave the return of Castlevania. Headed by former Castlevania producer Koji Igarashi, Bloodstained is one of the biggest success stories to come out of Kickstarter, reaching and surpassing its initial funding goal within 4 hours of going live.
Designed as a love letter to fans of Symphony of the Night and beyond, Bloodstained certainly wears its influences on its sleeves. The game plays almost exactly like Symphony if it were to release on modern hardware, and sneaks in plenty of deliberate callbacks to Igarashi’s beloved games.
While the gameplay is familiar, Bloodstained takes place in an entirely new universe with its own heroes, villains and story. The plot involves a demon summoning ritual gone wrong and as the stars would have deemed it, an enormous castle filled with evil creatures takes center stage as the setting for the game.
Though this may sound like something you’ve experienced before, Bloodstained’s strengths lie is in its ability to modernize the genre while retaining key aspects that made former titles so engaging. Combat is fluid, challenging and never feels like a chore and the exploration mechanics employ some expected staples, as well as completely new and exciting abilities.
Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night sets up an entirely new world while having its roots firmly planted in what is arguably one of the most revolutionary franchises in the gaming world. Its 2.5D aesthetics may not be everyone’s cup of tea, however with the solid gameplay, modernized genre staples and excellent reviews all around, it’s easy to see why it made the list. Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night and its 8-bit retro companion game Bloodstained: Curse of the Moon are available on all major platforms.
Salt and Sanctuary (2016)
Salt and Sanctuary seamlessly combines fast, brutal, and complex 2D combat with unexpectedly deep RPG mechanics. Discover, craft, and upgrade over 600 weapons, find and equip multiple armor sets, become a mage and cast a myriad of spells, and unlock new abilities to access previously unreachable zones.
Salt and Sanctuary has been a Fextra favorite since its original announcement, and it stands strong as one of our favorite games of all time. The depth of combat and nuance of mechanics is furthered by a fantastic arsenal of weapons and equipment. The amazing skill tree will make you think of Path of Exile, and you can create many unique builds to experience the game in new ways on subsequent runs. Adding to it all, the challenging environments and bosses can be experienced in local multiplayer, so the game gets extra points for couch co-op.
Salt and Sanctuary is a game no souls player should have gone without, but metroidvania fans will also find everything they wanted and more in this title. Easily worth over 100 hours of gameplay, Salt and Sanctuary is available on PlayStation 4, PC, PlayStation Vita, Nintendo Switch and Xbox One.
Hollow Knight (2017)
Topping off our list is Hollow Knight, an absolutely stellar game that masterfully combines a beautiful, albeit gloomy and dangerous world, a hauntingly gripping narrative, as well as a highly demanding combat and exploration system inspired by the Soulslike subgenre, all presented within a neat side-scrolling package.
Hollow Knight takes place in the once-great kingdom of Hallownest, a world inhabited by insects, and tells a deep tale of loss and ruin.
From a gameplay standpoint, Hollow Knight checks all the boxes of the most traditional Metroidvanias. The game is also very thematically consistent, offering a fresh new spin on genre staples like fast traveling, which is done via a giant network of stag beetle burrowing paths.
Combat borrows liberally from the Dark Souls series, expertly translating the challenge of those games’ boss battles into a 2D space. Boss encounters in Hollow Knight will test the player’s reflexes, patience and capacity for learning patterns. While combat in Hollow Knight employs a steep learning curve for many, it is sufficiently accessible with the myriad of upgrades as well as the customization granted by the charms system.
Though combat is ever-present and demanding, it takes a backseat to the narrative which we feel is the main point of the game. There is a perpetual feeling of melancholy in the world of Hollow Knight and the plot is delivered almost purely through environmental storytelling and atmosphere. This is what makes Hollow Knight so intriguing as you are constantly fed little tidbits about the world and its history and characters, effectively drawing you into its ever-growing mystery.
From start to finish, Hollow Knight is a hallmark of excellence that’s gathered a substantial following, especially since it’s available on all major platforms. Moreover, the game is of incredible value at 15USD, including all of its chunky DLC. We’ve thoroughly enjoyed Hollow Knight and can’t wait to revisit its world in the upcoming sequel Hollow Knight: Silksong.
Well that’s our list of Metroidvanias to play in 2021, and there are some fantastic names on there. Were your favorites listed? Did you notice that most of these games are made by small indie studios? Make sure to find upcoming ones and give them your support! Stay tuned for our video covering the 10 best ARPGs to play this year, as well as the 10 best Souls-likes!
If you enjoyed this list be sure to check out next Top 10 CRPGs You Should Play In 2021. Don’t miss out on our latest reviews and previews, read next The Elder Scrolls Online – Blackwood Chapter & Update 30 Review and Tainted Grail: Conquest Preview & Features Overview.