I said Return of the Obra Dinn is “one of” the only proper detective games I’ve played. Outer Wilds is the other. Every 22 minutes the sun explodes in a violent supernova, destroying everything in the system. You’re the only one who knows this is happening, because you’ve lived through it over and over and over.
It falls to you to figure out why. Why is the sun exploding? And why are you trapped in this time loop? These are the mysteries at the heart of Outer Wilds. To solve them, you’ll need to uncover the secrets of this abbreviated solar system—but the catch is that everything happens on schedule. Visit a planet early in the cycle for instance and you might find it covered in sand, but return later and you’ll find structures have poked above the surface, and tunnels have appeared where once there were just dunes.
What I like about Outer Wilds is the progression is in your hands. Nothing changes. You don’t upgrade your ship or your suit or whatever. You could “finish” Outer Wilds on your first run just as easily as the last—but you won’t. You’ll likely crash into the moon, or fall off a cliff and die, or step out of your ship without your spacesuit and suffocate. And then you’ll wake up, and you’ll try again, and each time you’ll learn a little more about where you should go and what you should do.
Most open-world games build out thousands of miles of nothing. Outer Wilds presents an alternative, a meticulous clockwork where everything, every structure and every note and every creature, has a part to play in the larger mystery. I hope others take note.
Divinity: Original Sin 2
The first Divinity: Original Sin was good. Not set-your-world-on-fire amazing, but with its flexible character builds and physics system it was a surprisingly forward-thinking CRPG at a time when others (i.e. Pillars of Eternity and Wasteland 2) were busy mimicking the past.
Divinity: Original Sin 2 proved better than I ever expected though. It was groundbreaking, from its systems-driven combat to its sprawling 100-hour story. The latter was especially impressive, with Original Sin 2’s “Origin Stories” one of my favorite features in recent years. You could make your own custom character in Original Sin 2, but you could also play as defined characters like Fane (an undead skeleton-man who steals people’s faces), The Red Prince (an exiled noble), and Sebille (a freed slave who uh...hates The Red Prince).
Playing these Origin Stories provided a different perspective on events, opening lines of inquiry that were otherwise invisible—even if you had the same characters in your party as companions. It was a great compromise between the usual create-a-character blank slate and a more authored experience, and Origin Stories helped propel Original Sin 2’s narrative well past its predecessor’s.
Like, way past. Divinity: Original Sin 2 cemented Larian as one of the foremost RPG developers of our era. Hell, it even got Wizards of the Coast to entrust Baldur’s Gate III to Larian. If that doesn’t speak to Original Sin 2’s quality, I don’t know what could.
There’s not much to say about Rocket League. It’s soccer, but with cars—and now it’s free to play.
I think the absurd premise is what makes it work though. Most sports games, especially nowadays, aim for a certain style of realism. For Madden, making the “best” football game means making the most authentic. Players, stadiums, even the broadcast experience has to be recreated down to the finest details.
Rocket League does none of this obviously. And yet I think Rocket League feels more like playing an actual sport than Madden or its fellow sports simulations. I’ve watched teams spontaneously “invent” zone defenses and triangle offenses, seen legendary plays lead to last-minute comebacks, I’ve even made a few clutch saves myself. Rocket League is a team sport for the digital era, every bit as thrilling as its real-world counterparts.
Oh, and you can play as a DeLorean. What else could you want?
Soma is not the game I expected from Frictional. Soma’s immediate predecessor, Amnesia: The Dark Descent, was often referred to as “the scariest game ever made.” It became synonymous with the rise of the YouTube Let’s Play, as people watched others scream their way through a game they were too scared to play.
But Soma isn’t another Amnesia. It’s barely even a horror game in the traditional sense, instead getting by on atmosphere and the strength of its story. A few brief monster encounters break up what’s otherwise a first-person adventure game, as you explore the cramped corridors of PATHOS-II, an underwater laboratory that’s slowly falling to pieces. It’s slow. It’s moody. It’s oppressive. Most of all, it’s depressing.
It wasn’t the game I expected from Frictional, but it’s undoubtedly the one I’ll remember them for. Soma is an excellent piece of science fiction, and an heir to the existential horror that made Silent Hill so unique. And sure, I’m excited to see Frictional develop a proper Amnesia sequel. They’re masters of the craft. I just hope there’s also a Soma successor (spiritual or true sequel) in the works, because at this point dozens of developers have paid homage to Amnesia. Some, like Bloober Team and Red Barrels, have even been relatively successful.
There’s only one Soma though.
Cities: Skylines is one of my most-played games this generation. That number goes even higher if you factor in the amount of time I’ve spent in the Steam Workshop, perusing and installing mods. So many mods.
After the disaster that was EA’s 2013 SimCity, the city builder genre was ripe for a new champion. Paradox and Colossal Order stepped up, transforming the transportation-centric Cities in Motion series into a full-fledged SimCity clone. Everything, down to the color-coded zoning, is vintage SimCity—but so much better. Cities: Skylines supported absolutely massive cities, with dozens of different buildings right out the gate, dynamic water that reacted to canals and dams and pollution, and all the transportation and traffic simulations developed for Cities in Motion.
And not only has Colossal Order supported the game for five years now—adding parks, universities, concerts, a day/night cycle, and more—but the aforementioned mod support turned Cities: Skylines into the ultimate city builder. If you live in a city, chances are the community’s created most of the major landmarks. Even generic Americana, the Targets and Taco Bells of the United States suburbs, are available for import. You can uncap the limitations on city size, enhance the default landscaping tools, build better parking lots and pedestrian paths, and so much more.
Cities: Skylines is more proof—as if we needed it—that catering to modders is great for a game’s longevity. SimCity died in part because EA tried to sell new buildings to people who already felt limited by the default tools. Cities: Skylines focused more on adding new features, with modders adding more buildings (and more unique landmarks) than a dedicated art team could ever manage alone. I suspect I’ll be playing it for years to come, at least until Colossal Order decides to make a sequel.
Next page: The best games of this generation wraps up