(And what you should probably pick up in the sales)
As we plummet headlong down the stairs of fate into the cast iron banister of 2020, it’s time to reflect on a mostly-hellish decade. The past ten years have been a roller coaster of global disaster and growing stress… But at least the videogames have been good, and I’ve been writing about them for RPS, PC Gamer, PCGamesN and other sites. You can see more of my work here on Muckrack, or yell at me directly on Twitter.
While I’ll make no claims to this being comprehensive (my memory is only so good and this decade had many, many games), I’ve put together some thoughts on the best and most notable games of the past decade across all platforms. Please note that I’ve no particular love for MOBAs, battle royale shooters or block-building sandboxes, so those may seem conspicuously absent. Anyway, Minecraft was 2009, so it doesn’t count.
In no particular order, and interspersed with current sales recommendations, here’s what I feel were the games of 201X that most resonated with my soul.
If you’ve followed me for more than a few weeks on Twitter, you’ve probably seen me mention this. It’s not as fancy or glamorous as many other games on this list, but this labour of love (by two queer indie devs) is probably my favourite platform action game of the decade, and something I keep coming back to.
The heart of Copy Kitty is its weapon alchemy system. Almost every enemy drops one of a dozen or so weapon types with limited ammo. You have three weapon slots. You can fire each of the three carried weapons, or a shot combining properties of two or all three at once. A plasma beam, an explosive shot and a tornado uppercut combine to create a whirling dervish of laser explosions that clears the screen of danger. There’s a huge number of combinations, and a huge number of levels and bosses to use them on.
Copy Kitty is also a very lengthy game. Two playable characters with their own stories and completely different weapon systems, and a Hard mode that continues after the end of Normal, remixing every level and battle. There’s even some secret battles that are well worth seeking out. This one has depths.
Copy Kitty is currently at its all-time cheapest on Steam, has integrated workshop support for extra levels (if you still want more) and just recently got a final update adding some alternate character skins and polish. There’s also a free demo, just in case you’re still on the fence. Trust me on this one, though — the more you play of it, the deeper it reveals itself to be.
Battle Royale (the original novel) meets murder mystery. This trilogy of nigh hallucinatory visual novels is an experience unlike any other.
A maniacal robot bear throws a classroom full of anime teenagers (each with some manner of superhuman talent) into a sealed environment and tells them that the only way out is to kill a classmate and get away with the crime. Wacky antics ensue, until someone dies horribly and then it’s mystery-solvin’ time, and off to the class courtroom to deduce the culprit, untangle all the intentional misdirections and send the guilty party to their execution. Fail, and everyone else croaks instead. No pressure, then.
Larger-than-life characters, some genuinely good mystery elements and tense (if overly minigame-focused) class trials add up to something that’s more than the sum of its parts. It’s weird, lurid and unforgettable — One of the most outright entertaining visual novel series’ around. You can get all three main games in a discount bundle on Steam here.
Do note that Danganronpa V3 is not, in fact, Danganronpa 3. Once you’ve finished the first two games, you’ll find the third part of the story is an anime series on Funimation. Note that they’ve ordered the episodes wrong — start with the Future Arc Ep1, then Despair Ep1, then repeat until the end.
Jimmy, LISA & OneShot
In the wake of Undertale’s success, there was a resurgence of Earthbound-inspired, offbeat indie JRPGs. Jimmy And The Pulsating Mass, LISA: The Painful RPG and OneShot are three of the best.
Starting with the mildest of the three, OneShot actually predates Undertale, at least in its original incarnation. Originally an experimental little game where you (fittingly) only had one chance to finish the game with no chance to start over. The final version is more narrative-focused and utterly pummels the fourth wall. Expect to follow hints outside of the game and around your own hard drive. It’s worth it though.
Jimmy And The Pulsating Mass is, mechanically speaking, straightforward RPG Maker boilerplate. Its art is decent and the combat is well balanced, but it’s not that amazing. What makes it a must-play and one of my favourite JRPGs of the year is its strange dream-world setting. Jimmy is an empathic child, changing shape based on how he imagines others to feel. The world is a fractured, occasionally nightmarish patchwork of his hopes, dreams and fears. Be warned though, the story gets pretty heavy at points, and when it veers hard into horror territory, the cute aesthetic can get a little bloodied up.
LISA: The Painful (and its expansion/epilogue, The Joyful) is just amazing. Take one part Children Of Men, one part Mad Max and three parts stupid. In a world where women have mysteriously disappeared, ageing manly-man-children doing sick kung fu moves and mutagenic drugs to pass the time until the world dies. That is, until a lone girl is found, and the fight to claim her tears the wasteland apart. It’s heavy stuff, but also consistently funny, in a horrifying kinda way. Also worth playing is Lisa: The Hopeful, a fan-game that captures the spirit of the original better than it has any right to.
Batman: The Arkham Trilogy
The caped crusader is one of the most enduring figures in comics, but it wasn’t until this decade that they really did Bruce Wayne justice. Sunsoft’s NES platformer aside, it wasn’t until Rocksteady’s Arkham trilogy that they really nailed that feeling of being Batman. Part stealth, part brawler, part detective mystery, and all latex-clad and brooding.
All three games still look fantastic, especially on PC, and arguably better than the recent remasters on consoles which made some questionable changes to the art direction. While Arkham Asylum was more of a Bat-themed Metroid-alike, Arkham City and Arkham Knight expanded the scope of the game to semi-open-world scale. The design creaks a little bit under its own weight by the last act of Arkham Knight, but Rocksteady wrap things up before the game outstays its welcome.
The entire Arkham trilogy (plus the LEGO Batman series) was a recent giveaway on the Epic store, but you can get the three-game set — including copious DLC — for cheap in the Steam sale here. Oh, and one pro tip for Arkham Knight: Change the Batmobile controls to the alternate set ASAP. They’re a huge improvement.
Whether you call them beat ’em ups, scrolling brawlers or subscribe to the Japanese ‘belt action’ definition, this is a genre that hasn’t seen much love since the mid 90s, but the soul still burns. While interest in the genre was sparked again by Castle Crashers, I didn’t think much of it. The excellent fan-made Streets Of Rage Remake polishes a classic to a mirror sheen, but it’s arguably not *new*. Dragon’s Crown is frequently excellent (a spiritual successor to Capcom’s Dungeons & Dragons brawlers) but perhaps a bit too visually noisy with more than two players.
But my personal pick above all is Fight’N’Rage. If you can roll with some tiny sprites with bountiful bouncing bosoms (clearly channelling Mai Shiranui from King Of Fighters), you’ll find a game with a sky-high skill ceiling, but beatable even if you’re a genre newbie. A branching story, tons of unlockable goodies, satisfyingly crunchy with a wild combo system make this one sing. A playthrough is under an hour, but mastering it may take months.
You can pick it up cheap via Steam or GOG until sales season ends. I called it possibly the best brawler ever made when I reviewed it for RPS and I stand by that assessment. It’s on consoles now, too. It looks like interest in the genre is still going strong, with the Streets of Rage-inspired The Takeover just recently released, and from the little I’ve played so far, it seems solid. And coming in the new year, we’ve got Streets Of Rage 4. Here’s hoping the genre only continues to evolve from here.
XCOM 1 & 2 (Firaxis)
Another immensely influential return this decade was Civilization studio Firaxis trying their hand at reviving X-Com/UFO: Enemy Unknown. Rather than directly recreate its more simulation-style mechanics, they boiled it down to its board game-esque fundamentals. The result is a game of impressive depth and expandability that just about anyone can wrap their noodle around, without losing that tension and horror as your new recruits get their faces melted off by alien marauders.
Both XCOM and XCOM 2 received massive expansions that greatly built on the simple core, adding layers of new strategic and tactical problems. The latter has fully integrated mod support, meaning that it’ll have legs for years. There have been dozens of imitators already, and a resurgence of interest in back-to-basics X-Com (90s) style games like Xenonauts, and the recent Phoenix Point, developed by X-Com’s original designer. There’s even been a resurgence in classic X-Com modding thanks to an open source engine.
The influence of XCOM can be seen all over, from the semi-recent Shadowrun reboots (and their tactical combat) and beyond. But it’s probably best to play the source of that inspiration first. You can snag XCOM 2 cheap in the sales here, check out one of its biggest mod packs here, and if you’re feeling old-school, check out X-Com Classic’s biggest mod, X-Piratez, here.
Gravity Rush 1 & 2
It has been a good decade for superhero games on the whole, but if you’re going to play just one series, I’d recommend Gravity Rush Remastered (now PS4, formerly Vita exclusive) and its vastly more ambitious sequel.
Gravity Rush reminds me of the late Dreamcast/early Xbox heyday of Sega. There’s a bit of SmileBit soul to this one, in its vaguely Panzer Dragoon-esque world, fictional language and floaty, dreamlike feel. It also conveys a wonderful sense of gravity manipulation being immensely powerful but hard to control as a superpower, as protagonist Kat doesn’t so much ‘fly’ as ‘fall upwards in a rough direction’, until close enough to an enemy to deliver a gravity-boosted flying kick.
Qud & ‘Classic’ Roguelikes
One of the most tiresome arguments of this decade has been what ‘roguelike’ even means. What was once a definition exclusively limited to turn-based dungeon crawls with ASCII art now covers a huge range of procedurally generated games of wildly varying styles.
While boring, there has been a push from developers of ‘classic’ style roguelikes to reclaim the ground lost to these young’uns and their fancy sounds and graphics. Among the best is Caves Of Qud, a pulp sci-fi post-post-post apocalyptic romp that lets you create all manner of strange mutant characters to explore a sprawling open world with. Want to be a four-armed frog centaur? Or a psychic mothman? Go wild.
Straddling the line between old-school and new is Unexplored. A real-time action roguelike heavily inspired by Brogue, a freeware ‘back to basics’ take on the genre. It generates complex looping dungeons, with puzzles, hidden passages and multiple solutions to its problems. As it has no experience system, there’s no reason to risk combat that isn’t necessary, so stealth is inherently worthwhile, and monsters have self-preservation instincts. A wild animal is unlikely to hurl itself onto your sword, especially if you have a lit torch as well.
Cogmind is a tactical, vaguely XCOM-inspired roguelike about building up a robot body from nothing. Starting as a floating, magnetic core, you bolt on components. Wheels, or legs or arms or guns or blades, and just keep expanding until you’re a roaming ball of murder. While almost entirely ASCII-based, it does a lot with its sound effects and some clever animations.
Also worth mentioning is Golden Krone Hotel, with a simple interface hiding a lot of tactical complexity as you navigate a huge gothic structure filled with vampires. You get to shapeshift too, whether it be between human and vampire form, or perhaps into a werewolf whenever the light of the full moon lands on you. Dodge shafts of daylight, smash windows to burn the undead and get creative when you can.
Last of the roguelike roundup is Jupiter Hell. Still in early access but a lot of fun. A direct followup to the free Doom Roguelike, minus the Id license. It’s Doom, but turn-based and tactical, and it works. Shoot barrels, buff up your super shotgun and kill ten billion demons. Bonus points for getting the voice of Mass Effect’s dude-Shepard to voice the space marine.
Path Of Exile
There have been a lot of action RPGs this decade, but most will agree that — at least initially — Blizzard dropped the ball with Diablo 3, opening the door for New Zealand-based upstarts Grinding Gear Games to take a shot at the genre.
What started as an initially short if mechanically interesting indie ARPG has grown into a free-to-play monster. The game now spans a huge ten-act story, followed by a nigh-infinite endgame. But it’s not the scale of it all (although I do like its setting and characters) that makes it sing, but its systems. While your choice of character determines your early options, you can build your adventurer however you wish, customising skills in complex ways and stacking perks and resistances to best synergise with your gear.
Path Of Exile is also ever-growing. Every three months, Grinding Gear roll out a quarterly mini-expansion, and are currently working on a full-blown sequel that will, amazingly, be launching as a free update to the original game. All of this for the price of nothing, as the game itself is entirely free, and money can only get you some self-sorting stash tabs (handy, but not essential) and cosmetic character skins. Grab it free direct from the developers or on Steam.
Zach Barth has arguably had one of the strongest decades in all of indie game development. The puzzle-generating super-brain launched the excellent SpaceChem at the start of the decade, and kept that inertia going right up until the final moments of the year and the launch of the low-fi and grimy Molek-Syntez.
‘Zachlikes’, as they’ve come to be known, aren’t like regular puzzle games where there’s only one solution. Instead, you’re given a task, a huge toolbox of resources and asked to figure out what the most efficient, or aesthetically pleasing, or just excessively complex solution is. So long as the job gets done, it’s a win, so there’s a lot of room for personal expression. It’s a bit like programming, but with better music and aesthetics.
While some Zachlikes (such as TIS-100 and Shenzhen I/O) are literally about programming, I’d recommend newcomers start out with Opus Magnum, a stylish and accessible game about making clockwork alchemical engines. My personal favourite is Infinifactory, though. A successor of sorts to Infiniminer (Zach’s game which inspired Minecraft), it takes the Zachlike concepts and applies them to a familiar block-building sandbox. Carve statues out of raw stone, assemble rocket components and build weird alien devices only using Ikea-style visual instructions. Fun times.
Storming Game Of The Year lists around the world, this detective RPG/adventure from Estonian indies ZA/UM takes the foundation laid by Planescape: Torment, rips out everything resembling a combat engine and replaces it with an immensely complex web of reactive dialogues, where your character’s stats alter the very fabric of your personality, what insights you take away from conversation, and your options.
It tells the story of a detective recovering from a self-destructive bender so absolute it destroyed his memory, which makes solving the case at hand a little harder. It’s also tough because it’s set in a politically messy alternate Earth’s 1970s, in a post-war city still broken after a failed communist uprising. It’s heavy stuff, and the tone of the game is one of deep leftist mourning and frustration. It’s good, then, that it’s also frequently very funny when it’s not tackling all-too-real labour disputes and the failings of ‘moderate’ centrism.
Be warned, though. This game deserves every possible content warning applied to it. Characters are frequently hugely bigoted, and there’s opportunities for the player to behave as such too. Some would (fairly) argue that it goes too far sometimes. Still, uncomfortable as it may be, if you can stomach it, I highly recommend a trip through the broken city of Revachol.
Yep, one of my favourite games of the decade is a mod for Garry’s Mod. Deal with it.
Jazztronauts is special. It is a (literal) deconstruction of first-person videogames in general, asking players to smash-and-grab their way through a random collection of maps lifted direct from the Garry’s Mod Steam Workshop. You steal trash, pawn it off to cosmic forces unknown, upgrade your gear and use it to collect artifacts of power hidden around the multiverse.
That part is ingenious and fun in of it self, but Jazztronauts has a story, too. You’re working alongside a jazz band of four whimsical cartoon cats, each with their own remarkably complex problems, philosophies and desires. Bring them home the items they need and you’ll get to the heart of what makes them tick. There’s even a hidden B-plot that doesn’t unlock until New Game Plus mode, though I don’t want to spoil anything beyond its existence.
It occasionally touches on heavy subjects, but often with a wry smile. Seldom has substance abuse been quite so funny and horrifying at the same time. It’s respectful, heartfelt stuff, and also complete anarchy filled with weird cat gremlins. You’ll like it, I’m sure, and you can play it with friends, too. You’ll need Garry’s Mod to play this, and you can grab the mod itself on the Steam Workshop here.
And the award for Best Game That I Am Terrible At goes to the whole Redlynx Trials series, or at least Trials Evolution, Fusion and the recently-released Rising.
On the surface, this may look like a motorcycle stunt-racing game, but it’s really a physics-driven puzzle platformer. Figure out how to shift your weight and jam on the throttle to get yourself past seemingly impossible hazards, then do it again until you’ve got a record-breaking time. Or you can just dig into the tens of thousands of user-made tracks, minigames and more.
It’s one of those ‘simple to play, very, very hard to master’ games. Just two analogue triggers and one stick is all you need to play this. Lean and throttle. What you can do with just those three axes of force is amazing, and the more you play the more secrets it reveals to you, both mechanically and level-wise. Even if you’re awful at working your way up the scoreboards like me, there’s tons of hidden easter eggs to uncover. There’s depth to these games, but they never stop being pure slapstick fun.
Baba Is You
More traditional puzzle games aren’t usually my thing — I’ve developed a taste for Zachlikes — but Hempuli’s brilliant little rule-bending puzzler won my heart and broke my brain.
The concept is simultaneously simple and immensely complex; a block shifting puzzler where the rules of the game are written on the blocks themselves. By arranging them into simple sentences, you change the underlying rules of the game. Suddenly, every input moves walls instead of your character. One more shift and falling into lava is a victory state. And then it starts bending the rules of its own level structure.
It’s an absolute recommendation to anyone who has ever enjoyed puzzling. And Hempuli isn’t resting. As well as working on metroid-like sequel Environmental Station Alpha 2, he’s also part of the team working on early access physics platform-roguelike Noita. And there’s a Baba level editor and sharing hub coming in the new year, too. Nab Baba on Itch here.
Yoko Taro is one of the more oddball game directors out there. Seldom seem without a mask (or a sock puppet), he’s notable for telling ambitiously twisted tales. From the unravelling apocalypse of Drakengard to the causality-bending Sad Dad adventure that is the original Nier, his games have always had some great ideas and writing, but were held back on a technical level.
Enter Platinum games, developers of Bayonetta and Metal Gear Rising. Nier: Automata is a sequel-of-sorts (set thousands of years later, so don’t fuss the details) to the original Nier, telling the story of a war between two races of sentient machines while the last remnants of humanity look on from the moon. Structurally, it’s a decent action game with some open-world-ish RPG gubbins. The combat is punchy and satisfying, but not Platinum’s greatest, admittedly.
But where this one shines is in its story. Its escalating tragedies will leave a knot in your stomach as you approach its multiple layered finales. Plot twists come thick and fast as the game playfully hops genres on a whim. Why is the game suddenly a bullet hell shooter? Because it can be. Because it wants to be. Because it is. A polished, high-budget oddball that marches to its own beat.
While GSC Game World’s survival shooter series might have started out last decade, the past ten years have been the most fascinating part of its life cycle. Between permissive agreements with the original developers, source code leaks and a lot of hard work, the STALKER community have fully taken over and are making their own spinoff games now. What were once mods are now free, fully standalone games, often combining assets from the entire official series and expanding on it.
Over the past couple years we’ve seen the likes of STALKER: Lost Alpha — an attempt to recreate the game as it was originally pitched, with more story and more survival sim aspects. For those wanting to really immerse themselves in the Zone, there’s Dead Air, which adds a lot of additional mechanical hazards to deal with. I broke the fire-select switch on my rifle by fiddling with it too much.
But king of the STALKER-spawn so far is Anomaly. A huge sandbox adventure combining the landmass from all three original games, but looking and running better than ever thanks to a heavily upgraded, bug-fixed and optimised engine. There’s multiple quest arcs, story modes, a more arcadey ‘warzone’ sandbox for those who just want to shoot lots of dudes, unlockable extra factions and a ton of new little features. It’s more complex simulation-wise than the originals, but only slightly. Even if you’ve never played a STALKER game before, I recommend this one.
If you’ve ever enjoyed yourself an arcade shmup, you owe it to yourself to play ZeroRanger. Under its low-fi aesthetic lies an almost perfectly tuned game, where every defeat teaches you a little more and where each victory tastes sweet as honey. It also has a story to tell, and some clever twists that I really don’t want to risk spoiling. Just dive in and do your best.
ZeroRanger hasn’t gone down much in price since launch, but that’s fine. You can grab it here, slightly discounted on Itch. Also, when the game asks you to pick between a sword or a drill, go with your heart. And by that, I mean drill. Because Gurren Lagann is still cool, dammit.
Undertale & Deltarune
Another hugely influential game, but from very humble beginnings. Kickstarted for a pittance, Undertale is an unassuming little JRPG with a quirky bullet-dodging combat engine. Wander a faintly NES-tinged underworld, meet strange monsters, and (ideally) don’t kill them, because they’ve got their own problems and you can help them sort those out. Your reward is the friendship of some of the most loveable creatures in gaming history.
It’s just pure heartfelt joy. Sticking to your guns and saving everyone comes with great rewards, but even if you do the occasional bit of murder, the story will keep on running, and the repercussions of your actions will be felt. Cut completely loose and destroy everything in your path? Expect the game to push back. There’s layers of clever secrets and responsive systems here that I don’t want to spoil. If you’ve not played Undertale yet, just grab it cheap on PC (or on Switch) and binge it. It’s only a few hours long.
And once you’re done, check out Deltarune: Chapter 1. Currently deep in development, the first part of this pseudo-sequel/elseworlds story is just as good, and sets up some exciting mysteries that I’m hoping will be resolved in 2020. But I’m willing to wait longer if that’s what it takes. In the meantime, there’s a swarm of games heavily inspired by Undertale now, including some excellent fan-games. There’s even a full-length Team Fortress 2 parody.
Souls Borne Of King’s Fields
It’s almost hard to believe that in years past, FromSoftware was once a relatively unknown studio. They had a few good franchises, including mech-sim Armored Core and the King’s Field series of real-time dungeon crawls, but they weren’t a major player.
And then they released Demon’s Souls in the tail end of 2009. Followup Dark Souls defined their specific brand of methodical, brutally tough action dungeon crawling as a genre unto itself, and dozens (if not hundreds) of imitators followed. Soulslike, Soulsborne or whatever you call it, it’s a thing. There’s roguelikes Soulslikes, there’s sci-fi ones, there’s 2D ones and more. Souls-elements have even bled into other genres — see the excellent metroidvania Hollow Knight for a key example.
But FromSoftware still have some tricks up their sleeves, and this year they might just have outdone everyone. It feels fitting that Sekiro, their latest iteration of the formula, cuts away all but the most core elements of the series. Just one weapon, minimal RPG cruft, intense one-on-one duels and a focus on aggressively clashing swords with foes. It’s been racking up Game Of The Year awards; they’re well earned. You’ll have to un-learn some Dark Souls muscle memory, but this one brings back a lot of fond memories of ninja games like the Tenchu series.
Final Fantasy XIV Reborn
Despite demanding a monthly subscription to play, Final Fantasy XIV is, for me, not the MMORPG that it claims to be. It is in fact an entire solo-focused JRPG series unto itself. A sprawling two-hundred-hour plus adventure if you were to play nothing but the main quest arc as only one class and never bothered to dabble in crafting. If you want to see everything there is to see, you’re looking at an astronomical time investment, but I reckon it’s worth it. It’s continually growing, too, with each major expansion adding 50+ hours of additional story, plus another season of quarterly updates, each adding several more hours to the narrative.
Narratively, this is Final Fantasy at its best. High fantasy adventure with crystals and high-tech empires, airships and lost magic, but with lots of complex politics and detailed world-building, nuanced characters and many cultures to meet and explore the lands of. It makes nods to every other game in the series (plus is currently doing a crossover story arc with Nier: Automata), but is entirely self-contained in its narrative. Special credit needs to go to its localisation, too. The script is utterly enormous, but aside from a slightly jarring change in voice cast mid-way through the story, it reads like a native English production, arguably sharper than most English-native games.
While mechanically similar to World Of Warcraft, FFXIV uses a lot of clever instancing and framing tricks to make it feel like a single-player RPG where you’re centred as the protagonist. Dungeons and bosses may be cooperative endeavours, but at the end, every player sees themselves as the party leader. It’s just smoke and mirrors, but it works shockingly well, and sidesteps a lot of the issues inherent in the genre, where the player feels like just another face in the crowd. I can see myself still playing this one well into the next decade, if the quality of writing and content keeps up. Some of the later-game bosses are not only brutally tough, but spectacular and deeply satisfying to fight.
Grab the cheap Complete edition of the game here, and only use the ‘one character per server’ subscription to save money. You can switch classes at will, so no need to run multiple characters anyway.
Metal Gear Rising
This game shouldn’t exist, but I’m so glad it does. Abandoned by Kojima Productions and Konami, Platinum came to the project with a shoestring budget, an all-too-close deadline and a box full of assorted art assets. What came out of it is by far the best Metal Gear spinoff. A cyberpunk character action game set in the aftermath of the Solid series, as cyborg ninja Raiden fights amoral mercenary armies in the grim future. You also get to team up with a sassy robot dog buddy.
The heart of the game is parrying. Let enemies come at you, then flick the analogue stick towards the incoming attack, accompanied by a tap of the attack button to harmlessly deflect and make an opening. Time it perfectly and you can go straight into slow-motion for a chance to slice off an opponent’s limbs or cut straight to their core to steal their energy-giving cyborg core. It’s immensely satisfying.
It’s dumb as rocks — its entire world feels like it’s straight from the mind of an excitable teenage boy — but also shockingly intelligent. As well as putting a lot of thought into its worldbuilding and technology, it was horrifyingly prescient, politically speaking. Its arch-villain channels the energy and language of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, long before he got involved in real-world politics. And he’s got a giant spider-mech, accompanied by a vocal metal track about keeping the unthinking masses in line. On the nose? Incredibly, but it doesn’t mean it isn’t right.
Total War: Warhammer
It has been a busy decade for the long-running Total War series. While others are crowning Total War: Three Kingdoms as strategic game of the year, I’m still singing the praises for the ever-expanding modular monster that is Total Warhammer.
Surprisingly accurate to Games Workshop’s tabletop strategy monster, Total Warhammer isn’t just one game, but three (two out now, one likely in 2020) that plug into each other, adding up to create an enormous world of high-fantasy warfare. Spectacular magic rips apart entire regiments, and every faction has their own distinct quirks and goals, giving this one far more texture than Rome or Medieval, in my opinion. Plus, moddability means that monster projects like Grimhammer can build further on the game’s systems.
I’ve already put too many hours into Total Warhammer, and with the upcoming third (and presumed final) game likely to land next year, there’s probably hundreds of hours more life in this one. While the thought of owning three games and a stack of lesser DLC might be daunting, it’s still a vastly cheaper option than taking up tabletop Warhammer. On sale, about £70–80 for both games and all DLC to date.
Doom: 26 Years Of Slaying
You thought you could read a Games Of The Decade bit by me without me rambling about Doom, eh? Foolish. While I did enjoy Id Software’s recent reboot of the series, its straightforward arena-style combat didn’t really speak to me. Not like the original.
Good, then, that thanks to source ports like GZDoom and an actively expanding modding scene, it has been an amazing decade for those who prefer their imps two dimensional and their UAC bases pixellated. Between the revival of Doom 64 (the least known/most underrated game in the series), literally tens of thousands of levels released, an endless level generator and much more, there’s something for everyone.
Doom’s engine has become the foundation for some top notch Sonic and Mega Man fan-games, and the likes of survival horror adventure Total Chaos pushes it into places I’d never have imagined possible. Check out a few of the standalone and total conversions released here, and a quick look at some of 2019’s best releases here. If it keeps on growing, Doom might outlast us all.
Monster Hunter: World
Until recently, Monster Hunter has been a flagship Capcom series in Japan only. The co-op dragon bothering sim series put the PSP on the map, if you were from a country where enough people had PSPs to play locally with, but in other territories you had to make do with slightly wobbly online modes, unofficial network tunnelling software and a game structure that lent itself better to short sessions on the go.
Monster Hunter: World dragged the series kicking and screaming into the modern era. Gorgeous graphics, better animations on the monsters, and regular updates adding new quests and bosses and even a crossover with The Witcher. Still complex for newcomers, but significantly more accessible than it used to be, with better tutorials and a quicker ramp-up into hunting interesting monsters. The hunting grounds are now seamless miniature open worlds. Complex multilayered battlefields over which its lengthy co-op boss battles play out time and time again.
While out on consoles now, the PC version of Iceborne, MH:W’s monster-size expansion Iceborne isn’t due out until a week into 2020. I’ve not played it myself, but heard nothing but praise, and there’s still a season’s worth of free updates, monsters and possible crossover content yet to come. I can’t wait to see what Capcom have next in line for this venerable series.
Honorable Mentions & Sales Picks
Brigador feels like it fell out of a dimension where late-era DOS games still rule supreme. A pin-sharp isometric mech (and tank, and hovercar) shooter in the vein of EA’s old Strike series. Stomp through cities, hunt targets, commit war crimes and spend far too much time reading excellently-written and deeply dystopian lore in-between frenetic arcade missions. I highly recommend the special edition, as it comes with an excellent audio-book too.
Devil May Cry 5 is a fantastic return to form for the over-the-top character action series. Ugly monsters, ridiculous one-liners, three very distinct playable characters and all the anime excess you can shake a stick at. Plus, it lets us forget that the Ninja Theory-developed ‘reboot’ ever happened. A regular fixture in game of the year lists, and rightly so.
Assault Android Cactus is pure twin-stick shooter joy. It looks and sounds like a long-lost Dreamcast game. The music kicks ass, the many playable characters all have their niche, and the hunt for high scores is hugely compelling. Plus, it recently updated with a New Game+ mode, remixing every level with fresh enemy placements. Fantastic stuff for one to four players, and if you’re running solo, there’s even bots to play with.
The Blackout Club could be described as co-op teen Thief set in Night Vale. Sneak around and complete objectives while avoiding the mind-controlled, sleepwalking townsfolk. Capture video evidence of what’s going on in the hope of rescuing a missing friend and getting out of town. Or you can stick around and maybe stream the game. Maybe you’ll attract the gods of the town, who might speak to you, the player, directly. Unscripted. Live. Yeah, this one has surprises and layers.
The Void Rains Upon Her Heart is still in early access, but well worth playing. A horizontally scrolling bullet hell shooter with a story to tell and some light roguelike elements that fortunately don’t get in the way of the bullet-dodging and precision shooting. Bold players can crank the difficulty up further over the course of a playthrough, giving much more challenging bullet patterns to dodge, but less experienced players will probably find a good, safe space to learn the ropes if you keep things at the lower intensity settings.
Warhammer 40,000: Mechanicus is a strange little beast. A tactical dungeon crawler, partially inspired by XCOM and FTL, but flavoured so strongly with Warhammer 40k weirdness that it feels distinct. Some sharp writing backing up its cast of mad cyber-monks as they battle ancient egyptian Terminators gives this a more offbeat feel than the usual Space Marine-heavy standards. The combat also has an unusual rhythm, with bonus action points assigned by pushing forward across the map. This one also has an absolutely fantastic soundtrack, and recently got some DLC, too. It feels like it shouldn’t quite work, but everything just hums together nicely. A real pleasant surprise.
Prey (2017) is completely unrelated to Human Head’s okay-ish shooter of the same name. I don’t know why the publisher decided to recycle the name, but don’t let that put you off one of the best immersive sims of the decade. It’s basically System Shock 3 — spooky haunted space station and all — but with a bit more heart and some clever ideas of its own. The expansion, Mooncrash, refines the game down to a precisely honed edge, plus comes with a bonus prop hunt-style multiplayer game and a series of VR escape rooms.
Warframe is a game with a long history. While you can see the long version in NoClip’s documentary series here, the short version is that it’s a game that no publisher wanted to touch, and that every industry analyst had predicted the failure of. Now the co-op space ninja shooter is one of the most popular free-to-play games around, and just launched its most ambitious expansion, adding large-scale space combat to the game. Its popularity is well earned through a mixture of compelling progression loops, satisfyingly messy combat and a surprisingly good main story. Well worth playing.
A Robot Named Fight is the result of a Brundlefly teleporter accident involving Super Metroid and The Binding Of Isaac. By generating its worlds around the accessibility of regular key items, each run through its gore-soaked world (a robot planet overrun by ‘a plague of meat’) feels surprisingly coherent and authored. Sometimes you end up with a mixture of powerups and upgrades that makes you nigh invulnerable, but for the most part it feels good. It’s also just £1 on Steam right now, and nearly as cheap on Switch.
Overload, Dusk & Amid Evil are proof that old-school Quake/Doom era shooter design still has a place in this world. Dusk blends Quake and Blood resulting in a twitchy, moody little shooter. Amid Evil is a spiritual successor to Heretic, taking the player on a whirlwind tour of seven increasingly fantastical worlds. My favourite of the three is Overload, though, aka the Descent Reboot in all but name. The original core devs (and composers) from Descent 1, 2 and 3 got together to produce a more polished, streamlined take on the dizzying free-flying FPS, and it’s fantastic.
Starsector is officially unfinished and still in alpha testing. It has been for years now. The trailer you see is four years old. And yet the game is a hugely polished space sandbox with a focus on fleet-scale combat. Mount & Blade in spaceships, with a moddable arsenal similar to Mechwarrior. It’s just chock full of great stuff, like a universe full of autonomous factions and shifting economies, and with AI that actually has some self preservation instincts, leading to some tense cat-and-mouse moments in battles. It’s also highly moddable, with dozens of user-made factions already available. One of the best ‘unfinished’ games you can play this side of Dwarf Fortress.
Cambria Sword is not a game I’d recommend to everyone. You need to know that you like shmups before even diving into this weird universe of prehistoric sea life fighting space battles. See, while the average horizontally scrolling shooter is around a half hour long, a full playthrough of Cambria Sword is about three and a half hours, most of it boss fights. It’s an exhausting, gruelling marathon but worth a try if you dig the genre. The garage prog-metal soundtrack (all by the sole developer) is a huge perk for me, too. If all this is too intense, there’s a recent Space Invaders-styled spinoff called The Flying Pancake Octopus In Black Hole which is much easier to get into.
Anodyne 2: Return To Dust feels like a gentle antidote to all those intense arcade games. A soft, whimsical and self-aware adventure from an N64-era styled world, punctuated with 16-bit style Zelda-like dungeons. I wrote about this one at length for PC Gamer, where I talked about how it deconstructs itself — rough polygon edges and all — as well as its characters, and establishes a dialogue of sorts between player and developer. While telling its own nature-versus-nurture story, it speaks to the player about the realities of its own creation.
Lucah: Born of A Dream is a strange bundle of disparate elements that somehow hum along in perfect harmony. An ultra-sketchy low-fi aesthetic, combat inspired by Soulslikes and Bloodborne in particular, and a story about queer youths fighting against their own orthodox religious upbringing and battling the apocalypse all at the same time. Sometimes it’s a visual novel. At one point it’s a turn-based RPG. It is mysterious and strange and not like anything else, and absolutely worth a try.
Pyre is Supergiant’s least popular game, and it’s easy to see why. It’s not a clean-cut action RPG, it doesn’t have the immediacy of Hades or a hook as dramatic as Transistor’s art-deco cyberpunk world. It does however, have the most meaningful moral decision in any game: Telling a dog whether he should shave his moustache or not. It’s also a game about three-on-three wizard basketball. Yep, this is a sports story, and a reactive one at that. Win or lose, the story rolls on, even when players have to leave your team. It’s low-stakes high-fantasy adventure, and full of heart. And dog moustaches.
And that, at least for the moment, is that. If you feel I’ve missed something key that I’ve been hooting and hollering about, I probably have. Yell at me on Twitter and I might just add it. But failing that, I’m going to just go play a bunch of games now and try to get caught up in time for the early 2020 deluge. Videogames ain’t slowing down for anyone.