Slow down and smell the backlog
PCWorld’s annual list of the top 10 PC games of the year is locked in and ready to drop soon. But before we celebrate the best of the best, it’s time for our biannual tradition of highlighting the smaller games we enjoyed—often ones we just didn’t get around to formally reviewing or otherwise showing off, but which we fell in love with nevertheless.
Something like 4,500-plus games released on Steam in 2016 (thanks Steam Spy), so you’re bound to have missed a few. Hopefully our list will help you discover some that otherwise would be lost to time—from a game where you program cheap Chinese electronics to one starring cardboard boxes and another where you’re some sort of owl-boy. Yes, that last one is Owlboy.
That and more, inside. Be sure to also check out our list from June, which highlights 10 great PC games from earlier in 2016 that you might have missed!
At this point, we might as well just reserve a spot on these end-of-year lists for Zachtronics. Everything the developer puts out is gold, though last year’s Infinifactory is certainly more approachable than Shenzhen I/O—a follow-up to the studio’s other 2015 game, TIS-100.
The focus here is programming. Like, really programming. Where TIS-100 taught you pseudo-Assembly code, Shenzhen I/O combines that with building out your own circuits to assemble cheap electronics. It can be intimidating as hell, especially for those with limited programming experience, but optimizing your solutions and mastering the logic is just as satisfying as it was way back in the studio’s SpaceChem days.
Event is probably the weirdest game I played all year. Dressed in the trappings of a sci-fi adventure game, most of your time will actually be spent interfacing with a derelict spaceship’s computer system—Kaizen-85, or just Kaizen for short.
While not without some parsing errors, Event tries to simulate a true-speech artificial intelligence system, interpreting your wordy commands and responding (most of the time) appropriately. It’s like a talented text adventure embedded within the greater game. (See also: Emily Short’s Galatea)
Combine that with a 2001: A Space Odyssey vibe and a decent underlying story and this is one I can safely recommend to anyone who enjoys something a bit more experimental.
The Eyes of Ara
If you want a Myst-style adventure game in 2016, you might as well go straight to the source and play Cyan’s own spiritual successor Obduction. (Spoiler: It’s on our Game of the Year list.)
But I also came away impressed by The Eyes of Ara this year. Sure, it doesn’t have quite the same production value as Obduction, and some of the puzzles are woefully obtuse. For the most part it’s a clever and captivating puzzler though, and one that’ll have you scrambling for a pad of paper to write down some pattern you found etched on a ceiling tile or inscribed in a notebook. Just don’t be surprised if you have to resort to a walkthrough for a few of the more unintuitive puzzles.
Congratulations, you’ve inherited your father’s kingdom. The only weird bit: All of your policy decisions will be made Tinder-style, by swiping them right or left. A princess is trapped in a dungeon? Either call for your horse or say it’s a trap and decline. The people are starving? Decide whether to give your supplies to them or the army.
It’s a series of binary choices, essentially dealt to you from a stack of cards like a fancy board game, but with so many options that Reigns actually manages to create some deep story arcs from such a simple notion. And then you’ll screw up at some point and die.
The one issue: I think it’s definitely more suited to phones. But the Steam version works in a pinch. (Editor’s note: I spent a whole day playing Reigns during a cross-country trip and didn’t even see all the scenarios available. It’s surprisingly deep and indeed damned fun. ~Brad)
Rusty Lake Hotel and Rusty Lake: Roots
To open this, I’m just going to borrow a line from my Rusty Lake: Roots review: “This is a game where you poison a man, flick his nipple until it falls off, shrink, crawl inside his chest cavity, remove his heart, and then crawl back out his mouth—all rendered in Saturday morning cartoon fashion.”
I’ve praised the Rusty Lake series numerous times this year, and for good reason. Although short, both January’s Rusty Lake Hotel and the more recent Rusty Lake: Roots are two of the best point-and-clicks I’ve played all year, with a unique cartoon-gothic aesthetic and some genuinely unnerving imagery. And some pretty damn good puzzles.
It’s a fantastic series, priced way lower than it deserves, and one I hope we’ll see more of in 2017.
Imagine a 1990s mascot platformer—a Banjo-Kazooie or Crash Bandicoot—except starring a cardboard box. Yeah, that’s Unbox, odd as it sounds.
You’re the latest member of the Global Postal Service, a group of self-delivering boxes. You won’t be doing much delivering though. Instead, expect to bounce around four different worlds, climb tall buildings, ride down icy bobsled paths, and collect hundreds of miscellaneous doo-dads.
Yeah, it’s a 90s-era collect-a-thon platformer. I grabbed Unbox on a whim after seeing some Steam screenshots and was pleasantly surprised. I don’t think it’s quite as good as last year’s The Last Tinker, but the box conceit is clever and there are a ton of excellent Metal Gear Solid references that made me chuckle.
Every year it seems we get a retro-inspired platformer, and 2016’s no different. The irony? Owlboy was probably in development long before most, considering it took nine years to release.
In Owlboy you play as, well, a boy with owl wings on an adventure through cloud cities (of the non-Star Wars variety) and down ancient ruins, all rendered in some of the most gorgeous pixel art I’ve ever seen. The nine-year wait was certainly worth it on that front, with a real Studio Ghibli vibe that helps Owlboy impress even after seeing legions of other pixel-art platformers. The story could use some polishing, but tight controls and an excellent soundtrack still make Owlboy one of the easiest indie recommendations of 2016, especially for fans of Cave Story+, Axiom Verge, and Shovel Knight.
We’ve been blessed with excellent action RPGs for the past few years—Diablo III’s Reaper of Souls expansion, the ever-growing Path of Exile, the first Van Helsing, last year’s Victor Vran.
Add Grim Dawn to the list. It’s not the best-written, nor the most unique, but its deep and open-ended class system shares a lot of excellent ideas with Path of Exile—a skill tree for each class, with multi-classing enabled, plus a massive list of “constellations” that grant further powers and change how you play the game. It’s a game geared towards customizing your character completely, with the standard click-click-click loot grind and some fluff dialogue to back it up.
My biggest issue with Quadrilateral Cowboy is that there isn’t more of it. This hacking-centric heist game has a brilliant retro-modern look and some amazing ideas, with you disabling alarms and opening doors and bypassing security grids with lines of pseudo-code.
But it seems like every time the game starts to find its groove and give you a real challenge, it moves on to some new gizmo instead. There’s a bug-like tool called the Weever you’ll control remotely, there’s a gun that shoots buttons—cool spy gear, but the puzzles begin to feel like extended tutorials rather than a sandbox with some new options. And then it’s over, without the difficulty ever really ramping up.
A bit of a shame, but I think the core game still makes for a fun few hours of heisting with Ocean’s Eleven panache.
Shadow Tactics: Blades of the Shogun
First things first: Shadow Tactics: Blades of the Shogun has one of the most frustrating cameras in years. It’s isometric, so it shouldn’t be that difficult, and yet I constantly found myself fighting to get into a good position. And in a game as complex as Shadow Tactics, that can mean certain death.
Bear with it though, because Shadow Tactics is probably the best game on this list. It’s an extremely open-ended, creative, and difficult stealth game, in the vein of the old Commandos series except transported to Shogunate-era Japan. It’s highly, highly recommended—this one just barely missed our Game of the Year list, mostly because of the aforementioned camera woes and some questionable voice acting. Hint: Change it to Japanese with English subtitles for a much better experience.
Small Radios Big Televisions
Okay, I know I said Event was one of the weirdest games I played in 2016, but I forgot about Small Radios Big Televisions. If Event clearly takes inspiration from 2001: A Space Odyssey, then SRBT is a bizarre art-house film that’s only screening in that weird, dingy movie theater...at midnight. It’s a tone piece more than anything else, an exploration of various environments filtered through magnetic tape distortion and ambient music loops.
Oh, and there are some fairly easy puzzles.
It’s a strange little game, but captivating and even somewhat relaxing.
The Warlock of Firetop Mountain
Like Inkle’s Sorcery! series, Warlock of Firetop Mountain draws upon 1980s adventure gamebooks for inspiration. One part RPG, one part text adventure, one part board game (with accompanying art style), what I love about Firetop Mountain is that a successful run can last as little as an hour.
What it lacks in breadth, it makes up for in depth. Firetop Mountain contains multiple characters, each of which has different strengths and a different over-arching quest to complete. And don’t expect to just waltz through. Death waits around every corner—be it an angry goblin’s sword, a giant spider’s web, or an angry orc chef. Good luck.
Song of the Deep
I’m still surprised Song of the Deep came from Insomniac—a studio better known for bombastic affairs like Ratchet and Clank and Sunset Overdrive. A small, quiet game about a girl who cobbles together a submarine to go looking for her lost father? Not what I expected.
Song of the Deep is a good time though. Merryn’s submarine is outfitted with all sorts of weird underwater weapons, from torpedoes to a grappling hook, and while chewing through legions of crabs and jellyfish can feel like a grind at times, the artwork and cutesy story kept me going. I wouldn’t say it’s as good as cult-classic Aquaria, and I still find the resemblance to the similarly themed (and titled) film Song of the Sea bizarre, but Insomniac’s created a heartwarming little adventure nevertheless.
In Ember you play as the Lightbringer, a member of a once-powerful sect that’s fallen into ruin and disrepute. But with the world dying, you’re resurrected as a last-ditch effort to save the titular Embers and yada yada yada. It’s fantasy fluff, but padded with a decent action-RPG combat system and quite a bit of Infinity Engine-style reading.
It’s not the best isometric RPG in recent memory, and there’s definitely a B-game sort of vibe to its art and interface, but in a year with few options, Ember is a lightweight, semi-mindless way to tide yourself over till Torment and Divinity: Original Sin II in 2017.