I find myself thinking of this past year in terms of pre-Baldur’s Gate 3 and post-Baldur’s Gate 3, which might be unfair to the legions of great games that were released otherwise. I’ve gone back through the archive and settled on thirteen heaters from the first half of the year that practically feel like they launched a lifetime ago.
Release Date: January 10
I’ve never Hunted a Monster myself—the series’ complex, multi-stage hunts always intimidated me too much, but even looking on from afar it’s hard to deny the appeal. In his 90% review of Rise all the way back in January, Senior Editor Rich Stanton praised the game’s easier onramp for new players, as well as the way it stripped away a lot of the busywork in-between hunts.
Me? I’ll just keep enjoying those cutscenes of adorable cat people making you delicious food from afar.
(Image credit: Tour De Pizza)
Release date: January 26
Developer: Tour de Pizza
After however many waves of retro revivals, I just didn’t think it was possible for me to get excited about a straight-up 2D platformer anymore, but Pizza Tower’s a goddamn little miracle. It has a great sense of weight and momentum, while also giving you this perfect mastery curve with each level.
Your first time through feels more like Wario Land, emphasizing exploration, but Pizza Tower leans into that series’ level escape mechanic, elevating it with a speed and frantic energy more akin to Sonic the Hedgehog. That sense of speed only gets more intense as you replay levels for better ranks, John Wicking your way through these inventive stages.
And the art and soundtrack are just sublime—pure, distilled ’90s goodness. Pizza Tower has this expressive style reminiscent of old Cartoon Network or Nickelodeon shows, while Mr. Sauceman, ClascyJitto, and Post Elvis’ OST has a kind of Y2K, Sega blue sky swagger to it.
(Image credit: Mundfish)
Release Date: February 21
While Atomic Heart wasn’t quite the Soviet-themed Bioshock killer we hoped it would be—Rich called it a “beautiful, flawed, and deeply weird Soviet Westworld” in his review—it is a special type of game that’s becoming more and more rare: the Half-Life-style single player FPS campaign.
We’re spoiled for open world RPG-shooters, live service MMO-lite FPSes, esports, and even the once almost extinct boomer shooter, but we’ve yet to see a resurgence in the story-heavy, eight to 15 hour FPS campaigns with cutscenes and characters galore.
Machine Games was carrying the torch for a while with its neo-Wolfensteins, but that dev’s since been consigned to the Indiana Jones mines, with no word of when it’ll be allowed to come up for air. So a game like Atomic Heart’s worth celebrating, even if it isn’t necessarily the peak of the form.
(Image credit: Koei Tecmo)
Release Date: March 2
Developer: Team Ninja
Team Ninja’s Wuxia-themed soulslike has a bit of funk and crunch to it, but I’ll be damned if it doesn’t have one of the best parry systems I’ve ever seen in one of these games. Part of the juice of Sekiro’s incredible version of the mechanic is that you’re not left holding the bag if you whiff a parry—get the timing off, and you’ll still block an attack as normal, eating some buildup of your stagger bar in the process.
Wo Long offloads this into its dodging instead, with a perfectly-timed sidestep throwing an enemy off-balance, while a regular dodge will still get you out of the way. Spamming leads to a stagger build-up similar to Sekiro’s though, helping to balance the system and keep it from being too generous. What you’re left with is a cheesy, glorious action game in true Team Ninja tradition, one whose victories I hope are brought forward into future games.
(Image credit: Capcom)
Release Date: March 17
Now, you may be thinking, “Ted, this is one of the biggest releases of the year, the remake of a gaming Criterion Classic, who could have forgotten about it?” Well, dear reader, I did. After running an initial list of eight games past my coworkers, Rich (who wrote our RE4 review) wondered if it might warrant inclusion.
I was obsessed with this game when it came out in March, finding its parry system an unexpected but amazing way to elevate the original RE4’s peerless over the shoulder shooting. The REM4KE remains an incredible shooter, and since release it’s been updated with the Mercenaries mode and Separate Ways gaiden campaign.
(Image credit: Awaceb)
Release Date: March 20
Tchia, the warm, nostalgic tale of a child exploring a magical island, tragically remains on my “to-play” list from this year, but PCG senior editor Chris Livingston has a loving pitch for the game from his 90% review:
“How can I convince you to play Tchia? By telling you it has a lush, startling beauty comparable to Sea of Thieves and a more satisfying treasure map sidequest than Red Dead Redemption 2? How about the open world exploration and stronghold invasions of Far Cry 3 but with Breath of the Wild’s glider and a protagonist you’ll actually love? Maybe by telling you the world is full of collectibles and trophies and highly original minigames that all serve a real purpose besides simply making a number on a menu screen go up?
Tell you what: I’ll even throw in one of the most enjoyable in-game cameras and photo modes I’ve ever seen, plus a ukulele that can be used to summon creatures, change the weather and time of day, and, oh yeah, play real music. Do we have a deal?“
(Image credit: Paradox)
Release Date: April 27
Developer: Triumph Studios
I’m a bit of a 4X scrub, occasionally reinstalling Civilization 5 (I didn’t even bother with 6!) whenever I get The Itch, but looking back on my colleague Fraser Brown’s glowing review of Age of Wonders 4 is having me reconsider that stance.
Its sense of whimsy is really winning me over: instead of the usual staid barbarians, pikemen, and inventing religion, Age of Wonders presents you with things that are, well, wonderful.
“By selecting the physical form, traits, cultural leanings and societal quirks of your people,” Fraser explained in his review, “You’re able to create all sorts of unusual empires, from sinister mole-people with a penchant for cannibalism to industrious goblins who just want to build epic cities and make new friends.”
(Image credit: Spytihněv)
Release Date: May 16
This Quake-inspired boomer shooter’s first impression is of the utmost grim horror and oppressive atmosphere, but if you stick with it, you’ll quickly realize it is one of the funniest games out there. It has that sense of trolling the player that I usually associate with FromSoftware’s games, things like Indiana Jones boulder traps that follow you around, jump scares from door-opening levers, a statue of a creepy grandma (based on a real Czech cultural site!) that moves when you’re not looking at it, the works.
The final boss got a little too zany (really meme-y) even for my tastes, but I was charmed by a playable epilogue involving the world-famous Prague Astronomical Clock and some of the best videogame dogs I’ve ever seen.
(Image credit: Future)
Release Date: May 23
Developer: Auroch Digital
A boomer shooter of the Doom Eternal, “you are an angry silverback imbued with god’s own hate,” heavy metal power fantasy variety. Auroch Digital’s contribution to the indie shooter renaissance sets itself apart with some stunning void-touched vistas that make the most of Games Workshop’s gothic, mind-bending flair, as well as a health-restoring melee charge mechanic that sees you magnetizing to enemies from yards away, slicing them open like putrescent piñatas for the health and ammo inside.
Whenever I enjoy an action game I tend to liken it to Bonestorm from the Simpsons, the hypothetical platonic ideal of a juvenile action thrill ride. I might be overusing this bit, but come on, Boltgun has some major Bonestorm vibes.
(Image credit: Nightdive)
Release Date: May 30
We awarded System Shock a Best Remake award as part of our ongoing game of the year celebrations, but even that doesn’t get across how much System Shock feels like a real coup—it’s fascinating to look at what had to change and what didn’t to make this 1994 classic feel new again.
As PCG UK Editor-in-Chief Phil Savage points out in our GOTY post, the twisty levels and lack of handholding from an early 3D game like this can still stand on their own relatively unchanged—it’s that cluttered ’90s UI and “still figuring out 3D movement” control scheme that uses every key on the keyboard that needed touching up.
Add to that an inspired retro-futurist aesthetic with gunplay that just pops, and we’ve got an incredible immersive sim that feels like a statement of intent from Nightdive Studios going forward.
(Image credit: Frictional Games)
Release Date: June 6
I’m just gonna keep singing the praises of this singular horror game—I loved it in my review at launch, and I chose to celebrate it as my personal pick in our GOTY bonanza. Frictional remain top dogs when it comes to crafting an oppressive atmosphere in a horror game, but the new gameplay frontiers it pushed in The Bunker make the studio one to watch going forward.
The Amnesia run and hide formula had been growing stale in recent years, so The Bunker rejuvenated it with a dose of immersive sim open-endedness and an AI monster that would constantly surprise me with its behavior. It can be an incredibly stressful game to play, but honestly, isn’t that kind of the point?
(Image credit: Nathan O. Marsh)
Release Date: June 9
Developer: N.O. Marsh
I feel like a hipster poser telling people that one of my favorite games of this year was a free indie visual novel about alien whales, but it’s true! South Scrimshaw presents as a Planet Earth-style documentary about the alien “Brillo Whales” of a faraway planet, but it jams an incredible amount of storytelling and sci-fi worldbuilding into a two-hour experience.
The saga of the whale calf at the center of the documentary gives you plenty to chew on, but I love the rich sci-fi lore Marsh constructed around it all. You can choose to follow rabbit hole digressions in the documentary that outline everything from the biological demands and cultural output of extrasolar human colonies, to high-level theories about why extraterrestrial life resembles that on Earth. South Scrimshaw is by turns moving, tragic, and strangely uplifting and optimistic in its portrayal of the future, and it doesn’t ask you for a dime—just a couple hours of your day.