15. Katana Zero
The best thing about Katana Zero is the way it displays text by popping character dialogue out one letter at a time or slamming down whole words communicate pace, and making letters shake and shatter as make people angry and interrupt them. The reason for so many people being angry around you is because of the second best thing in the game: its action, in which you’re an urban samurai with a sword and a time-rewind ability hacking your way through neon-lit 2D platformer levels.
Each of those levels is short – maybe 4 or 6 enemies, and finishable in under 30 seconds. The trick is that it’s a try-die-retry process to get to the point where you can finish it without dying. You’ll smash through a door, knocking down the enemy standing behind it, and be immediately shot by a second enemy at the other side of the room. Try again. Smash; knock down; this time, use your sword to deflect the bullet that killed you last time. Throw a knife in his head and move on.
Restarts are instant and your incrementally gained mastery of each micro-level causes you to slip into a flow state. You can’t help but feel like a whiz when a set of enemies who each killed you the first time you encountered them fall by your sword based on muscle memory alone. There is much in Katana Zero that’s familiar, narratively and aesthetically, but it hardly matters when it feels so good to play.
What else should I be playing:
Judge a man not by his words, but by his dodge roll. That’s the core of any good top-down basher, and Hades is a roguelike that knows it and nails it. You swoosh between the tortured souls of the underworld, dashing and whacking your way to the surface. Few attempts will feel the same.
On one run, Aphrodite might imbue that dash with a charm effect, weakening the blows of your enemies. Dionysis might make them drunk, or Zeus might help you call down lightning blasts. Those buffs build up and over each other, changing the fundamentals of your attacks, twirling you towards a different strategy for every escape. It’s a fractal of firepower, branching out from five different starting weapons. You can play for dozens of hours and Hades will still feel fresh.
It’s also a Supergiant game, so of course you can judge it by its words too. The gods offer patter with their abilities, commenting on your foolishness over accepting help from their peers. Supergiant haven’t just successfully woven a story into a roguelike, they’ve entwined it with the nature of early access development. The last time we played, a newly-added Hermes apologised for showing up late. Hades is impressively cohesive, and tied to some of the best dodging money can buy.
What else should I be playing: Every other Supergiant game, or Dead Cells, which you’ll find elsewhere on this list.
13. Grand Theft Auto V
Judged purely by its punching and shooting, GTA V is lackluster compared to many of the other games on this list, but there’s more to action than just propelling objects into flesh. GTA V excels both in creating cinematic action set-pieces, and in wild and unpredictable physics chicanery.
On the one end of that scale, you’ve got the scripted story missions. There’s an early mission in which have you to catch your son on the hood of your car as he hangs from the back of a boat careening down a freeway, which is pure Michael Bay. There’s also the bank heists, which are pure Michael Mann. They are the highlight of the story, and each requires you to sync the actions of the game’s three protagonists in order to break in, complete your objective, and make a messy getaway.
At the other end of the scale is the open world, with all its pedestrians, cars, planes, explosives, and ingredients for mayhem. In single-player, it’s a playground in which you can wreak havoc. Hop into GTA Online and it’s even better, brought alive by the chaos of other players with whom you can cooperate to complete stunts, heists, or just to tool around, making your own fun.
What else should I be playing: Saints Row 3 and 4 offer open worlds with a wackier take on similar scenarios, making everything more over-the-top including the player’s powers.
12. Nier Automata
Nier: Automata is a game of many faces. One minute it’s a bullet hell shmup, the next you’re riding around on the back of a moose in an open world RPG smashing in the faces of sentient tin cans. It’s a hard game to boil down, but at the core of this action-packed sci-fi story about reclaiming the earth from destructive robots (or is it?) lies a pure, PlatinumGames spectacle fighter in the same vein as Vanquish and Bayonetta.
Like all of Platinum’s games, Nier: Automata’s stylish combat is simple to execute but tricky to master. The important thing, though, is that every button tap makes you feel like a seasoned badass, whether you’re slicing and dicing your way to victory or hacking and slashing through the robotic hordes. It’s also the glue that holds this thousand-ideas-a-minute game together, uniting its ambitious story-telling with its deep role-playing elements. There’s simply nothing else like it.
What else should I be playing: If it’s more Platinum goodness you’re after, start with Vanquish and Bayonetta, which you’ll find elsewhere on this list. We’d also recommend the similarly slashy-bashy delights of Devil May Cry 5, which is on this list as well.
11. Hyper Light Drifter
Hyper Light Drifter is one of the best action games, and it contains maybe the best single action of any game on this list. It’s not the sword swipes or freezing blasts or any of the other enemy-popping actions you can perform in this beautiful hack-and-slash Zelda-like. It’s the simple, short distance dash you use to dodge those enemies and to chain your attacking flurries together.
Dash once and you’ll think: ooh. Dash again and you realise that you need never take another ordinary step again – walking is for chumps. Dash a few more times and you realise that the world is designed to encourage your newfound haste, with frequent secret areas only reachable via speculative dashes beyond the edges of the floor. Dash your way through a portion of the game and you realise the best thing of all: there’s an update that allows you, with the correct timing, to chain your dashes together, accelerate and maintain top speed forevermore.
Hyper Light Drifter contains mainly delights, and its mixture of action, exploration and story is never less than satisfying. You should dash, not walk, to play it.
What else should I be playing: Check out Dead Cells, elsewhere on this list, for a game with a similarly satisfying set of dashes, dodges and stabs.