islanders city building
islanders city building

1. Sunless Skies Sunless

Skies is in large part just more Sunless Sea, but given how impressive Failbetter’s first outing was it’s hard to complain about a second helping. Trade out Sunless Sea’s ships for a flying train and gloomy seas for the stars, and much of the rest stays the same. You’re still plodding from settlement to settlement, uncovering bizarre side-stories and attempting to unravel the larger plotlines in scraps and snatches of conversation.

If it feels less magical, well, the trick’s more familiar now. Sunless Skies doesn’t do much to push its predecessor’s ideas forward aside from streamlining some of the more cumbersome systems. That said, it’s still a beautifully written adventure packed with plenty of odd (and sometimes uncomfortable) rumors to chase.

2. Textorcist

The Textorcist is one of the more creative genre mashups I’ve played: Part bullet hell, part typing edutainment. You play a priest, Ray Bibbia, who fights demons by typing out phrases, while dodging enemy attacks at the same time.

It’s a real pat-your-head-rub-your-stomach nightmare, trying to frantically eke out each letter of phrases like “In Nomine Dei Patris Omnipotentis” with your left hand while the right works the arrow keys. Maybe not the most useful typing tool, but I had a lot of fun with it.

The Textorcist is one of the more creative genre mashups I’ve played: Part bullet hell, part typing edutainment. You play a priest, Ray Bibbia, who fights demons by typing out phrases, while dodging enemy attacks at the same time.

It’s a real pat-your-head-rub-your-stomach nightmare, trying to frantically eke out each letter of phrases like “In Nomine Dei Patris Omnipotentis” with your left hand while the right works the arrow keys. Maybe not the most useful typing tool, but I had a lot of fun with it.

3. Islanders

Islanders is the best city builder I’ve played this year, and it’s not at all what you’d expect from that description. This isn’t another SimCity clone, or even a Tropico spin-off. Instead, Islanders borrows the core tenets of a city builder to create a puzzle game.

You draw cards to determine what you can build, and subsequently earn points based on how you plot your buildings. Houses like being near city centers for instance, and churches like being near houses. Chain enough structures together and you’ll earn enough to move onto the next island, starting from scratch again but with a better idea how to maximize points—and more space to do it in. It’s simple and relaxing, and results in some cute tilt-shifted villages that look better than anything I’ve built in more complicated peers of Islanders.

4. Forager

Forager is a 2D open world game inspired by exploration, farming and crafting games such as Stardew Valley, Terraria & Zelda. Start small and improve your base, skills, equipment, network of friends (and enemies!) and build your future as you see fit! You can play Forager in a very varied array of playstyles

5. Whispers of a Machine

A sci-fi adventure, you play as a sort-of robotic police officer (a…robocop, maybe) who can scan the environment for forensic data, shapeshift, control people’s minds, turn invisible, and more. The catch: You unlock different powers depending on your conversations with people, and will only see a select few over the course of the story, forcing you to approach puzzles differently based on how you play. It’s an ambitious and clever mechanic for a retro-looking game, and is paired with a pretty decent story as well.

6. Astrologaster

Dramatic irony: the videogame. That’s basically what you’ve got in Astrologaster. It’s a choose-your-own-tragicomedy set in Elizabethan England, where you play an astrologist and “doctor of physik” called Simon Forman, who gives his patients counsel as well as tinctures. Both his advice and potions are of questionable quality. It’s a story reminiscent of Blackadder, dripping with sarcasm, theatrical and funny. At times it doubles up as an exam in both Tudor history and star signs. And it’s sometimes a bit smug in its oh-so-literary references and knowledge. But that’s okay, because it makes plenty of poo jokes as well.

7. Pathologic 2

Pathologic 2 is still weird as hell though, and brutal. Even on the lower difficulties, it’s a game you play until you can’t anymore, an experience you’re designed to lose. That won’t appeal to everyone, but I find it refreshing—albeit incredibly stressful as well won’t appeal to everyone, but I find it refreshing—albeit incredibly stressful as well

8. Garden Flipper

As you might guess from the name, you clever little detective you, it’ll send us out to renovate gardens as well as homes. I didn’t stick with House Flipper for long because I found myself wishing the renovation was more like the physics-driven chaos of Viscera Cleanup Detail rather than just clicking to make things go, but I might be tempted back by these gardens. The possibilities really do look quite nice.

9. Draugen

I’m still eagerly awaiting the next entry in The Longest Journey and/or Dreamfall, but Red Thread Games and founder Ragnar Tørnquist took a little tangent this year. Draugen, a short adventure set in 1920s Norway, is billed as a “Fjord Noir” and tasks you with searching a seemingly abandoned mountain town for clues to what happened.

It doesn’t hold any nostalgia for me like The Longest Journey, and even setting that aside some of Draugen’s story beats didn’t land. But Tørnquist and Co. have earned a reputation for writing good characters, and indeed that’s what sustains Draugen even when its framework weakens.

10. Gato Roboto

Gato Roboto was clawing at the backs of our Best Of (So Far) list. It’s fantastic, a full-fledged Metroidvania that only takes two or three hours to finish. There aren’t many of those, and even fewer this satisfying. Maybe Axiom Verge belongs in the same discussion?

But Gato Roboto is also charming as hell, which elevates it even further. You play as a cat in a mech suit—and sometimes outside a mech suit—exploring a hazard-filled space station, upgrading your abilities, and battling the occasional pesky rat. The one-bit art style looks great, especially once you unlock some of the alternate color schemes, and the game is consistently entertaining throughout. A real “Quality Over Quantity” situation, this one.

11. My Friend Pedro

My Friend Pedro is a violent ballet about friendship, imagination, and one man’s struggle to obliterate anyone in his path at the behest of a sentient banana. The strategic use of split aiming, slow motion, and the ol’ stylish window breach create one sensational action sequence after another in an explosive battle through the violent underworld.

Unleash a torrent of destruction with an incredible level of control over both your weapons and your body. Twist and turn through the air while aiming both hands at priority threats or line up a perfect ricochet to drop an unsuspecting gangster from behind.

12. Katana Zero

Speaking of games that feel like Hotline Miami, 2019’s also given us Katana Zero. Another sidescroller, this one’s about closing the gap and executing enemies with your sword—or deflecting their bullets back at them, because you’re a badass in a bathrobe.

In some ways it’s even more Hotline Miami than My Friend Pedro, with a single hit meaning you start a level over, and the same cocaine-drenched synthwave vibe. It’s the tightest-controlling of this year’s mimics though, prompting that same sweaty-palmed feeling of “Flow.” The story’s no slouch either—even if, like My Friend Pedro, it hews a bit too close to its inspiration.

13. Ape Out

Ape Out is a wildly intense and colorfully stylized smash ‘em up about primal escape, rhythmic violence, and frenetic jazz. Build up nearly unstoppable momentum and use your captors as both weapons and shields to crush everyone on your procedurally generated path to freedom.

Stylish Escape: Embrace bold colors and a dazzling perspective as you rush through tight corridors, open areas, and twisting labyrinths on a mad dash for freedom. Overcome all manner of human opposition, nefarious traps, and breakable obstacles to find each exit and escape captivity.

14. Journey

I never expected to see Journey on PC. Thatgamecompany’s poignant multiplayer experiment is seven years old now, and seemed like it would remain a PlayStation exclusive forever.

Here it is though, at long last, and while I suspect some will complain about its Epic Games Store exclusivity I’m mostly excited to be able to dip into it again whenever I’d like. Even now, Journey remains one of my all-time favorite video game experiences, a pinnacle of indie’s PlayStation 3/Xbox 360 era golden age. While it hadn’t exactly been “lost to time,” I at least feel better knowing it’s on the PC now, safely preserved.

15. Amid Evil

Amid Evil’s worst weapon is a staff that shoots blue homing blobs—pathetic water balloons that splash against low-poly demons, many of whom look like what you’d get if you coated a bunch of triangles with super glue and threw them in a dryer. It’s worth using during the most annoying encounters, when a projectile-lobbing enemy is perched high above and is hard to hit with anything else. I don’t like it or the moments when I resort to it, but I can also use the entire earth as a grenade, which more than evens things out. Amid Evil is good.

It’s a throwback FPS like Dusk, but rather than hitscan pistol headshots, Amid Evil recalls Heretic and Hexen’s magical weapons. The staff sucks, but there’s also a magic sword, a grenade launcher that shrinks and fires random planets (like the earth), a spike-firing morningstar, a lightning trident, plus your default axe and a geometrically-unreasonable purple thing that clears rooms like Doom’s BFG.

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