Simply the best
It was an excellent year to be an Android gamer in 2014. More developers embraced the platform—which means not only more games, but also timelier releases. And the selection gets better and better by the week, with an array of excellent cheap titles and deeper-dive premium games that justify the added expense. Even the free-to-play market generated some serious winners this year.
We’ve pared down our list of favorites to just 15, and these are the essentials. They span an array of genres, styles, and price points, and deliver quick-fix fun and focused play experiences alike. Looking for the year’s biggest and brightest? Load up your phone or tablet with these amazing games, pronto.
If you developed a raging Threes! obsession this year, know that you're not alone. This magnificent mobile creation put a fresh mathematical spin on puzzlers, challenging you to continue building larger and larger number tiles by sliding and adding together matched pairs on a cramped board.
It's incredibly well designed—totally devious, but hugely rewarding. Swiping in any direction shifts all movable tiles one spot, so you must consider the entire board's contents and combination possibilities at once, not to mention the new tile added with each move. Ignore the lazy imitations (2048): The real Threes! is packed with style, charm, and brilliant puzzle play.
The Walking Dead: Season One
Can you believe that Telltale's captivating The Walking Dead adventure series just hit Google Play this year? If you don't game on other platforms, then you surely can. Luckily, it was well worth the wait, as this episodic affair delivers one of the most engaging narrative-driven experiences in all of gaming—and the first part is free.
Carving out its own story separate from the comics and TV series, the five-episode first season spotlights a survival quest amid the sudden zombie uprising, with your interactions and decisions reverberating throughout. It's grim and gut-wrenching at times, but absolutely worth the gruesome ride. Season two digs even deeper while carrying over your choices, but we're not about to spoil any of it for you.
The Walking Dead: Season One ($15 for full season)
Impossible Road isn't quite impossible—it's incredibly challenging, but you'll get much better with repeated play. However, it is damn near impossible to stop playing, making it one of the best Android games around for tense, tough endless action and leaderboard score chasing.
You're tasked with rolling a ball down a path, which sounds simple enough, except the randomly generated road is thin and the route twists, turns, and contorts along the way. But if you fall off the edge—or if you're really daring and "jump"—you'll have a couple seconds to try and land back on the track below before the game ends. It's an absolute rush, and powerfully addictive to boot.
Impossible Road ($2)
Literary classics aren't often tapped to create riveting modern video games, but 80 Days is a welcome exception. It draws upon Jules Verne's Around the World in 80 Days, of course, delivering a work of interactive fiction that finds you plotting routes, managing resources, and interacting with locals—which can help, hinder, or simply expand the seeming scale of the world.
It's all very streamlined, letting you play for a few minutes at a time and make solid progress while soaking in the story. And for a game loaded with text, it's impeccably designed, with a great minimal aesthetic and a smart interface. The steampunk bent shakes up the old story a bit, but the text and dialogue remain rich and compelling, and there are so many branching paths that it demands multiple playthroughs.
80 Days ($5)
Blek is deceivingly simple, but it's really something of a touchscreen wonder. You're provided stark white screens with colored dots peppered among black dots. The goal: Draw a squiggly line, which then continues moving based on the arc of your doodle, and have it clear the colored dots without hitting the black ones or exiting the frame.
The result is a creative, engaging trial-and-error experience in which you'll keep trying various patterns to find the one that wins out. There's really nothing quite like Blek, but there should be. Few games pair original user input and challenging gameplay so splendidly.
Kingdom Rush Origins
Daring, distinctive new games are great, but every so often, you just want something that is comfortingly familiar and impeccably well executed. Kingdom Rush Origins was one of those games for us this year, delivering an excellent, engaging tower defense experience—albeit one very similar to the two entries before it.
But why mess with success when you do it better than anyone else on mobile? Origins is ostensibly a prequel, but the premise comes secondary to expert strategic action. The game does a masterful job of providing enough depth to the turret-placing design without feeling overwhelming. It's another entry well worthy of obsession, so get on with it already.
Kingdom Rush Origins ($2.99)
Who knew a game about tossing balls at sheets of glass would end up being one of the most entertaining ones of the year? Smash Hit looked like the kind of throwaway, graphics-heavy tech demo that you'd spend maybe five minutes with, but after hours of play, we happily acknowledge that looks can be deceiving.
It really is a simple premise: Smash Hit relies on the forward propulsion of an endless runner, but instead of dodging obstacles, you're throwing metal balls to break glass panes and little crystals. You'll keep pushing ahead into more and more attractively designed rooms so long as you have spheres in hand. It's surprisingly strategic, not to mention a lot of fun.
Smash Hit (Free)
The Banner Saga
If The Walking Dead doesn't satisfy your itch for grisly, choice-centric fare, then don't miss The Banner Saga. It's more or less set at the end of the world, with the sun no longer moving and monsters murdering people en masse. In short, there's plenty of death and darkness. (It sure is gorgeous, however!)
Down as the mood might be, The Banner Saga really is a captivating quest, blending tactical turn-based combat with caravan management and snap decisions that affect the survivors around you. The way the story shifts based on your choices makes multiple completions an appealing prospect indeed.
The Banner Saga ($10)
Ready to tickle your brain a bit? Just check out Monument Valley, a stunning puzzle adventure that finds you navigating impossible structures en route to a goal in each stage. You'll walk along walls, step on switches that totally transform the world in front of you, and sort out the various tricky scenarios found in each world.
Monument Valley is neither lengthy nor challenging—instead, it puts stock in being utterly charming and highly distinctive, and it works. It's the ultimate short-but-sweet experience on Android: two hours of blissful wandering in an imaginative world, made even better by the optional add-on campaign. Get lost in this amazing place.
Monument Valley ($4, in-app purchase)
A traditional 3D stealth-action game would probably be a frustrating mess on a touch device, but République found a way to make it work by tweaking the approach. Rather than command the heroine in her quest to escape a totalitarian school, you're a hacker in control of the security system, tapping to guide her around guards and other threats.
It's a seriously smart approach that works well even on a small phone screen. The three current episodes (of five planned) explore some amazing terrain, while building out a world and story worth coming back for. République delivers on its promise of console-scale action, but it does so in a way that feels comfortable and engaging on an Android device of any size.
République ($5, $15 for rest of season)
Grumble all you want about Rovio's driving the Angry Birds franchise into the ground (seriously, go for it), but the publisher managed to drop one of the best free Android games of the year. And while it still focuses on soaring through the air, the cartoon birds are luckily nowhere to be found here.
Instead, Retry is all about guiding a small airplane from runway to runway through tight 2D terrain. The catch, of course, is that your only means of control is tapping and holding the screen to propel the craft forward. Push too hard and it'll loop in circles and inevitably crash. Hold off and you'll dive-bomb into the asphalt. Finding the right balance is extremely tricky, but that's the whole point—and it'll grab you again and again.
XCOM: Enemy Within
Originally designed for consoles and PC, XCOM: Enemy Unknown's tactical turn-based combat actually makes perfect sense for touch devices, and the epic sci-fi strategy reboot hit Android earlier this year. And then it was pulled. But that's okay, really—the more recent XCOM: Enemy Within includes the content of the earlier release, and so much more.
Enemy Within was an expansion on other platforms, but here, it's the entire Enemy package within a single app. And that's an awesome thing, as the tense action and possibility of perma-death really suck you in and endear you to your squad, plus the off-the-battlefield strategizing adds interesting layers to the experience. With online multiplayer action, as well, there's just an incredible wealth to enjoy here.
XCOM: Enemy Within ($13)
Hitman Go took a risk and scored big this year. It pulls the hero and scenarios from the console and computer series—which is focused on detailed, open-ended assassination missions—and transports all of that into a turn-based puzzle game of sorts. Better yet, the levels look startlingly like real-life dioramas, complete with imperfect faux-plastic molding. It's a fantastic touch.
The best part is that the approach totally works, and it's actually really intelligent in its design. You're still taking out targets and avoiding capture, but now you move your Agent piece around the board, using distractions and strategic routes to stay unseen and complete your mission. It's a very different kind of game than the source material, but it's a perfect fit for your phone, even if you don't know Hitman.
Hitman Go ($5)
The Wolf Among Us
If you love story-centric games, but zombies aren't really your thing—or you just need more of Telltale's adventure magic—then don't miss The Wolf Among Us. It uses the same winning, episodic formula as The Walking Dead, but instead sets its action within a community of fantasy creatures disguised as humans in New York.
Comic book favorite Fables provides the basis, but it's not required reading to enjoy this gritty, violent tale, which spans five episodes and factors every little decision you make into the story's arc. It's stylish and entertaining, and the premise provides plenty of intrigue as you attempt to suss out who is killing these former fairytale characters.
The Wolf Among Us ($15)
Traditional Super Mario-style platform games are tricky to pull off on phones, so rather than mimic the classics, Leo's Fortune pursues its own mobile-friendly path. The result finds the sweet spot between fun and challenge, without overwhelming you with tricky maneuvers or lots of virtual buttons on the screen.
Sliding your thumb sends the fuzzy ball hero gliding along the surfaces, and you can jump, float, and slam into the ground. Without enemies patrolling the levels, the goal is instead to survive each gauntlet of hazards, and the controls work splendidly for that kind of design. Add in slick presentation and an oddball tone and it's one seriously appealing portable platformer.
Leo's Fortune ($5)