Photo-Illustration: Vulture; Photos: Blizzard Entertainment, Nintendo, Sega, Tour De Pizza
The first half of 2023 has been surprisingly flush with exciting video games. Yes, some megatons, such as Bethesda’s Starfield, are still off in the distance, but spring and early summer have contained, offbeat indies; consecrated remasters; and long-gestating sequels to keep us plenty occupied. If you take our recommendations to heart, you’ll soon be orchestrating World War II battlefronts, gallivanting around industrial Japan, and enjoying a bit of Hylian engineering with Link and Zelda. That, my friends, is a great way to get through summer.
The following titles are listed by release date with the newest games up top.
Photo: Blizzard Entertainment
It has somehow been more than a decade since Diablo III, a game that was famously pilloried for being too colorful. Blizzard’s grisly series is caked with marauding undead, rivers of blood, and tortured souls, so a few stray patches of green grass were taken as an affront to the diehards. The company took note with its long-awaited sequel. Diablo IV just might be the grimmest video game Blizzard has ever made. You’ll scour the muck in dirgeful dungeon crawls, flaying a horde of chittering demons in a single blow, all in pursuit of the almighty loot. Diablo IV has altered its blueprint ever so slightly to take the shape of a genuine MMO — with player characters sprawled all over the map. There is nothing quite like item envy to get you hooked. Hell is dark, but you might want to stay here for a very long time.
The much-anticipated Street Fighter 6 has taken some bold risks for a series that has never strayed far from its austere arcade roots. There is a Yakuza-like RPG campaign, World Tour, in which you will cook up a customizable character and rendezvous with various Capcom luminaries. This dovetails nicely into the new multiplayer salon, which functions a bit like a capital city in an MMO. You rub shoulders with other Street Fighter upstarts and sit down at virtual (yes, virtual) arcade cabinets when you’re ready to rumble. But none of these features would work if the basic fighting mechanics had lost their splendor, and I’m pleased to report that the nervy, pugilistic, feint-and-counterpunch magic of Street Fighter is right at home in 2023. Best of all? A new control scheme vastly simplifies special move inputs, allowing all of our old thumbs to summon up a Shoryuken.
System Shock is one of the most important video games of all time. It arrived in 1994, during the zenith of the first-person-shooter boom, but unlike schlocky-meathead run-and-guns such as Doom and Duke Nukem, System Shock fine-tuned a slow-paced, atmosphere-heavy campaign in which an icy sci-fi story slowly comes into view through a mosaic of audio logs and text clippings. It has also, unfortunately, not aged very well, which is why it’s such a blessing that the remake auteurs at Nightdive Studios have put together a to-the-studs conversion that replaces the janky controls, questionable voice-acting, and flimsy graphics with a glistening modern sheen. It turns out the spirit of System Shock was always indelible. The game just needed a fresh coat of paint.
Photo: Focus Entertainment
On the other end of the spectrum from System Shock lies Warhammer 40,000: Boltgun, a first-person shooter so brawny and steroidal it feels like it was directly imported from 1998. Boltgun ditches modern aesthetic contours for a vintage 2-D sheen — like a particularly juiced-up Doom mod. You are playing a Space Marine, plucked from the Warhammer canon, and you will pulverize the cretinous cosmic demons in your path with a buffet of ridiculous weaponry (a chain-saw–sword hybrid, a shotgun the size of a leg). There is not a ton of nuance in Boltgun, nor should there be. This is a throwback for anyone who has grown weary of empty battle-royal maps and turgid Call of Duty experience-point grinds. Grab your gun and lay waste.
With 2017’s Breath of the Wild, Nintendo ditched its tried-and-true Zelda formula entirely and built an earthen, meditative adventure out of a limitless incarnation of Hyrule. Link was no longer forced to go from dungeon to dungeon, deciphering clockwork puzzles in a linear march to the finish line. Instead, after getting your bearings, you simply choose a direction on the horizon and see what you might discover. Tears of the Kingdom somehow doubles Breath of the Wild’s expansive scope. The direct sequel is dotted with floating islands in the sky and benthic caverns deep underground, all of which can be explored with karts, flying machines, and hot-air balloons that can be fused together with surprising intuition. Nintendo has totally reinvented Zelda twice in six years, and both times it wound up with a new classic.
The original Advance Wars dyad arrived on the Game Boy Advance in the early 2000s as the perfectly portable tactics game. You marshaled a slew of Fisher Price–esque tanks, planes, and troops across a grid-laced map, leveraging your advantages and exploiting weak spots in the usual rock-paper-scissors formula that has forever propelled turn-based combat. Advance Wars has been MIA for decades, but Reboot Camp — available on Switch — brings those two classics into the 2020s so it can once again dominate our subway trips and waiting-room visits. Who knows? Maybe we’ll finally get that erstwhile Advance Wars 3.
Photo: Behaviour Interactive
Meet Your Maker is developed by Behaviour Interactive — the Canadian studio behind the ludicrously popular horror-movie pastiche Dead by Daylight — which makes it the company’s first full-throated new title since 2019. Behaviour has earned a reputation for churning out inventive, asymmetric multiplayer contraptions, so nobody should be surprised that Meet Your Maker is intimidatingly high-concept. You are a robot scavenger in a bleak postapocalypse with one prime directive: raid the bases of your fellow players. Those bases are designed by others logged onto Meet Your Maker’s servers, which means that they’ll be outfitted with mazes, death traps, and ambushes all customized with human hands. When you aren’t on one of those excursions, you’ll also be in the lab, crafting an airtight, brutally efficient complex. There is something so deliciously puerile about falling into someone else’s snare and letting that inspire your own devious imagination.
There’s never been a game quite like Dredge. This is a fishing-management simulator, presented in a glinting cel-shaded veneer, with … a shock of cosmic horror pulsing underneath? A game about harvesting the sea and resisting the Call of Cthulhu? What? Dredge somehow marries those disparate threads beautifully. You can find all of the rote, blissful labor of a Stardew Valley or a Spiritfarer as you dutifully haul cargo from port to port and slowly outfit your vessel with superior material — but like those games, the tug of an elliptical main quest keeps you on the hook. Dredge, of course, is much more sinister in comparison, as you untangle the sins of this quaint little New England archipelago. Be careful where you cast your line.
In the ’90s, the Resident Evil series was built around primitive controls, tedious backtracking, and mind-numbingly baroque puzzle-solving. The creepy, steely, corporate-occult atmosphere clung to the walls, but actually playing those early relics in the franchise was a chore. That all changed in 2005, when Capcom pivoted to a modern over-the-shoulder camera vantage and brokered a golden age of zombie slaying with Resident Evil 4. The universally acclaimed title maintained the dusky, accursed vibes of the world while delivering one of the greatest action games of the last two decades. Our protagonist, Leon Kennedy, fends off aquatic behemoths, deranged cultists, and hordes of undead with nervy, tight gunplay; never again will you ever fuss around with an awkward analog-stick orientation. Resident Evil IV has just been remastered, in scintillating 4K, for anyone who didn’t enjoy the adventure 20 years ago. It’s about time to see what all the fuss is about.
Bayonetta is an eight-foot-tall librarian who is capable of summoning flesh-eating monsters out of her waxy, jet-black hair. But even Amazonians have humble roots, and in Bayonetta Origins, we learn about how a young Cereza grew into the woman we know and love today. This new Switch title ditches the flashy combo-laden excess of the mainline games and approaches something much closer to an isometric Legend of Zelda diorama. Cereza, the future Bayonetta who wields a tome full of spells and fits the mold of a sullen, witchy teen, is controlled with one analog stick. The other one lets us pilot Cheshire — a rag-doll cat possessed by a demon — who handles most of the grunt work. You’ll be using both of their skill sets to crack puzzles and, yes, crush a whole lot of interdimensional assailants. That makes Bayonetta Origins slow, methodical, and thoughtful. Who says Cereza doesn’t have range?
The VR revolution — boosted by Facebook, Google, and practically every other spurious power broker in the tech sector — never totally broke into the mainstream. Still, Sony released its latest VR headset, the PlayStation VR2, earlier this year, and it’s an impressive piece of tech that is buoyed by an arresting slate of software. The Horizon series takes place in a high-concept postapocalypse during which humanity has regressed to the Stone Age and hulking cyborg dinosaurs stalk the blooming plains of the former United States. It’s the sort of world you want to see for yourself, and Call of the Mountain gives players that opportunity. You’ll be grasping at the rocky outcroppings of a granite peak with your calloused palms and threading rudimentary bows with your fingers, all while enjoying a condensed batch of cameos from some of the franchise’s famous faces. VR remains basically rudderless in its proof-of-concept phase, but Call of the Mountain could convince anyone of its potential.
Yakuza, the gargantuan Japanese media brand that the Like a Dragon imprint belongs to, has been supremely popular in its native country for decades without ever gaining much traction within English-speaking regions. But that dichotomy has started to erode over the past five years as more Americans began to fall in love with the franchise’s cockeyed humor and genuinely stirring storytelling. Case in point: Like a Dragon: Ishin! was originally released in Japan back in 2014, and it’s just now earning a westernized localization for a newly minted legion of Yakuza fans. Ishin! takes place in the 19th century, toward the end of the country’s shogunate era, and it’s a gratuitous spaghetti-western pastiche. Everything you’ve come to love about Yakuza, from the heavy soliloquies interrogating the nature of revenge and loyalty to the weirdly fleshed-out mini-games about chicken racing, are right in place. We now live in a world where a new Yakuza game is an industry-stalling event. Sometimes justice prevails.
Photo: Square Enix
The first Octopath Traveler was well regarded for its magically ethereal art style: the way the game seemed to glow from within as the landscapes of the papered world layered on top of one another into the distance. But critics were less impressed with its rote combat and dreary storytelling, which means the sequel had a lot of work to do. Square Enix delivered in spades. The eight-pronged narrative is much more substantial compared to its predecessor, as it carefully augments the standard fantasy RPG notes. (You’ll wrest control of either a dancer who perfects her art in the memory of her long-lost mother or an exiled prince who is attempting to get the band back together.) These characters intersect a world that reverberates with its own lineage, customs, and faith. Octopath Traveler is, at last, a place to inhabit rather than to look at.
The Metroid formula was well established by 2002. The two-dimensional games, released in the ’80s and ’90s, starred Samus Aran — an intergalactic bounty hunter with a knack for unwittingly unleashing a universe-destabilizing contagion — as she slowly excavated a gigantic, interconnected, Easter-egg-laden map. Retro Studios was given the unenviable task of bringing a Metroid adventure to the GameCube, through which we’d look through Aran’s eyes in a first-person 3-D environment, and they passed with flying colors. Today, Metroid Prime is remembered as a moody classic and perhaps the greatest articulation of the constricting isolation so crucial to Metroid’s identity. Last month, Nintendo released an HD remaster of the game on Switch, so we can all celebrate its majesty and ache for a sequel that never seems to come.
Dead Space arrived back in the mists of time, when a megapublisher like EA would green-light a linear, single-player survival-horror dirge with no meta-progression grind or DLC packages to lengthen its life span. Unsurprisingly, the Dead Space franchise has been dormant since 2013, until this resurrection. The 2023 incarnation of Dead Space is a down-to-the-studs remake of the original game, spruced up with fresh textures and animations, ensuring that the wriggling, glistening parasites of this cursed, derelict space station can evoke white-knuckle panic in zoomers and millennials alike. Enjoy the carnage, the gore, and the expertly paced, filler-free narrative. They don’t make ’em like this anymore.
Photo: Tour De Pizza
The best indie designers tend to extrapolate upon a video game they themselves sunk zillions of hours into during their youth. For Pizza Tower, the nerve center is the Wario Land series, which dominated a whole lot of Game Boy Colors in the mid-1990s. Those games swapped out the agile platforming of the mother Super Mario Bros. franchise for a ground-bound left-to-right plod; Wario doesn’t jump over the obstacles in his path — he lowers his shoulder and smashes through. Pizza Tower replaces Wario with a madcap pizza chef lost in a garish, hand-scrawled, Ren & Stimpy–esque universe. That textbook Wario Land sense of momentum is much more impactful with our modern processing power compared to what the Game Boy was capable of on its tiny eight-bit CPU, and the development team — Tour De Pizza — mustered a remarkable amount of polish for what is a fairly twee project. Personally, I can’t wait until they take on Wario World.
Photo: Bethesda Softworks
Hi-Fi Rush snuck up on us like a Beyoncé album: The game was announced, and released, on the exact same day. Tango Gameworks is best known for the downcast psychological torment of The Evil Within and Ghostwire: Tokyo, but here it has pivoted to an Über-colorful Devil May Cry action game with the cel-shaded fineline cartooning that immediately evokes the Dreamcast golden age. All of the combat is regimented to the beat of the soundtrack — a crunchy, Y2K-flecked pop-punk milieu — which adds a smidge of structure to the chaos. I know exactly when to end my combo; it’s whenever the bass drum hits.
2019’s Fire Emblem: Three Houses revitalized the franchise by filtering this turn-based tactics game through the guise of a teen soap. You played a scholastic professor, who was inexplicably teenage, and nurtured a cast of lovable misfits through a martial education before they all succumbed to the cruelty of expansionary warfare. Engage throws outthose chatty digressions and returns to Fire Emblem’s roots. If Three Houses was about enjoying an introspective tea date with your friends, Engage is about moving troops around a map. For those of us who were thirsting for a Fire Emblem that gives us a tactical puzzle that neatly fits within a subway commute, Nintendo has finally heard our call.