Invisible, Inc. (2015)
Conduct industrial espionage for fun and profit in this turn-based tactical stealth game from the makers of Mark Of The Ninja. Blessed with generous knowledge of enemy movements, try to thread the needle as your agents move through facilities and dodge guards as the security response escalates. Build and upgrade a stable of agents, steal new gear, and try not to lose them by getting greedy. But a shiny new crimetool is just the other side of this locked door…
Graham: Invisible, Inc. gives you perfect sight and perfect foresight. You know not only where the guards are, but where they’re going to walk to. Every route and vision cone is visible on the UI. It should be easy, then, to sneak into its proc gen office floors and make off with the goods, right?
Ha ha, you fool. Perfect information doesn’t make you perfect. You’re going to make mistakes. In part because the game delights in tempting you. Sure, you can get what you need and leave, but push on into another room or two and you might find a new tool, a new character, or rescue the character you got captured on the last mission. The more you push, the more guards will start wandering the floor in search of intruders, the more you’ll find yourself having to make sacrifices of your characters.
That’s tough because the character design here is great, both in terms of the unique skills your crew each have, and in their visual design. Invisible, Inc.’s characters are cool like few other games pull off.
If your favourite bit of any XCOM fight is the moment before all hell breaks loose – or if you really liked the recent Mutant: Year Zero – give this a try next. It’s a tighter game, but its reduced scope brings clarity of purpose and design.
Dishonored 2 (2016)
Arkane created a world of political intrigue and class struggle, where everyone is betraying everyone else, and then let you be an assassin in it. An assassin with magic powers. The sequel, though the PC build was initially plagued with performance issues on release, goes further than the original in creating an exquisite playground for you to exploit. The levels are layered Fabergé eggs, within which you craft your own complex plots. Hack a clockwork robot here, flood an entire building with knockout gas there, and decide the fate of a nation.
Alice Bee: How do I love thee, Dishonored? Let me count the ways. Not literally, though, or we’ll be here all day. I was being poetic, like.
I think Dishonored 2 is probably the perfect form of Dishonored (much as I also enjoy Death Of The Outsider, and its portrayal of a world caught in the moment between past and future, between the old ways and the new). Because you’re given the option of playing as Emily or Corvo, you get two entirely different ways to play the game, even on top of the lethal vs. pacifist approaches.
Christ, though, Dishonored 2 is just so fucking stylish. It’s the sexiest game to ever feature no shagging. Mission four is the Clockwork Mansion, where you have to break into the home of big science weirdo Kirin Jindosh. He’s really gone hard and gone home, transforming his mansion into a weird collection of moving parts, guarded by hideous clockwork automata. And yet, you can outsmart him. You can sneak into the walls. You can burrow into his little nest. You can be as a ghost.
The whole game is like that. It is well oiled machine, and you can become a cog in it, an unknown, unseen presence that spins this way, then that, subtly changing the workings. Or you can be a big stabby murder girl. Up to you, isn’t it?
Katharine: How do I love thee, Clockwork Mansion? Let me count the ways. It was, what, five hours I spent crawling around inside your walls, dodging your hulking great clockwork soldiers and trying desperately avoid your network of surveillance bots? Or was it eight? Or nine? Whatever number it was, I’d do it all again in an instant.
In truth, I needn’t have spent that long slipping through the cracks of this single, but fiendishly brilliant Dishonored 2 level. This burden I brought upon myself. Having played and adored the first Dishonored but also wholly misunderstanding how its chaos system worked, I made a solemn vow upon starting Dishonored 2 that not only was I going to finish the game with Low Chaos this time, thereby getting the ‘good’ ending, but I was also going to do it completely unseen and without shedding a single drop of blood – and my Shadow and Clean Hands achievements remain two of my greatest gaming accomplishments to this day. Yes, it involved a lot of quick saves and quick reloads. Yes, it probably took twice as long to play as it perhaps should have done, but it was worth it reader, because Dishonored 2 is a masterpiece of design, ingenuity and general splendidness.
Karnaca is a city that twists, turns and loops back in on itself without ever losing its sense of place or structure. It’s Jindosh’s Clockwork Mansion writ large across an entire urban sprawl, and for me its warren of plague-ridden shops, murderous alleyways and lived-in apartment blocks are far more treacherous and enticing destinations than their Dunwall equivalents ever were. As you pick through the aftermath of the city’s devastating Bloodfly invasion, you too start to feel like some sort of disease that’s rippling through its corrupted streets, dismantling its upper echelons from the inside out before leaving without a trace. There are so many secrets to uncover and so many paths you can take to try and get there, yet all the while it’s a city that adheres to the strict tick-tick-tick of its clockwork logic.
The Clockwork Mansion may leave an indelible mark on the early hours of Dishonored 2, but this is by no means a game that peaks early. Beyond Jindosh’s mansion, his spirit comes back to bite you in the ass when you encounter his devilish Jindosh Lock, and moments later you’re being dazzled once again by the time-travelling puzzle box that is Aramis Stilton’s decaying manor house. Finally, it all culminates in the sweetest, most delicious serving of hot revenge I’ve ever seen in a video game. It is, in a word, perfect, and my ultimate game of the decade by a blinking country mile.
After a decade lain fallow, uncertain of its place in the modern FPS scene, the game that made Id Software returned in a shower of guts. The reborn Doom is fast, it is nimble, it is loud, and it rewards you for tearing demons apart with your bare hands.
Dave: The moment I knew that the revamped Doom was something special was when the Doom Slayer pumped his shotgun in time with the music. Doom has a vibe, you see – a 90s power fantasy unashamed of how much cheese is heaped on. After all, do we not order entire boards of cheese at restaurants? Cheese is great! And 2016 Doom gets this.
It has all the toys you’d expect to find in a Doom game, including my personal favourite the Super Shotgun, which erases foes from existence with commendable speed. But while the 90s classics are fast paced shooters through mazes littered with hell’s most grotesque champions, the reboot managed to make the concept a lot more violent – perhaps because games can look a lot more realistic these days — and while all the shooting is well and good, the new Doom is at its best when you’re getting your hands dirty.
For you see, Doom wants you to slay demons in the most barbaric way possible. Enemies stagger when they’re low on health, long enough for you perform Glory Kills, which might involve chainsawing someone down to their naval, or ripping their arm off to hit them with it, or smashing their head like a balloon full of jam.
There’s a benefit to the ultraviolence too, so it’s not entirely gratuitous. Glory Kills give you health pickups, while chopping things with the chainsaw makes the enemy cadaver spew ammunition like a fountain. This means less time is spent running away to recover and replenish, and more time is spent killing things! It’s just what the Doom Slayer would have wanted.
Explore all the thrills, chills, responsibilities, and mundanities of building a colony on another world in this survival management game. Your plans may be big and your blueprints impressive but can be all too easily undone by shortages, spoilage, raiders, aliens, fires, your own mistakes, or the quiet ticking time bomb of a colonist who is so sick of people clomping around at night that they snap. A bit like Dwarf Fortress, in space, with menus to click and pictures to look at.
Nate: One of the worst names of the decade, for one of the best games. It’s not even bad in itself – anyone who’s well into their space opera can figure out that a “RimWorld” is probably a world on the rim of known space, or the galaxy, or whatever. But for everyone else, and especially for those people whose sense of humour focuses entirely on hooting like delighted chimps whenever they spot someone using a word that also has a Sex Meaning, RimWorld sounded like a themepark based on the concept of licking arseholes.
It’s not. It’s a brilliant colony builder, and one of those rare, incredible games that’s just as strong in its capacity for creating emergent stories, as it is in its capacity as an actual game. For just a few examples of the tales you can set up with RimWorld, I defer to that cool guy Nate, who listed five of his favourites here.
Sin: “What if Dwarf Fortress was playable?” is one of those concepts that everyone wants to realise. RimWorld is both an answer to that and its own distinct idea. It takes a bit of setting up to play the way I like, but that’s a mark of some of the best games, even before you factor in RimWorld’s healthy mod scene: It lets you do it how you like it.
Its mix of base building, survival, and life sim is just about right, and its famous harshness easy to mitigate for those who just want to have a good time, or bump up for those who relish a cascading disaster sim. Its (mostly optional) darkness – slavery, organ harvesting, cannibalism – is counteracted by its pleasant atmosphere and the warm glow of pemmican on the fire, or feeding a flock of fluffy chicks, or getting all your potatoes into storage after the harvest. And you can be a nomad too. Oh my god.
Devil Daggers (2016)
Stay standing for as long as you can in this simple arena FPS. That’s all. Run around this empty oval arena and shoot skulls with your one gun while a timer counts up. That’s it. Good luck. And my god, it looks and sounds like nothing else.
Alice0: I was taken with Devil Daggers at first sight. I adore the old 3D style of unfiltered textures and jittering vertices applied to skulls, skulls, skulls – a torrent of skulls more complex and numerous than was possible in 1996. It’s a vision of an impossible past. I especially like when it breaks out of this look, with the intense colour wash and neon pinkbluepinkbluepinkblue daggerhand coming as we level up, spitting a torrent of knives.
Then I heard Devil Daggers. Jesus christ. What a sound. Grinding teeth, chuckles, groans, roars, and screams build into a rich soundscape overfilling my ears with menace. It does not sound like a video game from our world.
Then I played Devil Daggers. I surely died within 20 seconds. And again. Then a bit more. A bit more. Even passing one minute felt like a triumph. It took hours to reach five minutes, egged on by rivalries with pals on the leaderboards.
It’s great as a first-person take on top-down score attack shoot ‘em ups. Waves keep on spawning, spawners keep spawning more, bigger and tougher enemies arrive, the escalation constricts the battlefield, and it all seems such a challenge. Then you learn a bit more and survive a bit longer and realise that, actually, one wave you once found murderous was trying to feed you power-ups. You find yourself clearing waves before the next spawns. Then you realise you’ve gained enough skill that you could leave a few spawners alive and farm them for power-ups. It feels chuffing great to reach the point of dancing between clouds of skulls and under the coils of a skullsnake, my knifehand flashing with power and so many awful noises in my ears.
What’s so good is that this hellsound is vital. I need to crank the sound and fall into the soundscape so I can hear the laughing skull chasing me or the chattering teeth of a gathering cloud and react to everything I can’t see. Over this, my hand is wibble-wobble-warbling as it spits knives and will soon power up to full-on screaming. If I’m to survive skullhell, I need to pour it into my eyes and eyes until it fills me up to my fingertips and the game flows through me. I adore this full-body experience.
Graham: We named Devil Daggers as the best game of 2016, and I’ve never felt more estranged from a comments section. The recurring refrain was, “Well, it’s fine, but it doesn’t have a lot of content though, does it?” Sure thing, Shakespeare, that sonnet is nice and all, but could you do me some unlockable stanzas to keep me motivated?
Blizzard’s first multiplayer FPS draws inspiration from class-based shooters like Team Fortress 2, sending teams out to push points and murder each other other. Its dozens of classes are clear characters, with their own colourful personalities and backstories. Blizzard insist there’s a grim comic book tale of murder and intrigue beneath it all but naw mate, it’s a load of pals larking about.
Nate: For the most part, I like sluggish, top-down games about organising things and increasing their complexity. And most of my favourite games are that sort of thing. But the more I’ve looked at this list of the last decade’s digital belters, the more I’m finding that in pretty much every genre, there’s a game that was good enough to lure me out of my grognard’s hole and get me to do something different for once. Skyrim did it for first person RPGs, Nidhogg did it for fighting games, FTL did it for roguelikes. And Overwatch did it, not just for shooters – which I’ve enjoyed plenty of over the years, but for competitive shooters, which was a first for me.
I guess it wasn’t just that it was good enough to lure me either – it was so bloody well marketed, that I felt I’d be missing out on something not to give it a try. It’s the characters, I suppose; that ever-growing roster of Saturday morning buffoons who all seem immensely likeable, despite having about a crisp packet’s worth of writing shared between them. They’re all so larger than life, so instantly knowable, that they become easy hooks for jokes between friends while playing. Whether I’m warning of the arrival of what I insist on calling Junkrat’s Malevolent Wheel in hushed tones, or speaking in the third person and refusing to call myself anything except “Rammstein” while playing as Reinhardt, they’re great fodder for laughs. And I suppose that’s the thing about Overwatch – it’s as much about teamwork as it is about competition, and if you’re playing with friends of your own skill level, who aren’t dead set on smashing through the ranks, it’s a heck of a relaxing backdrop to hang out in.
Alice L: I got really really into Overwatch for about a year. I even, embarrassingly, have a D.Va bumper sticker on my car.
Graham: Team Fortress 2 but worse.
Alice Bee: Ignore Graham. I played loads of TF2 in the bad old days, and Overwatch may be asking you to squint and pretend you’ve not seen a bunch of these ideas before, but it’s so much more fun than Valve’s competitive shooter attached to a hat economy. Especially if you like playing support characters (which, obviously, should be called “the best class, you ungrateful bastards”) and enjoying yourself at the same time. I was a Lúcio main when I played. God. The speed. The joy.
You know how it starts in building games plopping us down alone in hostile place: first, you must knock down a tree. In Factorio, rather than starting you down the path of crafting increasingly tough axes, this tree fuels what will soon be a sprawling web of drills, conveyor belts, assemblers, generators, batteries, defenses, construction robots, and laboratories, a vast mechanism of machines building machines to build better machines. All the thrills of production line management with hostile alien wildlife t’boot.
Nate: There’s no joy to Factorio. It doesn’t need it. There’s no beauty, no whimsy, no story, no frippery. Just the deep, brutal, chemical satisfaction of starting with nothing, and building it into a sprawling mass of ordered complexity. The difference between Factorio and other system-building games (say, the Anno series, or other citybuilders where things process other things) is an absolute chasm. It’s the difference between a half hour listening to light classical music, and three sleepless days spent in the concrete basement of a derelict warehouse, off your ronalds on bonk, while a DJ punishes your eardrums with minimalist techno cranked up to god volume.
Once you prise yourself away from a proper Factorio sesh, you’ll be astounded at the sheer, teeming, intricacy of the assembly line you were somehow able to create. You’ll wonder how on earth your small, soft, human mind managed to fathom the enormity of it all – and that’s when you realise the genius of the game’s design. Because Factorio guides you into its monstrous grandeur through steps so slight you never even know your feet are moving. Play is essentially a voluntary fugue state, full of decisions so small you make them without really thinking, but adding up to works of monolithic scale. It’s like turning into a load of ants for a while. I love it; I’m scared of it.
Sin: Efficiency is like salt. A little is vital. A little more in the right place at the right moment is delightful. But the salting of things is not a worthy or interesting goal to me. Instead, I enjoy elaborate looping constructs that make a kind of sense but only for that machine, only for that world, only to me. This machinery has a history, and even when parts of it are taken up and recombined, that history belongs here. I am an archivist factorian, constructing systems based on the changing whims and inputs of time. You might value efficiency. You might value symmetry, or environmentalism, or deep pools of backup resources. Your machine will be your own, and you will make it and know it and love it like nobody else could.
That is Factorio.
Divinity: Original Sin 2 (2017)
Larian’s RPG series continues with more wonderful turn-based tactical combat based around combining and clashing elements and more series crammed in absolutely everywhere. With a sense of curiosity, the right abilities, and a little caution, you’ll be finding interesting stories from talking to baby bears or by eating the leg of a child killed by a shark to gain its memories. Though your co-op partner might disagree about how to continue, and the game plans for disagreements. How very complex and clever.
Nate: Without wanting to be too much the archetypical RPS Sad Lad, I should say that I first played D:OS2 after I got back from burying my mum. I was at my cousin’s house, and he sat me down in front of the game because he wanted something that would give me a break from reality. I only mention this because it completely worked. And if a game can leave you with a sense of wonder at a time like that, and even make you feel nostalgic for the day you left your last parent in a hole forever, then it must be bloody well written.
I say written, but damn near everything about the game is layered with craft, from the sweeping, atmospheric score, to the voice acting, to the elemental combat system. It is, as any game of its kind desires to be, a proper world, whose edges become invisible – or at least irrelevant – once you’re inside. It gave me that ephemeral thing that I can only call the Baldur’s Gate 2 Emotion, only… more so than Baldur’s Gate 2, somehow. What a treat, to not only recapture the feeling of playing something you loved for the first time, but to exceed it. And with a playable lizard man, too.
I had to put it down eventually, somewhere in the latter reaches of its punishingly vast second act, because life got back to normal, and you’ve got less time to play games when you’re not in the weird social cocoon the world builds for you when you’re grieving. But it’s OK – because for the last year, I’ve been following RPS’ very own video team as they play through the whole damned thing. Soon, they’ll have reached the point where I stopped, and I’ll be able to live out the rest of the adventure vicariously, through them. And you know what? It’ll be just as good. Even better, in fact, because my mum won’t just have died.
Alice L: If you’d have told me, even two years ago, that I’d like an isometric RPG so much it’d be one of my games of the decade, I’d have laughed in your face. But, as it happens, Matthew wanted our first ever let’s play on the channel to be a one hundred hour PLUS RPG, so here we are. I love Fane, I love Lohse, I can just about tolerate The Red Prince, and I don’t have much of an opinion on Sebille. But I am so heavily invested in this game, I often can’t stop thinking about it. More often than not the thing I’m thinking about is the inventory management and the messy hotbar.
Video Matthew: SUMMON THE BLOOD BEAST.
What Remains Of Edith Finch (2017)
The most obvious, and spoiler free, response to the title is “a big weird house”, because that’s what you explore as you unravel the strange stories of the strange deaths of a strange family. They all lived together somewhere in Washington state, and as you unlock each bedroom you get another piece of the puzzle that was their lives. The vignettes you see are inventive, and take full advantage of how games can tell stories in a unique way. And everyone remembers the one with the fish, don’t they?
Alice L: Wow, what a game. Unbelievably unforgettable.
Alice0: I am so grateful to Edith Finch for building this place for me to explore. What a treat of a house. The rest’s grand and all but damn, thanks for manifesting the unreal.
Video Matthew: Sam ‘Her Story’ Barlow described this as “narrative WarioWare” which is the greatest game pitch of all time.
Alice Bee: All the little stories in Edith Finch are about death, but very very few of them are actually sad, even if the deaths themselves are tragic. The way you experience them is usually joyful, beautiful, hopeful, and not sad at all. Even what is perhaps the most tragic death of all becomes a lovely game where bath toys dance together like something out of Fantasia. It’s a really wonderful video game.
Katharine: The bath bit almost destroyed me, but as Alice Bee just mentioned, most of the tragedies that haunt this jumbled old mansion are more joyful than sad. The bit with the swing, for example, is truly awful if you stop and think about it for a minute, but it’s also one of the most peaceful and uplifting ends to a Finch story the game has. And oh, the bit with the fish-chopping! What an absolute masterpiece.
Graham: “They fuck you up, your mum and dad,” wrote Philip Larkin. Which, yes, fine, but kids fuck up their mum and dad, too. Example: I used to be able to play things like Edith Finch and remain unaffected, but not anymore. It is one of my favourite games ever, but the bath scene reduced me to such a burbling mess that I can’t ever play it again. Maybe when my kid is grown.
Slay The Spire (2017)
This roguelikelike deck-building card game sends us up a strange fantasy tower to slay its beating heart and free ourselves from the Sisyphean cycle. Collecting cards and artefacts along a run from friends and foes, the different classes can develop wild decks and combos as we face ever stranger and more powerful enemies. Through all this, combat remains clear and predictable, something to plan not wing.
Nate: When it comes to card games, Hearthstone is my thing. Or at least it was, until I had a slurp on this Slay the Soup. And what a broth it was. I have to admit, I found it a bit charmless at first – the weird simplistic monster designs weren’t doing it for me, and the card effects felt a bit… simple, at least compared to Hearthstone’s consummate Blizzard razzle-dazzle. Oh, how wrong I was.
Like any good roguelike (usual disclaimers apply about the use of the term, etc, etc), you can only really get a feeling for Slay The Spire after beefing it on hundreds of attempts. Once you’re sufficiently committed to an odyssey of repeated failures, it really starts to shine – you start to get an instinct for the colossal number of potential interactions between characters, cards, enemies, and items, and the order-of-magnitude increase in those interactions facilitated by mucking around with the game’s parameters.
I don’t find it quite moreish enough to really drag me in like it does some people, but I think that’s partially because I developed an early, healthy awe of just how infinite a game it is. It made me feel exhausted, before I’d even gone a hundredth of the distance I’d need to acquire anything that might be called mastery.
And now they’re adding another bloody character, and making it even bigger. A mathematician friend once tried and failed to explain to me how there are multiple types of infinities. I still don’t get it, and I don’t like maths enough to want to get it (but go ahead and write essays in the comments anyway, if you want to look like a right brainus). In the end though, I guess Slay the Spire has proved their point for me at last, because clearly, the game’s already infinite size is just not quite infinite enough for its most committed players.
Alice0: Slay The Spire is plain and simple. Cards have easy numbers and clear consequences, and enemies telegraph their moves. Draw, cast, bish bash bosh. This magical tower is a colourful place with interesting enemies and a fun tone. It’s nice.
Then you unlock more cards, more characters, and more items, and it’s still plain and simple but the opportunities expand greatly. I’m building runs which play twenty cards a turn, vast engines generating power for an explosive finish. I’m building runs that whip through zero-cost attacks, scratching and slashing in a frenzy. I’m building an impenetrable defense and biding my time while spitting poison or pumping up my muscles until I throw a one-hit KO. I’m flowing between stances that expose weaknesses to strike powerful blows then cover them before foes can exploit them. I’m stockpiling cursed cards that would spoil most runs but fuel this one. The building blocks are simple but allow complex constructions.
Luck plays a part, of course. Such is the roguelikelike. Slay The Spire gives a satisfying amount of space to influence this. Each level we can plot our path through encounters, shops, and treasures. We may not know exactly what’s in wait, but the decisions are important. We get a pick of several rewards each time too, several options to shape or support our run. And as a recovering Magic: The Gathering rat, I like the space it gives me to optimise and hone runs, stripping cards back to build a lean engine of death.
The character classes are great too. I like how well card abilities, art, and names come together in decks that feel like playing as a knight with unholy brawn, a swift rogue whose dodges and rolls slip in a subtle blow or dagger, a robotic battle mage conjuring elements and upgrading itself, and a monk chain moves between stances. What a fine cast of magical murderers.
The Norwood Suite (2017)
Check into the hotel opened in the mansion of an acclaimed jazz musician with this first-person explore-o-adventure game. Meet the guests, uncover the forces vying for control of Peter Norwood’s home and legacy, and explore secret spaces. This is the follow-up to Off-Peak, set outside the city and beyond its strange train station.
Alice0: When you turn on the router so you can complete your online check-in at the Norwood Hotel and an eyeball rolls open on the front, it’s not weird. It’s not quirky that dozens of grasping hands extend from a door frame. Why shouldn’t a meat slicer in the hotel kitchen be adorned with the steel head and feet of a dachshund? Is there a reason why a bedroom wouldn’t contain a model city dancing to the music? And it seems only natural that giant artworks cover every surface and fill every corner. This hotel is so loud, so vivid, so unsubtle, so clashing, that every oddity is perfectly at home. Everything is a surprise and a treat, nothing is weird. I adore slipping into Cosmo D’s intense visions.
It is an excellent place to explore, and its guests are in interesting bunch. Everyone comes to Norwood’s former home for some connection to music. Some are musicians seeking inspiration or education. Some are making a pilgrimage to pay homage to a great. Some are leeching from the legacy to bolster their status. Some see it just as a branding opportunity. Some have even come to remember Norwood as a friend and collaborator. Norwood Suite explores the varied and complex relationships people have with music, how it can touch and ruin lives or become just another commodity.
Ah, but it’s just a grand place to be. I adore poking in drawers, barreling through diorama-filled secret tunnels, admiring the many weird sculptures and books, grooving to Cosmo D’s music, and being overwhelmed by the sights, sounds, stories, and sinister vibes. And I do think it’s gorgeous.