When I hear the word “level”, it just screams video game to me. Sure, there are “levels” outside the world of gaming. You can park on Level 5 in a parking structure. But when you say the word level to me, all I’m going to think about is that first stage in every Mario game. Levels are the quintessential categorical essence of video games. Levels are how we split up each part of the game. I don’t care if they’re called missions, maps, chapters, sequences, or what — they’re all levels to us. And to celebrate some of the best bits of 2021 video games, we’re going to deep dive into the very best levels of the year. These are the most memorable 14 levels that I managed to play this year.
This list, like all our lists, isn’t in any particular order. We’re sharing some of our favorites — so let us know all about your favorites too. And we’ve been ranking levels for years now! Check out our best levels of 2020 and 2019.
The Best of 2021:
The House of Reckoning [Halo Infinite]
Halo Infinite has a silly streak that’s easy to overlook with all the somber music and portentous dialogue from whispered head-ghosts. When Halo Infinite indulges in pure fun, we get the best level of the game — The House of Reckoning isn’t just the big bad guy base, it’s also an alien training ground. The fortress has multiple rooms with mini dioramas of UNSC bases, packed with gear and tools in tiny simulacra of fun battlefields. Master Chief basically gets an entire sandbox to play in as enemies swarm the arenas. Giving us easy access to all our favorite vehicles and weapons while fighting big groups of enemies? That’s what makes Halo great.
House Beneviento [Resident Evil Village]
The biggest surprise in Resident Evil Village is its most un-Resident Evil level. House Beneviento is the second major location of the game — after clearing out Castle Dimitrescu, you’ll move on to House Beneviento. The underground lair is more of a twisted puzzle box. Like an Escape Room, you’ll have to navigate the Doll Workshop and other rooms, carefully manipulating everything you can find to solve a series of puzzles. The quiet, dismal dread builds and builds until you’re trapped in complete darkness… and something crawls out from the shadows. That something will be burned into my memory for a very, very long time.
House Beneviento isn’t my favorite level of RE8 — that goes to Heisenberg’s Factory, a truly demented level that provides all the Resident Evil excess I love — but the creepy house is the level we’re all going to be talking about for years to come.
Lake Lapcat [Super Mario 3D World + Bowser’s Fury]
The mad geniuses at Nintendo have been riding high with the success of the Nintendo Switch, and that means we’re getting a few more strange experiments with their big franchises. Bowser’s Fury is an add-on for Super Mario 3D World on Nintendo Switch, but it answers a big question — what would a truly open-world Mario game look like. It might look a little like Lake Lapcat.
Instead of separating the entire world into levels, Lake Lapcat is one massive level with mini-levels built right in. You enter the levels by walking onto them — and often you can enter a level from multiple angles. To get all the collectibles, you’ll often have to do just that! While you’re completing levels, a giant Fury Bowser periodically appears to blast Mario with fireballs. Fury Bowser is annoying, but his presence also unlocks new blocks that can make tricky levels easier. It really is difficult to explain what makes Lake Lapcat so special, you’ll have to check it out in the video below.
The Stranger [Outer Wilds: Echoes of the Eye]
The Stranger is the most mindblowing location in any video game of 2021. Finding the Stranger is a challenge — but exploring it and finding all of its mysteries? That’s a 20+ hour affair. The Stranger is a massive colony ship hidden in the Outer Wilds galaxy, and like everything else in the world, it is brilliantly simulated. This is a Halo-like ringworld ship, and everything you can see in the far distance, you can explore.
Getting an early view of the rest of the area is incredibly helpful, as the dam eventually breaks once enough time passes on each loop. The shattering dam floods most of the Stranger, changing how you’ll be able to interact with many of its features, and permanently marring several locations. The flooding happens in real time, so you can ride the wave and watch as the ancient alien structures are destroyed — and that’s one of the many, many aspects of the Stranger that make it exceptional. I highly recommend reading nothing more about the Stranger and finding all the secrets for yourself.
Kedaro Station [Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart]
Kedaro Station is everything I love about Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart. Utilizing the rifts, you’ll travel between two time zones of a lost research station — the ruined present, and the shiny past. Down below, you’ll have to avoid a terrifying escaped monster lurking around the dimly lit remains of the base. Jumping through a rift, you’ll enter a fully-functioning Nefarious base, packed with shiny robots that really don’t trust you. This is both a horror mission and a stealth enemy base infiltration mission. That’s combining two of my favorite level gimmicks into one brilliant stage!
Apex Predator [Hitman 3]
In Hitman, you play as professional assassin Agent 47. You have a target in a fortified location, and it’s up to you to take them out quietly. In Hitman 3, one of the missions deviates from the formula. Agent 47 is the hunted this time. In the scuzziest part of Berlin, Apex Predator sends Agent 47 deep into the bowels of a massive night club built into the remains of an old nuclear power plant. Multiple Agency assassins are searching for you. You don’t know what they look like. You don’t know where they’re waiting. Your job is to enter the packed club, find the men hunting you, and take them out before they can take you out.
This mission is overwhelmingly packed with awesome details — special events, mission stories, unique interactions — everything I love about a good Hitman level. For once, the targets can spot an undisguised Agent 47 immediately. And they’re all ready for a throwdown. Showing them who’s truly the best is one of the best experiences of 2021.
Dorsey Manor [Deathloop]
The most complex location-within-a-location in the already mind-bendingly complex Deathloop is Dorsey Manor. The massive manor is where a huge party takes place at night, and it is integral to unravelling the murder puzzle at the heart of Deathloop. The old castle has been converted into a psychedelic 60s chic playground for the ultra rich — and there are multiple ways to take out your targets. You can solve a musical mystery and uncover the right melody to draw a target to the perfect kill location. Or you can watch a twisted game on the grand stage, where everyone (including your targets) tell jokes for approval from the audience. Telling a bad joke leads to the meat grinder beneath the stage. Of course, that’s another way to take out your targets if you’re feeling twisted.
The School [Little Nightmares 2]
Little Nightmares 2 takes the familiar and twists it into unsettling new shapes. The School could be the most memorable. The School is a place of endless torment and watchful authority figures — the students are dolls that destroy everything in their path when they’re not in class, ripping apart their schoolmates or trashing the cafeteria when the adults aren’t looking. And teacher is always watching.
The headmistress of the school is what truly makes this area memorable. She looks almost normal — compared to all the other adults in Little Nightmares 2, at least — but when she’s searching for you, her neck stretches to nightmarish lengths. Even if you try to escape down a vent, her creepy rictus faces will follow.
Sacrosanct [Guardians of the Galaxy]
The Sacrosanct is the moment Guardians of the Galaxy truly announces itself. Before reaching the HQ of the evil Church of Truth in 2021’s Guardians of the Galaxy video game, we enjoyed a pretty straightforward and fun adventure with the eponymous Marvel space heroes. They quipped. They fought weird aliens. They bickered a lot. Once you enter the Sacrosanct, everything changes and the story takes on new dramatic dimensions. Old friends become enemies, and the Church of Truth announce themselves as one of the creepiest villain groups in gaming.
The Heist [Chernobylite]
The Heist is the culmination of everything you do in Chernobylite — and pulling off the perfect heist is much, much more difficult than surviving the Suicide Mission in Mass Effect 2. Like ME2, the entire story of Chernobylite is really an extended prequel to the final mission. Everything you do is leading up to that big job, and depending on which characters you’ve saved and recruited, the big heist can be a success or a dismal failure. The best levels encapsulate everything that makes a game great — and the heist in Chernobylite gives us all the unpredictable danger we want from planning out our own Ocean’s Eleven.
Compton’s Cookoff [Psychonauts 2]
Psychonauts 2, more than any other game on this list, is made by its levels. Thankfully, the many minds you explore in Psychonauts 2 are universally brilliant, clever, striking, or even scary. There are so many amazing levels in Psychonauts 2, it feels impossible to pick one — but my favorite has to go to Compton’s Cookoff. In this level, psychic spy Raz enters the mind of a former agent (Compton) to help him overcome his fears.
The level imagines Compton’s anxieties in the form of a cooking show. The stage changes each round, filled with traps, as braying animal puppets representing the judges (and also taking the form of Compton’s closest friends) sneer at your failures. You’ll have to prepare meals by navigating the dangerous studio, grabbing ingredients and planning what order to use the oversized preparation stations. Just watch the video above for a taste into one of the year’s most creative levels.
Elysium Park [In Sound Mind]
In Sound Mind is a brilliant indie sleeper that shares one aspect with Psychonauts 2 — each level is a little encapsulation of a person’s broken psyche. The evils of In Sound Mind are a little more intense. Elysium Park is the massive fourth stage of the game, where you’ll have to duck and dodge through memories of war. Landmines, barbed wire, gas bombs, and fighter planes bombard the tranquil park at critical moments as you fight to uncover a government conspiracy. While you’re exploring, a stalker chases you with a sniper rifle, towering over the trees and searching for you with a spotlight shaped head. The stage is full of intense battles, clever puzzles, a few terrifying sequences, and one of the best stalkers I’ve seen yet in a horror game.
Eastward is a quirky action-RPG. I’m going to establish that now before getting into the explanation. Monkollywood is a mysterious train run by monkeys that also produce TV shows and movies. Hence Monkollywood. The Monkeys have caged humans to watch the shows — and you’ll fight through train cars packed with props to film new movies. Why? That’s what the monkeys do! Monkollywood is a weird location for a very weird game, and perfectly encapsulates the silly humor this game is going for. If you like the idea of Monkollywood, you’ll probably enjoy Eastward.
Cyber World [Deltarune Chapter 2]
The main location of Deltarune Chapter 2 is an improvement in almost every way. Cyber World has an insta-classic theme (listen to it here), there are more fun mini-games, more puzzles, more characters interacting, more silly adventures, and more sinister little ad men that want to make you a big shot. Cyber World is everything we want from Undertale and Deltarune. You can download Chapter 1 and Chapter 2 it for free here so you can experience Cyber World for yourself.
Don’t think 14 was enough levels? Let us know which missions we missed!