The Best Indie Games of the Year
Unlike triple-A studios, independent developers generally have more freedom to experiment and are less likely to sacrifice their pure artistic vision in order to please some corporate wig who has little to no understanding of the medium and only cares about dollars and cents. Indie game developers often take big risks, sometimes inventing new genres and/or innovating in ways that bigger studios could never dream. And despite not having the resources, money and manpower of larger companies, indie developers have proved time and time again that they can rival mainstream games in scope and ambition. Take 2019 for instance; it was arguably a weak year for AAA titles but there were plenty of great indie games released over the past twelve months that kept us busy, and in some cases, these games are far better products than their AAA counterparts.
Here are the best indie games of 2019!
Degrees of Separation
25: Degrees of Separation
Co-op puzzle games often leave the lone gamer spending more time swapping than solving, but that’s not the case with Degrees of Separation, a fantastic series of puzzle challenges so skillfully crafted and balanced that whether you opt for playing with a partner or flying solo, this journey through the beautiful lands of a fallen kingdom manages to mix equal parts fire and ice into a wonderfully satisfying experience.
Players take control of Rime and Ember, two star-crossed royals bound to dimensions cloaked in summer and winter; due to mysterious events, they can now see each other, but each occupies the opposing sides of a line that cannot be crossed — a line which separates their elementally different worlds, keeping them just out of arms’ reach. However, manipulating the location of this line allows players to change the environment in order to navigate it. For instance, Rime’s frigid setting allows him to walk atop frozen lakes, while the heat of Ember’s world means that ice turns to water as she approaches, letting her swim below the surface. The nature of the characters gives them access to different parts of each stage, and is crucial in solving puzzles and collecting scarves.
The developers keep things fresh by consistently introducing new wrinkles to this mechanic, and swapping between characters is surprisingly smooth, giving off a satisfying sense of orchestration and flow that rarely gets bogged down in repetition. Add to that some gorgeously colorful visuals, a serene soundtrack, and ongoing narration of the sweet tale by a soft-voiced (and highly perceptive) storyteller, and Degrees of Separation is one of the most addictive puzzle-platformers I’ve played in a while. (Patrick Murphy)
What the Golf?
24: What the Golf?
If you’re not interested in golf, you’ll be happy to learn that What the Golf? isn’t really a golf game. In fact, its Danish creators Triband have gone on record to claim they “know nothing about golf,” and set out to make a golf game “for people who hate golf.”
What at first seems to be a silly interpretation of an old-school videogame about the sport soon unveils itself to be one of the biggest indie surprises of 2019 and one of the most entertaining games of the year. Much like Untitled Goose Game, What the Golf? is all-out silly and it doesn’t take long before players will find themselves completely hooked thanks to the simple mechanics and strange world that often feels like a fever dream. What the Golf? is easily one of the best indie titles of 2019— a polished, enjoyable and hilarious game that was clearly made with a lot of love. (Ricky D)
Creature in the Well
23: Creature in the Well
Creature in the Well is like if a bunch of programmers got together to attempt to mash both Hyper Light Drifter and Breakout together inside a sporadic pinball cabinet. The result is a ridiculously satisfying game that is not only engaging to play by yourself but amusing to just simply watch as every player discovers their own rhythmic beat that can be adapted to their own unique playstyles that will inevitably reach the same end goal.
Flight School Studio’s newest attempt at mixing two different genres contains constant back and forth action that can either play out as a slow-paced grind or a fast on your feet game filled with bright ricocheting projectiles that are so shiny you will never be able to resist the urge to send them flying. It takes everything you love about the free casual feel-good emotions of playing a standard pinball cabinet and combines it with the satisfaction of completing a full-on adventure game slightly decorated with a coat of role-playing game mechanics.
Creature in the Well oversees the tale of a future distant dystopia where a sandstorm caused by an underground blackout has trapped the City of Mirage. As the final remaining BOT-C Unit, you are tasked with journeying into the depths of the planet to repower the machines that can save the city from its demise. A colossal creature, however, lies in your path and stands as a major threat to your mission. Back in November, I reviewed Creature in the Well calling it “a captivating case of a fresh experiment gone right” and an “absolute must-try for audiences of both the pinball and puzzle game genres.” It is seven sweet hours of pinball with swords masqueraded in a gorgeous dark toon shaded art-style that is incomparable to any other independent title released this year. You could not ask for more than that. (Marc Kaliroff)
22: Ape Out
In Ape Out, Gabe Cuzzillo and his small team have crafted something unique that comes highly recommended. This game is equal parts beautiful, thoughtful, exhilarating, and fun. The sum of its parts is a creation that is all-too-rare in games — something fresh and unlike anything else. I found myself thinking about it when I wasn’t playing it, and unable to put the controller down in order to give each board ‘just one more try.’ To have that gameplay experience put together with so much artistic flair makes for the kind of experience that is worth killing for. Again and again and again.
Ape Out is a rhythmic pulse of thrust-push-kill fun. Ape Out is the kick drum rolling right into to the snare and a crash just as you crush that guard a hair before he pulls the trigger. Ape Out is blood trailing behind you when you can’t take another shot, then crossing through the green door of freedom and into the jungle beyond at the last moment. (Marty Allen)
21: Kind Words
Kind Words is one of the more unique experiences of 2019. The entirety of it consists of sitting in a small bedroom and either encouraging or venting to strangers on the internet. People write letters detailing their issues, struggles, worries and fears, and these short letters are then shipped out by a quirky deer acting as Kind Words’ postman. Players can then show appreciation for the advice by sending back stickers that can be turned into physical decorations for the room.
On paper this sounds like a disaster waiting to happen; sharing personal and damaging thoughts in a public online forum would typically never be advisable. In execution, however, Popcannibal has been incredibly diligent in moderating hateful/harmful messages and implementing simple user reporting features across the board. What results is a remarkable online space where it actually feels comfortable sharing one’s thoughts. Every problem you can imagine is represented by those seeking, appropriately enough, kind words.
What pushed Kind Words over the edge, though, was when I finally started writing letters myself. Within minutes I received responses offering a wide range of encouragement, descriptions of similar situations others were going through, and unique perspectives I hadn’t considered before. In a strange parallel to Death Stranding, Kind Words subtly reinforced the notion that we’re not all alone in this crazy, tumultuous world. If you need to vent or just need a spot of kindness in your life, I can’t recommend this game enough. (Brent Middleton)
20: Muse Dash
Muse Dash doesn’t rely on gameplay innovation like 2018’s Just Shapes & Beats, nor does it attempt to violently shake up the rhythm genre like 2016’s Thumper. This is a comparatively simple two-button rhythm game that perfectly encapsulates the “easy to learn, hard to master” design philosophy. Players choose one of three girls and embark on mini side-scrolling adventures to fend off hordes of minions to the beat. The base game features an absolutely stellar medley of electropop, kawaii bass, drum and bass, and even a few Vocaloid tracks. Though some tunes are inherently more challenging, each song features difficulty options so those who aren’t particularly great at rhythm games can still play through every track and adjust the challenge as needed.
What made Muse Dash really stand out this year, however, was how perfectly it nailed its laser-focused “moe” aesthetic in every facet of its presentation. Its main draw is apparent from the moment it boots up: vibrant art, bursts of color, and oh-so-much anime. This anime aesthetic is everywhere from the animated character selection screen to the beautiful artwork for each song; every stage, enemy, and boss boasts a distinct visual flair. Leaning further into this strength, players can even unlock a wide variety of skins complete with unique animations and skill bonuses.
Muse Dash is what happens when a developer knows exactly what its target demographic is looking for and has the skill to deliver it to them. PeroPeroGames’ deep dedication to aesthetic design paid off in spades, and the result is one the best rhythm games of the year and the best value in games this year. (Brent Middleton)
Killer Queen Black
19: Killer Queen Black
There is nothing that can truly compare to the bar-room-rattling fun of ten people playing Killer Queen Black in the back of a weird arcade. But short of the real thing, the slightly watered-down version on the Nintendo Switch still does the trick extremely well. In Killer Queen, you are one member of a team of four who is trying to take down the oppositions hive, you play as either a worker, a warrior, or a queen. There are three ways to win at Killer Queen – you can score a military victory and kill the opposing queen three times, an economic victory and fill your hive with berries, or a snail victory by riding the snail into the goal. It’s the latter of the three that somehow sums up Killer Queen’s weird charm. Any path to victory is viable, and you must be on the lookout for all of it, hopefully by yelling at one another and stomping.
Killer Queen’s presentation is excellent and exactly what it needs to be, and the gameplay is perfectly tuned to get a room full of folks on their feet and screaming. Killer Queen is still best played as couch co-op, ideally with the unlikely scenario of seven friends, but the online multiplayer works admirably well. Killer Queen Black is a true gem, and well worth putting together a crew to play it, marking it as one of the best co-op games on a platform that has many wonderful options in that department. Plus, you get to ride a giant snail. (Marty Allen)
New Super Lucky’s Tale
18: New Super Lucky’s Tale
Streamlined, focused, and tons of fun, New Super Lucky’s Tale is a fantastic reworking for the Switch that absolutely nails the lighter side of Nintendo-style 3D platforming. Tight controls and nearly flawless camera support running and jumping challenges which more often than not emphasize creativity over complexity, and it’s all set against a colorful, pun-filled, charming world full of quirky characters and light satire.
Lucky may not be the second coming of Mario, but he feels extremely responsive, and has a nice sense of weight and momentum that never feels out of control. He also comes out of the den with a well-rounded moveset, including a nifty double jump, a swishy tail (a la Mario’s spin punch), and the ability to burrow underground. These moves can be chained together to create a satisfying flow both when exploring 3D stages and side-scrolling ones alike, and will surely inspire players to use them in creative ways in order to access seemingly out-of-reach spots and collect each of the four pages secreted about every level.
From the assorted carnival games of a haunted amusement park to a beach party dance-off, there are a surprising amount of different things for Lucky (and players) to do here, with hardly any two stages ever feeling alike. Though the experience is not as epic or razzle-dazzle as something like Super Mario Odyssey, developer Playful has wisely trimmed the collect-a-thon fat that so many others in the genre employ in order to pad playtime. The result is a polished, concise, joyful experience that lasts long enough to satisfy, yet also instills a fervent desire to see more adventures from its fearless, furry hero. (Patrick Murphy)
17: Katana Zero
Equally drenched in blood and neon, Katana Zero is a striking action game that thrives on pushing boundaries. Its breathless combat offers intense high-speed action that tests players’ endurance and reflexes without ever feeling unfair. Its pixelated graphics and throwback 80’s aesthetics are crafted with such lush detail that nearly every moment of the game is a stylish treat to behold. But perhaps most importantly, it challenges the idea of what a videogame story can be by offering a level of emotion and interaction that not many other titles have achieved.
Katana Zero puts players in control of a drug-addicted, amnesiac mercenary who attempts to piece together his past while executing assassination missions in a broken post-war world. Told from the mercenary’s distorted, drug-induced point of view, the story straddles the line between hallucination and reality. This gives its story of self-discovery a constant twinge of uncertainty – it forces the player to ask whether each moment is really happening, or whether it’s only the drugs. On top of that, its innovative dialogue system allows for impressive control over the direction of each story beat, letting players choose what to say and when to say it in each interaction. This level of agency and atmosphere unite to create a beguilingly immersive narrative experience, offering possibilities that other games have yet to achieve.
Of course, an action game is nothing without a solid gameplay loop, and Katana Zero fully delivers in this regard with its hectic and hardcore combat. Its one-hit-kill system may feel unnecessarily cruel at first, but instead, it promotes a degree of speed and intensity that makes each room of enemies a thrill to clear out. The combat is extremely polished, with a constantly escalating difficulty curve that maintains the perfect degree of challenge. Take this thrilling gameplay and unforgettable storytelling together, and Katana Zero is easily among the year’s most remarkable independent releases. (Campbell Gill)
Yooka Laylee and the Impossible Lair
16: Yooka Laylee and the Impossible Lair
Yooka-Laylee and the Impossible Lair is the redemption story of 2019. The original Yooka-Laylee wasn’t exactly the glorious return of Banjo-Kazooie-style gameplay that it had promised to be, so with this new entry in the fledgling series, the developers made the wise decision to cut back on ambition. Instead of touting fully 3D gameplay like Banjo-Kazooie, The Impossible Lair hearkens back to Rare’s other magnum opus: Donkey Kong Country. This change in direction truly paid off, resulting in a distinctly refined and unique platformer that Zack Rezac’s review for Goomba Stomp called “one of the year’s coolest surprises.”
True to the Donkey Kong Country tradition, Yooka-Laylee offers simple, linear 2D level design that perfectly introduces just enough new ideas to keep things interesting while consistently building upon existing ideas to create a constantly evolving and engaging experience. That doesn’t mean that it’s wholly derivative, however – strikingly enough for a linear 2D platformer, it sets itself apart with its nonlinearity. As the title suggests, the primary task is to infiltrate and overcome the Impossible Lair, and there’s nothing stopping you from infiltrating this lair at any moment in the game after the introduction. However, if you hope to survive, you’ll need to play through its 20 main levels and their alternate forms to gain strength and make the lair possible to complete after all. This dichotomy between linearity and nonlinearity represents the balance between traditional gameplay and subtle innovations that makes Yooka-Laylee and the Impossible Lair such a charming title. Its ambitions aren’t quite as lofty as its predecessor, but its more focused approach allowed it to become one of the standout indie titles of the year. (Campbell Gill)
Developer Chucklefish Games’ WarGroove is a one to four-player online and local turn-based strategy game inspired by the stream of handheld entries in the genre that helped popularize itself in North America. Game Boy Advance cult classics such as the original Fire Emblem served as a basis to the core inspiration of WarGroove, but most notably the game attempts to live up to the subgenre that the Advance Wars series had created know as “Nintendo Wars”- a series of turn-based strategy games across multiple Nintendo systems that had never truly been replicated by any developer in years despite a strong demand by fans of the series still being present. WarGroove makes an attempt to further modernize the genre in a more streamlined welcoming form that is not only accessible to newcomers but profoundly customizable to longtime veterans.
Objectives and intense skirmishes take priority on the battlefield as you attempt to typically execute two different goals; eliminate all enemies on the horizon or obliterate some type of stronghold. Slowly new mechanics and niches are introduced to each level that will have your strategic moves in the midst of nerve-racking stakes. WarGroove never focuses on a complex or deeply compelling story as gameplay always remains in the spotlight, but that does not mean it can not still introduce notable characters and settings. On top of its gorgeous pixel art that oozes with inspiration from the titles it attempts to revitalize, the game still manages to craft an enthralling world that culturally mixes various different mythologies and historical time periods in its fifteen-hour campaign. To top it off, the ability for players to create their own maps and scenarios will leave you playing hours after the credits roll. It may not be a direct beat for beat adaptation, but WarGroove will easily spark your desire for an Advance Wars series binge after one playthrough. (Marc Kaliroff)
My Friend Pedro
14: My Friend Pedro
My Friend Pedro is brutal, stylish, and beautifully basic. Beginning life as a flash game back in 2014, it has developed into a full-fledged experience that hearkens back to a simpler time for gaming with its ridiculous premise and ludicrous action. Putting players in control of a silent protagonist who goes on a murder spree at the behest of a sentient, levitating, talking banana named Pedro, it stands out for its outlandish setting and spectacularly over the top gameplay. It’s just as wacky as it’s always been, and best of all, its gameplay has been ripened just enough for it to feel fresher than ever before.
The core concept that made My Friend Pedro so bizarrely wonderful as a flash game is present in full force in this reimagining. Pedro is still the wisecracking potassium-packed partner he was in the first place, although the brutality has been dialed up to eleven thanks to the jump to full 2.5D graphics. Pedro equips you with incredible acrobatic grace, allowing you to pirouette through the air and spin across the floor, all while dishing out balletic death to your opponents. If things get too hectic between the constant lasers, bullets, and disembodied limbs flying across the screen at any moment, then thankfully you have the ability to slow down time to make sense of all this gory debris. Like any good action game or platformer, it constantly doles out new ways to wreak banana-based havoc on the world around you, ensuring that it never lets up on the chaos. There’s not much more to the game than the silliness of its premise and the insanity of its action, but these two facets unite to make My Friend Pedro one of the most notable indies of the year. It’s a refreshing break from the overwhelming complexity that can characterize many modern games – sometimes you just need to blow up some baddies while obeying a talking banana. (Campbell Gill)
Pikuniku is joy. A strange joy, to be fair, but it is a joy, through and through. In Pikuniku, you are gangly little red blob-creature who must make its way through an aggressively colorful world to save the proverbial day. Loosely-speaking, it is a puzzle-platformer, but really it leans more heavily into simply being an adventure game with some light platforming, a few relatively nominal boss battles, and a sprinkling of puzzles. And every minute of it is fun.
What Pikuniku really cashes in on is its boundless charm – the world is colorful and cute-as-heck, but also subtly subversive. A sly conspiracy underpins a lot of shininess, and your little blob-friend is just the beast to rescue this bouncy dystopia from itself. Your journey through forests and mines and valleys, wear an array of silly magic hats, and kick everything that you can find along the way, and, unless you are a hollowed-out husk of sorrow, the unabashed silliness brings a smile to your face. There’s a fun bit of co-op on top that rounds out an altogether delightful adventure that is unlike anything else. (Marty Allen)
Afterparty, the new game from Night School Studio boasts a clever premise: You play as bashful and skittish Milo and the more assertive and sarcastic Lola who are armed with cynical but funny one-liners and ambidextrous wit. They are best friends and recent college graduates ready to enter the next chapter of their lives, only to their surprise, Milo and Lola have found themselves dead and dispatched to hell. With no recollection of how they got there, they are convinced it was a huge mistake and venture off looking for a way out. As they make their way through the underworld meeting demons and other humans sentenced to live their afterlife in Satan’s backyard, they discover a loophole that can send them back home. As it turns out, the devil is a raging alcoholic, and if they can outdrink the Prince of Darkness, they will get a first-class ticket back to Earth. It might seem easy, but as Milo and Lola quickly learn, nothing comes easy in Hell.
Created in the same vein as Oxenfree, fans of Night School Studio will be happy to find their signature brand of comedy, colorful characters and witty dialogue return in Afterparty. As with Oxenfree, Afterparty is a single-player, point and click, dialog-driven experience in which you alternate between Milo and Lola, shifting between their perspectives as they react to various situations that unfold around them. What begins as a frequently funny story about two best friends making it through a night of extensive drinking and awkward conversations with numerous strangers slowly shifts gears to darker territory.
Afterparty serves up a wild plot, a boisterously engaging ensemble, and a sincere exploration of what friendship is. Night School’s neon-colored vision of Hell is especially great; the game has five main environments, each bursting with imagination and an impressive score by scntfc, the same artist who composed Oxenfree’s soundtrack. All in all, Afterparty is a good time, boasting a terrific plot twist, laugh-out-loud gags, and clever set-pieces. With its punchy dialog and sharp writing, Afterparty comes highly recommended (Ricky D)
Indie games often struggle to straddle the line between homage and rip-off. It’s only natural to want to pay tribute to the greats– those, one-of-a-kind titles that inspire us– but too often games fail to develop an identity as a result. Great games aren’t made in the shadows of what came before. They may look back, either out of respect or seeking guidance, but a great game always goes beyond showing where its inspiration comes from. Horace is a love letter to all things video games, but it never gets lost in homage.
Horace never allows itself to spiral in a sea of references devoid of substance. It tastefully acknowledges that other games exist, all while marching on at its own pace. Horace’s personal center of gravity allows him to platform by walking up or down walls, adding a creative spin on a genre that’s covered quite a bit of ground.
More than just a platformer, however, Horace is an examination of how we connect with video games, laced through one of the most emotionally mature plots in a game this year. Horace plays to its medium, telling a story that could only be told in a video game. One that grabs players by the hands and beckons them to connect with the titular Horace. Horace is a must-play. (Renan Fontes)
Far: Lone Sails
10: Far: Lone Sails
FAR: Lone Sails is a 2D side-scrolling adventure about an unnamed, ambiguous child who sets out on an unclear journey through a barren wasteland. It’s a slow, contemplative, and mysterious trek in which you are left to piece together subtle clues as to what has happened. After opening on a somber note with our unnamed avatar paying their respects at a grave, you set out on your adventure, traversing across a world that one can only assume was demolished by war.
The opening few minutes of FAR: Lone Sails feels all too familiar, but it doesn’t take long before the game sets itself apart when introducing your main mode of transport: a giant, jerry-built land yacht that’s driven by a massive engine and a collapsible sail. Climbing on board, you’re presented with the challenge of piloting the large contraption while also finding ways to fuel the machine in order to keep the engine running. What makes FAR: Lone Sails so unique is in how developer Okomotive centers the entire game on the method of travel itself. Said vehicle becomes your companion — a character of sorts — which is ever-growing, ever-changing and always in danger. In order to succeed, you’ll need to protect your vessel while controlling both your protagonist and the land yacht in order to get from point A to point B. Neither you nor the ship could make this journey alone. The journey itself is relentless but beautiful, harrowing but tender. It’s slow to unravel and just as slow to maneuver, but FAR: Lone Sails is also a game full of intrigue since you never know what lies ahead as you travel across the desolate wasteland. The destination remains a mystery, and while it isn’t really important where you’re going, an overwhelming sense of curiosity fuels your desire to keep pushing forward.
FAR: Lone Sails is a masterwork of quiet poetry. It culminates with one of the best endings in all indie games and features stunning landscapes, a brilliant orchestral soundtrack, and just enough downtime to allow players to appreciate the beauty. What at first appeared to be just another indie game riding on the heels of the success of Playdead Studios soon emerged with its own unique voice and identity. (Ricky D)
Untitled Goose Game
9: Untitled Goose Game
An iconic titled game that stemmed from a few inevitable delays- and of course a lack of a proper internal codename. When the goose was finally let loose in September, the internet quickly went quackers for all the right reasons. Untitled Goose Game is one of the most surprising independent successes of the year for all the right reasons. Developer House House’s newest animal craze shows audiences how even a domestic goose can rise up and become one of the most notoriously infamous gaming characters of the year. Playing as an adorable yet irritatingly stubborn bird has never been so questionable yet mesmerizing before then in this minimalistic simulation-type puzzle game.
Untitled Goose Game is a slapstick-stealth-sandbox game that will have you attempt to make the civilians of a local town miserable by carrying out various irritatingly humorous tasks- the only reason why being that it is the goose’s daily routine to retrieve one object being replaced by the townspeople. Whether it is collecting a bell, scaring children into phone booths, or even dropping a rake in the lake, the goose’s agenda is guaranteed to wreak havoc upon his habitat. As you make your way around a local town, you will flop feathers, trot, grab dozens of objects, retreat, and honk your way to victory. Trial and error quickly become a normal playstyle within the English village you reside in. Due to a lack of direction, puzzles require experimentation and creative thought processes in order to find solutions to a list of descriptively named tasks and bonus hidden activities. Messing around with the environment and its structures is heavily advised as there are tons of secrets to discover on your checklist. If you ever wanted to know what the true intentions and feelings of a rabid goose were through a boatload of comedic scenarios, Untitled Goose Game is the perfect dopamine that your brain is looking for. (Marc Kaliroff)
Sayonara Wild Hearts
8: Sayonara Wild Hearts
Sayonara Wild Hearts, the latest from the visionaries behind Year Walk, is easily a contender for the best indie game of 2019. What the small development team from Sweden achieved with Sayonara Wild Hearts is honestly, quite remarkable. Advertised as an interactive pop album, Sayonara Wild Hearts sure looks and sounds great but beyond the breathtaking visuals and catchy music, the game is wildly addictive thanks to its everchanging landscapes and simple controls.
I went in expecting a simple rhythm action game but what I didn’t expect is how Sayonara Wild Hearts effortlessly shifts between various genres. To play it feels like the developers took aspects of their favourite arcade games from the 80s and 90s and crammed in as many ideas as they possibly could without ever making the experience seem drawn-out or overwhelming. The end result is a simple sci-fi thrill ride, in terms of action, visuals, and unpretentious fun. It’s a musical arcade experience that combines music and aesthetic to such dizzying effect – and I just can’t get enough! (Ricky D)
Cadence of Hyrule
7: Cadence of Hyrule
Cadence of Hyrule feels like it shouldn’t exist. It’s an all-new Zelda game, yet it is fully developed by an indie studio. On top of that, it also serves as a sequel to the 2015 indie hit Crypt of the Necrodancer, featuring all of that game’s signature rhythmic roguelike gameplay combined with elements of a traditional Zelda game like overworld exploration, puzzle-solving, and plenty of items and treasure to discover. Such a combination sounds strange, if not completely bizarre on paper – yet in practice, it’s a toe-tappingly intoxicating mix that can be impossible to put down.
Just like Crypt of the Necrodancer before it, Cadence of Hyrule’s gameplay is fully choreographed according to the beat of its pulsating EDM soundtrack. Yet at the same time, its lush pixelated graphics and traditional world design call back to the most classic entries in the Zelda franchise like A Link to the Past. That’s what makes Cadence remarkable – it takes the unmistakable rhythmic gameplay that made Crypt of the Necrodancer so memorable in the first place and marries it to the very best aspects of classic Zelda. Perhaps nothing exemplifies this better than its soundtrack, which consists entirely of high-octane remixes of iconic Zelda tunes, breathing new life into these legendary melodies through Crypt of the Necrodancer’s signature high-energy electronic style. Cadence of Hyrule is a duet that nobody unexpected, but one that is absolutely worthy of applause. (Campbell Gill)
Baba Is You
6: Baba Is You
Baba Is You, is a wonderful little puzzle game where the physical rules of the game are the puzzle pieces themselves. In a graphically-simple little world, you push and pull words into phrases, like a miniature programming language, but you’re a weird bunny creature doing the heavy lifting. It’s sort of like The Adventures of Lolo meets Scribblenauts, if you’ll mind the deep-nerd references. The conceit and gameplay are novel, well-executed, and well worth a look for any fan of puzzle games. The mechanic gets a bit less satisfying when the puzzles become more unforgiving about 3/4 into the game, but Baba remains fun and interesting for long enough to be one of the highlights of 2019 thus far. (Marty Allen)
Slay the Spire
5: Slay the Spire
Slay the Spire is not only one of the best Indies of the year, but it is also one of the best games of this generation. Don’t let the seemingly run-of-the-mill visuals turn you off, Slay the Spire is as addictive as it is satisfying, and belongs on every self-respecting Switch in the realm.
Slay the Spire is, at its core, a deck-building dungeon crawler with some rogue-like tendencies. You choose from one of three character classes, all of whom boast unique card sets and techniques to accumulate (and obsess over). You do your best to climb up three floors of a merciless tower, and you often die trying. The floors are essentially an assemblage of enemies and other small status-changing rooms, and while no two runs are the same, each floor contains similar monsters and bosses with each run. Within the battles, every move of every enemy is telegraphed completely – from the type of attack and how many hit points it will remove to the type of buff it has on deck. But rather than yielding boredom, this mechanic brings joy at the potential calculations and strategies that unfold. Like any rogue-like worth its salt, you do need a bit of luck to reach the top of the titular spire, but as you play more, you get better. Each battle yields the potential to add one of three new cards to your arsenal, all of which unfurl endless and deeper strategies. You will occasionally agonize over these decisions, you will sometimes be filled with regrets, and you will start again immediately, greeted by a sassy giant whale. Add on the accumulation of a litany of stat-altering artifacts, and what rises up is a game that is perfectly tuned for addictive fun. As that addiction sets in, even the seemingly humdrum visuals start to feel more and more charming.
Slay the Spire is clearly a game that was crafted by people who love games, for people who love games, and they nailed it. You will get better, you will make it to the top, and you will want to play again. (Marty Allen)
Life is Strange 2
4) Life is Strange 2
When a sequel to the critically acclaimed Life is Strange was announced back in 2016, it was unclear as to where Dontnod Entertainment was going to go for the next chapter of their game. No matter what choice the player opts for at the end of the first game, it is a fitting conclusion to Max and Chloe’s story. Even though fans were hoping for more from the characters in the original, it was announced that the main characters and the story would be new. It was hard to see how players would be able to connect with the game as much as we did with the first installment, but Life is Strange 2 has managed to be just as compelling as the original.
This time around, the focus is on two brothers — Sean and Daniel — as they embark on a road trip whilst on the run after a tragic event triggers Daniel’s strange powers. Whilst Max was able to control the flow of time, Daniel’s powers are more telekinesis-based, as he is able to move objects with his mind and create powerful energy blasts. This time we don’t play as the character with supernatural abilities, but instead play as Sean — Daniel’s older brother, who must guide and advise him. It’s an interesting take in terms of story, as your decisions directly impact Daniel and how he uses his powers.
Choices are again crucial within the game, as they can change how certain characters (most importantly Daniel) react and behave towards you, as well as alter the flow of story events (even if it all ends to the same or a similar conclusion). I found myself trying to be the best guardian and big brother that I could be towards Daniel, opting for the choices that felt the most responsible and wise. In the same way that Dontnod was able to create a compelling relationship that the player rooted for with Max and Chloe in the first game, their depiction of the two brothers is equally convincing, despite the bizarre circumstances that they find themselves in. (Antonia Haynes)
3: Disco Elysium
RPGs are a tried and true genre, one that appeals to almost every type of gamer you can imagine and covers a myriad of formats from old school top-down isometric games to full-on 3D action-adventure titles. It’s a genre that runs the gamut and has become so entrenched that everyone knows exactly what to expect from an RPG these days. Using an absolutely uncanny combination of classical continental existential ennui and horrific Lovecraftian absurdity, Disco Elysium is a game that takes those expectations and dashes them quite expertly.
It features the kind of game world that rarely, if ever, comes to the fore in the modern market. Thanks to a narrative crafted by Estonian novelist, Robert Kurvitz, this is a title that presents players with a world that is simultaneously utterly fantastical and immediately recognizable. There’s a brutalist realism to its total aesthetic that is both off-putting and alluring. Players can never be certain whether they’re supposed to be charmed or offended by the game’s unflinchingly honest presentation of the human experience. The spectacularly grim art courtesy of Aleksander Rostov and the down-tempo score from British Sea Power results in a deft combination of savage nihilism and playful romanticism that exudes from every aspect of the game.
More than likely this is not a game that one plays for fun. Rather it’s a game you play for the sheer experience of having engaged with it. I wouldn’t suggest you play it if you’re looking for simple casual distraction, but if you’re looking for something to leave you changed as a gamer and perhaps as a person then I can recommend nothing over than Disco Elysium. (Christopher Underwood)
The Outer Wilds
2: The Outer Wilds
Outer Wilds is a very special game. It’s the sort of game or thing to do that you want to tell all of your friends to go and play, but you don’t want to tell them anything about it, because figuring it out is half the fun. Let’s start here: you are a rookie pilot of a rickety spaceship trying to solve a grand mystery. There is no combat, only survival, and survival is not exactly easy. The story unfolds organically, as you discover its pieces – the game is, in essence, an open-world 3-d adventure with platforming elements. It is also witty, strange, and if you can sort of lean into the awkwardness that feels intentionally cooked into piloting and planet traversal, it’s fun. And as you dig in, it is also deeply intriguing and emotionally rewarding. And all of that is vague on purpose.
If that is enough to pique your interest, stop reading and go launch yourself into space. The key spoiler that is revealed pretty quickly into the experience is that Outer Wilds is essentially Groundhog Day in space. The universe you are investigating is about to explode, and you pilot through a smattering of odd and charming locations trying to uncover evidence as to how and why. Every time you die (often not even making it until the final bell of the universe tolls), you come back moments before your first launch and try to discover just a little more. Your ship is rickety, and so are your chances, but you get better at piloting, surviving, and discovery, and the gameplay loop that reveals itself feels like one of the freshest games to be made in years. I implore you: go to space. (Marty Allen)
Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night
1: Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night
Former Castlevania veteran Koji Igarashi returned to his gothic roots this year in order to put the ‘vania’ back into Metroidvania with round two of his phantasmagoric spiritual successor Kickstarter franchise developed by ArtPlay and published by 505 Games, Bloodstained. Rather than following in the vein of classic linear Castlevania like the retro throwback prequel Curse of the Moon had last year, the focus of Ritual of the Night spotlights the exploration and backtracking aspects that the legendary Castlevania: Symphony of the Night had revolutionized during the era of the original PlayStation- only this time in a two and a half dimensional art style reminiscent of the two Castlevania handheld games developed by Igarashi, The Dracula X Chronicles and Mirror of Fate.
Ritual of the Night takes everything audiences loved about the most critically acclaimed Castlevania games and unearths them in a haunting fantasy interpretation of Victorian England during the Industrial Revolution. From a story packed to the brim with vampires, alchemy, and horror to gameplay focused on short-range defensive and offensive positions mixed into room hopping around a massive labyrinth, there is no denying that Ritual of the Night is undebatably the definitive successor to both Symphony of the Night and Order of Ecclesia.
With the slew of fantastic modern-day Metroidvania type games available on the market that seemingly has no production end in sight, Ritual of the Night is a needed addition to a lineup that never seems to give up on originality and is easily one of the most worthwhile games to play right now in the genre on current hardware. The Shardbinder Miriam may not be a member of the Belmont clan or a descendant of Vlad Dracula Ţepeş, but she is without a doubt a hunter worthy of the namesakes. It is definitely the closest thing we will get to Castlevania at this point in time. (Marc Kaliroff)
PAX South 2020 Hands On: ‘Windjammers 2,’ ‘KUNAI,’ and ‘Young Souls’
PAX South 2020 attracted tons of exciting publishers to San Antonio, and even with such a crowded lineup, the DotEmu and Arcade Crew booth easily stood out as some of the show’s very best exhibitors. Streets of Rage 4 might have been their standout demo, but the French boutique publisher and developers brought a fantastic selection of games to the show, including their signature retro revivals and some promising original indie games of their own.
Sequel to the much-beloved arcade classic, Windjammers 2 takes all the hectic frisbee-throwing action of the original and updates it for the modern generation. For those unfamiliar with the art of windjamming, it’s effectively pong, but instead of balls, you toss discs back and forth across the court. It pits two players against each other on opposite sides of the court, tasking you with mercilessly hurling your disc back and forth until it gets into your opponent’s goal.
You can just throw the disc directly at your opponent, but Windjammers 2 gives you many more options besides that. To really excel at the game, you’ll have to make use of the most extravagant moves you can, dashing across the court, leaping into the air, tossing the disc above you before slamming it down into your opponent, to list only a few of the uber-athletic abilities at your disposal. The game can move extremely quickly when both players take advantage of these capabilities, yet things never feel overwhelming. I always felt in control of the action, even when my quickest reflexes were put to the test. It’s fast-paced disc throwing insanity, and I couldn’t get enough of it.
Just like the rest of DotEmu’s catalogue, Windjammers 2 combines classic gameplay with gorgeous modern aesthetics. It has the same hand-drawn style that makes other DotEmu titles stand out, like Wonderboy: The Dragon’s Trap. The original Windjammers was a time capsule of garish 90s style, and that design is retained for the new release, with characters looking even more colorful and absurd than ever thanks to the revitalized art and animations. Hectic to play and beautiful to behold, Windjammers 2 is already set to be a multiplayer hit.
Streets of Rage 4 was certainly the premier beat ‘em up on display at DotEmu’s booth, but it wasn’t the only one. Alongside this retro revival was an all-new take on the genre: Young Souls, an extremely stylish action game that blends fast-paced fighting with deep RPG customization and a charming, emotional narrative.
Beat ‘em ups might not be known for deep storylines, but Young Souls aspires to something more. Along with its satisfying combat mechanics and plentiful flexibility for character builds, it also boasts of having “a profound story with unforgettable characters.” While my demo didn’t give me much of a look at this deep narrative, it’s reasonable to assume that the story will at least be quality, since it’s penned by none other than the author of the Walking Dead games, Matthew Ritter.
However, I did get a substantial feel for combat. Young Souls features more than 70 monster-filled dungeons, and I got to venture into two of them in my demo. The action feels weighty and solid when going up against enemies, yet precise at the same time. Like any classic beat ‘em up, there’s a mixture of light and heavy attacks, along with blocks and powerful special moves, along with items and spells to exploit during combat as well. In between battles, you’re able to deck your character out in equipment and items, allowing for an element of roleplaying depth that isn’t typically associated with action games like this. In my short time with the game, it was fun to experiment with different character builds, which could determine the speed and abilities of my fighter, promising combat for the final game.
I played the demo both solo and co-op; in single-player, you’re able to switch between the two twins at will, while two players can each take control of a sibling. In both playstyles, the gameplay was just as visceral and satisfying as one would expect from a classic-style beat ‘em up like this, but the addition of a deep story and RPG mechanics put a unique spin on this entry. That’s not to mention that, like every other game at the DotEmu and Arcade Crew booth, it’s visually beautiful, featuring stylish 2D characters in 3D environments that are all rendered in gentle, washed-out colors. Young Souls might not have a release date or even any confirmed platforms as of now, but it’s absolutely worth keeping an eye on in the meantime.
KUNAI takes the typical metroidvania formula and boosts it to hyperspeed. It has all the hidden secrets and massively interconnected world exploration that you’d expect from the genre, and it gives you the ability to speed through that faster and more dynamically than ever. Its main gimmick is right in the name – by giving you two kunai hookshots, you’re able to traverse up and down your environments with speed and freedom, making for a uniquely vertical method to explore.
KUNAI starts out with the end of the world. In a dystopian future where technology has taken over, you control Tabby, a sentient and heroic tablet that’s dead set on liberating the planet. This serious plot is filled with plenty of personality, however, from the silly faces that Tabby makes in action to the charming dialogue and quirky character designs. This personality is rendered in appealing detail thanks to the game’s simple yet effective pixel art.
It’s in the gameplay where KUNAI truly shines. With the eponymous kunai, you’re able to latch onto vertical surfaces. Combine this with the additional abilities to dash, bounce off enemies, or wall jump, and it provides for a uniquely dynamic method of exploring the world. Using the kunai feels easy and intuitive, fast enough to gain speed but never too floaty. It’s a balanced approach to speed and movement that never gets out of control, resulting in what it is perhaps the best-feeling movement of any metroidvania I’ve played recently. My demo was brief, and ended very soon after first getting the kunai, but the gameplay felt so smooth and natural that I can’t wait to experience more of it. Thankfully, it’s not long to wait, since KUNAI hits Switch and PC on February 6.
PAX South Hands-On: ‘Streets of Rage 4’ Balances Legacy and Innovation
Streets of Rage 4 embodies the original series’ elegant, action-packed design and revives it for a new generation.
From the moment I began my demo with Streets of Rage 4 at PAX South, it felt like coming home. It might have been more than two decades since the first three games in the Streets of Rage series perfected the beat ‘em up formula on the Sega Genesis, but courtesy of developers Lizardcube, DotEmu, and Guard Crush, this legendary series is back and in good hands. This brand new entry aims to recapture all the style and balance of the originals, while introducing innovations of its own. If my demo is any indication, the game is set to achieve that.
Streets of Rage 4 uses the same elegant level design that set the original trilogy apart back on the Genesis. The gameplay is simple: keep walking to the right, taking out every enemy in front of you with all the jabs, kicks, jumps, and special moves at your disposal. If anything, the controls feel better than ever before, with an added level of precision and fluidity that simply wasn’t possible on older hardware.
That’s not to mention the new move sets. Beat ’em ups might not be the most complex genre around, but Streets of Rage 4 adds the perfect level of depth to the combat. It has the same simple jabs and kicks found in the original games, but spiced up with the potential for new combos and even a handful of extravagant new special moves. With new and old fighting mechanics, this new entry features plenty of room to experiment with combat but never loses the simple, arcade-like charm of the originals.
Streets of Rage 4 revives the series’ rage-filled and action-packed style for the twenty-first century
The demo included series staple characters like Axel and Blaze, yet I opted to play as an all-new character: Cherry Hunter, a guitar-wielding fighter whose move set felt very distinct from classic characters. Her movement is speedy, certainly faster than Axel but slower than Blaze, and her guitar provided for some unique melee moves. Like the new mechanics, her addition to the character roster helps shake up the Streets of Rage formula just enough, while maintaining the core beat ’em up simplicity that made the series special in the first place.
Streets of Rage 4 might innovate in a few areas, but one thing that’s clearly remained true to form is the difficulty. It boasts of the same old school difficulty that characterized the original games. The classic and brand new enemies are just as ruthless as ever, mercilessly crowding in around you and can easily overwhelm you if you’re not careful. However, just like the originals, the fighting feels so satisfying that it’s easy to keep coming back for more action.
Amid all these changes and additions, perhaps the most obvious (and controversial) change is the visual style. While the original series used detailed pixel art, Streets of Rage 4 instead boasts of an extremely detailed handcrafted art style, in which every frame of character animation is painstakingly drawn by hand and environments are colorful and painterly. Thousands of frames of animation go into each character, and the effort certainly shows, making every punch, kick, and other acts of violence a breathtaking sight to behold.
Streets of Rage 4 reimagines this classic series for a new generation, reintroducing the best of the beat ’em up genre for players of all backgrounds and experiences.
Some fans have complained that the game loses the series’ spirit without pixel art, but DotEmu marketing director Arnaud De Sousa insisted to me that this simply isn’t the case. Pixel art wasn’t an artistic choice back then – it was a matter of necessity. If the developers could have designed the game to look exactly as they wanted, regardless of technical limitations, then it likely would have looked just like the luscious hand-drawn visuals of the current Streets of Rage 4.
That’s not to mention that, as De Sousa emphasized, the Streets of Rage games are defined by looking different from one another. The third game looks different from the second, which looked different from the first – and now this new entry has twenty years of change to catch up on. Thus, it only makes sense for this new entry to adopt a radically new graphical style after all this time.
Streets of Rage 4 reimagines this classic series for a new generation, reintroducing the best of the beat ’em up genre for players of all backgrounds and experiences. The difference between De Sousa and myself is perfect evidence of that. He grew up playing the games in the 90s, whereas I wasn’t even born when the original trilogy became such a phenomenon and only played them years later in subsequent re-releases. Yet here we were, standing in the middle of a crowded convention and gushing about decades-old games. We might have had extremely different experiences with the series, but that didn’t stop us from appreciating the joys of stylish beat ’em up action.
“A good game is a good game,” De Sousa told me, “no matter how old.” That’s the attitude that Streets of Rage 4 exemplifies. It revives the series’ rage-filled and action-packed design for the twenty-first century. And with a release on all modern platforms, more players than ever will be able to rediscover the simple pleasure of wielding your bare knuckles against thugs of all types. Between the new art style and the solid gameplay, Streets of Rage 4 is looking like an incredibly welcome return for this iconic franchise.
An In-Depth Analysis of FIFA’s Career Mode
It’s a well-known fact that career mode on FIFA has been a long-neglected element of the best selling sports games series of all time. But for soccer fans who want to pretend to be a football manager, but also want to personally play the game, FIFA is currently the main option.
The problem is: for a 60 dollar game, almost nothing about FIFA career mode works properly.
Two of the most game-breaking bugs in FIFA career mode are so bad that it fundamentally makes the game unplayable for those who want to feel any sort of immersion.
The first is a bug that makes it so that top teams will sign many more players for a position than they could possibly need.
For example, Bayern might end up signing 6 or 7 great center backs, and then only play three or four of them, while what they really need to sign might be a winger or a fullback.
This leads into the second huge issue: even when a team like Bayern HAS 6 or 7 great center-backs, they will STILL often choose to start second or third-string center backs! This often leads to top teams languishing at 12th or 13th in the tables by the end of the season, which makes absolutely no sense whatsoever.
Everything about this image is wrong. Everything. The top three teams in this table shouldn’t finish higher than 7th more than once every ten seasons between them, and teams that should finish first and second aren’t even in the top eight. 64 points near the end of the season for first place is also a very low number.
There’s been plenty of other issues as well. Even on the highest difficulties, AI on both defense and ESPECIALLY offense ranges from poor to horrible, with the AI on offense rarely actually running at the defense (making defending boring and unrewarding), leaving players like Messi or Hazard to not even try to use their incredible dribbling ability and speed and instead pass away the ball as soon as they get it.
Instead, the most common way the AI scores are by performing a janky, unrealistic and clearly scripted pinball, with impossibly precise passes between 4 or 5 players before the ball ends up in the back of the net.
Another major problem with the game (though some might call it simply a feature in presenting a more arcade-like, less realistic take on soccer) is your ability (if you’re a big club) to buy multiple huge players and bring them to your club easily in your first season, making the game an absolute cakewalk.
After years of incompetence and the ignoring of career mode’s many issues, however, EA finally faced serious backlash with the release of FIFA 20–the most broken iteration in the series yet.
For a while, #fixcareermode was trending on twitter, and reviews blasted FIFA for its litany of issues, like players going on precipitous declines in stats right when they reach the age of 30.
Yet these bugs were treated by some in the media as a first time thing, issues that had only appeared in the latest iteration. They weren’t.
As one Reddit user noted to Eurogamer: “In the last few years, every FIFA game released has had bugs that ruin the immersion. Teams not starting their strongest lineups and unrealistic tables have been an issue not just for FIFA 20 but earlier editions. Our cries for patches and change have fallen on deaf ears. The community has been grossly neglected.”
The linked article by the Independent above wasn’t accurate in other ways, either. It claims that only simulated matches suffered from the bug of teams not playing their best players, and other articles have claimed that this bug only occurs when a big team plays against a small team.
But neither of these claims is accurate.
You could play against a top team like Barcelona, and you could also be a top team like Real Madrid, and Barcelona would still consistently field third or fourth-string players over the likes of Messi against your team.
This wasn’t an occasional thing, either. At least three or four top players were benched for players 20 or more points below them every game. Every. Single. Game.
I haven’t even mentioned the commentary in FIFA, which is so buggy and so immersion-breaking in its disconnection from reality that it’s more immersive to just turn it off entirely.
What is so infuriating is that that many of the bugs seem like fairly minor fixes (commentary issues aside), something that seems like it would take no more than a few hours of rooting around in the code to figure out whatever misplaced number value was causing the issue.
The fact that these major issues have existed for at least no less than SIX years (FIFA 14 was the first game I played) indicates definitively how little EA cares about its products, and how little the designers care about actual football or delivering an enjoyable experience out of Ultimate Team.
Of course, Ultimate Team alone in 2017 accounted for almost a third of all of EA’s revenue from sports titles, so it’s somewhat understandable why Ea focuses most of its attention on that element of FIFA.
But with the amount of effort put into the new “futsal” mode in FIFA 2020, or the three campaign-like “Journey” modes from FIFA 17 to FIFA 19, one wonders why the developers couldn’t have spent just a little more effort to fix a mode that was in many ways fundamentally broken.
FIFA have made certain changes to career mode over this period, so it’s not like they’ve ignored it entirely. But the changes made to career mode in the six years I’ve played it have all either made the game much worse, slightly worse or had no great effect.
The major changes over this period have included:
A slightly updated youth system, which has suffered from its own serious bugs over the years, such as youth prospects never gaining stats in sprint speed or acceleration so that you end up getting stuck with players with 50 to 70 speed for eternity; a widely disliked training system for players that is utterly broken and unfair, allowing you to train players to abilities well beyond what is even vaguely realistic within a matter of a year or two; a new display screen for your team; the removal of form; the slight modification of morale; adding the ability to talk with your players; and, last but not least, transfer cut scenes which are the most incredibly pointless wastes of time in any sports game, both for the player and for the developers–at least they’re skippable. There is the ability to customize your manager–perhaps the most positive change made in this six-year period. But that’s still stunningly sad given that you will very rarely actually see your manager at all.
None of these modifications, you may have noticed, go any way towards fixing the fundamental issues with the game, issues which have been pointed out to EA year after year.
It’s fair to say that one of the main reasons that FIFA got away with what it did for so long was not thanks to the players, but the media.
Year after year, reviews for FIFA received solid scores (hovering around the low to mid 80’s), whereas user reviews were usually much lower. It was only this year that media reviews seriously pointed out issues with the career mode.
The fact that FIFA received so much better reviews from reviewers as compared to players is easily explained away by the fact that the former usually play the game for comparatively shorter times, and therefore tends to miss a lot of the details.
In response to the recent outrage which had finally reached a degree of publicity that EA could no longer ignore, EA finally patched some of FIFA’s issues, like the problem of teams not fielding their strongest lineups at least semi-frequently. This was a huge step towards making career mode not fundamentally broken, but whether or not the other most glaring issue of teams like Juventus signing 9 80+rated strikers (yes, that happened in my game once) has been solved remains to be seen. Given that I mostly gave up on the series after FIFA19 continued the same problems of its predecessors, I don’t think it’ll be me that finds out.
- Evan Lindeman
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