20. Darksiders 2 (2012)
Developer: Vigil Games
The fate of the four-part Darksiders series is sadly left hanging in limbo. Now owned by Nordic Games after the collapse of THQ, they’re creating a remastered version of this game for consoles only, and still maintaining silence on the prospect of a third release. Boooo. Because Darksiders II is like a best-of action games, grabbing handfuls of ideas from a dozen other games, and mixing them into a fast-paced combat-n-acrobatics third-person brawler.
You play as Death, attempting to discover what happened to War in the previous game, which amounts to lots of biffing, and lots of climbing. Biffing and climbing are best.
It’s often a reasonable criticism to suggest a game has lifted an idea from other, rather than innovated. But Vigil took so many ideas from so many places that their combination – while not individually a step forward for the genre – created something that was, well, a lot of good ideas in one place.
Heftily half-inching from Prince Of Persia: Sands Of Time, it’s one of very few games to have had the sense to mimic its time rewinds rather than punishing deaths for falling off stuff. It nabs combat from any number of third-person fighters, and then throws in collectibles and cartoonish approaches from the PS2’s greatest hits. And you get to be Death, which is awesome.
Notes: Nordic said in 2013 that news of a third game would be at least two years away. We asked them recently if they had an update, and they said there was none. Although the remastering of DSII for modern-day consoles could be interpreted as a test of player interest.
Where can I buy it: Steam
What else should I be playing if I like this: You could check out some of its inspirations, like the Gamecube’s Metroid Prime, the PS2’s Shadow Of The Colossus, and various console releases of Ratchet & Clank.
19. Grow Home [official site] (2015)
From out of nowhere, giant evil megacorp Ubisoft created one of the loveliest, littlest indie-like games in ages. Born of an experiment with procedurally generated movement, Grow Home features a wobbly little robot and his attempts to grow an enormous plant high enough to reach his waiting spaceship.
That procedural movement really does prove to be the hook. BUD’s legs stagger and totter like an infant’s, as he comes to grips with motion, while his arms are controlled by a gamepad’s trigger buttons. In combining these unusual controls, Reflections made the action of climbing in games interesting for, well, the first time ever. Your immediate control over his arms engages in a uniquely intriguing way, making his progress far more meaningful.
Combined with outrageously lovely graphics, this little experiment ends up proving a completely wonderful experience, and a really hopeful sign that even giant publishers can still show a glimpse of heart.
Notes: Grow Home was never meant to be publically released, but after Ubi colleagues were so enamoured, they realised they had a commercial product in their hands.
Where can I buy it: Steam
What else should I be playing if I like this: Have a crack at Tiny & Big.
18. TowerFall: Ascension [official site] (2005)
Developer: Matt Makes Games
Publisher: Matt Makes Games
TowerFall has this feature where the arrows, when fired, will home in on their assumed target just a little. With this, arrows will bend around corners, duck under platforms, and otherwise nail targets who would have been missed. You can turn it off but won’t: it’s simply another rule in this competitive and cooperative arrow shooter, and it allows for the most spectacular moments of skill to be performed by even the most fat-fingered players.
You’ll leap through the bottom of the screen, exploiting the screenwrap to appear back at the top, and fire an arrow directly down and into the head of an enemy that just a moment ago seemed to be pursuing you. You’ll be leaping through the air when an arrow is about to hit you, and you’ll perform a dash move, not to dodge it, but to catch and steal that arrow in mid-air for yourself. You’ll fire it back at your opponent and use it to pin them to a wall. You’ll perform these actions with a mixture of panic and intent, your fingers leading your brain by a couple of seconds as the cramped levels shrink smaller as the time limit approaches.
Or you’ll work together with friends in the fabulous cooperative campaign, in which you fight through progressively more difficult waves of enemies in progressively more difficult levels. The same satisfying combat carries over and enemy movements and AI are a fair replacement for most humans, but what’s new is that you and your friend(s) will naturally take roles within each challenge: one person handling the top of the screen, the other handling the bottom; or both sticking close together, covering each other’s backs and trying not to fall victim to friendly fire.
In whatever mode you play, TowerFall is a delight. It’s an action game that makes you feel precise even when you’re a fool like us, and that alone is a marvel.
Notes: TowerFall was originally released as an Ouya exclusive, and was the small consoles brief killer app before the game came to PC with the singleplayer campaign and the Ascension subtitle. An expansion, called Dark World, followed shortly afterwards.
What else should I be playing if I like this: Samurai Gunn trades bows for swords and though it has less nuance it does a similarly good job in one-on-one competitive drama.
17. Lara Croft And The Guardian Of Light [official site] (2010)
Developer: Crystal Dynamics
Publisher: Eidos/Square Enix
Whether you’re a fan of the completely excellent early Crystal Dynamics Tomb Raider games, or wrongly like the really average recent reboot, this peculiar diversion is a pleasant surprise for all. They had the rather lovely idea of creating a top-down isometric action game in which you raid tombs, solve puzzles, and shoot endangered animals in the face, in a rather different way.
The result is something much faster, much more like an action-RPG, but without the majority of the RPG elements. A swift, action-packed game where even solving puzzles is done at a pace, as you lob magic spears at walls, bounce out of the way of swinging obstacles, then shoot a bunch of beetles to bits.
It’s absolutely packed with hidden items, extra challenges, and reasons to retry a section until you’ve perfected it. And although missing at launch, there’s co-op in there to let you plough through it all with a chum.
Most of all, despite the different style of play, it still truly feels like a Tomb Raider game, in all the best possible ways.
Notes: The game was originally due to be set in New Orleans, but apparently time constraints made that impossible. By going for Central America they could repurpose assets from their previews TR games.
Read more: Our review.
Where can I buy it: Steam
What else should I be playing if I like this: Grab yourself some Torchlight, for a much more RPG-focused angle.
16. Mafia: The City Of Lost Heaven (2002)
Developer: 2K Czech
Publisher: Gathering Of Developers
Mafia has found the recognition it deserves in the thirteen years since its release, but this open-world-ish driving-and-shooting Family tale was ludicrously misunderstood on release. A release that coincided rather unfortunately with GTA III.
Rather than realising that this was a narrative-focused linear tale of one man’s descent from regular Joe taxi driver to murderous mafioso, it was expected to be a living city packed with ramps to jump and whores to run down. It’s pretty tricky to jump a ramp in a car that struggles to reach 30mph.
And that was Mafia’s brilliance. It did have this wonderful city, but it was a backdrop, decoration, through which you drove to reach your next scripted mission. And yes, that race, but apart from that the missions were large, often surprising, and still engrossing today.
But most of all, it’s the tale of Tommy Angelo, and the tragedy of spiraling into a world of genuinely awful crime. At this it was so clever, no matter how much was ripped off from every mafia movie you can think of. It failed so dramatically to be repeated in Mafia II that the sequel provides a splendid perspective for further appreciating the refined and precise brilliance of the original.
Notes: The writer and developers of the first two Mafia games don’t appear to be in any way involved with the recently announced third game. And based on the sequel, that can only be good news.
Where can I buy it: Seemingly nowhere.
What else should I be playing if I like this: The Godfather game was an attempt to do something similar, but not nearly as effectively.