The best free games of 2021: Genshin Impact, Arknights, more

Aether and Lumine stand on a field of white flowers.

Picture: miHoYo

You may have seen me write tons of Genshin Impact blogs here, and it’s definitely a free game that I think is exceptional and deserves wide coverage. However, there are tons of other great free games in the mobile gaming ecosystem as well.

Of course, there isn’t really a free game. For example, with the gacha monetization model, some games are easier to wipe out with free or low rarity characters, while others are more reliant on the high damage characters of the paid gacha system. But every gacha game needs tons of free content, since only 2% of gacha players spend money. This year I spent $ 50 for Destiny / Grand Order and about $ 90 on Genshin Impact. While I was an unemployed student, I never spent any money at all.

These are not games that you can ‘finish’ in a month, rather, they are games that you live with over time as they are constantly adding new content and challenges to the story. I don’t see free-to-play so much as direct competition with other games, but more as a space where different kinds of creativity and innovation can flourish. Here are some of the best free titles that have kept me coming back throughout the year.

Genshin Impact

Aether, Fischl, Mona, Scaramouche and Paimon watch the shooting stars.

Picture: miHoYo

This free-to-play action RPG has seen a very successful launch last year, and he continues to enjoy consistent updates for seasonal events, quality of life adjustments, and main quest content. Robust updates are supported by a fan community that keeps the game relevant through fanworks and constant online engagement.

But it’s not just the community that is constantly pushing Genshin in the foreground. His unique combat is what gives the game enormous stamina. Gacha games usually have a huge problem with the powercreep. By adding more and more powerful characters to the pool of available fighters, older characters generally become less relevant in the meta. This can be a huge problem if the old gaming base has invested a lot of time, money, and resources into it.

However, Genshin prevents older characters from being dragged by adding new characters and weapons that can improve the potential of their teammates. Raiden Shogun arguably revitalized the entire electro meta with his energy-focused kit. And the addition of the low-rarity Gorou has rekindled interest in older geographic characters like Noelle and Ningguang, who have been in the game from the very beginning. Instead of competing with other characters for the best metasites, each new character can increase the value of their potential teammates. It’s an incredibly smart formula that ensures that Genshin will be worth playing for years to come.

The Knights

Blaze, FrostNova and Amiya

Picture: Yostar

If you are new to free gacha games, tower defense game The Knights is the easiest to recommend. Almost all characters can be obtained with non-premium currency, and the low rarity characters are viable even in more difficult content. YouTubers like KyoStinV and Eckogen Specifically create low rarity guides so that even unlucky players can easily clear in-game content.

In The Knights, you strategically position your characters so that they can defeat enemies before they can reach your home base (s). Each character has a specific niche in the meta, and the game periodically releases new types of challenge cards to keep each niche relevant. Some characters are good at blocking groups of enemies. Others are good as quick assassins, or they generate energy for the skills of other characters.

There is hardly a single strategy that applies to all “hard” cards. If you’ve always relied on an excessive level for games like Fire emblem, you are going to have a bad surprise in The Knights. Levels and promotions count towards higher difficulties, but grinding cannot replace tactical acumen. But don’t worry if you’ve never played a tower defense game before. The gameplay tutorial is superb. The story is both persuasive and handles moral ambiguity with nuance. The Knights is a game I can recommend to anyone who enjoys cartoons, realtime strategy, or storytelling games.

The stars of alchemy

Vice and a dragon magically shoot an enemy.

Picture: Tencent

This team-based strategy game was the sleeping shot of 2021. The stars of alchemy has gorgeous character artwork, one of the best mobile game soundtracks, and a fascinating turn-based combat system. Your characters move on a grid map and you match tiles of the same colors to perform special combos. Do you prioritize multiple enemies at once or focus your attacks on a single big boss? Do you hit and run? Or do you stay within attack range of your enemies to perform several devastating combos on the next turn? The stars of alchemy the gameplay is easy to learn, but much more difficult to master. The game also experiences extremely frequent updates. I don’t remember a single lull when there hadn’t been a major event going on.

The story is decent, and I would put it on par with The Knights. However, The stars of alchemy also suffers from localization issues. The translations don’t interfere with my understanding of the story, but I would have liked them to be localized with more elegance. If the story isn’t a breakup for you, The stars of alchemy is one of the best strategy games that you can play on your mobile device.

Destiny / Grand Order

Saber, Leonardo, Skadi, Mash and others.

Picture: Aniplex

Destiny / Grand Order is the world’s most played visual novel game, and for good reason. It’s one of the most ambitious multiverse IPs in the game. In one chapter, the pretty boy Ozymandias faces off against a woman, King Arthur. In another, Brynhildr and Sigurd team up with Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte. Joan of Arc fights her evil twin. No historical figure or mythological legend is sacred. But the Destiny the universe does everything job with fantastic storytelling that fully adheres to its own bullshit. The moment Francis Drake introduced himself as a pink haired pirate woman, I nodded and thought, “Yeah, that sounds absolutely correct.”

The first story arc had players alternating versions of Ancient Rome, Mythological Okeanos, Victorian London, Colonial America, Jerusalem, and Babylon. In the second arc, players explored extremely weird versions of Russia, Sweden, and China. This year the developers released the main quest chapters for India and Atlantis. The only problem? You almost have to finish five million words of the story before you can play one or the other. The gameplay features a fairly simple turn-based combat system to grasp despite the ever-changing meta.

The main problem with F / GO is that he has perhaps the most ruthless gacha system of all games. There is no “pity system” to guarantee rare characters after a certain number of draws, so I cannot recommend it for newbies or players who struggle with gacha systems. I highly recommend trying the other games on this list before trying F / GO. But once you get past the goofy side of this six-year-old game, you’ll find it has some of the best storytelling in video games. The endings of most chapters are as emotionally devastating (if not more) than any JRPG you can play on a console.

Tears of Themis

Luke, Artem, Vyn and Marius.

Picture: miHoYo

Tears of Themis is a cross between a dating simulation and a As Lawyer Game. You play as a defense lawyer representing various clients accused of murder. Along the way, you bond with four young men, like in an otome game. Instead of looking for characters like you would in most gacha games, you’re looking for cards with short stories of the male protagonists. The gameplay takes the form of oral debates, in which you play different cards to triumph over your opponents’ arguments.

I only started to play Tears of Themis this month, and it’s been a comfortable and relaxed way to hang out between other live service games. The art is beautiful, the card game is easy to understand, and the mysteries are well written. Personally, I don’t care about the dating aspect (I’m too weird for that), but I like mini-dramas and solving thrillers. I have played other free romance apps on mobile, and Tears of Themis stands above them. If you are interested in mobile otome games, this is the one you should play.

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