The Best Games on Xbox Game Pass (May 2021)

Games Lists Xbox Game Pass
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The Best Games on Xbox Game Pass (May 2021)

Microsoft has staked the future of the Xbox to Xbox Game Pass, a Netflix-style subscription service that lets you download hundreds of games for your Xbox or PC for as little as $10 a month. Game Pass is full of Microsoft’s first party games, including the entire Halo and Gears of War 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.

One note, though, and a sad one: Thumper, the foreboding, psychedelic rhythm game that’s one of the greatest games in recent memory, left Game Pass at the end of April. I’m not sure how big a blow that is to the average consumer, but for us here at Paste it was the single-best game on the whole service. Fortunately it added another pretty good (and very surprising) one in April, with the arrival of the former Sony exclusive MLB The Show, which is a nice sports-sim complement to the dozens of action games and RPGs already on our list.

A Plague Tale: Innocence

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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


Alan Wake

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“Remedy’s inspired homage to Twin Peaks and The Twilight Zone gets the pacing and presentation of a TV show just right. Its core metafictional concept (writer Alan Wake wars with his own inner darkness in a world created by his words) is bolstered by fantastic atmosphere, memorable secondary characters and the cliffhanger twists of a great TV mystery.”—Garrett Martin


Ape Out

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Slaughtering tons of dudes has never felt so morally appropriate before. Ape Out makes a statement about animal abuse by focusing on a gorilla lab subject’s violent escape from captivity. It has the mechanical precision and deceptively deep game loop of a classic arcade game, but with a gorgeous aesthetic based on Saul Bass art and jazz percussion. Levels are packaged as if they’re tracks on old LPs, and the whole game looks like the cover to Miles Davis’s greatest hits come to life. It looks and sounds amazing, feels good to play, and has a just and socially relevant message, to boot.—Garrett Martin


Carrion

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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


Control

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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

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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


Dead Cells

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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


Dishonored 2

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

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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


Doom Eternal

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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


Downwell

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Downwell is a crunchy, rapid-fire “Spelunky-like” (are we at that point already? Are we prepared to start describing games as “Spelunky-likes”?) but, instead of side-scrolling, Downwell occurs vertically, in a procedurally-generated dungeon that the player falls down through. The player’s sprite will often fall right past powerups, enemies, and treasure rooms, making the game wonderfully frenetic torture. Fortunately, the player is equipped with a pair of goddamn gun-boots—making you, the player, feel incredibly powerful for every second you’re not staring in shock at the Game Over screen. —Jenn Frank


The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim

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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


Fable II

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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


Fallout: New Vegas

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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


Gears 5

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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


Genesis Noir

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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


Halo: The Master Chief Collection

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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


Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice

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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


Hollow Knight

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


Hypnospace Outlaw

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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


The Mass Effect Series

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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


Minecraft

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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


Microsoft Flight Simulator

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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


Mirror’s Edge

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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


MLB The Show 21

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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

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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


Night in the Woods

The genius of Night in the Woods is that it grounds its heavy themes not in the worn down characters of Raymond Carver, but in the queer anarchist punks of its lead character’s generation. The game is a rare look at characters who balance all of the burdens above with a love for retro videogames and band practice and drinking in the woods while some blowhard from high school plays acoustic guitar. The game borrows tonally from a variety of sources—everything from the hyperkinetic Scott Pilgrim to the peculiar horror of Haruki Murakami or Blue Velvet back to the blue collar sob stories of Breece D’J Pancake. Plus, did I mention all the characters are animals? Like BoJack Horseman, this aesthetic allows the game to fluctuate rapidly between over-the-top absurdity and soul crushing sadness.—Salvatore Pane


No Man’s Sky

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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

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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


Ori and the Will of the Wisps

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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


Outer Wilds

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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


Overcooked 2

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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


Playerunknown’s Battlegrounds

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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


ScourgeBringer

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Despite accurately calling itself a “roguelite,” what most makes ScourgeBringer work isn’t its trendy genre. It’s not the structure, but the mechanics. Playing this game requires a rigorous physicality that never becomes overly complicated. It’s not dissimilar to playing a fighting game, in how you’ll have to be comfortable using every button at your disposal. You essentially wrestle with the controller, although not in a way that’s tedious; the bulk of the action is entering a new room and slicing or shooting through two waves of enemies as quickly as possible, with a time-based combo meter that increases the amount of money you earn with each kill. Money is important in a game that’s otherwise light on power-ups, so you want to keep that combo as high as possible. And so every fight becomes a sprint, with you trying to string attacks together while avoiding damage; once you’ve defeated a room, you’re still on the clock, and with enough planning can swoop into the next room and start the carnage again within the few seconds before your combo streak resets. You’ll careen through the game’s randomized labyrinths, stabbing face buttons to double jump or strike your enemies, parrying their attacks to leave them stunned and weakened, and clutching down on shoulder triggers to rush through the air or fire off a variety of firearms, and doing it all as quickly and accurately as you can. Yes, it’s like a kind of dance, one that you do with your fingers, and it never quite grows old.—Garrett Martin


Sea of Solitude

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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


SpiritFarer

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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


Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order

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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


Streets of Rage 4

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


Titanfall 2

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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

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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

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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

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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.

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