Heat Signature (PC)
Hard-drinking criminal fixers knock around the backwaters of the galaxy, pulling off heists and settling old scores. Heat Signature is fun when everything goes according to plan, and even more fun when it doesn’t. You may find yourself stuck in a room with the person you’re supposed to kill and a group of very angry guards, all wearing bulletproof armor. Your pistol doesn’t do much good against armor, but that’s okay: Send a couple shots into the window behind them, decompressing the room and sending you, your target, and several surprised guards hurtling out into space. Have your remote-controlled escape pod scoop you up and leave everyone else to asphyxiate in a hard vacuum. Head back to your base, get paid, and warm your barstool while waiting for the next job. All in a day’s work.
Available to purchase at Steam, $15.
Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice (PS4, PC)
If you judge this game purely by its unfortunate title and a few screenshots, you may think it’s a generic grimdark hack-and-slash action title. But Senua’s Sacrifice is much more ambitious than that: It’s the journey of a Pict warrior woman suffering from psychosis and mourning the loss of her lover after raid by Norsemen. Voices flit all around you (play this game with headphones or surround sound), urging you on, arguing with each other, and mocking you during your descent into the Nordic vision of hell. It could come off as crass or cheesy; instead, adroit acting and strong writing make it raw and moving. And it treats mental illness with the kind of empathy, compassion, and grace that’s rare to find anywhere in pop culture, much less in a game where you’re swinging a sword and dodging massive guys swinging axes at your head.
Night in the Woods (PC, PS4)
Play as Mae Borowski, anthropomorphic cat, college dropout, and full-time pain in the ass. Spend your days bumming around town, playing bass in your shitty band, shoplifting from local stores, and disappointing your parents. There’s a paranormal mystery to investigate, but the heart of the story is about the melancholic comfort of returning home, only to find that home has changed and so have you. It’s gutsy to try to set a game centered around this emotion, and braver still to make Mae a troubled, self-absorbed jerk, one who is genuinely unpleasant to the people who love her. This could be drudgery if Night in the Woods didn’t sport a beautiful score, stunning art style, and witty, light-footed writing. Figuring out the mystery of Night in the Woods is satisfying; watching Mae slowly find her place in her weird little world is a joy.
Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle (Switch)
An oddball combination that shouldn’t work, this game mixes Mario, Raving Rabbids — a cartoon franchise few outside of France have ever seen — and turn-based tactical combat much like the recent XCOM. It’s all very weird! Mario has a gun. Luigi is a sniper. Princess Peach throws grenades. The Rabbids are … very French. But the the gameplay is rock-solid: Every level plays like an evolving chess match as you reposition your team to outflank your enemies and cover disappears in hails of gunfire. Even the gung-ho humor grows on you, with the Rabbids being so goofy that it allows Mario — an ostensible plumber who eats mushrooms to grow larger, earns money by bashing his head into floating bricks, and regularly loses his girlfriend to a dinosaur — to play the straight man.
Cuphead (PC, Xbox One)
Old-school, 1930s-style hand-drawn animation meets with 1980s-style quarter-gobbling difficulty. A run-and-gun shooter à la Contra combined with boss fights so difficult you may crack a controller, Cuphead demands every ounce of skill you have, and then asks for more. Press through your early failures (and you will die, over and over and over again), and rediscover the joy in fighting through frustration to finally take down that one boss that you just can’t seem to beat.
Divinity: Original Sin II (PC)
Plenty of RPGs claim to allow you to do anything and go anywhere, but this is one of the few that actually delivers. You may be asked to rescue an elf held in captivity by a local thug. You can rescue the prisoner, or ransom him for more money, or decide to kill every thug in town, or just cast teleport on him and get him out of the cage and bypass the whole rigamarole altogether. Whatever you can think to do, the game’s writing and mechanics are robust enough to roll with it. This is as close to the pure freedom of tabletop RPGs as you can get without a dungeon master sitting behind trifold cardboard.
Available for purchase at Steam, $45.
Persona 5 (PS4)
Oozing style, this Japanese RPG has you playing as a slacker teenager. By day, you make friends, cram for tests, and try to stay out of trouble at school. By night, you and your friends transform into your Persona, gaining powers in order to pull off daring heists, as well as fight through dungeons — many of which are representations of the minds of the adults around you (and that is, like, one of the least weird parts of this game). A deep and satisfying turn-based RPG that forces you to care about your friendships (your party is only as strong as the bonds you build with your fellow classmates), it’s also a story about that moment as a teenager when you realize most grown-ups are just as screwed up as you are — if not worse.
Super Mario Odyssey (Switch)
Super Mario Odyssey is incredibly fun, and that’s mainly because it’s incredibly weird, starting with the fact that your hat, Cappy, can possess other characters’ bodies. By the time you’re wall-jumping around New Donk City, a simulacrum of Manhattan, you’ve passed completely through the uncanny valley and into a world where Mario becoming a taxi cab (complete with mustache) seems perfectly reasonable. It’s as if the designers just kept saying “Why not?” to every possible type of gameplay mechanic. It could have been a shambolic mess. Instead it’s the best Mario game since Super Mario 64.
Playerunknown’s Battlegrounds (PC, Xbox One)
It seems odd to name a game that isn’t finished yet as one of the best games of the year, but Playerunknown’s Battlegrounds (or simply PUBG), while still in beta, has reinvigorated the aging shooter genre. As much fun to watch on Twitch as it is to play, the concept is simple: You skydive onto an island with 100 other players, loot madly through abandoned buildings for any weapon you can lay hands on, and try to be the last person standing. Crouching in a house, listening as someone slowly makes their way up the stairs toward you is unbearably tense — and getting the drop on them once their head peeks over the banister — is deeply satisfying. It’s a formula that works, with PUBG clones already starting to proliferate. This game is going to cast a long shadow for years to come.
The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild (Switch)
A wildly experimental take on a classic character that manages to feel both part of a 31-year-old franchise and wholly new. At this point, most video game “open worlds” feel more like an obligation than a promise; there’s not much thrill left in endless fetch quests, waypoint bloat, and the feeling that you’re roaming around a theme park built for one. But Breath of the Wild makes an open world feel actually open, thanks to a survival system that requires preparation and a world that rewards exploration. Clamber up the sheer face of a mountain, your fingers almost giving out as you make a final push to the peak, and shiver in the cold, watching as the moon rises over Hyrule. Look down at the moonlit world and realize there’s still so much left to see — and you need to eat something to warm up, stat. Breath of the Wild is a masterpiece, full stop.