A new year, a new slew of video game heroes and villains. This year had a lot of great stand-outs – from characters we met for the first time to old favorites. Narrowing down our favorites wasn’t easy, but after much deliberation, here are our top picks for the best heroes and villains of 2021.
Please note: Neither list is ordered, so just because one character comes before or after another doesn’t mean we consider them better or worse in any way.
Ethan Winters – Resident Evil Village
The best horror protagonists are relatable; people who find their circumstances both as terrifying and hard-to-believe as we would in the same situation. This is what makes Ethan Winters such a good lead in the two Resident Evil games he’s starred in – Resident Evil 7: Biohazard and this year’s excellent Resident Evil Village.
Ethan is completely beside himself with his surroundings compared to other Resident Evil protagonists – who often have more in common with the Terminator than Laurie Strode*. Throughout the runtime of Village, he’s disgusted, horrified, and sometimes even annoyed with all the bad happening to him and others. When first confronted by a pack of werewolves in the game’s opening, Ethan is relatably scared out of his wits. When he’s stalked mercilessly by Lady Dimitrescu (see below) through her impossibly large castle, he runs away and hides. When the end of the game rolls around, Ethan feels exasperated and annoyed, completely over the horror he seemingly will never escape.
For a game as horrific as Village, Ethan’s relatability grounds the game’s scares. We see how we, too, would likely react in similar situations through his reactions. While he might not be the most interesting or charismatic character on this list, he is at least a character we can see ourselves through.
Alex Chen – Life Is Strange: True Colors
Alex Chen is empathy personified. Which sounds a bit on the nose typing it out, but somehow, Life Is Strange: True Colors pulls this off.
We were wowed by actress Erika Mori’s performance of Alex, the latest in a long line of great Life is Strange protagonists. Mori’s believable and human portrayal allowed us to fit into Alex’s world – easily allowing us to relate to her, care about her wellbeing, and want to make decisions that worked best for her future. Her humor and charm were simply the cherries on top.
Alex is one of the best heroes of the year because her power of empathy helps us to care about others in this game world – helping us as the player to relate, sympathize, and work for a better future in this universe.
Razputin “Raz” Acquatto – Psychonauts 2
Of all the characters on this list, Razputin “Raz” Acquatto might be the purest of heart. At his core, Raz is a kid that just wants to help people – even if he often fumbles along the way.
Raz is a welcome change of pace compared to most characters in big-budget, first-party-developed video games. Especially up against one of Microsoft’s other main characters from this year, Master Chief – who while acting nobly as determined by the fiction, is still killing scores of people – Raz’s playful innocence and tendency to question the world around him in a way that doesn’t require loss of life and limb is a wonderful breath of fresh air.
Raz’s writing by Tim Schafer, founder of developer Double Fine Productions, brings a healthy dose of humanity to the character. He is passionate and naive in equal measure, the same way most 10-year-old kids are. While Schafer being the sole writer on Psycnoanuts 2 does tend to feel pretty one-note after enough hours, the care and thought put into its protagonist shouldn’t go understated; Schafer excellently walks a tightrope between making Raz the character we remember from 2005’s original Psychonauts while updating him for 2021 sensibilities.
In a year full of new games for legacy characters – Ratchet and Clank and the aforementioned Master Chief, to name a few – Raz stands out as one of the freshest video game characters of the year.
Kit – Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart
At the very least, Kit is the most adorable character of the year. But that’s selling this robot a bit short. In a game full of great characters – including but not limited to long-time fan-favorites Ratchet and Clank – Kit stands out for her unique approach to the game’s world, selflessness in the face of danger, and ability to bring people back together from the brink of collapse.
Though Kit’s past is marred by tragedy, and her present colored by depression, by the time credits roll on Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart, she’s gone through a whole hero’s journey, coming out the other end a new, self-confident, and sure-of-herself robot. We hope to see more of her in future Ratchet & Clank games, because not only is she one of the best characters of 2021, she’s the best character the series has had in years.
Colt Vahn – Deathloop
It hasn’t been Colt Vahn’s day – for a couple years. What’s a couple more? Trapped in a timeloop, asked to complete a near-impossible task – kill eight targets within 24 hours or repeat the same day – this poor man just wants to go home. But whine as he might, until his job is done, he’s doomed to repeat the same cycle over again.
Not too unlike Ethan Winters above, Colt** works as a character mainly because he’s relatable given his in-game circumstances. Deathloop makes no bones about the fact being trapped in a timeloop would suck, and Colt perfectly captures how we all might react to repeating the same day ad infinitum – with anger, annoyance, and confusion.
All of this is lifted entirely by voice actor Jason E. Kelley, who turns in one of the best performances of the year as Colt. Funny, sarcastic, charming, and occasionally mean, Kelley seamlessly transitions between Colt’s various emotions as Deathloop goes on, giving him depth and personality. Tack on the game’s excellent writing, and you have an easy pick for one of the best characters of the year.
Lady Dimitrescu – Resident Evil Village
There are two huge reasons the internet adhered itself to Resident Evil Village’s Lady Dimitrescu earlier this year. One was, simply put, her looks. She’s hot. The other was the way she wielded her sexuality in a way that was both seductive and terrifying. She’s the type of character you can’t help but find yourself drawn to despite your fear – but by then, it’s much too late.
Though she’s only in a handful of hours, Lady D, as the internet likes to call her, is the standout antagonist of Village’s cast. Functioning near-identically to the ever-stalking Mr. X in the Resident Evil 2 remake, Lady D constantly stalks protagonist Ethan Winters, and by extension, us the player, as he tries to find his way through and out of her castle. Toying with our fear, insulting our intelligence, and most memorably, mutilating our bodies, she proves beyond a shadow of a doubt who’s in control in this situation.
And yet, despite this, Lady D is a character the internet has proved itself infatuated with. Before Village was even released, fanart and cosplay flooded the internet. As did a slew of tweets expressing how much the sender wanted Lady D to enact her violent and terrifying means of cruelty on themselves. By the time the game came out, Lady D – excellently portrayed by actress Maggie Robertson – seemed to acknowledge the internet’s thirst for her; playing her character menacingly, sure, but also flirtatiously and seductively. Add on a character design that leaves little to the imagination, and you have a sure-fire way to get the internet’s attention.
It’s hard to think of any other character in 2021 that so captured the video game zeitgeist – especially one so unimaginably cruel. And for that, we can’t think of anyone better to give our top acknowledgments.
Jean Baptiste – No More Heroes III
After returning to Earth and reuniting with his human companion, the fluffy, adorable alien we met in No More Heroes III’s opening moments called FU reveals himself to be a smarmy a—— galactic prince known as Jess Baptiste VI. Now that he’s all grown up, Jess isn’t just back to visit his now mega-rich CEO friend Damon but to conquer the planet with his gang of space cronies in vile and violent ways.
Jess Baptiste VI is immature, vindictive, surly, and will send his own friends to die at the blade of Travis Touchdown before getting his hands dirty. Despite his offputting nature, FU does have a heart for those close to him, often treating his comrades to a final meal before delivering them to their grizzly fate. These quiet moments bring some surprising depth to the evil prince and his short-lived subordinates. No More Heroes III is a game with many problems, but its colorful villain does plenty to drive players through the galactic assassin ranks to see his eventual bitter end.
Leshy – Inscryption
Inscryption is host to a family of great villains, but to even discuss most of them would spoil what makes the game so great in the first place. One villain, however, is met almost immediately upon starting the part-deck-builder, part-escape room-thriller, and that’s Leshy.
Leshy begins as ostensibly an adversary wanting to play cards with you. Lose a couple of matches, and you’ll discover he’s much more than that. Sure, he wants to play cards, but he also wants to watch you carve your own eye out just to defeat him, too.
He also expects you to play through his roguelike card game over and over until you can rise above all of its unfair rules and best the creepy old man that is Leshy once and for all. Not only does he feature some great villain highlights – he’s a scary elderly man, absolutely out of his mind, intent on watching you endure pain, and unwilling to let you leave his forest cabin – he’s also someone with more depth than one might perceive at first. Without spoiling what you might experience in Inscryption, Leshy will appear in ways that will surprise you. His ability to keep us on our toes through the game’s 12-hour journey, while also maintaining a sickly grin through it all, is what makes him one of this year’s best and most memorable villains.
Kaiju Bowser – Bowser’s Fury
One of the most surprising games of 2021 might have been Bowser’s Fury – a new pack-in game with the Switch re-release of Super Mario 3D World. And one of the most surprising things about Bowser’s Fury might just be that it has one of the best villains of the year.
The Bowser of Bowser’s Fury is more or less the Koopa we’ve known for decades, but this time he’s really big. Like, really, really big. Kaiju-level big.
Compared to other villains on this list, Bowser might seem like a boring pick. But in terms of Bowser’s Fury, the monster’s constant threat, ability to impede progress, and uncanny ability to start a fight created a Mario experience we hadn’t seen before – one where danger was unexpected and menacing.
And let’s not avoid the elephant in the room here. One of our favorite things about Big Bowser was that it gave us the chance to also play as Kaiju Mario in a cute little cat outfit.
Julianna Blake – Deathloop
Deathloop’s Julianna Blake is a great case of a villain not taking themselves too seriously. Sure, she takes her cause seriously – stop Colt from breaking the loop – but she’s not constantly monologuing about her mission. She’s having fun, reveling in the twisted rules of the game’s world, and poking fun at Colt every chance she gets. In that sense, it may be more accurate to call her Deathloop’s greatest foil, rather than antagonist***.
While Deathloop is by no means a dour game, Julianna’s writing stands out as some of the game’s most consistently funny. Portrayed by actress Ozioma Akagha, coupled with the aforementioned performance by Jason E. Kelley, Julianna’s constant banter with Colt brings life to both characters – highlighting their personalities, oppositions, beliefs, and even senses of humor. When the game finally plays its hand, exposing the truth behind the two’s relationship, the revelation adds a new sense of gravity to a lot of the conversations you’ve heard throughout Deathloop.
Julianna has charisma and charm; she’s funny and easily likable. She’s also not inherently evil. And while that may make her a bit of an outlier in a “Best Villains” list, of the video game characters we met in 2021, she stands out as one of our favorites to go up against.
*While writing this, I realized that Laurie Strode has more in common these days with the Terminator than she does her humble beginnings as a scared teenager in the original Halloween. This is largely why the 2018 Halloween reboot is a terrible movie – though by no means is it the only reason.
What makes Laurie such an iconic character in the 1978 film is her complete lack of control; faced by the always-present, always-stalking Michael Myers, she has no choice but to hide, scream, and cry. By the end, when she does fight back, her victory over Myers feels more like a lucky break than any heroic good deed.
But when we meet Laurie in the 2018 reboot, inexplicably, she has undergone firearms training akin to a military member and somehow fortified her tiny house with enough protection to make Fort Knox blush. None of this makes sense considering the movie paints her as an alcoholic that can’t hold a job or her life together – which, it’s worth pointing out, is handled with as much taste and class as a wrecking ball, perpetuating harmful stereotypes about addiction.
Anyways, let this annotation serve to remind the reader that I solely mean Laurie’s characterization in the original Halloween movie.
**Depending on how you look at Deathloop, there’s a fair read that Colt is actually the villain and Julianna is the hero. Even then, it might be safer to consider them both morally ambiguous. Both act for selfish and noble reasons, and their disparate causes directly clash with each other. In other words, in Julianna’s world, she is the hero, and Colt is the villain. In Colt’s world, vice versa.
*** See note above.