Xbox Game Pass has long been a bargain. Microsoft’s Netflix-style subscription service lets you download hundreds of games for your Xbox or PC for as little as $10 a month, and as long as you subscribe they’ll always be on your dashboard, waiting to be played. After a couple of crucial additions in August, though, its lineup of games has never been better than it is right now. After adding Hades and Psychonauts 2—our favorite game of 2020 and second favorite game of 2021, respectively—Game Pass also picked up Forza Horizon 5 and It Takes Two in November. That’s two more of the best games of the year. That’s on top of its already deep lineup of stellar games.
That lineup features most of Microsoft’s first party games, including the entire Halo and Gear of Wars series, along with a rotating selection of top games from third party publishers and independent developers. Microsoft also has a deal with Electronic Arts to include EA Play inside Game Pass—so every Game Pass subscription now includes EA’s own subscription service, with dozens of EA classics from the last three console generations. And finally, with Microsoft’s recent acquisition of Bethesda, you can expect franchises like Fallout, Doom, and Dishonored to hang out on Game Pass in perpetuity. Basically, there’s a ton of games available through Game Pass, so many that it can get a little overwhelming without some guidance. So let Paste help you out and sift for the gold buried within Game Pass. Here are over 40 games that we highly recommend everybody play at least once in their lives, all currently available through a Game Pass subscription.
This subtle, believable approach to characterization reinforces that A Plague Tale is an unusually patient and confident game. It lets its story unfold slowly, avoiding the urge to dole out increasingly elaborate set pieces with a predictable regularity. It never lets its pacing or sure-handed command of character become subservient to plot or the need for action or difficulty that’s assumed of videogames. Sometimes the notes a publisher sends game developers can be felt while playing a game—there’ll be too many action sequences, or ones that drag on for too long, or stories will feel truncated, as if a crucial plot point or bit of character development was cut out to make things move faster. That never happens with A Plague Tale, which maintains a consistent vision and pursues it at its own pace.—Garrett Martin
Subterfuge is a constant in Among Us.
Backstabbing, lying, and turning your friends against each other are the most effective ways to win the game. Don’t let those cute crew member avatars fool you. It’s a game about social deduction and every match is full of drama. Among Us manages to set up a fantastic playing field for interpersonal gameplay that swaps genres from goof central to a John Carpenter movie in two seconds. There are very few moments in a round where you’ll be 100% sure you can trust another player, and that’s what causes the stakes to skyrocket during every interaction.—Funké Joseph
There will always be a market for Metroid homages, no matter how uninspired so many of them can feel. Carrion is one of the few recent examples of the genre to actually stake its own unique territory. It’s not just that you’re in charge of what would conventionally be the main enemy in a game like this, and tasked to slaughter your way through the science experiment that imprisoned you, Ape Out-style. Carrion rethought the genre’s entire approach to motion. Instead of the predictable pattern of unlocking double jumps and grappling hooks, your amorphous blob of a creature glides throughout its brutalist prison with startling grace. It’s not elegant to look at, unless you like dripping viscera and globules of raw meat, but to play it is to recall the delicate arcs of Geometry Wars. You’re basically tracing your way through this game, and the contrast between grace and grisliness never grows old.—Garrett Martin
Remedy has worked hard to unite the mysterious and the mundane since at least Alan Wake, and Control is an almost ideal distillation of that theme. At its heart is the bureaucratic exploration of the unknown and unknowable, with the player stepping into the role of the new director of a government organization devoted to classifying and controlling unexplained phenomena. It’s an enigmatic and unpredictable quest not just into a nondescript office building that grows increasingly contorted and abstract, but into the heart of a conspiracy that spans the paranormal and the prosaic, and one that ultimately seems to have little use or concern for either the player or their character. In its depiction of humanity grasping for relevance and understanding in an indifferent and impossible to understand universe we see a clear reflection of our own existence. It’s a game of uncommon wisdom and depth, and one that needs to be played.—Garrett Martin
Crusader Kings III is the strategy game for people who think Civilization is just a little too impersonal. Yeah, you can conquer the known Medieval world, or try to stick to diplomacy and cooperation, but you don’t play as some distant deity overseeing millennia of development. You’re a very specific individual whose goal is to build a thriving kingdom to leave to your heirs—who you then play as when their predecessor passes away. And so on, and so on, for generations. The fractious relationships between power-hungry members of your dynastic clan will regularly have unforeseen consequences for your empire, making Crusader Kings III as unpredictable and chaotic as life itself.—Garrett Martin
Not content with sheer novelty, Dead Cells importantly taps into the most significant aspect of both of the genres it fuses together. Few games are as addictive as those Metroid-style backtrackers, and perhaps the only thing that has come close this decade is the spate of roguelike platformers that flourished in Spelunky’s wake. Dead Cells beautifully captures what makes both of those genres impossible to put down, uniting the “just one more” drive of a roguelike with the “must keep going” compulsion of a Metroid. It’s a smart, confident piece of work, and anybody interested in either of the genres it builds on should consider checking it out.—Garrett Martin
The most striking thing about Dishonored 2 is its confidence. It creates massive, sprawling levels, with lots of details to discern and small-scale stories to discover, and hardly ever forces you to explore even half of them. You can spend dozens of hours uncovering every secret and trying hard not to kill anybody, or just blitz through, crossbows a-blazin’, in a sprint to the finish line. New scenarios regularly introduce new twists on core mechanics or standard game geometry, and they always feel of a piece with the game’s world and characters. Even when you take the longest path and embrace everything the game has to offer, it never feels repetitive or self-indulgent, and that extra attention to detail fills out what is already one of the more fully realized worlds in games. Add in a strong focus on characters, both new and old, and a multitude of play styles, and you have one of the best action games of the year.—Garrett Martin
Donut County is entirely about holes and the destruction they can wreak upon a southwestern community when deployed with malice by a clan of scheming raccoons. If you’ve ever wanted to swallow up a pastel desert town full of blocky, adorable animals with sass and quirks aplenty, Donut County is the game for you. Other than the art style and character designs, the best thing about Donut County is the writing. It’s snappy and succinct, quickly establishing the unique personalities of a dozen or so characters, and legitimately funny without trying too hard or being obviously impressed by itself. As cute and surprising as the levels are, I found myself sometimes rushing through them in order to get back underground for the next bit of dialogue and the next character introduction. Like donuts themselves, Donut County will give you a quick, buzzy high, and taste great as you’re chewing on it, but isn’t all that filling.—Garrett Martin
I am not generally a Doom man—younger me felt the original sent games as a concept spinning off into the conjoined shitty paths of thinking violence equals maturity and that heavy metal made with computers is actually listenable—but Doom Eternal is one of the least Doom-like Dooms I’ve ever Doomed. It’s also 100% certified Doom, just like a pure unfiltered toot of the totality of Doom. No, these thoughts don’t contradict each other.
Despite carrying around a few extra layers of business, Doom Eternal feels good. It is physically, mentally and emotionally a much-needed jolt out of all the ruts I’ve been stuck in—a shot of manufactured, harmless stress to take my mind off all the real stresses of today. Visiting a fictional hell world will always be preferable to dealing with the hell world we’re actually living in. Doom’s ripping and tearing is more vital today than ever—and not just that which I visit upon my enemies, but, importantly, the torturous ways in which they rip and tear through me. Doom Eternal is a two-way street—the doom I perpetrate and the doom I have to welcome with open arms. It’s a kind of penance, and I am ready to accept my punishment.—Garrett Martin
The word “epic” gets thrown around a lot these days. Screw up badly enough and it’s an epic fail. Scarf down a couple of cheeseburgers and it’s suddenly an epic feast. The word no longer has the punch it once had. Yet, there’s really no other adjective that so aptly describes The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, a game that’s epic in every sense of the word, from its immersive gameplay and jaw dropping visuals, to its sprawling storyline rooted in the real-world epics of Norse mythology. At the risk of fanboy-induced hyperbole, there really is nothing that comes close to approaching Skyrim as a game whose scope, design and presentation sets a new bar for the action-RPG genre.—Adam Volk
Early in Fable II you encounter a traveling salesman hawking a magical music box he claims will grant a single wish when played. Though you initially sneer at the notion, a mysterious hooded figure named Theresa encourages you to buy it, reminding you that you want to believe it’s real. J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter novels carried the same implicit message: keep your sense of wonder intact, guard against heart-petrifying cynicism. Fable II is itself a magical music box, but the damn thing can’t stop granting wishes.—Jason Killingsworth
New Vegas was the closest we got to full resolution between the two distinct eras in Fallout history. It couldn’t restore how Fallout once looked, but it did a grand job at incorporating the lore—almost too good, really. Hidden in the many NPCs and histories of New Vegas were tidbits and details that melded the game to its true legacy, from The Chosen One’s companion’s granddaughter, Whiskey Rose, to the scraggly remains of old factions like The Followers of the Apocalypse, families like the Van Graffs, and familiar bands of Raiders, like the Vipers and the Khans. In location, it was even set extremely close to the series’ original settings of Mount Whitney and Bakersfield, so much so that I’m surprised that modders haven’t written more adventures revisiting the old stomping grounds out in southern California.
The writing of Fallout: New Vegas, for as vast and beautifully woven as it was, also gave me the sense that the writers weren’t saving their best for later. Every mission and NPC encounter seemed to be crafted with intent and purpose. For the hundreds upon thousands of interactions and dialogues and pivotal, interlocking decisions, the quality never faltered, and since the game’s debut in 2010, I’ve yet to see such a masterful set-up and execution for post-release content.—Holly Green
Firewatch is a game, but it’s not useful to write about it as a game. Who cares what your fingers do while you’re playing this? Yes: it has graphics. The stuff that matters is what Henry and Delilah talk about on their radios. It’s what Henry reads throughout the few campsites and outposts he comes across. It’s what you feel as the story unfolds like a short story on your television screen, visiting the private grief of others who can struggle to communicate just as torturously as all of us in the real world can. And although this dual character study can feel a little slight, and has a few improbable notes that are struck seemingly just to enhance a sense of mystery, that central friendship between Henry and Delilah is powerful. It feels real, and important for both of them.—Garrett Martin
Forza Horizon 5 is the most gorgeous and dynamic game I’ve played on the Xbox Series X by a mile. That said, the beauty of the game isn’t just in the mechanics alone. It’s in how the game loves, respects, and brings Mexico to life. When it comes to representing Mexico on-screen, Americans like one thing, and pretty much one thing only: Sepia tones. Baked in browns and oranges, representations of Mexico on screen in film and television strip the country of its beauty and distill it down into its most stereotypical parts, often using it to highlight narcos. But in Forza Horizon 5 the diversity of the races is met with the diversity of Mexico itself. Mexico isn’t just a desert landscape, and the 11 distinct biomes in the game highlight that. It’s clear that a lot of love went into Forza Horizon 5. You can see it in the car selection. You can see it in the environmental design. You can hear it in the playlists. This game thrives on a culture of love that is baked into every gameplay element. In every way, Forza Horizon 5 is a love letter to Mexicans, and it’s one I’m thrilled that I opened.—Kate Sánchez
The crowning achievement of Gears of War is its over-the-top combat. Everything is so utterly ridiculous, enjoyably so. Repurposed mining tools will drop explosive drills into enemies’ bodies to make them explode in a twister of gore, and there are few things more sickly satisfying in shooters than pulling off a symphony of five splashy headshots with the hefty Boltok, Gears’ answer to Dirty Harry’s .44 Magnum. All of these things are still fun and even improved upon thanks your robotic squadmate JACK, who you can direct to lend you aid in useful ways. He can pop down barriers in front of you, blind enemies to stun them, and even freeze them so you do double damage – an essential tactic for taking down some of the bigger monsters. None of JACK’s abilities revolutionize Gears’ messy but timeless take on ducking in and out of cover and reducing foes to red goo with bullets, but it does add an extra tactical layer that makes gunfights more interesting and is a feature that isn’t mired in frustration.—Javy Gwaltney
Because so much of Genesis Noir’s story is told indirectly, it’s wide open for interpretation. But whatever that interpretation, the story is beautiful. Its art direction, citing everything from early blackboard animations like 1908’s Fantasmagorie by Émile Cohl to the optical poems of abstract animator Oskar Fischinger, is a crucial part of the formula, evoking an effortless cool of 1930s noir that offers a mystique belying its existential earnestness. The improvisational style of its jazzy soundtrack meanwhile echoes No Man’s disjointed panic as he navigates space and time to stop the inevitable.—Holly Green
What makes Hades so great—and what elevates it above other roguelikes—is how it creates a consistent sense of progress even as you keep dying and restarting. Part of that is mechanical—although you lose all the boons bestowed upon you by the Greek gods after a run ends, along with other power-ups acquired during your journeys through the underworld, there are a few things you do hang on to when you return to the game’s hub world. More important than that, though, is how the game’s narrative unfolds between runs, driving you to keep playing through whatever frustration you might feel in hopes of learning more about the game’s story and characters.
Between every run in Hades your character, Zagreus, returns to his home—the palace of his father, Hades, the God of the Dead. Yep, he’s another rich kid who feels his first bit of angst and immediately starts slumming it. Here you can interact with various characters, upgrade the decor, unlock new permanent perks, and practice with the game’s small arsenal of weapons. Every time you return the characters who live here have new things to say, slowly unraveling their own storylines and deepening their relationships with Zagreus. And given that the writing in Hades is as consistently sharp and human as it’s been in all of Supergiant’s games, getting to talk to these characters alone is a reason to actually look forward to dying in this game.—Garrett Martin
If you’re like me and have been starved for the sensation of bonking someone on the head with a hammer, you’ve probably been playing Halo Infinite’s multiplayer since it shadow-dropped a month ahead of the official launch. Otherwise, maybe you waited on the full release, and kudos to you for having such strong will. You’re just built different. Whether it’s your first time in Halo or if you’re a returning vet, we’re all clear on one thing: Infinite’s provided one of the most fun and open-ended multiplayer sandboxes in years.—Moises Taveras
Yes, the main reason most people got an Xbox to begin with is on Game Pass in full force, with this collection of the first six Halo games. Relive the series that proved that first-person shooters could work on a console, or work your way through it for the first time, in this compilation that’s just stuffed full of content. It has, like, five full games, and a DLC-length add-on that somehow stars the voices of like three Firefly cast members. Even if you aren’t a fan of Halo’s repetitive combat or sci-fi sterility, you’ll probably be a fan of how much time you can spend in this one—especially if you get bogged down in the online business.—Garrett Martin
When I think about the gameplay of Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice, how Senua comes to work with, and not against, her intrusive thoughts and distorted perceptions, the word “self-acceptance” comes to mind. While some may see it as a horror game, I like to think of it as a love story, one that explores the power of finding someone who does not have to fully understand you in order to know who you are. Notable for its sharply intimate knowledge of Celtic and Norse traditions, its simple but satisfying combat and its innovative depiction of psychosis, it is impressive how the game manages to marry these three aspects and still deliver a well-scripted action game that achieves a balance between its puzzle elements, cut scenes and action sequences. Despite the despair in Senua’s story, her father’s abuse, the alienation of her village and her doomed fight to bring her lover back from the dead, Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice is hopeful. It suggests there is still a meaningful life to be lived even if your perception of the world is so dramatically different from other people. And I find that encouraging and beautiful.—Holly Green
Any game can be hard. That’s not what makes Hollow Knight so great, at least not alone. Team Cherry’s first game is a charming Metroid-style game full of warmth, humor, precise platforming, and, yes, brutal, forbidding difficulty that’ll make you think of a Souls game. (Look, I know that’s a cliche, but writers wouldn’t make that reference so often if it wasn’t so often true.) Hollow Knight is a great example of how to reference the past without dwelling on it—of how to churn ideas and mechanics and aesthetics from previous generations of videogames into something new and original.—Garrett Martin
For all that Hypnospace Outlaw is a story about the past internet, it is as much a story about our own, current internet—the internet that grapples with questions of the role of moderation, of brand engagement in community spaces, with ads and branded content. Enforcers are unpaid, but are asked to do the work of anyone from community managers to police, with little to no explanations given to users. Copyrighted content is blocked with an iron fist, unless the copyrighted content comes from a staff member of Hypnospace, in which case rules are built to be bent.
The metaphors of Hypnospace Outlaw come across fairly clearly as the game continues: this is a device meant to monopolize time that you otherwise would be resting. It’s a more literal interpretation of the same fears that plagued parents in the early 2000s, of staying up too late on the computer and not getting good sleep. In Hypnospace, you can sleep and browse—so long as you ignore the mild extra tiredness in the morning. It’s the blue-sky optimism of the dot-com bubble reinterpreted through a near-sci-fi lens.—Dante Douglas
Two-player co-op game It Takes Two’s mundane settings are an opportunity to get wacky with mechanics and gameplay features, which the game will just fling at you. Every level explores a gimmick or series of gimmicks before casting it aside for the next, so it manages to stay remarkably fresh almost the entire way through. One second you’re playing a shooter and the next you may be playing a hack and slash. I don’t want to spoil my absolute favorite, but the amount of ludicrous things that come together to make it happen is nothing short of magic. Little of it makes any sense with or without context, but also It Takes Two comes across as a videogame for the sake of being a videogame, and while I respect that, it does mean the game shoots its own story in the foot often. The game’s simultaneously asking you to care about this impending divorce and the effect it’ll have on their daughter and the ludicrous task to gun down wasps or murdering plushies often! It forces the player to either try and reconcile these nonsensical aspects, or focus on a thing at a time. By the time I reached anything I’ve mentioned, I’d long since shut off my brain and decided to bask in the vibes rather than the story. “Head empty, no thoughts” is the perfect way to enjoy It Takes Two.—Moises Taveras
Microsoft and EA’s deal to connect EA Play with Game Pass brought dozens of Electronic Arts titles into the library, including whole series such as Dead Space and Battlefield. The original Mass Effect trilogy is the crown jewel among them, a sprawling space epic that features some of the best writing and characters in Bioware’s long history. Mass Effect 2 is especially great—over a decade later, it remains one of the best unions of games and cinema—but the whole trilogy is worth playing if you never have before.—Garrett Martin
Microsoft Flight Simulator is a technological marvel, with a variety of innovations that make its virtual world as faithful to our real one as possible, and I have no idea how any of it works. Forget the technology, though. The most important thing about Microsoft Flight Simulator is that it’s become an unlikely emotional support system. It connects us to something we can’t currently touch or feel, something we’ve been sorely missing, which is a sense of normalcy. Yeah, it’s an illusion. Yeah, it’s disappointing to take those headphones off and look up from the monitor and realize I’m back in the same house I haven’t left in half a year. But when I’m in that digital cockpit all that stuff fades away, and it takes my stress and depression along with it, at least for a little while. And that’s worth something.—Garrett Martin
Progression in Minecraft takes investment, patience, research and a reliance on the knowledge and efforts of others. These are values that modern convenience and modern media have encouraged us to abandon, videogames included. With every quest-line, every arrow pointing the way and every pre-established reward, we grow just a little bit farther outside of ourselves and buy in just a little bit more to the cultural zeitgeist. We’re content with this because we’ve lost the ability to create structure and meaning for ourselves outside of a pre-established system. In Minecraft, we’re finally left alone—a shockingly simple and subversive approach that makes the game both unapproachable and essential.—Richard Clark
Mirror’s Edge is a modern classic, one of the best games of its (or any other) era, and as much of an anomaly today as it was when it was released in 2008. With its emphasis on movement over combat and its sleek, futuristic cityscape, it doesn’t look, feel or play like any other big budget first-person game. It’s focused almost exclusively on forward motion, as you sprint through the city and pinball off walls and ledges while avoiding contact with violent security forces as much as possible. You can fight back, poorly, but the game never forces you to, always leaving open an escape route, even if you may not always be able to see it at first or enter the complicated button pattern required to exploit it. It rarely slows down, shuttling the player from level to level, each one offering a different perspective on the dystopian city where citizens are constantly under surveillance. The intentionally slim story is similarly rushed through, relayed through brief animated cut-scenes before and after every level. There are almost no wasted moments, and few distractions from the core tenants of running fast and climbing hard. The game is as elegantly designed as the city it’s set in, and it’s as fresh and exhilarating today as it was in 2008.—Garrett Martin
It was shocking enough when it was announced that Sony’s MLB The Show 21 would be coming out for Xbox consoles. After all, this is a first-party Sony series that has been exclusive to the PlayStation for its entire long history. Xbox loyalists who were baseball fans could only read about how deeply and realistically MLB The Show recreated the look and feel of baseball until this year. Then the equally surprising news came out that not only would the game be available for the Xbox for the first time, but it would be on Game Pass at launch—meaning subscribers don’t even have to pay for it. Xbox fans not only finally get their first taste of The Show, but actually have an advantage over PlayStation owners. The latest edition of The Show is a great introduction to both what the series does well and to its few drawbacks; it’s so committed to recreating the baseball experience, but while also providing players with a wide variety of options in play style and control scheme, that it can simply be overwhelming. It can be hard to get a handle on. Also, unlike most baseball videogames, its core mechanics—y’know, hitting, pitching, the stuff you do in a baseball game—pretty much always remain challenging. This isn’t the kind of baseball game where half your lineup will have 60 home runs by the All Star Break. Every at bat requires patience, a good eye, pinpoint accuracy, and lightning-fast reflexes—like baseball itself.—Garrett Martin
Nier: Automata is a mature, sophisticated game that avoids the JRPG trap of the narrative, the themes and the play being separate entities. Platinum and Yoko Taro are an expert pair here, harmoniously bringing together dozens of eclectic sources from philosophy to anime to history to real-life war to silly, over-the-top fight sequences into one cohesive whole where not a single part feels unnecessary, and all contribute to the larger message. It is a timely story about our priorities as a society and our continued relevance in an increasingly automated world, told in a clever way that makes meaning out of about four different genres worth of mechanics and yet could still be called elegant. It’s a sharp commentary that could only be done through games, and for now, it is easily the magnum opus of either of its authors.—Michelle Ehrhardt
Has there ever been a better game to get lost in? No Man’s Sky is aesthetically impeccable, from its psychedelic landscapes pulled straight from Yes album covers, to its krautrock-by-way-of-Friday Night Lights score. It’s easily the best screenshot machine in recent memory. It doesn’t reward the player’s patience and diligence as much as depend on them, which makes it as brave as it is respectful. A game that’s fundamentally hopeless, that’s fixated on the vast emptiness of the universe around us, somehow instills hope in us solely through its undeniable beauty. And 2018’s Next update gave us even more to do in this massive universe, and people to do it with.—Garrett Martin
Ori and the Blind Forest is a gorgeous adventure with an aesthetic that seems vaguely indebted to a variety of world cultures and mythologies. With its focus on forest spirits and a sylvan setting it resembles a Miyazaki film, but there’s no explicit connection to Japanese mythology. It borrows the fundamental feeling of mythic storytelling to depict a basic hero’s journey, with all the loss and personal growth that entails.—Garrett Martin
The brand-new sequel to 2015’s beloved hit has the same beautiful woodland setting and Metroid-style approach to play, but adds enough new mechanics and ideas to make it stand out on its own. It also doubles down on the sense of loss and loneliness and general atmosphere of collapse that gave the first one such an emotional resonance, and has a bittersweet ending that will push even the most hardened cynic to the verge of tears. Play Blind Forest first, then fire this one up.—Garrett Martin
It’d be easy to make Outer Wilds sound like a mash-up of familiar influences. It’s built around a recurring time loop like Majora’s Mask; you’ll fly from planet to planet in real time in search of ancient secrets, as in No Man’s Sky; you’ll explore a variety of eldritch mysteries baked into this solar system, not unlike a new-fangled Myst. Those ideas are implemented in such a unique and seamless way, though, that the total package feels unlike anything I’ve ever played before. It focuses on a race of gentle spacefarers who build rockets out of wood in order to map the other planets that circle their sun and dig up answers on ancient settlers who left wisdom spread throughout the galaxy. The developers have clearly thought long and hard about the alien universe they’ve created, from the specific nature of its physical laws, to the culture of the creatures who populate it. The result is a game that feels appropriately alien, strengthening our desire to unlock its mysteries and explore its culture.—Garrett Martin
The Overcooked games can be a little tough in terms of team work and coordination so you may get better results out of playing them with older family members than you would with children. However, it’s also an opportunity to teach kids (of all ages) how to take directions, pay attention to surroundings and contribute to a group task, all of which can help with social and cooperative skills in real life. Overcooked 2 also has the benefit of being fairly simple to teach; each dish only comes down to a few ingredients that are easy to identify, and once an assertive adult or older child steps in to assign roles in the kitchen, the completion of each recipe can go pretty smoothly. There are also some adorable and funky avatars to choose from that make the game just that much more fun; my 10 year old niece, for example, loves to play as the raccoon or the crocodile.—Holly Green
One of the decade’s biggest surprise hits has an unwieldy name, but there’s a reason for that: “PlayerUnknown” is actually a person, real name Brendan Greene, a well-known modder who created a Day Z mod based on the Japanese novel and movie Battle Royale. Battlegrounds takes that concept of a shooter where the goal is to eliminate every other player on an increasingly dangerous island and turns it into a far more accessible game. The extreme pressure of Battlegrounds elevates the multiplayer shooter to a previously unknown level of tension and catharsis, and spawned the entire battle royale genre that quickly took over all of gaming.—Garrett Martin
Psychonauts 2 feels like a game made by real people who care about real people. Many games have come down the pike the last several years with a focus on the psychological state of its characters, and thus its players, but too often they lack any tact or any legitimate insight into how people think and feel. They use sorrow and violence as shortcuts, relying on cheap scares and easy provocation. It’s like they’re made by machines, or the board room, or some algorithm that slightly rearranges previous AAA hits into something that’s supposedly new. Too many of these games fall into that witless trap of thinking something “serious” and “important” must also be humorless and dark, unrelentingly grim and fatalistic. Psychonauts 2 reveals that for the nonsense that it is, showing that you can more powerfully and realistically depict emotion when you use warmth, humor, humanity—the whole scope of emotions that make us who we are. Psychonauts 2 asks “how does it feel to feel?”, and then shows the answer to us—and the games industry at large—in brilliant colors.—Garrett Martin
Fittingly, Sable’s title comes from its protagonist’s name, not her role or the place she lives. It foreshadows the game’s small stakes. Sable is a Glider. Just now coming of age, she leaves her home to discover who she might become and what role she might play. To begin, Sable wears the mask of her culture, made from an Ibex skull. As Sable helps other people, she gets badges, which she can turn in for other masks. For example, she could take the mask of the mechanist becoming an expert on refashioning the ancient machinery around her into something practical. She could become a Climber, exploring the highest margins of the world. She could become something as yet unnamed or unanticipated. Its openness means that Sable makes very few demands of you. In a real sense, everything is optional. Because of that, it actually feels free. It is not the freedom to move through space uninhibited, to dominate or control. Rather it is the freedom to determine who you are, to let the people around you make you into something new.—Grace Benfell
Sea of Solitude is about trauma. The sticky, mud-like kind that cakes and cracks and stings because of the thousands of cuts and abrasions we’ve accumulated. The kind that builds up while we push it down and ignore the blood seeping from our knees and elbows as we try to carry on—distracting ourselves from how it crusts on us like barnacles, loading us down until we no longer recognize ourselves or our loved ones.
Kay—ashen, red-eyed, and monstrous—is our protagonist. She has about as many answers as we do. What we learn, she learns. Answers are given and taken away, and then recapitulate and recontextualize themselves. In this way, it mimics my own experience with trauma and recovery. This is a game about mental illness, even if it eludes that distinction. As grounded as it is, Kay’s journey is far more interested in a grounded metaphorization than clinical realities.—Dia Lacina
What I loved about Trading Simulator and keep coming back to is how unflinching it is. In Trading Simulator, if you don’t have the money, you need to suck it up and take on shitty deals to work your way back up. You need to make risky stock investments and hope they pay off, or go through days where you’re generating basically nothing until something happens to shift your luck. It may be easier to take an obvious scam in order to push through to more lucrative jobs. In the meantime, though, you’re going to get shafted, and it’s going to feel really bad—in a good way!—Moises Taveras
Continuing in the trend of “games that easily could be a children’s film,” SpiritFarer exhibits a winning combination of heart and magical whimsy. Set aboard a ferry for the deceased, the game is equal parts puzzle-adventure and management sim. Rooms can be built, a garden grown, and adventures embarked upon as the ferrymaster Stella and her merry band travel the world and learn how to self sustain through mining, farming, cooking, fishing and crafting. Along the way, Stella also cares for the spirits of the dead, fulfilling their final wishes before saying goodbye. With a direct but life-affirming approach to the topic of death, the game’s optimistic vulnerability is as wholesome as its charismatic and upbeat characters.—Holly Green
Fallen Order stacks some of the best parts of Metroid, Dark Souls and Uncharted inside a Star Wars trenchcoat, but that isn’t the smartest thing it does. That would be how it squarely centers on the stress and trauma of its characters. PTSD should be rampant in this universe, considering war is all anybody seems to know, and yet within the Star Wars canon it’s rarely been focused on as keenly or depicted as clearly as it is here. Its lead characters aren’t all that likable, for reasons that are both intentional and unintentional, and that is a flaw; still, they feel a bit more human than what you normally see in games and Star Wars stories, and that, combined with the guaranteed to please gameplay formula, makes Fallen Order a Star Wars highlight.—Garrett Martin
This loving tribute to Sega’s early ‘90s beat-’em-up doesn’t just channel an overlooked classic. It’s one of two recent games, alongside March’s smarter Treachery in Beatdown City, that revive a genre that was once a cornerstone of the whole medium. The primal thrill and eternal allure of pulverizing waves of bozos with your fists, feet and special moves might have ebbed since their quarter-swallowing heyday in the early ‘90s, but Streets of Rage 4 shows that, when done with love and attention, this kind of violence can be as invigorating as ever.—Garrett Martin
I have a healthy respect for aimless, open-ended games that let us play and explore at our own pace. They often don’t feel wasteful, no matter how many hours one can pour into them. What does feel wasteful are tightly scripted and guided games that drag on for hours and hours, pumping out new battlefields and bad guys to plow through between cutscenes well past the ten hour mark. Titanfall 2 cuts out all the extraneous business that can plague modern day action games, resulting in one of the tightest, tautest, tensest first-person shooters in recent memory, with a solid helping of mind-bending mechanical tomfoolery on the side. Like The Last Guardian, a game that otherwise could not be any more different than this one, at the core is a touching, heartfelt relationship between man and (techno)beast that trounces most of the human relationships found in games. Titanfall 2 is a laser beam with a heart.—Garrett Martin
Undertale is a special game, the likes of which come along only once in a great while. It’s a look into a parallel universe—one where videogames have realized a bit more of their potential than, say, the AAA industry has in our world. It’s a game that can make you laugh while teary-eyed, where both competing emotions are natural and genuine. It’s fun, it’s sweet; it’s an experience that will stay with you long after you’ve put the game away.—Bryce Duzan
Wasteland 3 puts you in the shoes of an external force with the unique capability to see through internal affairs, and gives players a glimpse at what a stranglehold on power can result in. Every choice you make, from dialogue options to money management, gives the feeling that you really are in a wasteland, just trying to get by. It’s a harrowing vision of a world that could come to pass, and a poignant commentary on the one we’re just trying to make it through today.—Nicolas Perez
Yakuza 0’s overarching faithfulness to its era and place in history provides fascinating insight into the time, and its over-the-top cutscenes and climactic fights quickly endeared me to the series. A hefty batch of side-games and engaging, well-paced combat roped me in and sold me on my first ever Yakuza experience, but the vibrancy of its semi-fictional Japan will be what I remember most. Yakuza 0 doubles-down on the series’ signature combination of hyperbolic action and self-aware comedy, while providing an honest window into a major period in recent Japanese history, and does so flawlessly.—Eric Van Allen
Senior editor Garrett Martin writes about videogames, comedy, travel, theme parks, wrestling, and anything else that gets in his way. He’s also on Twitter @grmartin.