5. Hotline Miami
You start as if it’s a stealth game. You’re infiltrating a guard-packed building, you’re unarmed, and a single stab or bullet kills and spins you back to the beginning. So you start slow, you hide around corners, you nip between patrol routes. And you die and you die and you die. Somewhere between the fifth and fifteenth death the pounding, electronic music seeps into your brain. You loosen up. You lunge recklessly at the nearest guard, time your punch to knock them to the ground, grab their spilled baseball bat and use it to burst their head in a bloody explosion.
Then you die, shot by the next guard. Next time, you don’t hesitate. Punch the guard, kill him with his baseball bat, turn and throw the bat at the second guard before he can fire, run over and grab his gun and shoot him dead when he stands back up. The music continues to beat and so do you. You kick a man to death against a wall, then use his knife to slit the necks of two more. You smack a dog across the face with a pool cue then use it to kill a peeing man before he can turn around. Each violent act slides into the next and you’re learning the moves like the notes of a song.
It’s horrible but you’ve been bolted into the brain of this silent, terrible man committing senseless, violent crimes in a scuzzy, neon 1980s. You speed through levels. Kill then dead then more then again, kill then dead then more then again.
What else should I be playing: Hotline Miami 2 never quite reaches the same heady heights as the original, but if it’s more top-down shooter action you’re after, check out Nuclear Throne. Set in a post-apocalyptic world, this tones down the gore and has procedural levels.
4. Batman Arkham City
While there’s a lot to be said for the whole Batman: Arkham series, Arkham City strikes the best balance between an open world sprawl and a claustrophobic stealth game. Brucey baby is on the back foot again, as one entire chuck of Gotham city has been turned into an annex of Arkham prison. It’s a free for all slum where violent gangs rub shoulders with political prisoners. But through a happenstance at the start of the game, Bruce Wayne – and by extension, the caped one – are stuck inside as well.
It’s another opportunity for you to take down all your favourite Batman villains, but with more gadgets and in a much bigger playground. Yet, although Arkham City is sized up from Arkham Asylum, it’s small enough that it retains some of the claustrophobia of Asylum. You find yourself criss-crossing areas and seeing buildings change as different events occur and different gangs take over.
Arkham City also made improvements to the combat and detection modes, giving an all around improved Batsperience without growing too bloated or becoming just another open-world action RPG.
What else should I be playing: Arkham Asylum did, in many ways, set the standard for the series, and while the later instalments did lose a bit of the magic they’re still a cracking time. For more antics that involve both overpowered gadgets and tense stealth, check out the rebooted Deus Ex games.
Bayonetta may have begun life on consoles, but its 2018 re-release on PC is where its titular time witch shines brightest. With the frame rate raised to a smooth 60fps and support for gorgeous 4K visuals, kicking the face off angels and demi-gods the size of skyscrapers with fists and high heels made from your own hair has never looked or felt lovelier under the thumbs.
It is, without doubt, the best game PlatinumGames have ever made. Whatever your feelings are about Bayonetta herself, there’s no denying that slipping through the cracks in enemy attacks, slowing down time and unleashing demonic combos by the megaton is one of the most satisfying manoeuvres in all of video games. Plus, what other game lets you shoot bullets from your feet, spank an angel’s behind and ride up the side of a rocket launching into space on a motorbike without seeming like it’s completely off its rocker? Only Platinum are capable of such bold and bombastic action sequences, so sit back, flex those thumbs and enjoy the ride. Let’s dance!
What else should I be playing: For more Platinum goodness, check out Vanquish and Nier: Automata elsewhere on this list. If it’s more angel and demon slaying you’re after, get thee to Devil May Cry 5.
2. Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice
Who knew that giving a FromSoftware game a dedicated jump button that actually works properly would make such a big difference? While the intricately designed Dark Souls games do a lot without it, Sekiro takes things to far greater heights. Speaking of greater heights, it also gives you a grappling hook, and who doesn’t love grappling hooks?
Sekiro is just as punishing as Dark Souls, but it wallops you in different ways. For starters, Sekiro opts for a more offensive stance when it comes to action. It’s a game about reflexes more than anything else, with so much of the challenge coming from learning when to parry an attack. As you venture further in, the attacks become more unorthodox, wilder, and, of course, deadlier, and nowhere is this more apparent than its larger-than-life bosses.
Bosses are the lifeblood of any FromSoft game, and Sekiro might be home to some of the best they’ve ever designed. We won’t spoil any of these fights, as they’re true tests of skill and the reward for beating them, no matter what’s thrown at you, is a feeling worth fighting for.
In many ways, Sekiro is the Tenchu/Dark Souls hybrid we never got. You can stride up to a samurai lad and shank him from behind like the greatest ninja in all the land. There’s also plenty of stuff to read, potentially giving you clues to the secrets hidden within. If you found the combat in Dark Souls too slow, this ninja power-trip might be for you.
What else should I be playing: Nioh is an easy shout here, but those after a slightly fairer challenge, Onimusha: Warlords got a half-decent remaster a little while back. Those who just like the setting should also check out Shadow Tactics, while fans of stealthy assassinations should also consider Middle-earth: Shadow of War.
1. Dead Cells
Dead Cells is a masterclass of game feel. Every button press sends swords and arrows whirling into enemy horrors and returns glorious, nerve-tingling feedback. What places it at the top of this list is that it doesn’t do this while focusing on just a single weapon type like TowerFall, or a tight hit list of enemies like Hotline Miami. Dead Cells is game design maximalism, and yet consistently excellent in every element.
You’ll most likely begin your journey through the game’s dungeons by relying on swords and daggers. This is great! Dead Cells offers perfect hack, excellent slash, and wonderful dodge-rolls. After a few deaths however, you’ll quickly discover new options as levels are re-arranged with each life. You’ll start collecting blueprints from defeated monsters, and banking cells to unlock weapons and abilities. Bows and turrets, rapiers and axes, buzzsaws and stun grenades. The variety is dizzying. You’ll discover new world’s, and a growing menagerie of enemy types and bosses, and develop favourite strategies. You’ll find character builds that you’ll want to play forever, because nothing else in the game can ever be as good. Then you’ll die, lose those items, and find something exactly as good, because each new item feels as perfect to use as the last.
If you want a game that will delight and exhilarate, which will surprise and engross for dozens of hours, and which will challenge your reflexes, awareness and perseverance, then what are you still doing reading this. Dead Cells awaits.
What else should I be playing: Dead Cells was influential enough to prompt a lot of imitators, but the recently released ScourgeBringer is one of the few to be worthy of the comparison, even in its current early access version.