(Graphic: Nick Wanserski)

Nobody has the time to play all the great video games that hit the market. Between the increasingly even distribution of big-budget releases throughout the year and Steam’s ever-flooding selection, exemplary or intriguing games pop up on a constant basis. So with the year half over and the busiest video game season right around the corner, the Gameological staff looked back at 2016 and put together a list of 20 games we’d recommend anybody at least consider checking out if they’re looking to catch up on new releases. And because every game asks different things of its players, we’ve assigned each pick a “commitment level” rating that reflects its length and learning curve so you at least have an idea of what you might be getting yourself into.

Oxenfree (Mac, PC, PlayStation 4, Xbox One)

Screenshot: Night School Studio

Advertisement

Commitment level: Low

Oxenfree tells the story of five prickly teenagers stranded on an abandoned island, left to the whims of the local supernatural forces. It’s like something you would have grabbed off a video store’s horror shelf on a whim back in the ’80s, and it drapes itself in gloriously grainy VHS imagery to honor that legacy. Where it parts company with its schlocky forebears is with its characters, who—in flagrant disregard for the conventions of teenage horror protagonists—are all complicated, sympathetic individuals. The game’s smart walk-and-talk pace and a quintet of sterling vocal performances seal the deal. It’s scary, it’s touching, it’s funny, and it only takes a few hours. It’s the gaming equivalent of a campfire ghost story session. [Patrick Lee]

Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End (PlayStation 4)

Screenshot: Sony

Advertisement

Commitment level: Medium

Finales for beloved video game series are a rarity. There’s always more money to squeeze out of characters and brand engagement. But while it’s possible that Naughty Dog might bring back Nathan Drake and friends at some point, it’s hard to imagine a more fitting (and thorough) goodbye than A Thief’s End. The series’ fourth installment gives its treasure hunting hero a brother and throws them both into a plot that’s at once familiar and new: There’s the promise of unimaginable wealth, a lot of endearingly convoluted clues, growing dread, and a seemingly endless supply of nameless mercenaries and climbable cliffs. The action flows nicely, with rock-climbing remaining a highlight, but it’s the story and characters that make this one sing. Nathan, Elena, Sam, and Sully are beautifully animated and brilliantly performed, and the script is more than willing to slow things down to give its heroes a chance to breathe. [Zack Handlen]

The Witness (PC, PlayStation 4)

Screenshot: Thekla, Inc.

Advertisement

Commitment level: High

The Witness begins as a sedate adventure. There are no large bodies of insurmountable text to read and no monsters to run away from. The only things to find on this colorful island are puzzles—basic line drawings that connect one point on a grid to another. They start off simply enough, tasking you with avoiding dead ends and overlapping lines, but the puzzles steadily introduce new rules—rules that overwrite other rules, rules that only appear when viewed from certain angles—and you start to notice the puzzles aren’t locked to the small electronic screens littering the island. They appear in hedge mazes, shadows, reflections, everywhere. Obsession kicks in as tiny environmental clues become billboards broadcasting your failures and successes. The Witness starts off as one of the most mellow and commitment-free games of the year, but players who invest any time in it will find themselves hopelessly tethered to its complex mysteries or storm off in disgust and never play it again. [Derrick Sanskrit]

Inside (PC, PlayStation 4, Xbox One)

Screenshot: Playdead

Advertisement

Commitment level: Low

It took six years, but the creators of Limbo, the moody monochromatic oddity from the height of the Xbox Live Arcade-era, have delivered their second game. With Inside, the developers at Playdead showcase a thorough understanding and honing of their macabre craft, improving on every nuance that made their debut such a critical darling. It’s a focused little dollop of dread and mystery, never stopping to expound on the grim goings on in your surroundings and instead leaving our imaginations to fill in the cracks with the darkest of possibilities. By leaving only the atmosphere-building essentials, everything Inside chooses to show you during its brief running time becomes that much more meaningful and, usually, terrifying. [Matt Gerardi]

Overwatch (Xbox One, PlayStation 4, PC)

Screenshot: Blizzard Entertainment

Advertisement

Commitment level: As high as you want

Overwatch isn’t the most unique multiplayer shooter ever made, as nearly everything it does has been done before, but somehow there’s still nothing else that’s quite like it. Its matches are built around straightforward objectives like “defend the point,” and that simplicity means anyone can jump in and contribute something to the team while veterans can pick out the best strategies for a particular level. Then there are the characters you play as (like a former video game pro, a super-intelligent gorilla, and a cyborg ninja), who are so diverse that anybody can find at least one to like. Serious players will want to learn all of them, though, because the key to success is knowing how to counter each one. Plus, the end of every match only highlights people who played well, meaning nobody has to know how bad you are, which brings some much-needed positivity to the genre. [Sam Barsanti]

Severed (PlayStation Vita; coming to iOS, Nintendo 3DS, Wii U)

Screnshot: DrinkBox Studios

Advertisement

Commitment level: Low

Recommending a PlayStation Vita game as a must-play is almost an act of deliberate contrarianism. The system is largely considered defunct and the user base is small, but Severed doesn’t deserve to be shackled by the sins of its platform (and a version for iOS and Nintendo systems is on its way). This adventure of a maimed heroine who travels through a menacing, neon-hued phantom realm to reclaim her family is a moody journey of amateur evisceration. Its insistence on the player violently finger-swiping enemies into their individual components succeeds in justifying the Vita’s combination of a touch screen and game pad, ensuring a smooth butchering experience, while the thrumming soundtrack and wildly stylized monster designs ensure the experience feels more like pitch-black folklore than a conventional murder spree. [Nick Wanserski]

Hyper Light Drifter (Mac, PC, PlayStation 4, Xbox One)

Screenshot: Heart Machine

Advertisement

Commitment level: Medium

Hyper Light Drifter hardly puts a foot wrong. It’s impeccably presented, featuring the most striking pixel-art environments and characters in a year when the style has truly taken off, and accompanied by an achingly atmospheric soundtrack. Combat is fast, brutal, and precise, punishing you with frequent failure but rewarding you with a rare sense of accomplishment for success. Yet what makes Alex Preston’s game stand out is something not quite as tangible. It lies in fragments—hidden behind doors that remain locked even after the last boss has been felled or under the corpses of giants seen in the distance whose story is only hinted. Hyper Light Drifter’s magic lies in the secrets it holds and a singular reluctance to part with them, reminding us of the truly essential quality of its medium: the sense of wonder that comes from encountering a world that’s truly alien, truly new. [Alexander Chatziioannou]

Dark Souls III (PC, PlayStation 4, Xbox One)

Screenshot: Bandai Namco Entertainment

Advertisement

Commitment level: High

Five games in, it’s natural for a series to start showing its age. So it’s a testament to FromSoftware’s skill that the apparently final Dark Souls game is still jammed full of rewards and mechanical joy. Standing proudly alongside the other games in the series—games to which it’s occasionally a little too beholden, in terms of characters and plot—Dark Souls III carves out a place for itself by offering up the most satisfying combat in the entire series. Splitting the difference between the occasional plod of Dark or Demon’s Souls and the frenzied rush of Bloodborne, Dark Souls III is From-style combat at its best, cruel and forgiving in equal parts. The boss designs are typically stellar, as well, presenting remixes of old concepts—and a few new ones—that are fascinating to look at, frustrating to defeat, and almost uniformly fun to fight. [William Hughes]

Superhot (PC, Xbox One)

Screenshot: Superhot Team

Advertisement

Commitment level: Low

The “high-concept” model might be most closely associated with TV and film, but it also works wonders in game design. Look no further than the success of Superhot, the first-person shooter that asks, “What if time only moved when you did?” Fittingly, that perfect little nugget of an idea was born from a game jam back in 2013, and the resulting prototype attracted so much buzz that the team was able to fund a full version through a wildly successful Kickstarter. The simple concept holds up to the expanded treatment beautifully, with the developers constructing dozens of perfect action-movie microcosms to test your mettle and adding at least one mind-blowing twist to your reality-bending repertoire. The story mode—which is backed by a narrative that’s intriguing, at best, and obstructive, at worst—is breezy and short, but each stage is infinitely replayable for those who want to fine tune their assaults and choreograph the best possible fight. [Matt Gerardi]

Doom (PC, PlayStation 4, Xbox One)

Screenshot: Bethesda Softworks

Advertisement

Commitment level: Medium

On the surface, Id Software’s Doom has all the hallmarks of the modern shooter. There are codexes full of paragraphs about characters with less depth than your television screen; there’s a tree that unlocks abilities for your character as you go, creating a thin overlay of RPG elements; and there’s a story, for some reason. These facets are unobtrusive at best, tedious at worst, but the game’s most impressive achievement is that their irrelevancy is, well, irrelevant. In its throbbing heart, Doom (fourth in the series, but putting a number in the title would just slow things down) is about speed—pure balls-to-the-wall speed, a flurry of shooting and punching punctuated by explosions of cartoony gore. You are the Doom Guy, and your job is to kill demons. The rest is white noise, to be indulged in or ignored at your leisure. It’s hard to remember the last time a big-budget action game felt so free. [Zack Handlen]

Fire Emblem: Fates (Nintendo DS)

Screnshot: Nintendo

Advertisement

Commitment level: High

Starting Fire Emblem Fates now is a bit like picking up Game Of Thrones. You could watch the six seasons of the show and read the five Song Of Ice And Fire novels—and maybe some of the spin-off comics and fan-fiction—and you’d have spent about as much time as it would take to play all the content Nintendo has released for this game. What started as two meaty strategy role-playing games pressed into one has steadily grown through numerous post-release expansions. Now, your hero can fight a war, go back and see what it would be like to join the other side, and then take a pass at going rogue and forsaking both royal families that would claim them. Then you can download some bonus maps to learn more about the characters you’ve grown fond of, see some familiar faces from Fire Emblem Awakening, and do a little delving into an alternate universe. You can also fight your friends and tinker around in a castle-building mini-game. The well-designed strategic battles and quality writing make Fire Emblem Fates well worth the time you’re likely to sink into it if you get hooked. [Samantha Nelson]

Firewatch (PC, PS4)

Screenshot: Campo Santo

Advertisement

Commitment level: Low

Firewatch may feature a bit of action and mystery, but the heart of the game is in the relatable dialogue between fire lookout Henry and his supervisor Delilah. Together, they face a missing persons case, vandalism, and an elaborate conspiracy, but none of that is as compelling as the cautious flirtations they share across their walkie talkies over the course of a secluded summer. Gripping performances from Mad Men’s Rich Sommer and Cissy Jones of Telltale’s The Walking Dead are so nuanced and thoroughly charming it’s easy to forget we never see either of their faces outside of photographs and doodles. [Derrick Sanskrit]

Darkest Dungeon (Linux, Mac , PC; coming to PlayStation 4 and Vita)

Screenshot: Red Hook Studios

Advertisement

Commitment level: Medium

It’s common knowledge that eldritch horrors hailing from alternate planes of existence are, by their very nature, far beyond a human brain’s capacity to process without utterly destroying the unlucky slob’s mind. Yet in game after game, heroes fight nightmares made manifest and exhibit the same mental strain one usually attributes to grating a wedge of manchego. It’s always a purely physical confrontation. But managing hit points is only part of the challenge in Darkest Dungeon, where the psychological wear of rooting through dank, monster-infested catacombs renders once powerful warriors impotent and often reduces them to quaking mental patients who need to spend a turn—or five—in the abbey or brothel to get their head right. Intimidating at first but doable once it clicks, Darkest Dungeon is great for those who want more strategy and less hackery in their dungeon crawl. [Drew Toal]

Street Fighter V (PC, PlayStation 4)

Screenshot: Capcom

Advertisement

Commitment level: As high as you want

Modern expectations dictate that Street Fighter V, as it was released in February, was unacceptable, with meager single-player options and a scant 16 characters. But bemoaning its limited number of fighters, when compared to the rosters of other modern fighters or even Ultra Street Fighter IV, is to miss its astounding success. No fighter since the original Street Fighter II has felt so elegant in its simplicity, so expertly balanced enough to let people find their own voice in a world warriors’ move set. The new story mode and the four characters added in the months since its initial release are just bonuses on top of the pristine brawling and gorgeous presentation. If you haven’t rolled a quarter circle since 1997, if you’ve never dragon-punched a soul, if you want to spend hours getting tournament ready, or if you just like admiring the look and feel of a fighter, Street Fighter V has what you want. [Anthony John Agnello]

Pony Island (PC)

Daniel Mullins Games

Advertisement

Commitment level: Low

You know you’re in for something special when the first thing a game makes you do is fix its own start menu, then dive into its code to debug a loading bar. Dan Mullins’ Pony Island—a spiritual successor to all those internet stories about “the hacked Ikari Warriors cartridge that’s TOTALLY FULL OF GHOOOOSTS”—is one of the most clever adventure games to come out this year, masquerading as one of the most incompetent. The further your “progress” in “Pony Island”—the game within the game and a shoddily designed endless runner crapped out by Satan himself—the harder you’ll have to work to avoid playing it. That means hacking the code, breaking levels, and ignoring prompts to shove your soul into the machine in exchange for a few more freemium levels. Short and sweet, it evokes the transgressive thrill of games like Portal, encouraging you to break out of the box even as its digital Lucifer fumblingly tries to force you back in. [William Hughes]

Enter The Gungeon (PC, PlayStation 4)

Screenshot: Devolver Digital

Advertisement

Commitment level: Medium

The bullet that can kill the past—that’s what waits at the heart of the Gungeon. Dodge Roll Games is a small crew of industry vets who set out on their own to make a game based on that ridiculous premise. In a sea of pixel-art-riddled procedurally generated action games trying to blend 16-bit console style with Dark Souls-ian repetitive punishment, Enter The Gungeon distinguishes itself with chunky art and controls that require a swinging sense of rhythm. While anyone can pick it up and start shooting their way through procedural levels of the dungeon, it takes serious practice to master the feel of dodging bullets, flipping tables for cover, and moving your bobble-headed hero through the game’s levels. Rather than dreary and masochistic, every run at the Gungeon feels tailor made and funny as hell. [Anthony John Agnello]

Stellaris (Mac, PC)

Screenshot: Paradox Interactive

Advertisement

Commitment level: High to life-consuming

The list of everything that makes Stellaris special is decidedly unsexy: a clean, intuitive interface; a commendable balance between exploration, warfare, and diplomacy; a perfectly paced, effortlessly illuminating tutorial. Paradox’s earlier grand strategy games were already great but also intimidatingly complex, disrupting the certainties of the familiar Civilization template by reconceptualizing your realm as the intersection of conflicting agendas (racial factions, geographical sectors, individuals in places of power) rather than a homogeneous body politic readily bowing to your every whim. That the Swedish studio managed to produce, through their first foray into space, one of the most compelling strategy games of the last decade is hardly surprising. The real achievement of Stellaris is its distillation of these previously inscrutable systems into a form that’s accessible, at last. [Alexander Chatziioannou]

Hitman (PC, PlayStation 4, Xbox One)

Screenshot: Square Enix

Advertisement

Commitment level: Low

With an unlimited number of mulligans, even the harrowing act of extinguishing a human life becomes downright playful. Your first run through a Hitman level will be pretty utilitarian—find the target, get them alone, drown them in a toilet, that sort of thing. But after that? That’s when you start pulling off trick shots, nudged into them by the suggestions of the game itself. “Hey,” Hitman seems to say, “I bet you can’t eliminate these targets by pushing one of them from a third-floor balcony onto the head of the other.” Watch me, game. “How about killing this next guy by tricking him into swinging at a novelty exploding golf ball?” Count me in. Agent 47 might wear a dark suit on the outside, but make no mistake, he’s wearing big red clown nose in spirit. [Patrick Lee]

Pokémon Go (Android, iOS)

Advertisement

Commitment level: As high as you want

If you’re not playing Pokémon Go, you’re missing out on a beautiful cultural phenomenon that proves the power of augmented-reality games by creating a truly worldwide multiplayer game. It encourages exploration in the real world by rewarding players for visiting parks, restaurants, and works of art, and the fact that any number of players can catch the same Pokémon when it appears in an area encourages collaboration rather than competition. Players who want to show they’re “the very best” can do that too by finding a gym—which could be a Starbucks or an office building or a local landmark—and turning their toughest monster into a beacon of power that anyone who wanders into the area can challenge. If you absolutely hate the idea of catching Pokémon on your phone, you can probably wait until winter when the game’s popularity is likely to dip with the temperatures, unless Niantic starts letting you capture Pokémon by ordering delivery and watching Netflix. But if you’re on the fence, you should just download it now. [Samantha Nelson]

That Dragon, Cancer (Mac, PC, Ouya)

Advertisement

Commitment level: Low in playable hours, but so emotionally high

That Dragon, Cancer defies conventional criticism because its successes exist outside the criteria by which video games are normally judged. It’s buggy, sometimes unresponsive, and the interactions are all exceedingly simple. But this heartbreaking exploration of a young boy’s terminal cancer succeeds with something all too rare with video games: It’s helping the medium evolve. Should you play it? Yes. It’s a beautiful piece of creator-driven gaming that aggressively pushes against the limitations of video game narrative. Should you play it? No. It will break you apart. It’s possible to complete a 70-hour role-playing game and not remember a single thing later. That Dragon, Cancer is an anomaly, a three-hour game that you experience for days, weeks, or months after it ends. [Nick Wanserski]