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. Game Pass consistently adds great games every month, with recent favorites like Death’s Door, Psychonauts 2, Forza Horizon 5, and It Takes Two arriving on the service over the last year. Microsoft is banking hard that a subscription service like this is the future of gaming, with the recent acquisition of Zenimax and proposed purchase of Activision Blizzard eyed to keeping the Game Pass content pipeline chugging along. Will it work long term? Who knows, but for now it’s a fantastic deal for consumers.
Game Pass already had a deep lineup that 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 a few dozen 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
You can think of Citizen Sleeper as a sort of digital board game set in a sci-fi dystopia beset by end-stage capitalism and all the rampant dehumanization that entails. It’s a game about work and death where the only levity comes from the relationships we make with others—yes, the friends we made along the way, but not nearly as banal or obvious as that sounds. It questions what it means to be a person in a system that inherently subjugates personhood to corporations and wealth, and it probably won’t surprise you that the answers it lands on aren’t always the most optimistic or uplifting. Here at Paste Cameron Kunzelman described its “melancholy realism” as part of a trend alongside other story-driven games that are largely hostile to the dominance of capitalism, and it echoes the impossibility of thinking seriously about this medium, this industry, and, well, every aspect of society today without discussing the impersonal economic system that drives it all. It’s a heady RPG that respects your time and intelligence, and one of this year’s must-play games.
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
Death’s Door implicitly argues something the entertainment world at large needs to understand: Nostalgia doesn’t have to be shameless or oppressive. It doesn’t have to be the summation of a game’s (or a movie’s, or a TV show’s) ambition. It doesn’t have to be splashed all over the cover and title screen, or the full extent of the marketing campaign. Death’s Door deeply evokes the spirit of some of the most beloved games of all time, and does it well enough that anybody familiar with those legendary games will no doubt recognize and appreciate it. And it does all this with a context and presentation that makes it feel new and vital and not just like a calculated imitation of the past. It takes so much of what made the original Zelda and A Link to the Past into timeless classics, but makes them into their own. Nostalgia can be part of the package, but it shouldn’t be the whole point, and Death’s Door’s cocktail of mechanical nostalgia and narrative creativity is something we don’t see enough of in today’s IP-crazed business.—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
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
The World of Assassination trilogy redefined the Hitman games as engrossing open-world puzzles with multiple, often intricate solutions. Although the goal is still to murder a target—you wouldn’t be a hitman otherwise—the challenge comes not from shooting or even stealth in the traditional videogame sense, but from noticing the patterns and routines found in each mission, and constructing Goldbergian systems of cause and effect that put you in the right place at the right time to kill your mark. These Hitman games offer a unique form of strategy, and all three are available in a single bundle on Game Pass.—Garrett Martin
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
Sam Barlow has created his own micro-genre of games built around mundane video sources. First it was the police interrogation videos of Her Story, and then the video calls of Telling Lies. With Immortality, Barlow and his team go fully cinematic, presenting a mystery about a forgotten actress from the late ‘60s who disappeared after her three starring roles went unreleased. The footage from those lost films resemble different styles of film from two different eras, and the interface is set up like an old Moviola editing desk. You’ll sort through her short film career looking for insight into why she vanished, clicking from one clip to another, including outtakes and talk show appearances. Over time the mystery takes an unsettling turn into horror, but Immortality doesn’t lose site of its themes—voyeurism, the power of sex, the inherent exploitation of movies, the specific exploitation and power dynamics of the director/actor relationship, etc.—in chase of scares.—Garrett Martin
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
Cardboard Computer’s exploration into the mysteries of the mundane finally came to an end in early 2020, making its console debut at the same time. This magical realist adventure combines the mythological folkways of “old weird America”—here personified by a stretch of rural Kentucky that regularly phases between the familiar and unearthly—with a pointed critique of how capitalism reduces everybody to interchangeable commodities. Workers grind themselves to bones to pay off their “debt” to their employers, pharmaceutical companies basically own the doctors who prescribe their medicine, and an amiable truck driver gets lost on a routine delivery with no end in sight. It’s a beautiful bit of inspired genius, as good on the Xbox as it was on PC.—Garrett Martin
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. And the recent Legendary Edition remaster of the whole series is now on Game Pass, if you haven’t played that yet.—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. 21 was just replaced on Game Pass with the brand new MLB The Show 22, letting subscribers upgrade to the latest installment. The Show 22 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
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
As a Southerner I don’t really trust anybody to write about the South unless they, too, are from here—or at least have lived here long enough to truly understand what makes it great and awful in equal measure, and how the ways in which the South is actually fucked up often diverge from the ways in which outsiders think it’s fucked up. Norco, a smart narrative-driven game about the unique ways in which institutions like religion and big business have exploited the South, its people and its land throughout history, is clearly the work of people who understand this region and its fundamental defects. It’s an unflinching, occasionally surreal glimpse into an only slightly exaggerated version of Louisiana, with its mythical and allegorical flourishes only highlighting the aimless mundanity and real-life degradations of the modern South. If you only play one game from this list, make it Norco.—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
There’s a lot to like about the stylish murder mystery Paradise Killer. It’s one of the most unique games you’ll play this year, an open-ended first-person investigation game built around searching for clues and interrogating characters that all look like art school demons from some kind of hipster-exclusive hell. With its ‘00s-era 3D aesthetic and vaporwave visuals, it doesn’t really look like any other game you’ll see this year. It’s the writing that really sets it apart, though—often philosophical, often funny, and with a depth and nuance that’s still too rare in videogames.—Garrett Martin
On every level, Pentiment’s illustrations, storytelling choices, and most clearly people are a mirror for the manuscripts that shape its characters’ lives. Whether they read or not, everyone is a repository of history, with their own verbal handwriting, quirks, and opinions on what the town of Tassing’s legacy should be. These human texts open up genuinely insightful questions about authenticity in art and what it will come to mean centuries later, as well as what to do when your history has been lost to you. It is a beautiful portrait of history that doesn’t limit itself from commenting on labor inequity, parental loss, or artistic hopelessness, all things the medieval and early modern art it draws from portrays so vividly. In bringing some of those stories to us today, Pentiment accomplishes the remarkable goal of being both clear-eyed about the medieval period’s faults, and sincere about its masterpieces.—Emily Price
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
With most videogame sequels you expect the three “-ers”: bigger, badder and better. At least that’s what the standard marketing boilerplate drones on about at every E3 press conference. Spelunky 2 can scratch off that “bigger” tag, at least—it has more worlds than the first game, although its branching structure makes sure that you don’t see them all during a single playthrough. There are multiple tweaks throughout that marks this as its own unique game, and yet despite those changes the ultimate experience perfectly recaptures how it feels to play Spelunky. It’s less a sequel than a continuation, or some parallel dimension’s version of what Spelunky has always been.
The genius of Spelunky 2 is that it somehow adds new possibilities to a game that already had endless possibilities. That’s legitimately impressive. And that’s why I’m sure I’ll be playing this for as long as I’ve played the original, both games coexisting blissfully together as one of the absolute best parent-child pairs in gaming.
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
Platforms: PlayStation 4, Xbox One, PC, Switch
This loving tribute to the multiplayer beat ‘em ups of the late ‘80s and early ‘90s focuses like a laser on the nostalgia of a certain generation. It’s not just that it’s based on the version of the Turtles from the first cartoon and toy series (complete with the original voice actors), the same era that inspired the beloved arcade brawler from 1989; the entire genre is so inherently old-fashioned that it can’t help but feel like some long-lost game from 30 years ago. If you miss teaming up with your friends to bash generic punks and thugs in a cartoonish version of New York City, Shredder’s Revenge will wind back the clock for you. It wouldn’t make this list if it was just nostalgia, though; Shredder’s Revenge adds enough modern tweaks to drag that formula into the 21st century. It’s an example of a game that does what it sets out to do about as well as it possibly could.—Garrett Martin
Telling Lies takes the database exploration of Her Story and doubles down on it by asking you to not only solve a mystery but also to disentangle what is the truth, what is a lie, and then to determine where each of these lies exists in a hierarchy of morality. The whole thing barrels toward a conclusion that I saw coming from miles away, but that didn’t make it any less sad or horrible or anger-inducing. It’s one of the first true videogame thrillers.—Cameron Kunzelman
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
There’s something incredibly special about Tunic. Developed almost solely by Andrew Shouldice, the game presents itself as a cute action-adventure title in the vein of the original Legend of Zelda. The exacting combat, ethereal music, and sublime art direction are all in service of something far more complex. It’s a masterfully crafted puzzle-box that provides all the answers, if you know where to look.—Mik Deitz
Does this sound familiar? A city’s in lockdown after a crisis, its citizens wearing face masks for their own health. Heavily armed cops patrol streets rife with anti-cop graffiti. Institutions have violated their compact with the people, and those in power came down hard on those who rose up against them. It’s real life around the world right now, but it’s also the setting for Umurangi Generation, a beautiful photo game that contrasts the peacefulness of taking photos and making art with the fear and violence of a police state, and which came out a week before the protests inspired by George Floyd’s murder went global. The societal issues that people are protesting are timeless, sadly, and embedded at the very foundation of our culture, which means a game like Umurangi will always be timely—at least until society is transformed to the point of being unrecognizable. Playing Umurangi over the last few days can be taxing, especially if you turn to games simply to shut out the world around you and ignore what’s happening. The added context of the last week also makes it exhilarating, though, and in a way that leaves me feeling a bit guilty and shameful—like a tourist who, instead of documenting real life oppression, is living in a fictionalized version of it. The events that inspired Umurangi’s crisis are environmental—designer Naphtali Faulkner’s mother’s house was destroyed during the bush fires that raged through Australia last year, and the game’s dark red skies hint at a different kind of trauma than the one currently happening in America and elsewhere. It’s one that still looms above all of society, though; if we don’t tear our own cities down first, the worsening climate problem inevitably will. Despite the different disasters, and even with its futuristic, sci-fi trappings, Umurangi Generation is a vital, current, powerful game that uncannily captures the mood of its time.—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
I blame it on the garlic, which obliterated enemies that dared step to me, and made me feel invincible. Of course I wasn’t, and fell mere minutes later, but that taste of what it might mean to utterly dominate the indomitable was more than enough to hook me on Vampire Survivors. Even as I write this blurb, my eyes are darting over to the game’s icon on my desktop, and I can almost hear it calling me. Vampire Survivors is a game that pretty explicitly digs its claws into everyone who plays it, but you have to be willing to embrace the cacophony that follows to be really happy with it. Inside that madness is a wonderful roguelike—an alchemical wonder, if you will—that obscures its depth and secrets with simple graphics and overwhelming odds. It is the easiest game to pick up and the hardest to let go of and, whoops, I’ve begun another run.—Moises Taveras
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
What makes Yakuza 6 so compelling is that it succeeds in making the insignificant seem significant. It focuses on the minutiae of the world, from the detailed shop interiors that serve no purpose other than to ground you in the setting, to the nearby citizens who go about their daily business as anarchy unfolds around them in your wake. But perhaps the greatest feat of all is that the game trusts you, the player, to find it all yourself. By refusing to hold your hand and lead you from A to B, it gives you room to explore, to procrastinate and breathe between story steps, and it’s in those moments of respite that you’ll find the best of what the Yakuza series has to offer.—Andy Moore