A PlayStation subscription service was inevitable. Microsoft has made waves with the aggressive, industry-reshaping Game Pass — which offers a bevy of ancient Xbox classics and fresh exclusives for a flat, $15 monthly fee. Nintendo has offloaded its prodigious 8-bit oeuvre to the Switch’s online services, and nontraditional industry forces like Netflix and Apple are making inroads themselves with Netflix Gaming and Apple Arcade. In the meantime, Sony was bringing the decent but unsubstantial PlayStation Now, which gave players access to a modestly curated cut from the PS4 archives. But that changed last month, when the company revamped their console infrastructure with PlayStation Plus Premium. Sony has one of the most beloved back-catalogues in gaming, and it’s finally at our fingertips.
The pricing here is a little fiddly. For $14.99 per month, you can purchase PlayStation Plus Extra, which gives players a bounty of both PS5 and PS4 games for free. But for three extra dollars — that is, $17.99 — you’ll have PlayStation Plus Premium, and a ton of titles from the PS1, PS2, PS3, and even the oft-forgotten handheld PSP. The list below skews towards the PS4 and PS5 offerings, because those are the most affordable and most relatable, but we’ve spattered in a few late-’90s relics as well. One of the core appeals of a games subscription service is the opportunity to bounce between big-budget megatons and something like Ape Escape on the same machine. In that sense, PlayStation Plus knocks it out of the park.
We knew that the first Marvel’s Spider-Man was in good hands. Insomniac Games is responsible for the delightful Ratchet & Clank series, and they successfully captured the aw-shucks breeziness crucial to any Peter Parker story when they were handed the Spider-Man license in 2018. That said, 2020’s standalone expansion, starring Miles Morales, is their best work in the multiverse so far. Swinging around New York City always felt great, and the web-slinging combat was tactile, splashy, and full of neat physics tricks. But the Morales saga ups the ante from Parker’s usual gamut of high-school drama and science high jinks. This is a story about gentrification, and the solidarity it takes for vulnerable communities to support each other in the face of government and corporate erosion. A full-throated sequel is on the way in 2023, and we hope that Insomniac won’t shy away from politics as Morales’s Harlem remains under siege.
One of the things that distinguishes Xbox Game Pass from its competitors is Microsoft’s willingness to put brand new games on the service from the moment they are released. But Sony is nudging in that direction with their inclusion of Returnal in the PS Plus Premium selection. This is one of the first exclusives of the PS5 generation; a fabulously grotesque sci-fi horror dirge. You are one woman stranded on an abominable alien planet, using a piddling arsenal of all-too-human weaponry to push back the forces of cosmogonal hell. Die, and you’re kicked back to the start for another go. Returnal is hard as nails and smugly uncompromising, which seems to be the point. Did you think surviving here was going to be easy?
Desperados III aims to please a very specific audience. If you are the sort of person who enjoys the idea of an isometric stealth-strategy game — where you can pause the action at any time and plot out complex feints and traps across a party of four — you have either been playing games for a long time, or are over the age of 40. (Or both!) Yes, Desperados III is a throwback to a different era of game design. There is very little wiggle-room in these Old West puzzles, where seemingly every cowboy on earth is ready to plug you on sight. But it’s also a lot of fun to master, even if it takes about a billion save files. It is downright euphoric when the biggest, baddest sheriff on the map wanders into one of your cleverly placed bear traps. There’s beauty in the precision.
Batman: Arkham City
Arkham City is a Batman story in the comic-book tradition, rather than the Nolan tradition. The game opens with a ridiculously harebrained calamity; apparently, Gotham’s government decided to wall off a part of the metropolis as an open-air prison for all of Batman’s villains. What could go wrong? Of course they break free, and of course they plunge the city into anarchy. That’s good for us as players, because it means we get to track down a proudly comprehensive rogues gallery of fringe Dark Knight baddies. Yes, the core story still revolves around the Joker, but you’ll also be squaring off with ancillaries like Clayface and Solomon Grundy — guys who aren’t going to be sharing screen time with Robert Pattinson anytime soon. Batman is still allowed to be fun, Arkham City is living proof.
Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy
I know, I’m as surprised as you are. The buzz on last year’s Guardians adaptation was ice cold. Here was a single-player third-person shooter, with none of the MCU actors reprising their roles, where you could only take control of the most boring and least essential of the squad. (Yes, the dreaded Star-Lord.) And yet, Eidos Montreal managed to squeeze out one of the best stories told in the medium when the game arrived last year. These superhero facsimiles somehow had better chemistry than their A-list counterparts. One recurring plot tension involves Rocket Raccoon’s hatred of water. Why? Our headstrong pyromaniac is afraid of drowning. When I finally encouraged him to get over those fears, it felt far more meaningful than whatever universe-saving business we were up to. Guardians is a miraculous hit, and I hope the studio gets another crack at the source material.
You can make a pretty good argument that Bloodborne is the greatest game of the last decade. FromSoftware had already made a name for itself within the decaying Arthurian setting of the Dark Souls universe in the early 2010s, but in 2015 they set their sites on a blackened Gothic hellscape — home to pewter-eyed werewolves and the eldritch gods they worship. Dark Souls’ plodding sword-and-board combat disappeared in favor of a lightning fast rhythm of slashes, bullets, and dodges. It’s sublime once your reflexes catch up to it. We’re all still waiting for From to make their glorious return to Bloodborne, especially now that the dust has cleared after Elden Ring. But at least the original is available on modern hardware.
All that said, if you’re interested in exploring FromSoftware’s earlier, scruffier work, PS Plus Premium is also home to the from-the-studs remaster of Demon’s Souls — which hit the PS5 in 2020. Consider Demon’s Souls something like Dark Souls’ wildcard cousin. First released on the PlayStation 3, it is harder, meaner, and full of strange, off-kilter design decisions. For instance, over the course of the game you’ll be introducing new wayward souls to a central lobby, which you also use to traverse into the game’s many levels. Sound familiar? A version of that idea made it all the way to Elden Ring’s Roundtable Hold. FromSoft fever is high right now, so go ahead and take a look at where it all began.
Ape Escape 2
Video games are big business now. Triple-A studios are either developing ginormous multiplayer platforms designed to capture 90 percent of the market share, or they’re putting out somber, award-baiting epics that could work as both video game and HBO Max serial. That has left little room for games like Ape Escape 2, which came out in 2003 and asks the player to round up a bunch of monkeys loose on an island. Ape Escape 2 is awesome, and given the direction of the industry as a whole, nobody should be surprised that the franchise has been dormant since 2005. Still, it’s worth checking out to remember just how goofy and B-movie-ish the PlayStation was, long before Amazon, Apple, and Google were jostling for the same space.
The Last Guardian
The Last Guardian is a video game about having your pets ignore you. You play as a child lost in an ancient kingdom that has been dead for a very long time. Your only companion? A dog-bird-cat hybrid that’s about the size of a house. He’s your only key to survival; he can leap towards insane heights and smash evildoers with ease, but he only listens to you about … 60 percent of the time. Much of The Last Guardian is spent shouting commands at your pet while he stares back at you with an interspecies inscrutability. Dog owners know the feeling well. The Last Guardian is genuinely compelling, even if it’s mostly a showcase of what a more naturalistic take on artificial intelligence can do.
Soul Calibur 6
Historically, Soul Calibur has always been my choice for a casual fighting game among friends and beers. You do not need to worry about any match-ending combo chains, and the less you stare at the move list the better. In Soul Calibur all of the characters wield ridiculous, physics-defying weapons, and you’ll know how they work with one glance. (The Italian guy with the epee is fast; the eight-foot tall guy in obsidian armor and demonic greatsword is slow; so on and so forth.) Soul Calibur 6 only gets sillier with its character creator. This is a game where you can legitimately fight as Donkey Kong and Colonel Sanders if you know where to look. Save it for the right moment on a bleary Saturday night, and you’ll have a blast.
Ghost of Tsushima: Director’s Cut
Ghost of Tsushima was released at the tail-end of the PS4 lifecycle, just as Sony was gearing up for the PS5 rollout. Naturally, Sucker Punch Productions immediately broke ground on a remaster, souping up Tsushima’s incredible landscapes into uncharted tiers of fidelity for the new hardware. This is a gargantuan open-world adventure that is absolutely in love with pulpy, samurai fiction. You will decapitate roving bands of miscreants, bathe in steaming hot springs, and write haikus in moments of warrior solitude. Ghost of Tsushima is not the most overwhelmingly introspective experience, but it is some of the most fun you can have on a PlayStation.
Assassin’s Creed Valhalla
Ubisoft is currently rethinking the Assassin’s Creed formula from the ground up, and that might be because the most recent game in the series was pretty much flawless. Valhalla contains all of the trappings you’d expect from an Assassin’s Creed adventure — a bookish, history-nerd attention to detail, silky smooth platforming, and a hundred-hour campaign — but Ubisoft also managed to make their world map feel a little less static than usual. There’s an infinite supply of goofy, Zelda-ish side quests in this expanse, and all of them lend a bit of levity to the staid primary storyline. I met a man who didn’t know an ax was protruding from his head, and a couple who grew increasingly more uninhibited as I smashed up their thatch-roofed shack. All of this takes place in a gorgeously rendered medieval England, with vistas that still manage to awe two years since Valhalla’s release date. I have high hopes for the future of Assassin’s Creed, I just hope Ubisoft doesn’t break anything that doesn’t need fixing.
EA has not released a new SimCity game in almost a decade following a disastrous reboot of the franchise in 2013. Thankfully, Cities: Skylines has happily picked up the slack in their stead. The basic premise is simple; lay down some zoning laws, a few power lines, and a modest sewer system, and watch your happy residents pour in. Logistical questions continue to pile up — you’re probably going to need a grip of hospitals and landfills — and before long you’ll be cursing the absent-minded infrastructural decisions you made in the early game. (Why did I build a one-way bridge over the river!) Colossal Order has supported Cities: Skylines with a bevy of expansions, so if you’re looking to sink deep into a new hobby, this metropolis is waiting.
Santa Monica Studio took an eight year break from Kratos after the release of 2010’s God of War III. It’s not hard to understand why. We left our titular deity in an armageddon of his making. He had overthrown the pantheon of ancient Greece, wrought vengeance on his deadbeat father, and plunged the mortal realm into chaos. How do you pick up the pieces from there? By sending Kratos to the distant north, where he can mix it up with the idols of Norse mythology in a story that somehow manages to thread the needle of his epic, cosmic sins in a tasteful, human way. God of War is a tale about Olympian power and burdensome immortality, but it also manages to be about fatherhood, loss, and the pernicious shadows of the past — the hope that after fucking up so many things, you won’t also fuck up being a dad. Here’s a game that lets you scale the massive, frozen corpse of a fallen giant, but saves its true climax for a private moment of penance at the end. With a highly anticipated sequel arriving in November, there’s never been a better time to savor Kratos’s midlife crisis.
Darksiders: Warmastered Edition
I swear there is an alternative universe out there where Darksiders is one of the biggest franchises in the games industry. It arrived in 2010 like an edgier Zelda — Link meets Slipknot — where you hustled one of the four horsemen of the apocalypse through a number of clockwork dungeons that took extensive liberties with the Nintendo playbook. It’s nice to uncover a hookshot and explore previously inaccessible portions of the map, okay? That’s one of the purest forms of video game sublimity anyone can find. Darksiders is regarded as a cult classic that couldn’t quite escape the stratosphere, but thankfully a 2018 remaster is available for anyone curious to know what could have been.
Children of Morta
If you are born into the Morta family, you are blessed with an incredibly useful action-RPG skillset. Your dad is an iron-hearted tank, your sister is great with a bow, and your nephew is a natural skulking rogue. These are the parameters set by Children of Morta, which has filled the gap beautifully between Diablos. Rather than grind out levels indefinitely with one character, one class, and one interminable skill-sheet, you can always swap out a different fixture of the bloodline when you’re back at basecamp. The designers understand a crucial truth of the genre; it’s boring to click on the same buttons over and over again. Combine that with Morta’s wonderfully blocky retro art style, and you have a game that can easily soak up a month of your life.
Resident Evil 4
There are people out there that still prefer the earliest, late-90s Resident Evil games, where every room in the haunted mansions was guarded by an onerous loading screen and you controlled your investigators like you were piloting a tank. But if you are like me, or many other normal people, the fourth game in the series represented the first time you truly fell in love with the series. Resident Evil 4 moves like an action game; the camera is fixed behind Leon’s shoulder, which eliminates all of those archaic frustrations in one fell swoop. Capcom keeps all of its survival precepts — you’ll be making hard decisions about what you can fit in your supply before crossing over into a tainted cathedral — but rarely will you die to factors outside of your control. That was quite the innovation back in 2005! Capcom is in the process of remaking the whole Resident Evil back-catalogue, liberating the content from bad, outmoded design decisions. But 17 years later, Resident Evil 4 isn’t in need of any new paint. Perfect then, and perfect now.
The story of Uncharted mirrors the evolution of Naughty Dog as a whole. When the first game in the series arrived, all the way back in 2007, the studio was coming off of the fun, but ultimately low-stakes Jak and Daxter games. To pivot toward a lush, Indiana Jones–ish adventure — filled with actual human beings and their respective wants and needs — was a wild swing in ambition. It worked, and a decade later they were wrapping up the Uncharted saga with a complex morality saga that leaves the feeling like everyone involved in this protracted treasure hunt is a fundamentally selfish person. Yes, Naughty Dog gave us superior gunplay, and some of the most stunning graphical flourishes ever rendered on a console, but it’s their willingness to take wild storytelling risks that has set them apart from nearly every other studio in the business. We probably won’t be returning to Uncharted for quite some time, which is all the more reason to take in the swansong. (This also goes for Uncharted: Lost Legacy, which is also available on PS Plus Premium.)
A lot of space games pride themselves on their limitless exploration. They give you a spaceship and an infinite spree of procedurally generated planets, and ask you to go to town. Outer Wilds reverses that thinking. You have a compact solar system, a primitive wooden rocket, and a 20 minute time loop. The universe is about to end, you see, but whenever your star explodes in supernova, we’re slingshotted back in time. Why? Well, that is one of the many riddles you uncover in Outer Wilds cosmic mystery. Each of them end in that Carl Sagan sweetspot; the hard-science truths of our insignificance giving way to something melancholy and inarticulable, but strangely comforting at the same time.
Red Dead Redemption 2
Red Dead Redemption 2 is two games in one. There is an epic western tragedy back whenever you’re home at camp, as this ragged gang of hippy-outlaws carve across the unspoiled frontier in hopes to find a Shangri-La that never comes. But when I jump back into Rockstar’s latest opus, I spend most of my time out on the prairie, doing nothing in particular. You camp, you hunt, you fish, you meet oddball strangers on the old trails, as the heartbreak of what is inevitable — the steely industrialization darkening the skies — lingers in the air. Red Dead Redemption 2 is an elegy for the natural world; a game about listening to the birds that have long since abandoned the North American skyline.