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Boss fights are great. Except when they're terrible! Things got heated when the PC Gamer staff debated whether the boss fight is good design or an antiquated videogame trope, so we decided to present our strongest evidence for each case. First up: a collection of our favorite bosses, the battles that have stuck with us for years. On page two, the list of shame: a whole bunch of bad, stupid bosses we hated fighting but love talking shit about. They all deserve it.
Jody: I've finished Fallout twice and never defeated The Master by just straight-up shooting him in the eyes or whatever other bits he has—he's a mutant lump of flesh so unfathomable if you try for an aimed shot half of him is just labeled "???"
The first time I made it to the end of Fallout it was with a sneaky, high-agility character who stealthed around his base and set off a nuke in it. The second time it was with a diplomatic, high-charisma type who talked the Master to death, choosing conversation options that exposed his flawed philosophy, made him realize his own monstrosity, and led him to suicide.
There's an option to just attack if you want to take the Master on with pulse grenades and a real big gun if that's your thing, but the fact you don't have to is what makes the climax of Fallout so great. Plenty of people hate bosses, so making them optional seems like such an obvious kindness it's baffling that 21 years later it's still uncommon.
Wes: Japanese videogames have been chasing what I'll call the Macross Aesthetic for decades: an overwhelming, awe-inspiring flurry of missiles crisscrossing the sky, white smoke arcing behind them. For years this was mainly a thing in 2D games: bullet hell SHMUPs and the incredible Bangai-o. Vanquish's Argus mech, while a pretty straightforward "shoot the weak point" battle, is one of my favorite boss fights of all time because it completely delivers on the promise of translating the Macross missile explosion into 3D. And it looks unbelievably cool doing it.
Deal the Argus mech enough damage, and it'll stop firing at you with its cannon to unleash a volley of hundreds of missiles. It's a stunning moment, but it's also a perfect embodiment of what Vanquish is as a game. It's a melding of over-the-top, distinctly anime Japanese action with the conventions of an American third-person shooter. In other words, there's a cliche, gruff American antihero, but he wears power armor and kicks giant missile-spewing mechs so hard they explode.
Austin: Artorias of the Abyss reads like a Dark Souls boss. He's a tragic figure both emblematic of and integral to the overarching story of the Abyss DLC, and he's characterized through NPC dialogue and descriptions embedded in weapons and armor. You don't want to kill him, but he's too far gone and you have no choice. That's classic Dark Souls. But at the same time, he doesn't feel like a Dark Souls boss, and that's what makes him so great.
Most of the bosses in the original game are slow, lumbering monsters that you fight by nipping at their heels until they fall over. Artorias is the total opposite. He's a relatively small but still incredibly imposing knight, and he moves wildly and quickly. His form and figure have been distorted by the abyss, but he's still got the moves. You spend the entire game plinking away at behemoths in the 19 seconds it takes them to wind up an attack, and here comes Artorias with some freakin' front-flips. He fights like you, the player. He rolls like you, swings like you, retreats like you. He's a refreshing, relentless wake-up call who gives you zero breathing room and feels like a Bloodborne or Dark Souls 3 boss, and I wouldn't have it any other way.
Austin: How else could a game as stylish and over-the-top as Bayonetta end if not in a galactic punchup? At this point in the game, you're picking basic enemies out of your teeth and scraping titan-sized mini-bosses off your heels. Then Jubileus, the biggest of the big bads, descends from on high with a dozen health bars and multiple forms just askin' for an ass-kickin'.
Jubileus is cleaner and more varied than most giant bosses, which have a tendency to play themselves. She has several distinct forms with unique attacks that expose cleverly placed weak points, and she gets better and better as you whittle her down. The level around you changes. Different weapons excel at damaging certain parts. It's a long fight but it earns its runtime, and Jeanne's role as partner manages to tie a climactic bow on the game's otherwise tangled story.
She's a great final boss too, a delicious mix of everything Bayonetta does right: bonkers vehicle sections, short and forgiving quick-time events, dramatic camera angles and, of course, unforgettable finishers. I can think of no better way to send off one of Platinum Games' finest than pile-driving a god into the sun.
Wes Fenlon: What a hell of an ending. Undertale is a game that constantly upsets your expectations, but its final boss—not exactly the true final boss, but that's part of what makes the encounter so good—breaks away from Undertale's aesthetic, and really from its reality. The fight tears at the structure of the game, making you survive an intense gauntlet, tempting you again and again to break from pacifism, before finally setting you up to play through parts of Undertale again to see the true ending. That ultimate battle is more emotionally affecting, but the first encounter with Flowey is where Undertale truly shows off how brilliantly it can execute on its meta ideas.
Joe: I've killed Gwyn loads of times. I've both lit and walked away from the final bonfire. I've tackled Lordran's brilliantly designed world in multiple configurations. I've watched countless walkthroughs and let's plays. And yet no matter how many times I complete From Software's gothic action role-player Dark Souls, I can never, ever, beat Dragonslayer Ornstein and Executioner Smough on my first attempt without the help of Solaire.
But I love it. I love the anticipation of trekking through Anor Londo, and stocking up for the big fight. I love swapping polite exchanges with the Giant Blacksmith as I upgrade my lightning halberd. I love grinding out a few extra souls levels with the Royal Sentinels that guard the boss arena. I love concocting an ill-conceived strategy in my head beforehand. I love saying to myself: "This is it. This is the moment I finally defeat these bastards first time without the help of the sunbro", before inevitably peeling my splattered face from the forum's floor thereafter.
You see, no matter how many times I'm floored by Ornstein and Smough, the fact that I'm yet to topple them on my lonesome gives me an excuse to return to one of my favourite games. With two hulking baddies—and one final form nemesis—this fight's scope for change and incidental moments makes it, for me at least, near impossible to predict. It's fast, it's frantic, and no matter how many tries it takes, I'm yet to feel a similar sense of accomplishment from any other game.
Of course, Dark Souls Remastered is just around the corner too. We go again, boys.
Samuel: The bosses in the Arkham series are uneven, but the second game showed considerable progress over the first, which mostly featured repetitive encounters with larger enemies. Mr Freeze is a smartly-designed battle, letting the player use each technique at Batman's disposal once—electricity, explosives and so on—before Victor Fries remembers that method and it can't be repeated.
Worse than that, he's iced up the gargoyles so there's no hiding from him above, which is a key part of your arsenal when trying to play Arkham stealthily. You're stuck on the ground with Mr Freeze as he stalks you. A former colleague of mine compared it to a great Metal Gear boss fight, and he's right—it's similarly tricksy and demands clever thinking from the player.
Evan: Can a room be a boss? I submit that a room can be a boss.
Samuel: Resident Evil 4 is one of very few games that gets away with QTEs, which have mostly died out in games over the past decade. Leon's knife fight with Krauser is mostly cutscene-led, but it's a great example of the form—a tense sequence where you finally get to see the two characters face off.
The boss fight proper is great too, set in a maze of ruins where he'll run at you with a knife, and it later escalates to a final battle on a precarious platform as Krauser mutates. Sometimes this encounter will transition into a QTE knife fight in-game, too, which is a nice touch. Resident Evil 4's story is hokey but fun, and while you're never quite emotionally invested, it's fun to take the journey. You wait a long time to see Leon and Krauser finally face off, and the battle is exciting, over-the-top and even cinematic—it's Resident Evil 4 at its best.
One of the biggest failings of boss fights is how often they abandon the principles of the game they're in, robbing you of agency or creativity in favor of a big arena slugfest or fancy cinematic. The opposite of that is Planescape: Torment, maybe the best RPG of all time, which utterly commits to letting you talk your way out of conflict, up until the very end. There are a number of ways your encounter with The Transcendent One can end, including combat if that's your wish. But dialogue, as always in Planescape, proves to be the more interesting option. Gaming rarely manages to get this philosophical, and even more rarely pulls it off.
Phil: The Twisted Marionette was available for about a month during Guild Wars 2's first update season. You can't fight it anymore—you haven't been able to fight it for over four years—but I still think it's one of the best bosses I've defeated. Rather than an instanced encounter, the Marionette was an open world event that triggered every two hours. Players on the map would have to organise themselves into five lanes of (if you were lucky) around 25 players each. The fight had two main phases. The bulk of your time was spent in your lane, defending against waves of enemies. In addition, each lane took turns in the central chamber, where they were distributed across five mini-arenas—each with a Champion to defeat. Succeed, and one of the Marionette's chains was cut. Fail, and you were one step closer to annihilation.
If each lane succeeded, the battle was won and the Marionette would collapse. It felt elegant—requiring more coordination than just chipping away at a big monster's health, but not so much that only the most hardcore servers had a shot of bringing it down. There was an arc—our server spent days unable to make the kill, but slowly started to refine our approach. We failed loads, but the process of learning, optimisation and eventually overcoming the challenge remains one of my favourite journeys within the game.
Wes Fenlon: Yeah, goblins and elves and running out of booze are all bad news. But the truest enemy of any fortress builder is the mighty aquifer, an underground water source that can quickly and brutally flood your fortress if you don't know how to deal with it. There's an entire Dwarf Fortress wiki page devoted to aquifers and the strategies for defeating them. That's a boss fight if I've ever seen one.
Wes: I'm not even going to dignify Mass Effect 2's final boss with its proper name, such was its stupidity. The first Mass Effect culminated with a battle against an imposing, badass rogue agent whose role turns out to be more nuanced than pure evil, followed by a series of dramatic decisions that affected the fate of the Citadel. It was the perfect mix of action and roleplaying, exactly what Mass Effect should be. The second game, despite the overall brilliance of its suicide run final mission, decided to end with the equivalent of a Contra boss battle. A Contra boss battle that was too easy and looked absolutely ridiculous. When people complain about Mass Effect becoming too much of an action series, this fight is exhibit A.
Jody: The Arkham games had a couple of decent boss fights, but way more bad ones. They loved the kind where you have to lure some jacked-up beefy boy into charging, then dodge so he hits a wall instead. Arkham Knight managed to do the most drawn-out version of this, because you have to drive the goddamn Bat-Tank at the same time.
The Arkham Knight attacks in the tunnels under Gotham, driving a digger drill like he's a Bananaman villain. You have to lure him into sections wired with explosives, avoiding barriers and spinning fan blades, repeating this for what is probably just shy of 10 minutes but feels like hours. Meanwhile he shouts bland taunts like "You can't hide!" and "I'll find you!" to remind you that, after two games of Mark Hamill's excellent Joker, now you're up against a man who smolders with generic rage. I like the Arkham games, but they're textbook examples of why 90 percent of boss fights could be dropped to no great loss.
Austin: I'm generally a boss fight proponent, but Wolfenstein 2's Zerstörer Robots make a good case for cancelling bosses entirely. They simultaneously lack everything that makes Wolf 2 fun—multiple methods of approach, creative sightlines, playing execution leapfrog, satisfying feedback on kills—and exacerbate its biggest problems, like the way it sucks at telling you when you're taking damage and where it's coming from.
These robots have so much health and deal so much damage that you have no choice but to clear out the H-shaped airship you fight them on and take potshots from the interior tunnels, alternating exits each time. On higher difficulties at least, fighting them is a slow, repetitive process that isn't even in the same hemisphere as fun. I played through the entire game a few notches above normal difficulty and loved the added challenge, but these piles of junk were so dragging and infuriating that I spitefully cranked the difficulty to easy just to get past them. And I'd do it again.
Wes: What a piece of shit ending.
Austin: The final fight against Ghaul, leader of the Cabal's Red Legion and the Darth Vader walrus-thing who destroyed the Tower, is a disappointment not just because of what is, but because of what it is not.
It is a run-of-the-mill arena fight against a glorified Cabal Centurion. Ghaul himself is just a health bar with some knock-off powers. He's removed from the fight most of the time, and whenever he does raise his ugly head you just one-shot him with your constantly refilled super. You spend more time fighting the basic enemies scattered around the ship, and doing so never feels climactic because the arena is boring, they're the same old enemies and there aren't even that many. Like, this is it, Red Legion. We are on your flagship. This is the final battle. The least you could do is bring the A-team.
But the true misery of the fight is the cutscene that follows, in which Ghaul transforms into a much more interesting-looking plasma phantom and soars up to the Traveler. At this point, I—and by I, I mean everyone except the folks at Bungie apparently—thought, "Awesome, we get to kill him for real in the raid." But no. He just melts right there, so instead we fight some random fat dude in the raid. Destiny YouTuber Datto said it best: "I want to fight the big thing." Destiny 2 doesn't let you fight the big thing, and that's a bummer.
Joe: According to this Dark Souls wiki, Pinwheel is: "A flying, multi-masked necromancer who stole the power of the Gravelord and reigns over the Catacombs. [It] spawns multiple copies of itself and attacks the player with projectile blasts." All of which sounds pretty badass, right? Except in practice it's not really like that. At all.
In a game that prides itself on its challenging encounters, Pinwheel is an anomaly. This run in is not only easier than every other boss battle in Dark Souls, it's easier than a fair whack of its standard enemies too. Its moveset is predictable, its cloned subordinates are a pain, and its drops—bar the Rite of Kindling—are rubbish. I almost lost the plot after my umpteenth death at the hands of Ornstein and Smough—yet the feeling of finally besting them was second to none. Pinwheel, on the other hand, robbed me of that eureka feeling by being so damn weak.
The suggestion that From Software expected players to invade the Catacombs early on goes a ways to explaining why Pinwheel in so underpowered later in the game, but the Catacombs itself is surely no place for pre-Anor Londo/Sen's Fortress/Blighttown players. In any event, FTRichter’s Prepare to Die Again mod reimagines a more formidable Pinwheel.
Wes: "It's terrible. You have this great game, and then you end up fighting this giant nude dude. We didn't have a better idea," Ken Levine once said. Well-put. Bioshock's final battle ditched everything brilliant about the game to end with a cliche slugfest with a big muscular guy. The game clearly didn't quite know where to go after the encounter with Andrew Ryan, but it definitely should've gone somewhere else. Maybe force the player to sit through a reading of John Galt's 80 page monologue from Atlas Shrugged? That would've been a better tonal fit, and a far greater challenge.
Samuel: Hot damn, I hated this scrap with baby Liquid Snake where you couldn't just use deadly weapons against him and be done with it. Fair enough, he's a kid, but he'll grow up to cause such trouble, what with the walking nuclear robots and inhabiting the mind of a man dressed a bit like a cowboy. Instead, you need to chase him around a beached ship until you can knock him out. And at that point, you're really ready to do so.
None of the boss fights in Metal Gear Solid 5 are that great, unfortunately, which is a shame for a series that has produced so many great ones in the past. MGS and MGS2, which both came to PC ages ago, have a slightly better hit rate, with the likes of Gray Fox in the former and Vamp in the latter. Luckily, The Phantom Pain is great at just about everything else.
Chris: There's a lot of bad boss fights in the Far Cry series, so it's hard to pick just one. I'm going with Vaas because he's probably the most enjoyable and memorable character in the series, and thus the crappy boss fight stings more than others because he frankly deserved a better sendoff.
Creating a satisfying boss fight in a game where you're essentially a superhero bristling with weapons and capable of withstanding tremendous amounts of damage yourself… it's a challenge, really, because you're a damn boss. So, Ubisoft does what it always does when it's painted itself into a corner: stuffs you full of drugs and makes you hallucinate. Welcome to a gloomy netherworld corridor paved with TV screens (for some reason) where Vaas after Vaas after Vaas run at you, die from a single bullet, and disappear into a puff of smoke. It's not a test of endurance and skill, just patience. When every ghost Vaas is dead you get a cutscene where you do a cool hand-switching knife move that you can't actually do in the game, then you watch him expire. You're left with nothing other than a sense of disappointment and the sad fact that you're still Jason Brody.
When we debuted our list of the best indie games in 2017, we said, "Consider this the beginning of a conversation, rather than the final word." We wanted the list to spark discussion among our readers and also to be something we continued thinking about. Great new indie games are arriving every month—by the time we published it Divinity: Original Sin 2 was already becoming a favorite among our writers. There were also plenty of games we voted for that narrowly missed out on the top 25, but which we thought deserved a mention regardless.
That's why we're updating our collection of the best indie games, and will continue to do so a few times a year from now on. The original 25 are still there if you page down, but at the top you'll find some personal favorites that missed out before, and the new hotness. This is supposed to be a list of the best indie games to play right now after all, and these are the games we recommend today.
Released: 2018 | Developer: Subset Games
Jody: Turn-based games don't always respect your time—opponents who take forever, entire turns where nothing happens, animations that feel like everyone's wading through stew. Into the Breach does not waste your time, which is apt because it's about time travel.
In the future giant bugs crawl out of the ground and ravage the world, and our only hope are mech pilots from an even more distant future who travel back to save us. As a band of three pilots in vehicles that would make cool toys, you're humanity's last hope. Fortunately, you can see what the bugs plan one turn ahead, and can dodge out of their way so they attack each other or dodge into their way to protect a building full of civilians they were about to demolish. It's a mech vs. monster dance-off.
And it's conveniently bite-sized. Maps are small, load fast, and only have to be protected for a few turns, so it feels worthwhile even if you've only got minutes. With hours to spare you can play a full run, save the day, then take your favorite pilot and leap back into a different timeline to do it all again.
Released: 2016 | Developer: Dodge Roll
Shaun: Enter the Gungeon is an arcade roguelite about shooting bullets with bullets. In other words, the enemies are ammunition. As one of four distinct characters, you'll dodge-roll, kick furniture and, most importantly, destroy bullets with bullets. There are hundreds of distinct weapons, ranging from a bow and arrow through to guns that shoot actual bees.
Enter the Gungeon exists in an absurdly busy genre: each week I write about a new roguelite. But Enter the Gungeon is special because not only does it nail the essentials (shooting, movement, sheer variety of weapons and items), but it also doesn't complicate things too much. Other arcade-centric roguelites like Flinthook and Rogue Legacy have had a good go at mixing compelling action with a simplified approach to the genre, and while each are great they end up feeling repetitive: like a jumble of the same rooms. But it's the weaponry that keeps Enter the Gungeon fresh. It's also really charming, somewhat against the odds.
Austin: I'd also like to add that there's a gun that shoots guns that shoot bullets.
Released: 2018 | Developer: 11 Bit Studios
Chris: It feels strange to play a city-builder that's not open-ended and doesn't let you tinker with your city forever. Also strange is that no matter how efficiently you design your city, your residents may kick your ass out of it due to events that take place elsewhere. But that Frostpunk does things differently is one of the things that makes it great.
Frostpunk is both grim and beautiful, a blend of survival and crisis management that leaves you facing tough choices, sometimes unthinkable ones, as you attempt to build a city that will protect your residents from a world gone cold. You're not just trying to keep them warm and fed, but keep them hopeful, and that's no simple matter when the only thing more bleak than the present is the future. In addition to building, gathering resources, and sending expeditions into the frozen world, you have to grapple with passing laws that may save your citizens' lives but at the same time may erode their freedom. There's rarely a moment that's free of tension and worry, and rarely a choice that isn't second-guessed.
Released: 2013 / 2016 | Developer: Klei
Jody: Klei's 2013 survival game is a playable Edward Gorey book where you'll probably get eaten by dogs or starve during the long winter—a possibility the name does warn you about, to be fair—while learning how the ecosystem of its unusual world works. You discover the importance of the wild beefalo herd, and the value of dealing with the Pig King.
And then you do it again, with friends.
The survival games that followed Don't Starve filled their servers with desperate lummoxes all flailing at trees and rocks and each other. Don't Starve Together made multiplayer survival into something that's not as easy to make memes of, but a lot more fun. Sure, you can play it competitively but it's best as a co-operative village simulator where you start by pooling your rocks to make a firepit and eventually you're taking down bosses then crafting statues to commemorate your victory in the town square.
Released: 2018 | Developer: Matt Makes Games
Shaun: Celeste is a tough 2D platformer with a 16-bit retro aesthetic. If I had a pixel for every time I’ve written about a game with those descriptors, I’d maybe have enough to render Crysis. So what makes Celeste special? The reasons are many and varied: firstly, it carries itself differently to other deliberately hard platformers like Super Meat Boy and N++. Studio Matt Makes Games wants everyone to finish this game, not just Kaizo Mario World speedrunners, so its pacing is careful and its attitude encouraging. While protagonist Madeline doesn’t have the most novel moveset in a platformer (she can grab certain walls and dash through the air), the action is precise, smooth, and unusually, you’ll actually care about her journey.
Perhaps the variety is what really elevates Celeste: this is a game with set pieces that aren’t just saved for the boss battles, and while it is fundamentally a series of platform challenge rooms, it does feel like you’re navigating a world (in this case, the mountain Celeste). Not since Shovel Knight have we had a game that manages to cater for players who might not enjoy the irreverent, punishing veneer of most modern twitch platformers.
Released: 2017 | Developer: Videocult
Shaun: You're going to hate Rain World if you approach it with the wrong attitude. Firstly, it looks like a platformer, but it's not: it's a punishing survival game. The first hour or so spent in the game also lacks promise: the controls are slightly fiddly because (by necessity—this is a survival game) they aren't as intuitive as most 2D games. You have to learn them (Rain World is all about learning, but you'll still sometimes get unlucky).
Once you surmount these prickly beginnings, Rain World is remarkable. You play as a slugcat one tier above the bottom of the food chain, and you must negotiate a labyrinthine and hideously broken open world in order to survive. Rain World is cryptic, uncompromising, and once given the chance one of the tensest and most atmospheric 2D games I've ever played. If you must make it easier, there have since been options added to the game to allow that. But I wouldn't if I were you. Rain World is determined to wrest empowerment from the player, determined to eschew any shred of the power fantasy so dominant in its medium. And yet it is logical, it's not "unfair", it’s not "poorly designed". It just doesn’t care about you.
Released: 2017 | Developer: Larian Studios
Jody: My party includes a skeleton who has mastered poison magic, a dwarf pirate, and a fire-breathing lizard prince. By the end of the game, one of them will be a god.
Plenty of developers have resurrected the bones of the isometric RPG and added modern skin to it, but only a couple of those games really work as both reminders of the old days and great RPGs worth recommending to people who don't have nostalgia goggles near at hand.
Divinity: Original Sin 2 takes the traditional map-hopping fantasy quest structure and adds a mindbending array of abilities to fill multiple hotbars, sidequests that feel like tonal breaks from the storyline but also seem like they matter on their own, and a degree of characterization we expect from big-budget RPGs. Every party member has their own thing going on, their own plot to follow and life to live, and can replace your character if they die. They can even be selected to take the lead in conversations, although saying hi to people as the skeleton without a disguise on will raise some eyebrows.
Wes: Original Sin 2 has great writing, clever and creative quests, and strong characters with arcs that span a near-hundred hour quest, all substantial improvements over the first game, which was already a hell of an RPG. What I really love about Original Sin 2 is that anytime you ask yourself the question "Can I do this?" you probably can. Savescum to your heart's content to see what happens when you kill an NPC, or sneak somewhere you aren't supposed to be, or figure out how to jump over a wall instead of solving a puzzle. Larian built an insanely open-ended RPG that encourages you to play however the hell you want, and then had the audacity to put a great story and combat system in it, too.
Released: 2016 | Developer: Sorath
Jody: A one-level first-person shooter where the level is a hellish arena, and the enemies are skulls and flying snakes and other escapees from heavy metal album art. Devil Daggers takes the speed and circle-strafing of Quake and distills it into one perfect minute, or longer if you're better at it than I am. It almost takes longer to describe than it does to play—almost.
Released: 2017 | Developer: Image & Form
Austin: SteamWorld Dig 2 is a 2D Metroidvania-style platformer about digging tunnels in a fully destructible world. You collect resources, haul them up to the surface, upgrade your gear, and dive back down. As you rack up upgrades, from your pickaxe to gadgets like the grappling hook, jackhammer and steam-powered grenade launcher, you unlock new areas to explore and new ways to explore them.
It's this magical mix of Metroidvania exploration and the resource collecting that makes survival games so cathartic, and it works because it lets you go at your own pace. You don't just go a little deeper each time you upgrade your stuff; you get a little more adventurous. You start to experiment with different gadgets and use them in new ways, and this changes the way you dig tunnels, which act like scaffolding for getting around levels. And no matter what you do, you're always making progress. Everything feeds into everything else, so you're constantly motivated to dive deeper and discover new temples to ransack.
Released: 2018 | Developer: Unknown Worlds
Jody: Depending how you feel about diving, Subnautica can be either a wonderful opportunity to explore an alien aquarium or a straight-up horrorshow. Even with the survival stuff turned off so you don't have to regularly grab fish and eat them as you swim past, its depths contain claustrophobic tunnels and beasts big enough to swallow you whole. The thing is, Subnautica works as both a tense survival game about making it day by day in a hostile alien ocean and a way to drift around meeting strange sea creatures (and eating them).
The list continues on page two.
Released: 2013 | Developer: Fullbright
Shaun: Video games aren’t always about mowing down aliens and nazis and trolls in fantasy/sci-fi/post-apocalyptic settings. But most of the time they are. Gone Home wasn’t the first meditative, narrative-driven game, but it arrived at a time when people were more receptive to their possibilities than ever before. Crucial to Gone Home’s success is that, rather than resting on the delivery tactics of film, Fullbright uses the more tactile nature of the videogame medium. Sure, it’s interactive in the sense that you’re wandering through a home and discovering its inhabitants’ stories, but it also asks of the player that they mull over the lives that they’re eavesdropping on. While there are plenty of “walking simulators” nowadays, Gone Home endures because the story it tells is enduringly affecting and important.
Released: 2013 | Developer: David Kanaga
Jody: I like walking simulators, and I use the term affectionately, but sometimes I find it hard to get caught up in their stories. They can feel anticlimactic. Proteus doesn't because its story is one I tell myself. It dumps me on a procedurally generated island and lets me explore, climbing hills and chasing frogs. There is another story in it though, in the sense that there's a sequence of events that you can experience, but it's a subtle one. (I'll give you a hint: it involves the standing stones.) If you want it there's a build-up and climax there, but even without that the relaxing strolls over its islands gave me all the satisfaction I needed.
Released: 2013 | Developer: Lucas Pope
Jody: Games are amazing at letting you experience someone else's life. To pick an extreme example, just like the wriggly controls of Snake Pass give you an insight into what it would be like to be a snake, the rubber stamps and bureaucracy of Papers, Please make you feel like a border guard under a totalitarian regime.Morality's a thing games don't often do well, but by letting you master increasingly complex regulations—Papers, Please has a great difficulty curve, which indie games sometimes struggle with—it gives you power over the hapless citizens who line up to present their documentation. It motivates you to judge them harshly because if you don't, the pay you need to support your family will be docked, but also because the detective work of uncovering fraud is shockingly fun. You discover a contradiction in someone's papers and feel great, then realize what that will mean for the human on the other side of the counter trying to get home and feel awful. Yeah, it's a game about paperwork, but it's so intense that when I was rewarded for my paper-pushing by being given the key to the gun cabinet I wanted to hand it back. I wanted to tell a video game I wasn't interested in its gun.
Austin: I still remember one of the many would-be citizens I turned away in Papers, Please—the old man who repeatedly submits ridiculously inaccurate papers. Sometimes his ID shows the wrong gender or expiration date, sometimes he even has a photo of someone else on ‘his’ passport. His errors get more and more obvious and egregious, but his cheery attitude never changes. Every time I turned him away, he’d just smile and say he’d be back, like I was a server at his favorite local restaurant. Papers, Please is a game about hard choices, but nothing in it made me feel guiltier than denying that old man so many times.
Released: 2016 | Developer: Metanet Software
Shaun: During my first ecstatic weeks spent with N++, I thought it might be the last platformer I’d ever need to play. The slippery, floaty physics are so expertly tuned, and the level design so varied (despite having upwards of 5,000) that I thought it could keep me busy forever. And while I’ve played probably dozens of different platformers since, N++ is the only one I feel compelled to regularly return to.
Even when you’re not winning, N++ just feels good, and its focus on precision and reflexes isn’t as potentially frustrating as it can be in, for example, Super Meat Boy. The whole game has a zen-like quality, from its austere minimalistic art style through to the experimental electronic soundtrack (one of the few, in a platformer, that I’ve never turned the volume down on). This is simply the best pure platformer you can get on PC, a museum-worthy distillation of the genre’s strengths.
Released: 2017 | Developer: Asymmetric Publications
Chris: West of Loathing is just so wonderfully jam-packed with humor, clever writing, and charming characters that it's hard to stop playing even when you've finished the main story, solved all of the (sometimes quite devious) puzzles, and collected every hat (there are more than 50) in the game. Everywhere you turn there's some little bit of descriptive text that will make you smile, chuckle, or laugh, even the the settings menu. It's one of the only games that drove me to explore not for loot or experience, but for words.
Released: 2015 | Developer: Brace Yourself Games
Bo: Crypt of the Necrodancer is a rhythm-based roguelike—a DDR-dungeon crawler, if you will. A head-scratching combination, to be sure, but that's exactly what it is. Dance your way through pixelated depths to the beat of an awesome, rhythmically complex soundtrack. Stay on beat to slay the dungeon's dancing denizens, and don't forget to spend some time with the opera-singing shopkeeper.
Evan: Definitely give the metal version of the soundtrack by YouTuber FamilyJules (composed by Danny Baranowsky) a listen. It's right up there with the Doom 2016 soundtrack.
Released: 2011 | Developer: Supergiant Games
Jody: There's no game I've had better luck recommending to people than Bastion. Everybody loves its narration and its music, which would be cool independently but become truly outstanding because of how they're integrated. You think you're hearing a beautiful soundtrack and then you discover the musician in the level you're exploring. You think the narrator is a guy with a deep voice telling a story and then he reacts to how you play.
Bastion is an action RPG about a ruined sky-city that rebuilds itself under your feet, nothing beyond the screen existing until you walk toward it. Instead of playing inventory Tetris you choose two weapons from a growing catalogue, and are rewarded for choosing strange pairings with narration snippets and radically altered play. And if you don't like the combat then go into the options and pick a different control scheme. I'm not normally the kind of critic to sing the praises of an options menu but you can turn Bastion into Diablo if you want. Come on, that's awesome.
Released: 2015 | Developer: Sam Barlow
Jody: I used to watch an English cop show called The Bill. Back when it was good they'd sometimes dedicate half an episode to an interrogation, a guest star stamping their mark on the show. That's Her Story, only instead of cops it's you, years after the recorded interview, searching through video clips by entering keywords. Her Story plays out in those videos and that search bar, but it's also played on note paper you inevitably fill with conspiracy scribbles like Charlie from It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia. I didn't bother making notes during Fez (I probably should have), but for Her Story I scrawled pages.
It spread even further after that, into an argument with friends about what really happened which I remain convinced I'm right about. Maybe I got obsessed? It's one of a handful of games I 100-percented on Steam and I don't regret it.
Wes: In tech, skeuomorphic design—making your music player in the form of a cassette tape, for example—is now quaint and frowned upon. But it's a rarely used concept in games, and Her Story uses it to great effect. I'd go so far to say that its dusty CRT computer interface is the best marriage of aesthetic and game design in anything I've ever played. It's immersive in a subtle, well-earned way that makes Her Story enrapturing from its first few moments.
Released: 2011 | Developer: Gaslamp Games
Chris: I'm not typically one for turn-based games, and roguelike RPGs often break my heart when I'm forced to start over from scratch, but Dungeons of Dredmor immediately drew me in with its style and comedy. I've never won a game, never beat or even met Lord Dredmor, never even gotten more than a few levels deep. It's still a joy to play for its writing, humor and surprisingly deep and amusing lore.
Evan: The absurdity goes so far to soften the blows of its difficulty. You can build a Vampire Communist who wields Egyptian Magic, Fungal Arts, or Emomancy to fight hordes of weird robots, carrots, genies, and whatever the hell diggles are.
Austin: I keep coming back to Dungeons of Dredmor because it’s a gamble I don’t mind losing. I’ve never beaten Dredmor either, but generating a random character and pushing the usefulness of absurd skills like Fleshsmithing, Killer Vegan and Paranormal Investigator is always a thrill, even when I die on the first or second floor. It’s a system that rewards inventiveness. You can manually select your skills, but rolling the die and making the best of random skills is far more satisfying, and like the optional but actually totally necessary permadeath, makes every round feel genuinely different.
Released: 2014 | Developer: QuickTequila
Shaun: You don’t need blood and exploding heads in a first-person shooter. Case in point: Lovely Planet, a first-person shooter where you run increasingly complex gauntlets while shooting cute pastel shapes in a floating pastel land. But how, you ask. How can a game about shooting cute pastel shapes (that don’t bleed!) be fun? Because this is basically a platformer—a more-ish precision-oriented runner combining the fluidity of a Quake speedrun with the one-more-try quick respawn loop of Super Meat Boy.
Released: 2006 | Developer: Introversion Software
Tyler: DEFCON is one of those games I could play forever. It's a simple, morbid real-time strategy game in which global nuclear war is inevitable and 'winning' means losing fewer people than everyone else. In the early stages it's about placing missile silos (which double as missile defense systems), airfields, radar stations, and fleets of submarines, battleships, and aircraft carriers. As the war turns hot, the only option is to manage losses and inflict your own genocide, to make paranoid alliances and break them with bombs—ignoring that the fallout will kill everyone anyway. The brutality is rendered with War Games-style vectors, turning cities to dots and people to casualty numbers, emulating the calculated viciousness of modern drone wars.
Released: 2017 | Developer: David Kanaga
James: Oikospiel is a dog opera game about dogs making an opera game. I think. Here’s the plot synopsis according to developer, composer, everything-er David Kanaga: “The Oikospielen Opera is developing an epic global-gaming festival called THE GEOSPIEL, scheduled for the year 2100. The opera's employees, organized by the Union of Animal Workers, are trying to integrate the game dev dogs of Koch Games into their group, but these loyal pups love their jobs and boss Donkey Koch too much! Will there be Unity, or will Multiplicity prevail?”
It’s as strange as it sounds, and it sounds strange—literally—too. With a soundtrack that mimics its frenzied landscapes, Oikospiel is a touching, psychedelic trip through videogame history with a meaningful message about labor.
Released: 2011 / 2013 | Developer: Galactic Cafe, William Pugh, Davey Wreden
Shaun: Are you playing the game, or is the game playing you? So much of our agency in modern games is illusory, or, more gratingly, reductive and binary. Are you going to go the nice path or the bad-arse path? The Stanley Parable is a meta-critique of gaming as a medium, but it’s also a trojan horse existential crisis (and we all love having those). When we don’t take the critical path, the one prescribed to us, what could possibly go wrong? And given the actual opportunity to do so—given the opportunity to deliberately stray from what a game (or The Stanley Parable’s narrator) is telling us to do, is there any point in playing the game at all? Hmmm. Makes you think.
Jody: First time I played The Stanley Parable I did everything I was told to. Knowing it would be meta-commentary, I rebelled by not rebelling. That’s a dumb way to experience The Stanley Parable for the first time. Don’t do that. Sabotage it, go the wrong way, hide in a closet and refuse to leave. It’s a better game if you break the rules other games have taught you rather than the first rule of The Stanley Parable, which is: don’t do what you’re told.
Released: 2015 | Developer: Frictional Games
Shaun: Survival horror too often devolves into repetitive efforts to fend off undead with unwieldy weaponry, but Soma is different. There’s no combat on this underwater research facility, and enemy encounters are few and far between. Most of the time you’re just looking at stuff, but that’s ok in the hands of studio Frictional. They manage to wring an overwhelming sense of dread and despair from a mere dark corridor, not to mention the sprawling sub-aquatic outdoor areas peppered throughout. And the ending of Soma—even if you’re usually ambivalent towards low action horror—is worth the trip alone. It may be more contemplative and less jump scare-oriented than Amnesia, but it’s all the better for it.
James: I’d even recommend those typically averse to horror give SOMA a try. Install the teasingly named “Wuss Mode” mod from the Steam Workshop to make the monsters harmless without losing much horror in the process. Sure, you won’t have to hide, but that doesn’t make their appearance and origins any less terrifying.
Released: 2016 | Developer: Drool
Shaun: Thumper is like an ugly, loathsome, despair-inducing industrial techno song come to life. And that's a very good thing. In our Top 100 Evan described it as "a documentary about the path you take to heaven or hell when you die" which is just about the most alluring description for a video game I've ever read. Yes, it's a tough, precision-oriented rhythm game, but it's a precision-oriented rhythm game that feels like a collaboration between Gaspar Noe and Laibach.
The list concludes over the page.
Released: 2017 | Developer: Messhof Games
Bo: I'm a sucker for local multiplayer games, and Nidhogg is one of the best. Somewhat of a cross between fencing and tug-of-war, Nidhogg's 1v1 matches play out over the course of many brief but violent clashes, resulting in a tense back-and-forth that's every bit a battle of wits as it is one of skill. And like all good local multiplayer games, it's easy to pick up and play but has a well of strategic depth that makes it difficult to master.
The recently-released Nidhogg 2 builds on its predecessor with a new grotesque claymation art style as well as a handful of new weapon types that mix combat up just enough to make things exciting without hampering the original's simplistic greatness. The result is a fantastic fighter we keep coming back to—especially if an office bet needs to be settled.
Released: 2012 | Developer: Polytron Corp
Shaun: Fez accumulates more poignancy with age. It’s a puzzle platformer tightly stuck between two dimensions, and harried by each of them. The protagonist is tasked with investigating and hopefully fixing the scourge of a newly arrived third dimension in a happily two-dimensional world, and this could read, from a fairly one-dimensional point of view, as an indictment on progress, a kind of luddite’s journey.
But as time passes—as the world becomes more overtly hostile—Fez’s innocent take on the loss of innocence rings true. As time passes, each of us will realise that certain uncomfortable truths have always lingered just out of our sight, waiting to pounce. And others will persevere, dig deeper (whether wisely or otherwise), for conspiracies and better buried secrets (and boy does Fez have secrets). Fez is a game about the hidden regions of our world that are always there, always mysterious, usually forbidding. It’s a beautiful and serene and sad game, but also, as an aside, really fun to play too. Fez is timeless in the way it can convey a wealth of emotion and contemplation through its systems alone.
Wes: After its fairly simple introductory hours, every discovery and deduction I made in Fez felt like a hard earned victory, or the unraveling of an impossibly complex puzzle. I love the sensation of "this can't possibly be the solution" in a videogame, only to discover that my crazy hypothesis was correct. That's what Fez is all about. And I love how clearly you can feel the immense amount of thought and polish that went into it; it feels every bit the intricate, perfectly tuned puzzle someone spent half a decade slotting together, piece by piece, until everything was just so.
Released: 2017 | Developer: Infinite Fall
Shaun: Some of the most noteworthy indies from the last decade have been adventure games, but it took until 2017 for one of the highlights, Night in the Woods, to emerge. As endearing feline Mae Borowski, you’re returning to the sleepy rural town of your childhood after an unsuccessful college stint. The town is on the decline, and so too, it seems, is Mae’s future. Things haven’t quite turned out the way she (or her family) had hoped, and much of Night in the Woods is about dealing with this mild disappointment. Exploring the township of Possum Springs is a joy in itself, but it’s the way Night in the Woods weaves a universal coming of age tale around an otherwise straightforward puzzle-laden adventure game that is remarkable.
Released: 2013-ongoing | Developer: Cardboard Computer
Jody: I wanted to wait. I wanted all five episodes of Kentucky Route Zero to be complete before I climbed into it and drove off. That's how I played The Walking Dead, and rumbling through that in one week contributed to its effect. I caved in and played Kentucky Route Zero though because a poet recommended it to me, and that's not something that happens every day. It’s obvious why she thought I had to try it, unfinished as it was (and still is). Kentucky Route Zero’s writing is gorgeous, ornamental but also able to get right at the meat of a thing. It's there when someone calls an office bureaucracy "the paperclip labyrinth" or describes topology as "the science of continuous space".
Kentucky Route Zero is an adventure game of the modern kind, where decisions and dialogue rather than puzzles pace your progress. It's about finding a lost highway, but it quickly buries you in a kind of American mythology where mystery roads are the least strange thing. I'd hate to spoil what you'll find, but if you get in an elevator, see a button that says "third floor (bears)" and aren't tempted to press it, then I don't even know you.
Though it feels like being in a novel, Kentucky Route Zero pays homage to games. That explanation of topology takes place in "a twisty maze of passages", a reference to the classic text game Colossal Cave Adventure. So is the fact that the first item you pick up is a lamp. Some of the earliest PC games were about manipulating words because that was all they had. Kentucky Route Zero is about manipulating words because that's a fascinating thing to do. It's hard to explain why encountering its word-hoard has such a potent effect, but I'm just a journalist. They should have sent a poet.
Released: 2016 | Developer: Eric Barone
Bo: There are few games that delight me in the way that Stardew Valley does. I grew up loving the Harvest Moon series, and Stardew takes that formula and applies it to the PC space. Stardew strips away many of Nintendo's puritanical hangups—same-sex marriage and sexual innuendo aren't taboo inclusions, for example—but maintains the charm of tilling fields, planting seeds, and growing crops. There's also a vibrant town to get to know, mines to explore, and tons and tons of fish to fish. I've spent more than 80 hours in Stardew Valley, and I'm looking forward to my next trip to the country.
James: Do you see me now, dad? You didn’t think my mayonnaise dreams would get me anywhere and look at me now.
Jody: Thank goodness I am not the only person making bank off mayonnaise. The quality eggs provided by my hens, Chickity and Nug, are the secret of my success.
Released: 2015 | Developer: Toby Fox
Wes: A friend and I played Undertale in a single sitting. It first inspires curiosity at its quirkiness, then determination to solve its challenging combat without taking the easy way out, then admiration for the delivery of its jokes and the tight meshing of themes and RPG mechanics twisted sideways. Comparisons to Super Nintendo RPG Earthbound, while apt, don't do Undertale justice: it's incredibly smart in how it thinks about the way we play videogames and challenges and surprises with new ideas at every step.
It's a game I genuinely think everyone should play. You'll either appreciate the humor, or the challenge, or the freedom to play through in many different ways, or the painstaking one-off moments, or the ways creator Toby Fox bent engine Game Maker to his will, or the prospect of a "true" ending to earn. It looks simple, but there's so much under the surface.
Released: 2015 | Developer: Squad
Chris: Whether you're seriously into the science and simulation, or just looking for some fun sending adorable astronauts into space (or watching their rockets explode before they get there), Kerbal is a near-perfect physics sandbox. One of the reasons it's such a joy to play is that there's immense satisfaction in the successes, like the first time you reach orbit, or land on the Mun, or safely bring your astronauts home from a mission, but there's also pleasure to be had (as well as lessons to be learned) from your failures.
KSP is both easy and immensely challenging: rockets can be snapped together quickly, and tweaked or rebuilt in mere moments, but conquering the solar system requires precision and know-how. Its charming looks and its detailed physics simulation make it a game for just about anyone, from casual rocket tinkerers to passionate rocket scientists.
Released: 2017 | Developer: Team Cherry
Wes: The best Metroidvania in years, perhaps because developers Team Cherry didn't explicitly set out to make a game in the image of Metroid. They were making a 2D action game, sure, set in a gorgeous hand-drawn decaying bug civilization, but they were mainly concerned with building out an intricate and interesting world, and the rest followed. "The rest," in this case, is a game that feels fantastic to play, with a character who moves exactly as you want and a weapon that hits with a fast and brutal crack. Combat and traversal stay rooted in the basics of jump, dodge, hit, never scaling too far beyond the capabilities you have from the very beginning. It always favors skill over power-ups.
Hollow Knight rarely tells you where to go or what to do, making palpable the satisfaction and wonder of discovering new parts of the world and new abilities. And it just keeps going. The world is huge, more detailed than you ever expect it to be, and suddenly you're two dozen hours deep and wondering how much you still have to find. The Super Nintendo had Super Metroid; PlayStation had Castlevania: Symphony of the Night. Hollow Knight may not be spoken of in the same breath, just yet, but before long I think its place in that lineage will be clear: the PC had Hollow Knight.
Released: 2016 | Developer: Red Hook Studios
Shaun: Ah, dread. It’s what you generally try to avoid in an RPG rogue-like: you want to try to mitigate dread, manage it out of existence. But dread is Darkest Dungeon’s default state. In vague terms it’s a dungeon crawler, but the dungeons aren’t miraculously swept chasms with the odd cobweb and exhumed grave—they’re dank and gross. Add to that, the need to manage your entourage’s sanity (not easy in a game that takes some small inspiration from Lovecraft) and you have an RPG that rarely offers respite. That could sound punishing, but Darkest Dungeon’s mood, and the way that you can invest your emotions in its variables, rather than just your brain and its ability to parse bigger and better numbers, makes for a gripping and bleak RPG.
Evan: I love how martial, not magical, most of the character archetypes are. Apart from the Vestal, there aren't true spellcasters—Darkest Dungeon is acted out in blood, iron, poison, bones, and crossbow bolts. That grounds the game as a whole and adds to its grittiness. The fights that play out, with the help of great 2D camera effects and sound design, feel physical and jarring as a result. It also creates good contrast with DD's monsters, a gang of blood-sucking, spore-sneezing, tentacle-having, spinal column-collecting abominations.
Released: 2008, 2013 | Developer: Mossmouth
Shaun: The first time I played Spelunky I deleted it off my hard drive within ten minutes. Then, later, at the behest of then-PC Gamer scribe Graham Smith’s review, I begrudgingly reinstalled it. I can still remember what hooked me this second time: I picked up a gold mask, a rumble filled the air, and then a massive boulder collapsed through the ceiling and crushed a nearby vendor to death. I laughed, it was funny, I woke my partner up. That’s when I became addicted to Spelunky.
A lot has been written about the beauty of Spelunky’s interlocking systems, its propensity for creating stories, and its tough-but-fair difficulty. That’s all been said and written a hundred times before, and while Spelunky is still a relatively new game in the wide scheme of things, it feels like a classic. I often boot it up just to be inside of it, just to soak up its mood. It’s weird to seek the comfort of familiarity in a game that’s always throwing curveballs, but aside from the glory of its systems and stories, Spelunky is a really beautiful, heartwarming game. It also was the first to demonstrate to me, personally, that a small game that originated as freeware could contain so much: so many stories, so many events, so many countless, frankly embarrassing, hours.
Evan: I'm gonna use this opportunity to share this great cover of the Mines theme.
Wes: Even years later, Spelunky's spot on this list is well deserved. The way its hero and items and traps and enemies and random generation interact with one another is still peerless. Just as brilliant, though, is Spelunky's daily challenge, the perfect combination of old school arcade leaderboard and infinitely replayable randomized roguelike. The daily challenge added structure and permanence to a genre that prided itself on not having any, and it works; it's become a must-have feature in any similar roguelike ever since.