Everyone has a streaming service now, I swear. Netflix got the ball rolling, and it hasn’t stopped since. Amazon, Disney Plus, Paramount Plus, AMC Plus, Apple TV Plus… It never seems to end. And the plusses don’t stop at television. After the relative success of Xbox GamePass, gaming companies have since taken to starting their own “streaming services”, providing an array of games for a monthly subscription as opposed to always relying on a flat, one time purchase. EA Play, Ubisoft Plus, and Playstation Plus probably stand as the most prominent of these services outside of GamePass, and Sony’s attempt specifically has just recently brought with it a subscription tier that includes an expansive list of games: the Playstation Game Catalog. Playing host to everything from Dead By Daylight to Yakuza 0, the Playstation Plus “Extra” tier brings a fairly impressive array of games for its moderate increase in price from the base package.
Sure, picking a subjective assortment of titles to fit a top ten list from such a melting pot of genres might seem a futile effort, but wasting time in relation to video games has never been much of a barrier for us. We’ll take an honest crack at it and see where we wind up.
In a zeitgeist where time loops are all the rage, few entries to the genre managed to perk as many ears as Deathloop. Developed by Dishonored alums over at Arkane Studios, this inventive FPS takes a fascinating stab at the time-loop genre, toying with a clever trial-and-error approach to a long, self contained puzzle. Giving the player ample opportunity to formulate and execute plans, Deathloop offers a playground of possibility in terms of cooking up the most lethally efficient strategy possible to knock off your list of targets.
The spirit and echoes of Dishonored can be felt in spades as Arkane’s affinity for immersive sims spills over into Deathloop’s core design. It doesn’t always hit its mark, and certain weapons can irreparably tip the game’s balance well toward broken, but that spirit of experimentation and innovation goes a long way in propping Deathloop up as a solid experience. It can sometimes feel like its more creative parts shine brighter than their sum, but an overall unique idea with bold execution is always something worth applauding.
And titles like Deathloop are the perfect candidates for services like the Playstation Game Catalog; an innovative, interesting idea that’s intriguing enough to be worth the experience, but might not be quite worth the risk of the 60$ asking price by itself.
9. Final Fantasy VII Remake
Chapter one of the big, beautiful, frustrating, nostalgic mess that is the Final Fantasy VII remake manages a spot on our list, if only through the sheer audacity of its more wild ideas. Its approach to embracing its identity as a remake is incredibly creative and unorthodox; the idea of looking at its own existence in relation to the original game, and that reflection actually being a metanarrative throughline of the plot? It’s straight up bizarre, more than a little sloppy, and remarkably admirable in its ambition. On paper, the pitch sounds like a subversive deconstruction of the very concept of remakes. Writing a story that has an entity within the game that is actively aware that the story it is participating in is a remake; it’s unusual, it’s strange, and, in theory, it’s exciting.
Sadly, in execution, it doesn’t quite live up to the potential of its ambitions. The creativity of its narrative is unfortunately cut short by some snags in game design. A laundry list of filler missions that feel like overly-rote MMO quests, a combat system aiming for a middle ground between real time and turn based that finds itself lacking the strengths of either, and a general bloat that comes with stretching the first act of a singular game into its own 30-40 hour experience. None of it is particularly egregious in terms of poor quality, but it does leave an experience that, in practice, feels eclipsed by the larger idea of what it wants to be.
Despite its flaws, Final Fantasy VII Remake proves a well-produced RPG that wears its love for the original on its sleeve while twisting and morphing said original into a new experience. It’s certainly divisive, and that sort of love-it-or-hate-it reception is, at the very least, indicative of a creative decision that was made with a distinct vision.
Still craving flawed action RPGs with innovative ideas that don’t always hit their mark? Look no further than Dontnod’s 2018 effort Vampyr. This relentlessly dower tale of a vampiric doctor is one rife with self-serious melodrama that commits full-steam to its unabashedly somber tone. While the commitment to such a dower atmosphere can feel a tad relentless at times, it does a remarkable job of establishing the perfect ambiance for a brooding vampire drama.
The combat plays like a Dark Souls mash-up with Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice, though its AA budget can’t help but sell it short of both; an admittedly unfair bar to clear on either front, given their limitations. Stamina management and dodging into a flurry of whiff-punishing lays its Dark Souls influences bare, while having a high pay-off / low direct damage set of stun / posture attacks alongside the more straightforward approach gives Vampyr its sprinkling of Sekiro. Again, the smaller budget and a team largely unfamiliar with designing combat systems bring about unavoidable growing pains, but where Vampyr sets itself apart, similar to Final Fantasy VII Remake, is in its larger ambitions.
As a vampire, Jonathan Reid’s progression is tied to his feeding (or lack thereof) on the various characters he meets and interacts with throughout the game. The more we get to know an individual character, the more experience their blood is worth, should we choose to feast. Of course, knocking off the denizens of a plague-riddled London brings about its own host of issues. Districts fall into disarray as its citizens perish, and the game world becomes a more violent, feral one as a result of sating our sanguine hunger. On the flip side of that, we can choose to have Jonathan resist his urges, resulting in an increased difficulty in combat with fewer tools at our disposal, but a much happier, healthier London for our efforts.
The idea is akin to Dishonored and its high-chaos runs, though it is far more central to Vampyr’s design philosophy. Sadly, Vampyr’s larger ambitions are somewhat cut short by its relatively limited budget, but the ideas are successful enough to prove compelling. It also doesn’t hurt that the game is generally well written, and Anthony Howell’s performance as Jonathan Reid is impeccable from start to finish. While it may stumble in the execution of its more innovative ideas, Vampyr frequently elevates itself to be more than the sum of its parts.
7. Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night
On the hunt for some Metroidvanias? We’ve got a couple kicking around the Playstation Game Catalog, and the first on our list has quite the pedigree, to boot. When it comes to pinnacles of the genre, few have a more vehement claim to the throne than the 1997 classic Castlevania: Symphony of the Night; so much so that it is widely accepted as the definitive game that would come to lend the “vania” to the Metroidvania label. It was quite literally genre-defining, thanks in no small part to its assistant director Koji Igarashi.
Now separated from Konami and looking to dive back into the genre he helped create, Koji Igarashi took to crowdfunding for his thinly-veiled spiritual successor to his Castlevania roots. Sporting a vibrant mix of ideas from Igarashi’s previous Castlevania titles, Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night takes up the mantle of Castlevania rather admirably, providing an experience that evokes the best of Igarashi’s work, albeit with far more questionable art direction. Still, if you can get past Miriam’s gaudy character design, you’re in for a genuine treat that brings together the strongest bits of Symphony of the Night and Aria of Sorrow into a modern Metroidvania that will feel wholly familiar to any fan of the Castlevania series.
6. Metro Exodus
Marking a noticeable jump in scale for the Metro franchise, 2019’s Metro Exodus would see a distinct shift in the direction of the popular post-apocalyptic series. Following the relatively linear nature of Metro: 2033 and Metro: Last Light, one of the priorities for 4A Games with Metro Exodus was a widening of scope in terms of level design. Open areas with multiple objectives, more of an emphasis on exploration, and a new crafting system inclined towards promoting said exploration all work in tandem to give the game a much greater sense of scale in comparison to its predecessors.
This shift to a more open-ended design provides an expanded view of the larger world at play in Metro, although it does come with its own caveats. The new basic crafting system certainly supports exploration, what with being able to craft ammunition and supplies at the game’s scattered workbenches, but with this luxury comes the loss of some of Metro’s unique identity. The fascinating concept of ammunition being used as currency from the previous games is completely sacrificed, and the unique challenge of weighing the need for said ammo against the goodies you could buy with it is no longer present, along with the ludonarrative world-building such a mechanic brought with it. The idea of using bullets as currency not only presents an interesting survival gameplay mechanic, it also serves to drive home the state of the world these characters inhabit; one where ammunition (and thus, survival) is the most precious resource.
Still, what’s lost in the transition may very well be outweighed by what is gained, and Metro Exodus remains just as engaging above the railways as below. Its strategic exclusion of overworld map markers in addition to its clever use of a minimalized HUD makes Metro Exodus an incredibly immersive experience; one that is well worth getting lost in.
5. Hollow Knight
If Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night got the Playstation Game Catalog its fill of “vania”, Hollow Knight is here to provide it with an overwhelming “Metroid” to balance out the scales. Sporting some stellar art direction and superb level design, Team Cherry truly let their old-school inspirations shine bright with Hollow Knight, and that kind of passion is infectious with an audience. Its cartoony aesthetic juxtaposes brilliantly with the game’s high difficulty, and the expansive exploration expected of the Metroidvania genre is executed wonderfully thanks to the careful, meticulous craft with which Team Cherry designed their map and power progression.
We get all the satisfying staples expected of the genre. Enticing ledges just beyond our reach, impassable terrain leading to an opening that beckons us further into the world, if only we had some ability to traverse it; all the tricks at a developer’s disposal to spark our curiosity. And this is where Hollow Knight plants its Metroid flag firm. In something like Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night or its spiritual predecessor in Symphony of the Night, we’re constantly gearing up and engaging in a more RPG progression system reliant on stat upgrades. Here in Hollow Knight, the RPG elements are far more constrained. A handful of abilities to get us around the world, a few to give us an edge in combat, but nothing that will outscale our combatants.
No, we won’t be grinding experience or hoping for a legendary drop that will give us an edge in a race of damage numbers. The experience Hollow Knight looks to provide is a more concise one; an experience geared more toward a refined difficulty curve that isn’t swayed by level or gear bloat. And, in that sense, Team Cherry has found resounding success.
4. Ghost of Tsushima
Sometimes a break from formula is refreshing; something that shies away from the cookie-cutter trends that seem to dominate the AAA sphere. We see games like Return of the Obra Dinn, Disco Elysium, or a rather eccentric postman-themed entry further down this list that challenge and reimagine how games can tell their stories in a wholly unique way. On the flip side of that, some games find success not from breaking the tired formula, but from a keen refinement of it.
And Sucker Punch’s Ghost of Tsushima is very much the latter.
On a surface level, Ghost of Tsushima is, more or less, an Ubisoft game. An absolute downpour of collectibles scattered throughout an open world, a simple stealth system revolving around crouching in bushes that – when failed or opted out of – gives way to combat, and a series of quests and side missions that involve following map markers to token combat encounters. Now, you may be thinking that this formula isn’t exclusive to Ubisoft; plenty of games from Horizon: Forbidden West to Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor have all those things as well. And that may very well speak to the larger point here; Ubisoft has simply embraced these formulaic tropes with far more… zeal than others.
Regardless, where Ghost of Tsushima manages to shine is in how it dresses up these tropes to be more than they are. Once you get the flow of combat, it’s a highly satisfying system to participate in. You may be following map markers from A to B, but instead of staring at a dotted line on a minimap, the wind blows through the environment to guide your path, allowing players to engage with and take in the world organically as they play. Engaging in the stealth system results in a moral dilemma within the narrative for our main character (one that, admittedly, doesn’t come with much payoff). Sucker Punch was obviously working from a familiar template with Ghost of Tsushima, but went to great lengths to disguise and elevate the more well-worn aspects of its design.
It may not reinvent the wheel, but Ghost of Tsushima goes to great lengths to make the wheel look damn good for the effort.
What if the guys that made Alan Wake and Max Payne decided to commit to a week-long binge of the SCP Wiki? Well, something tells me that’s exactly how we wound up with Control, our list’s final Metroidvania courtesy of Sam Lake and his fine team at Remedy. Now, Control may look different than your average Metroidvania, what with it being 3D and all, but those fundamental genre design philosophies remain well intact. We get abilities that give us access to previously inaccessible routes, we collect keys that allow us passage through doors we’ve cataloged throughout the map, and we back-track for hours as we hunt down every new secret the Oldest House has to offer as our powers expand.
As anyone should expect from the Max Payne folks, the combat and gunplay in Control feels remarkably fluid and responsive. Jessie’s repertoire of psychic abilities feel powerful and diverse thanks to solid design and satisfyingly chunky animations. Blatting a whole host of Lovecraftian enemies with everyday office supplies has never felt so good, though competition in that particular category is admittedly… slim.
Control’s storytelling isn’t always as strong as it could be, but its strange ideas and bizarre setting do enough to maintain its creative energy through to the end. The constant juxtaposition of the occult horror of the Hist against the mundanity of an everyday office building works brilliantly in setting a unique atmosphere, and Remedy’s trademark live-action video collectibles give the game a distinct personality that elevates the idiosyncratic strangeness rather that detracts from it.
Boasting an impressive degree of polish and a firm understanding of level design in transferring the Metroidvania formula to a 3D space, Control stands as an incredibly well put together action experience with just enough quirk up its sleeve to catch the eye. And if a quirky strangeness is enough to merit admiration, well… You need look no further than:
2. Death Stranding
If I’m being fully transparent with these rankings, Control is probably the better game between these two, but Hideo Kojima’s enigmatic Death Stranding might be the more daring one. Where Control has a relatively familiar gameplay loop to accompany its more inventive narrative ideas, Death Stranding takes it a step further by implementing a gameplay loop wholly unique to its ambitions. Sure, a third person shooter sequence might break out sporadically, but the core of what you’re doing in Death Stranding is a bizarre blend of terrain traversal, weight balancing, and strange “stealth” sections with invisible adversaries. Problem solving arises from the need to scale a mountainside or avoid a particularly dense patch of BTs as opposed to dispatching heaps of enemies. We don’t need to worry as much about burning through our ammunition as we do running out of ladders or climbing ropes.
The game introduces problems and scenarios so wildly uncommon to standard AAA fare, and the fact that a game of Death Stranding’s budget and backing was given the green light to run with its more peculiar ideas is nothing short of incredible.
When it comes to big-ticket games, publishers (and thus, developers) seem so cripplingly apprehensive to take risks, resulting in a market of games that all feel like they’re coloring in the same safe templates. We mentioned it earlier with Metro losing its identity to accommodate the open-world trend that’s been board-approved as “appealing to the widest possible audience”, but it hardly stops with them. So to see a game like Death Stranding step forward with its AAA status and be unafraid of brandishing its wholly unique identity? That’s an accomplishment worth relishing.
That kind of divisive, risky idea is typically relegated to the indie market alongside titles like Baba is You or Papers, Please. Hideo Kojima’s name has given him purchase to take those kinds of risks on a budget capable of seeing those ambitions realized in a way many indie – or even AA games – can’t quite reach (our condolences, Vampyr). With Death Stranding, Kojima dared to be original, and that sort of risk-taking at the highest tier of game development deserves to be embraced, if not openly celebrated.
1. Demon’s Souls
Finally freed of its shackles of PS3 exclusivity, Bluepoint Games’ faithful revamp of FromSoftware’s Soulsborne debut has brought the ever-elusive Demon’s Souls into the hands of countless Souls fans eager to see where it all began (full disclosure: one such Souls fan might be writing this very article). With two console generations of advancement since the original, Bluepoint’s Demon’s Souls is as much a loving homage as it is a technical marvel in its own right.
Although to call it an ‘homage’ might be selling short the amount of detailed effort that went into Bluepoint’s meticulous recreation of FromSoftware’s classic; their team went as far as to study and recreate the exact frame data on weapon swings and enemy attacks, hoping to keep the spirit and challenge of the original Demon’s Souls as intact as possible in its transition to a modern engine. A “warts and all” approach also sees the return of divisive features like the game’s limited carrying weight, the proto-Bed-of-Chaos “fight” with the Dragon God, and the ever-enigmatic World Tendency mechanic. While certain quality of life changes could have been made (especially to something as innocuous as the carrying weight), this approach allows new players a modern look at FromSoftware’s earliest – and most experimental – ambitions.
And what a modern look it is; the new engine plays incredibly smooth on the PS5 hardware. Demon’s Souls is such a visual treat, accompanied by excellent sound design and animation work that gives distinct impact to every swing, parry, and backstab. Combat may be your typical Soulsborne fare, but it brings with it such an elegance of execution that it almost comes to outshine FromSoftware themselves, in some respects. It’s such an immense labor of love for a title that was sorely in need of new means of exposure, and Bluepoint stuck the landing with unwavering grace. When it comes to remakes and remasters, Demon’s Souls has undoubtedly set the bar. Nevermind being the best game on offer through the Playstation Games Catalog; Bluepoint’s Demon’s Souls may well remain the Playstation 5’s best showing to date.
Though the grain of salt that comes with that claim is sizable, to be sure. After all, this is what you get when you ask a FromSoftware fanboy to write one of these things