It took some time, but 2023 finally got weird.
A year that began with a series of fantastic remakes has gradually given way to new games about zealous hat salesmen, clairvoyant nun detectives, and existential god-fearing fishing communities. One mobile game reimagines open worlds as pie charts, in which you begin in the center and gracefully guide through a slice (read: biome) until it surrounds you in all directions. In another, we’ve dived to the depths of a mysterious tropical lake, only to then sling fish at a sushi restaurant before exploring the remains of a civilization of merpeople later that same day. Even something like Battlebit Remastered, itself an excellent homage to the glory days of Battlefield, is painted with a Roblox-esque sheen.
More than anything, the video games of the first half of 2023 serve as a reminder that daring, strange, wonderful creations are everywhere, if you just divert your attention from the big game release cycle long enough to find them. We still have quite a few entries in the latter category before the year is out, and some of them look promising as hell — but through it all, we’ll keep championing the odd little gems that also lie in wait. —Mike Mahardy
Final Fantasy 16
Final Fantasy 16 kicks ass. The newest mainline entry in the long, winding series takes you on a lavish, unadulterated Game of Thrones-esque adventure. You play as a broody Clive Rosfield, a young man whose life’s work is to protect his little brother, Joshua. The story begins when Clive’s life takes a turn for the worse and he vows to destroy the monster who ruined his and his family’s legacy.
Developed by Creative Business Unit III, Square Enix’s internal team behind the MMORPG Final Fantasy 14, 16 leans into patchwork territories of fantasy genre fare. There is palace intrigue, a whole lot of sex, and endless war between nations. But the developers then sprinkle in Final Fantasy elements like mother crystals, dazzling kaiju fights between summons (known as Eikons in this iteration), and of course, Chocobos.
The quality of the story in this long and linear character-driven RPG waxes and wanes, but the action combat is among the best I’ve ever played. The gameplay grips you from the very beginning as Clive smoothly dashes, parries, and swings his giant sword and varied magic with a dazzling amount of style. The gameplay didn’t just help me stick with the game, but instead allowed my excitement to bubble over every time I took on a new mission. —Ana Diaz
Final Fantasy 16 is available on PlayStation 5.
Dave the Diver
You could describe Dave the Diver as a fishing game and a restaurant management simulator, and that’d be correct. But that would also be underselling the game, and understating things quite a lot.
Diving into the mysterious Blue Hole, Dave spends the first two quarters of his day swimming deeper into the colorful abyss, discovering both sea life and a story that’s equally absurd and earnest. When you’re not picking up sea urchins or spearfishing sharks, Dave is assisting the rest of Dave the Diver’s cast of characters — his sushi business partners, a community of seafolk, an anime-obsessed weapons expert, and a pair of dolphins. At night, Dave slings sushi and pours drinks at the restaurant, frantically running back and forth between clearing dishes, delivering sushi, and refilling the freshly ground wasabi. Between all that, Dave’s harvesting rice and vegetables on a farm, curating a hatchery, racing seahorses with mermaids, and taking down a suspicious group masquerading as environmental activists. Somehow, there’s even a well-done rhythm video game — starring one of those anime idols that the arms dealer loves — that makes perfect sense.
It really shouldn’t work; I can’t imagine another game where all these disparate ideas coalesce so seamlessly. But Dave the Diver would feel less complete without any one of them. It makes for such a compelling loop, and a consistent advancement of the game’s story, that I kept finding myself in that “one more day” mindset, eager to jump back into the ocean for one more go. —Nicole Carpenter
Dave the Diver is available on Windows PC.
Battlebit Remastered takes the spirit of the Battlefield series at its very best. The 127-versus-127 combat sandbox sits happily between Arma and Call of Duty, plucking bits from each. Sim elements like detailed bullet-drop models, functional scope zeroing, and multiple reload styles contrast with arcade-y allowances like infinite sprint, easy revives, and vehicular hijinks.
The game’s small dev team has clearly prioritized feel and function over aesthetics, and for the most part, it works. When you’re desperately defending a capture point with your squad or speeding over rough terrain in a smoking truck, it’s easy to look past the super lo-fi graphics. But there are times when flat colors and textureless expanses can make the battlefield hard to parse.
Battlebit Remastered is still in development, and I hope we’ll continue to see the visuals and audio tuned up in the coming months. I’m not too worried, though. Even in its scrappy, blocky state, it might be the best Battlefield game of the decade. —Pat Gill
Battlebit Remastered is available on Windows PC.
With Diablo 4, Blizzard Entertainment set out to marry the frenetic action of Diablo 3, the deep RPG systems of Diablo 2, and the dark tone of the original game. It was an ambitious promise to be sure, but four years and a whole pandemic after the studio announced the long-awaited sequel at BlizzCon 2019, it’s here, and it’s fantastic.
But Diablo 4’s marriage of tone, action, and role-playing isn’t what makes it so good. In addition to all of those other things, Diablo 4 is the best launch we’ve seen for a new “living game” in recent memory.
With the likes of Destiny, Anthem, and even Diablo 3, it was clear from the start that there were some nuggets of potential. But being a fan meant slogging through mountains of frustration just to taste a morsel of what you’d hope those games would become. Playing these games early on was a kind of gamble.
Diablo 4, however, is unlike any of those projects, because its systems are already deep and nuanced enough to spend hundreds of hours growing your character. And there is already loads of content to support that kind of time investment.
With multiple expansions in the works already, Blizzard Entertainment finds itself in almost uncharted territory. When the first expansion for a living game isn’t merely righting the ship, what potential does it hold? It’s a question made even more enticing by the fact that Diablo 4 could never see a single expansion and it would still be a best-in-class ARPG. —Ryan Gilliam
Diablo 4 is available on PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Windows PC, Xbox One, and Xbox Series X.
Amnesia: The Bunker
If only one developer could be said to have a master’s grasp on interactive horror, I’d have to tip my hat to Frictional Games. The Amnesia series has always been a thrill ride of terrifying chases and the quiet, a little too quiet, moments that build up tension between. Amnesia: The Bunker is no different. In fact, it’s one of Frictional’s best.
Set in a seemingly abandoned bunker that’s been sealed by explosions during World War I, your simple yet difficult task is to find an exit. This being a horror game, though, you also have to collect fuel for the bunker’s generator — a veritable beating heart — and scrutinize maps on safe room walls, before venturing into the titular structure’s labyrinthine bowels. Oh, also! There’s a monster hunting you. And it can ambush you from wall vents. And it’s attracted to even the slightest bit of sound. And whether you’re juicing your hand-cranked flashlight, triggering long-forgotten tripwires, or just opening a heavy door into yet another concrete-encased corridor, you’re going to have to make noise at some point. The Bunker is as potent in its terror as any horror video game out there. —M. Mahardy
Amnesia: The Bunker is available on PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Windows PC, Xbox One, and Xbox Series X.
Super Mega Baseball 4
More than 200 real-life ballplayers join the roster of Super Mega Baseball 4, Metalhead’s delightful, arcade-style presentation of the National Pastime. Fans need not worry: Everything that has made the Super Mega Baseball franchise a hit for the past decade is still here, namely the rock-solid gameplay, deep and long-tail season modes, and a dry sense of humor found in everything from the teams’ nicknames to the ads on the outfield walls.
Sports fans who pine for the days, 20 years ago, when they had multiple video game options for any of their favorite sports — especially arcade titles — will feel like they’ve gone back in time. Super Mega Baseball 4 may not be licensed by the major leagues, but it doesn’t need to be: It’s the essence of a very fun sport, and that means a lot more than any branding. —Owen Good
Super Mega Baseball 4 is available on Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Windows PC, Xbox One, and Xbox Series X.
Street Fighter 6
If I were in the “making fighting games” biz, I would not want to follow Street Fighter 6. Historically, fighting games haven’t had to be feature-rich media experiences. It seems like the majority of development effort goes into designing the systems, balancing characters, and everything that happens between “Fight” and “K.O.” While that approach has served the core audience of fighting game diehards, it hasn’t created the best on-ramp for new players, or people who just want to play differently.
And that’s where Street Fighter 6 sings. The game is overflowing with stuff and love. There’s a lengthy open-world-RPG-esque story mode where your self-insert create-a-character pals around with the iconic World Warriors. The campaign drip-feeds you new tools and mechanics, teaching you fighting game fundamentals through goofy scenarios.
That joyous abundance of character extends to every little bit of the game. Lovingly rendered idle animations on the character-select screen transition into bravura entrances. The character-specific tutorial modules are written in that fighter’s voice. The stages are gorgeous and full of cute details and Easter eggs.
Jam all of that joy into a package with compelling mechanics, an industry-leading training mode, and excellent netplay, and you’ve got one of the best, most accessible fighting games ever. —PG
Street Fighter 6 is available on PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Windows PC, and Xbox Series X.
In a year of several stellar remakes and immersive sims, it wouldn’t have been surprising if System Shock showed its age of nearly 30 years. At least, it would have been understandable if the changes needed to update the game would leave it nigh unrecognizable. That’s why Nightdive Studios’ accomplish is so impressive: It updated the 1994 classic with a slick coat of modern paint while also preserving what made the game so thrilling in the first place.
The element where that’s most evident is in the game’s look, which captures all of the original System Shock’s garish cyberpunk neons and frightening enemies in a style that appears like a modern high-fidelity game at a distance, but subtly transforms into retro pixel bitmaps on closer inspection. In much the same way, the gameplay feels surprisingly modern at a distance, but on closer inspection, you start to see how this proto-immersive sim is actually what inspired so much modern game design. You have to rely on your own curiosity, caution, and cunning to navigate the halls of Citadel Station and upgrade your hacker into a cybernetic death machine. It’s a game that expects a lot from the player (and a little save scumming), but the experience is just as rewarding as it was in 1994. —Clayton Ashley
System Shock is available on Windows PC.
The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom
The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom had massive shoes to fill, and somehow, it not only filled them, but managed to tread new ground. Its predecessor, The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, went down in history as one of the most influential games in open-world design. Now we know that Breath of the Wild was just the first draft of an adventure that would be so much bigger.
Tears of the Kingdom gives you the freedom and tools to tinker your way through Hyrule. Now, with Link’s new powers, you can build a wide array of contraptions to help Link traverse the wilderness. His Ultrahand power allows you to “glue” a vast array of materials together, while Fuse lets you craft weapons out of the most unlikely combinations of items. Fans have used these abilities to build everything from maniacal torture devices to fully functional war machines. Memes aside, these contraptions show what an absolute marvel Tears of the Kingdom is. Whereas it’s fun for many players to merely mess around, developers have said that even a simple bridge in the game is a development miracle.
These astounding mechanics guide you through a world that’s both strange and familiar at the same time. Hyrule has experienced an upheaval, and the mainland we got to know in Breath of the Wild is dotted with new settlements and archeological wonders. Additionally, you explore two entirely new layers of the map — one above and one below Hyrule — adding even more mystery and wonder to the wilderness Nintendo first unveiled in 2017. At the end of the day, this new world and Link’s new powers all contribute to an emotionally charged time-travel narrative between Link, Princess Zelda, and even Ganondorf. Taken together, these elements make Tears of the Kingdom one of the best games of 2023. —AD
The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom is available on Nintendo Switch.
Remember Alto’s Adventure and Alto’s Odyssey? Their developer, Snowman, made a spiritual follow-up, except this time it’s a 3D open-world game. And it rules. Laya’s Horizon takes my favorite bits of Steep, Riders Republic, and the Alto’s games (read: moving extremely fast down tall cliffs to chill music) and tosses away practically everything else. Your goal is simply to glide down a mountain and land at the shore. Along the way, you can complete some light objectives (like playing tag with a bird or racing a crew of fellow gliders) or you can just enjoy the feeling of virtual wind in your hair.
Laya’s Horizon didn’t make a big splash when it launched in May, but here’s the thing: If you have a Netflix subscription, the game is basically free. Download it on iOS or Android, sign in with your account, and you’re all set to wingsuit away your weekend. —Chris Plante
Laya’s Horizon is available on Android and iOS with a Netflix subscription.
Age of Wonders 4
As Alexis Ong wrote in our Age of Wonders 4 review, “the real magic of 4X games lies in watching shit happen.” And in Age of Wonders 4, a lot of shit happens.
Resting somewhere between the empire-building of the Civilization series and the emergent storytelling of Crusader Kings 3, Age of Wonders 4 lets you build your own high-fantasy race from the ground up, gradually flesh out its beliefs, rituals, ideals, and laws, and watch as a complex web of systems either reinforces those pillars or, more than likely, morphs them all into something unrecognizable. You can found new cities, explore natural wonders, and deploy your armies in shows of militaristic might, but the true joy in Age of Wonders 4 comes from comparing the civilization you wanted to build at the outset with the one that emerged as a result of circumstance. My crusading Toadkin may have had holy wars on their mind when they first set foot on the world’s stage, but by the end of my failed campaign, they had become stauncher pacifists than any of their neighbors. And I loved every second of the transformation. —M. Mahardy
Age of Wonders 4 is available on Windows PC.
Star Wars Jedi: Survivor
Is Star Wars Jedi: Survivor an Empire Strikes Back level of sequel? Well, no, but it manages to get extraordinarily close to being one of the best follow-ups in the entire Star Wars franchise.
The game improves upon Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order in every conceivable way, with a more entertaining, action-oriented start and a ton of aerial movements and lightsaber stances that make you feel even more like a seasoned Jedi Knight. Quality-of-life improvements like fast travel make the game less frustrating to play, while the new locales packed with hidden collectibles and upgrades makes exploration more rewarding.
But what makes Jedi: Survivor truly special isn’t this crude matter, but its luminous heart. You feel it in the memorable characters you meet on your galactic journey, be it the people you help or the friendships you forge and reconcile with. It’s in the classic, crowded cantina where you actually want to go check in with the barkeep. It’s in the tactile, reverent way you craft your lightsaber. And it’s in the kinetic set-pieces that remind you of the serials Star Wars was originally inspired by. At its best, you really can feel the Force around you. —CA
Star Wars Jedi: Survivor is available on PlayStation 5, Windows PC, and Xbox Series X.
Mr. Sun’s Hatbox
Mr. Sun’s Hatbox is about a hat delivery person (or maybe it’s just a blob with legs?) that takes their job way too seriously. At the beginning of the game, a customer’s package gets stolen and whisked away to a nearby towering castle. Despite the client’s apathy toward a single missing hat, the delivery company, named Amazin, proceeds to set up an entire subterranean paramilitary operation beneath the poor customer’s home.
As its premise suggests, this pixelated 2D roguelite leans into the absurd. Part Metal Gear Solid 5, part Spelunky, you undertake missions where you blast away enemies and kidnap them for your own operation, all while slapstick action unfolds. While on a mission, anything from a desk lamp to daggers is fair game for a weapon. In between fights, you expand your base, where you manage a staff of brainwashed blob-people. It’s fast, frenetic fun, and especially enjoyable to share with friends in co-op. —AD
Mr. Sun’s Hatbox is available on Nintendo Switch and Windows PC.
Dredge is a Lovecraftian horror experience masquerading as a simple fishing game.
The open ocean is filled with terrible creatures that can and will damage or destroy your boat. And each of the major islands you visit comes with its own evil sea beasts that must be dealt with if you want to progress the story or fish peacefully. Dredge ultimately tells a dark parable about loss, and how obsession can own you if you aren’t careful.
But what makes Dread so special — and one of the best games of 2023 — is that under its foreboding story and twisted environments is a fishing game that grows more complex with every outing, centered around an upgrade system that feels amazing to progress through. As the dangers around you grow, so too does your ship’s capabilities. And by adventuring into battles — metaphorical and otherwise — with the seas’ most dastardly critters, you’ll always come out on the other side with some upgrades that allow you to catch even better fish and build an even bigger boat.
By the time you’ve spent 10 or so hours with Dredge, you’ll feel like a commercial fisherman who just happened upon something bigger and more foreboding than they could have imagined — and that, perhaps, you’ve stared deep into some kind of black abyss, only to escape forever changed. —RG
Dredge is available on Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Windows PC, Xbox One, and Xbox Series X.
This haunting and occasionally quite humorous visual novel mainly unfolds through the eyes of pious, naive protagonist Hedwig, who at the outset of Misericorde is the convent’s Anchoress. This means that, by her choice, she’s spent her formative years locked up in a cell, serving as a presumed “neutral” source of knowledge to any and all spiritual advice-seekers, as she’s devoted herself fully to reading only scripture and religious literature. But when one of the nuns at the adjacent convent is suddenly murdered, Mother Superior drags Hedwig from the simple but serene familiarity of her cell to investigate. She may not have any detective experience, but Hedwig’s position means she’s the only person who definitely didn’t murder Sister Catherine.
Misericorde is a visual novel in the strictest sense: There’s no player choice, no branching dialogue; it’s a matter of just clicking through and reading the story as it unfolds. Only the first volume of the game has been released so far, so the mystery is still unsolved. Nonetheless, its writing makes it a standout of 2023; it’s rare to see an ensemble cast this well developed and characterized, especially in a murder mystery, a genre that often relies on tropes and shorthand. At first, upon seeing the black-and-white art depicting all of the nuns dressed in (obviously) identical habits, I worried about how I’d manage to keep track of all the suspects. But I didn’t worry for long. Each nun has her own distinct voice — and her own set of secrets. I can’t wait until volume 2 is released so that I can learn more about these women and the murder that has torn their close-knit community apart. —Maddy Myers
Misericorde is available on Windows PC.
Resident Evil 4 Remake
It turns out, Capcom is good at remaking games.
The original Resident Evil remake all but set the bar for the format in 2002, with sleeker controls, more nuanced graphical details, and whole new areas to explore in the iconic Spencer Mansion. The Resident Evil 2 remake changed the entire perspective of its source material without sacrificing the focus on horror and survival. Resident Evil 3’s remake, as forgettable as it was, still brought the design conceits of the original game, warts and all, to a modern audience. And now we have Resident Evil 4 — and what a remake it is.
In this reimagined version of the 2005 action-survival-horror game, Capcom has managed to erase many of the blemishes on one of the most beloved games in the series, if not all time. The remake is full of new flourishes and extra details in each of its three sprawling areas, making it less of a remake and more of a dramatic reinterpretation. It has also managed to add even more survival elements to the original’s action-centric combat, without sacrificing the camp and cheese that have made it such an enduring presence throughout the years. A lesser game would have shrunk in the face of such intimidating source material, but the Resident Evil 4 remake achieved the balancing act in spades. —M. Mahardy
Resident Evil 4 is available on PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Windows PC, and Xbox Series X.
Tchia, from developer Awaceb, is an open-world adventure game set in a fictional version of island nation New Caledonia — inspired by Awaceb’s co-founder’s childhood in the country.
Everything is filtered through the titular main character Tchia’s eyes, eyes with a special power that allows her to transform into any animals or objects in her environment. Birds, dolphins, a camera, or rocks… It’s all an option for Tchia.
The game, while clearly inspired by The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, ends up standing on its own because of the innovative shapeshifting mechanics. Tchia isn’t as technically polished as a Nintendo title with hundreds of developers; Awaceb has a team of roughly a dozen. Still, it’s hard to innovate in such a ubiquitous genre, yet Awaceb has managed to do just that with Tchia, making it one of the best games so far this year. —NC
Tchia is available on PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, and Windows PC.
Lions and tigers and… hat-wearing armadillos? Oh my.
Patch Quest initially roped me in with its endearing creatures, but I stuck around for its expert blend of disparate genres. It borrows elements from Pokémon, Castlevania, The Binding of Isaac, and Enter the Gungeon to create a unique monster-taming roguelike in which you and your animal companions stitch the world back together one piece at a time. Tame deceptively cute monsters, explore the winding labyrinth of Patchlantis, and exterminate anyone who stands in your way with a fruit-ammo smoothie. Developer Lychee Game Labs (a one-person team, no less) stitched several pieces of cloth together to make Patch Quest, and the resulting quilt is a mesmerizing experience. —Johnny Yu
Patch Quest is available on Windows PC.
Paranormasight: The Seven Mysteries of Honjo
Square Enix has plenty of mega-franchises to fill its time (and its coffers). This year, we have new entries for Octopath Traveler and Final Fantasy, along with new Dragon Quest and Kingdom Hearts games in the not-so-distant future. Dayenu!
And yet, the publisher can’t help itself from bombarding us with surprising, interesting, sometimes great, often good-enough experiments. In 2022, we got an English-language remake of lost gem Live A Live, the surprisingly enjoyable tactical RPG DioField Chronicle, a bonkers Final Fantasy spinoff featuring the musical stylings of Limp Bizkit, and a pair of oddball card games lathered in lore from gaming’s best weirdo. This year, we have the Avengers of rhythm games, Theatrhythm Final Bar Line, and Paranormasight: The Seven Mysteries of Honjo, an excellent riff on the visual novel penned by a beloved storyteller — whose best series has never appeared in the U.S.
What should you know about Paranormasight before you play? Well, ideally nothing. Why else would I be eating up my word count?
But if you insist: It’s a mystery — and a horror mystery at that. You travel to 1980s Japan, specifically the Tokyo neighborhood of Honjo, located not so far from the modern Tokyo Skytree. It’s hard to imagine that modern landmark ever towering alongside these streets, which are filled with shadows and lethal curses.
If you have even a passing interest in urban legends, spooky folklore, cults, and deadly rituals, or you’ve enjoyed series like Zero Escape and Danganronpa, Paranormasight is an easy recommendation. And if you just enjoy a good yarn and have access to basically any screen and $15, then you’re a perfect mark too. It runs as well on console and PC as it does on iOS and Android, so don’t fret about where you play, just do so and soon! Before Square Enix stops investing in all these oddities. —CP
Paranormasight: The Seven Mysteries of Honjo is available on Android, iOS, Nintendo Switch, and Windows PC.
Phantom Brigade’s unique “turn-based real-time” battles feel like a revelation in the mecha genre. The most apt comparison is a video editor’s timeline, only instead of scrolling through a movie you’ve already made, you can effortlessly turn the tide of battle with a few smart moves. Once you’ve set up your five frenetic seconds of action, you get to sit back and watch it all play out in glorious slo-mo.
For mecha fans, it’ll be quickly apparent how deeply the developers revere giant robots. Your mecha can be intricately customized, right down to their generator, which directly affects things like how frequently they can fire their armaments. Speaking of, the game’s arsenal is both beautiful and brutal: frightfully devastating shotguns, graceful energy swords, and missile barrages that fire in a perfect Itano circus. Even though the game is played from a bird’s-eye view, your mechs feel big and weighty, stomping through the game world as they knock down buildings and shove tanks aside like toys. Even peering five seconds into the future to see your enemies’ movements feels like a reference to the ESP common in mecha anime.
This is not to mention the minimalist but evocative narratives you’ll get to enjoy on your campaign. While sometimes drawn with broad strokes, these stories are an important reminder that however cool your mechs may be, it’s the pilots inside who really count. —CA
Phantom Brigade is available on Windows PC.
Wo Long: Fallen Dynasty
Of all the developers borrowing heavily from the games of FromSoftware, perhaps none do so more cunningly than Team Ninja. If Nioh and Nioh 2 were Dark Souls as seen through the lens of Japanese myth, then Wo Long: Fallen Dynasty is Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice (and a bit of Bloodborne) set in Three Kingdoms-era China. And it rules.
Not only does Wo Long deftly maneuver between awe-inspiring boss fights, spell-slinging brawls, and a litany of intricate areas across rural China — it also encourages exploration in a way that even some FromSoftware games haven’t. Wo Long’s morale system (which rewards you for building up your character’s confidence, so to speak, against hordes of lesser enemies before tackling a boss) ensures that no challenge is insurmountable. It’s the rare game that can both brutalize you and root for you every step of the way. Wo Long is one such game. —M. Mahardy
Wo Long: Fallen Dynasty is available on PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Windows PC, Xbox One, and Xbox Series X.
Company of Heroes 3
In 2006, Company of Heroes kicked down the door and strode into the real-time strategy scene with swagger and bravado. Its focus on squad-based tactics, as opposed to the movements of hordes of individual soldiers, set it cleanly apart from Starcraft, Warcraft, and Command & Conquer, and the ensuing spectacle was more than a little reminiscent of the choreographed World War II battles of Saving Private Ryan and Band of Brothers.
But things have changed. 4X, grand strategy, and turn-based tactics have nudged RTS games out of their top spot in the strategy space. Despite its explosive original outing in 2006, and its excellent sequel in 2013, Relic Entertainment needed to adapt.
And adapt it did. Company of Heroes 3 makes real-time strategy more approachable than ever, with a “tactical pause” option that allows you to stop time and issue orders to your troops in hectic moments. It also introduces a Total War-esque turn-based overworld map, allowing you to maneuver armies, capture key installations, and provide a bevy of support bonuses to the real-time battles, away from the firm guidance of the team’s (still excellent) linear campaign writers. —M. Mahardy
Company of Heroes 3 is available on Windows PC.
Octopath Traveler 2
The first Octopath Traveler was one of those games that was as enjoyable to play as it was painful: enjoyable because so much of it kicked ass, but painful because so much of it dragged the positive aspects down. In other words, it stood on the precipice of excellence, but couldn’t quite cross the line.
Octopath Traveler 2 leaps across that boundary. In place of the original game’s repetitive level design, monotonous narrative structure, and sometimes awkward characterization, the sequel demonstrates an expert ability to challenge your expectations at every turn. Yes, your general goal is still to recruit eight playable characters (hence the name) and follow each of their separate plot threads to their respective conclusions, participating in turn-based battles and side quests along the way. But said plots vary greatly from character to character, and if you so choose, you can see a handful of characters through several major plot points before recruiting the whole gang. Octopath Traveler 2 finely toes the line between that comfort food-esque repetition of the best JRPGs, and the subversive nature of great genre storytelling. —M. Mahardy
Octopath Traveler 2 is available on Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, and Windows PC.
Metroid Prime Remastered
Few games from 2002 hold up as well as Metroid Prime, and the remastered version of the game — which was surprise-dropped during February’s Nintendo Direct — proves that Samus Aran’s first-person adventure is still worth experiencing, whether it’s for the first time or (in my case) the fourth.
Retro Studios’ take on one of sci-fi’s most famous intergalactic bounty hunters controversially took her out of the 2D puzzle-platformer realm that made her famous (although Metroid Fusion also came out in 2002 — a gift for the 2D Metroid purists — which may also be why Fusion joined Nintendo Switch Online’s catalog shortly after Prime Remastered was released). By placing the player inside Samus’ helmet, Metroid Prime recontextualized the bounty hunter’s relationship with the hostile planets around her.
As we donned Samus’ suit and explored strange planets, aggressive alien lifeforms could now get right in our faces, forcing us to dodge, strafe, and roll (in morph ball form, naturally) using all three dimensions. No longer would we sit back and watch as Samus dipped her toe into a pool of lava; in first-person, as molten fire spread over our visor, we’d really feel the pressure to find that Varia Suit upgrade. And perhaps most importantly, from behind Samus’ visor, we gained the ability to scan our enemies and environment, collecting and translating logs from the long-dead Chozo aliens who once inhabited these now-hostile places.
The world of Prime is harsh and unrelenting. (Save points will, at times, be quite far from one another.) But it’s worth buckling down and pushing through the pain points to discover this world’s secrets. —M. Myers
Metroid Prime Remastered is available on Nintendo Switch.
With The Last of Us on HBO and Resident Evil 4 back in the conversation, it’s already a banner year for survival horror. Motive Studio’s Dead Space remake is no exception. Following in the footsteps of Capcom’s aforementioned title, the original Dead Space brought the third-person-action focus of Resident Evil 4’s formula to a deteriorating ship in outer space. In the vein of Event Horizon, Sunshine, and Alien, Dead Space was a paragon for sci-fi horror in a confined and claustrophobic setting. Its remake has brought that same vision to gorgeous new life, bringing quality-of-life changes and underappreciated updates (it has made several previously useless weapons into viable tools in protagonist Isaac Clarke’s arsenal), making it hard to imagine ever going back to Visceral Games’ phenomenal original. —M. Mahardy
Dead Space is available on PlayStation 5, Windows PC, and Xbox Series X.
Season: A Letter to the Future
Everyone you meet in Season is already dead. The story opens in the far-distant future of a world that resembles our own. A history researcher reads a travel diary belonging to a young woman who documented the end of her era.
The game has you writing that travel diary, documenting the end of a culture and its people with the help of a bike and some S-tier scrapbooking skills.
What sounds sad is quite enlivening. The world isn’t drab or apocalyptic. In fact, you wouldn’t know change waits at the door of this epoch if not for the prologue. The sky and oceans are lush complementary blues. Animals go about their days without a care, grazing on wheat and twittering in the trees. The few people you encounter react to the mysterious prophesied sea change the way most folks approach moving from one apartment to another.
Season is fiction for a generation that believes the end of society as we understand it is inevitable. Maybe in our lifetime, maybe a century from now. Waters will rise, governments will fail, or corporations will mine every last resource from the planet. But also, alongside that terror, there’s also a peace to be found in visualizing a life beyond.
Dark! But what else would you expect from a game about being the documentarian for a world you, the player, already know has run its course?
That there’s so much beauty in the world of Season makes the burden of historical curation all the more challenging. You can take pictures, record sounds, and select sketches and bits of text to include in your diary. Though space is limited. You won’t fit in most of your photos and notes, let alone the entire experience of this world. Should people in the future know about the small, personal dramas of this era? Should you pass along lessons from other eras past, like a baton to be carried from one generation to the next? Or should you leave the book largely empty, affording this culture some sort of cosmic privacy? —CP
Season: A Letter to the Future is available on PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, and Windows PC.
Fire Emblem Engage
Fire Emblem Engage was designed for a very specific kind of sicko: one not particularly interested in the origin stories of a horde of teenagers, or the politics of a bourgeoise academy, or what kind of tea a teacher prefers, but instead one obsessed with the endless minutiae of combat stats, weapon loadouts, and team composition. I know this because I am one such sicko.
If you’ve read any of my reviews or essays on Polygon, then you know I prefer strategy games that can get out of their own way. More precisely, I love when strategy developers can put their pens down, throw their hands up, and admit that the stories unfolding in the player’s head will almost always be more powerful than anything they could write. Fire Emblem Engage is one of the foremost proponents of this idea. It hurls an excess of characters, weapons, battle scenarios, and stat-boosting abilities at you, leaving the door open for you to observe character interactions on the battlefield and create the resulting fanfiction in your head. Its actual script is a quagmire of nonsensical JRPG tropes, and each cutscene is more skippable than the next. But if you’re looking for an excellent turn-based tactics game that gets out of the player’s way, you can do a whole lot worse than Fire Emblem Engage. —M. Mahardy
Fire Emblem Engage is available on Nintendo Switch.
Marvel’s Midnight Suns
[Ed. note: Marvel’s Midnight Suns was released in 2022, but it just barely missed the cutoff for our best video games of 2022 list, so it’s eligible for our 2023 awards.]
I know what you’re thinking: Another licensed Marvel game? Come on, right? But hear me out. I played Marvel’s Avengers, too, and this isn’t that. It might seem like it’s going to be at first, because Midnight Suns makes the grave error of introducing Iron Man and Doctor Strange as its tutorial characters, and these two might just be the most irritating characters in the entire video game. (I have beaten the game, so I am allowed to make this call.) You must press on and give Midnight Suns time to win you over. Because it has so, so much more to offer than it may appear in its first few hours.
Picture the romance and humor of Fire Emblem: Three Houses, combined with the high-stakes tactical battles of XCOM 2 — that’s what Midnight Suns becomes in its mid-game and endgame. It’s a card-based strategy game, and each hero has their own customizable deck. I started off favoring Captain Marvel, Magik, and Blade, simply because their moves and hilarious dialogue kept me entertained, but I soon realized that every single character has something exciting or unexpected to bring to the battlefront. Over 100 hours later, I’ve leveled up every single character and played all the main story missions and an unknowable number of optional missions, and I’m still not sick of this combat… or the kooky cast of characters that grows all the time (shoutout to the Deadpool DLC).
No matter how sick of Marvel you might be, give Midnight Suns the chance to win you over with its clever combat. And once you’ve gotten hooked, you might find yourself sticking around to chuckle at Wolverine attending Blade’s book club (yes, that’s a storyline in this game). It’s worth your time, and you can take that from me, a person who — again — spent over 100 hours on it. —M. Myers
Marvel’s Midnight Suns is available on Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Windows PC, Xbox One, and Xbox Series X.