Action and turn-based RPGs
This offbeat action RPG focuses on extremely stylish androids who've been sent to Earth to make it safe for humans again by wiping out the dangerous machines that dominate the landscape. But the story isn't as straightforward as that—and not all of the machines you face are brainless automatons. Some of them have hopes, dreams and orgies (!). The story in Automata is surprisingly fantastic, with multiple endings that change your perspective on your characters, and well-written sidequests.
This is one of those games that overreaches slightly, but is better for having done so. As an action game, it's not quite Platinum's best—that mantle still belongs to Bayonetta—but it's still satisfying to batter robots with a big sword in washed out open world environments. A deserved cult hit, even if the game still hasn't been properly patched on PC (there's a fan mod that smooths out a few performance issues).
The Witcher 3 follows Geralt, the world's grumpiest monster-slaying bounty hunter, as he fights and magics his way across a medieval fantasy world. It tells a well-written, clever story, but more importantly, The Witcher 3 is the best open-world RPG you can explore right now (and quite possibly the best there's ever been).
The Witcher 3 is great mostly because it's so full of things to do. It's a huge world chockablock with ghouls, vampires, and wraiths—and the people can be pretty nasty, too. The size and depth of the world gives every quest context, an anchor that feels like it stretches back into history. Investigating a haunted farmhouse, for example, turns up clues about the type of spectre involved. Choosing the right weapon and brewing up a special potion feel like steps in a centuries-old ceremony. The Witcher 3 is a triumph of worldbuilding.
Besides the world, Geralt himself is the star of the show. He's frequently dour and funny and jaded, and he's an appealing character to spend time with. Some of the storylines will mean more to long-time fans of the Witcher books and games, but even without playing the earlier games in the Witcher series, The Witcher 3 is worth several hundred hours of your time.
A classic-style isometric RPG that feels completely modern, with four-player co-op, great characters, and super-challenging turn-based combat that makes heavy use of physical interactions: cast a rain spell to put out fires, for instance, or splash oil around to spread them. With big open areas, interlocking quests that can be completed in any order, disguises, status effects, and the freedom to whack any NPC you feel like, it's worth putting up with a little wonkiness (which has been improved with the Definitive Edition update) to experience such a creative, freeform campaign. The writing and roleplaying are also top-notch, giving you a real emotional investment for a campaign that can easily stretch to the 100 hour mark.
OS2 also includes built-in game master tools for running your own adventures, and separate, free mod tools that give you full access to the engine's capabilities and all of the included assets.
One of the prettiest and most ambitious JRPGs on PC, Ni No Kuni 2 follows Evan Pettiwhisker Tildrum, a young half-cat king who sets out to build a peaceful new kingdom—and a new circle of friends—after his rightful crown is stolen from him. Ni No Kuni 2 channels Suikoden and Studio Ghibli, pairing an expansive open world with exciting realtime third-person combat, and grounding them in a satisfying kingdom building sim. Scout new citizens by visiting fantastical far-off kingdoms, earn better gear by tackling secret dungeons and minibosses, then bring everything back home to improve your own kingdom. The kingdom sim is enjoyable in its own right, and every other part of the game benefits from it, from exploration to combat. Ni No Kuni 2 is a cute fairytale wrapped in complex systems that connect in meaningful, interesting ways, and there's not an ounce of fat on it.
What Dark Souls 3 lacks in originality—like the Souls games before it, it's an action-RPG that takes you through a baroque, dying world filled with monsters and opaque storytelling—it makes up for in polish. It's by far the smoothest of the series, gorgeous and stable on PC, and that translates to faster, more vicious enemies that will murder you without mercy. But you're also a bit more nimble this time around, keeping the notorious Souls challenge intact but rarely feeling unfair. And like all the Souls games, there's so much here if you plunge into the RPG depths: classes and magic systems, shortcuts and speedrun options, gear upgrading and NPC storylines to follow if you can make the right choices. Conquering Dark Souls 3 once will easily keep you busy for 50 hours, but if it gets its hooks in you, you could keep playing it for years.
Exploration, survival, and building games
The Harvest Moon farm-life sims used to be console-only. Then indie designer Eric Barone came along and made this tribute so we too can enjoy the pastoral fantasy of chicken ownership and mayonnaise profiteering. In Stardew Valley, you inherit a farm in the countryside and split your days between growing crops and befriending the locals, a colorful cast of eccentrics, some of whom can be romanced. You either get super serious about maximizing your income, creating the perfect grid of profitable crops for each season, or just potter about, taking the occasional fishing trip or delving into the monster mines as the mood takes you. An entire subgenre of farming/crafting sims with obligatory fishing minigames has sprung up in its wake, but Stardew Valley remains the best.
You build a spacecraft, and fly it into space. Simple, right? Usually it's not. A lot of things can go wrong as you're constructing a vessel from Kerbal Space Program's vast library of parts, almost always explosively so. But as you trial-and-error your way to a stable orbit, you start to unlock the full breadth of what Kerbal offers. You can build many different types of ship, and use them to edge further and further out into the solar system, enjoying your achievement as you contemplate the vast solitude of space. Kerbal Space Program is equal parts slapstick comedy and majestic exploration—incredibly silly, but evocative where it counts.
Depending how you feel about diving, Subnautica can be either a wonderful opportunity to explore an alien aquarium or a straight-up horrorshow. Even with the survival stuff turned off so you don't have to regularly grab fish and eat them as you swim past, its depths contain claustrophobic tunnels and beasts big enough to swallow you whole. The thing is, Subnautica works as both a tense survival game about making it day by day in a hostile alien ocean and a way to drift around meeting strange sea creatures (and eating them).
More building and survival games
Proteus takes nature and simplifies it into evocative shapes and sounds. Curved hills, solid tree trunks, frogs that burble and bounce. Wandering over its island of pastel plants and animals triggers a variety of pleasant noises, a symphony that builds as you chase birds or stand still among the fireflies. It's what every chillout room aspires to be.
Try to save the human race from an alien invasion, five turns at a time, in the brilliant bite-sized roguelike strategy game from the makers of FTL. Into the Breach feels almost like a puzzle game, because it presents you with clear information on what the enemy is doing every turn, and it's so well-balanced, there's almost always a solution that will get you out of a mission alive. There are multiple teams of mechs to unlock and choose from, and their abilities play off one another incredibly well. In the Rusting Hulks squad, for example, the nimble Jet Mech can drop a bomb that deals damage and envelops enemies with a smoke cloud, while the passive ability on the Rocket Mech causes smoke clouds to deal damage to enemy units. Each squad has its own playstyle, and you can freely mix and match mechs to create your own team-ups. Ending a mission after preventing all damage to the fragile civilian buildings scattered around the map never stops feeling like a triumph.
This brutal strategy game puts you in charge of a resistance force during an alien occupation. The XCOM format blends base building, squad construction and strategic command with tense turn-based tactical battles. As you pilot your enormous home base between territories, you gather materials and research the enemy to unlock cooler space lasers and rad-as-hell armour for your crew.
Vanila XCOM 2 was a tough, lean survival game that held you to account with a doomsday countdown. War of the Chosen gives you even more problems in the form of three minibosses who stalk you throughout your campaign. Fortunately, you can befriend three resistance factions—each with their own suite of gadgets for you to research—and use their leads to track down your nemeses. The result is a layered, engrossing tactical game with a lot of dramatic intrigue. We developed a strong love/hate relationship with the Chosen. Hate to see them messing up our plans; love to blow them up with massive space guns in revenge.
Warhammer is a dark fantasy setting shared by multiple games, popular because of its grim maximalism (it has two Mordors and about three Draculas). The Total War games are a venerable series of historical strategy games with unit-shuffling battles and large-scale nation management. The combination of Total War and Warhammer is a perfect match. Warhammer's factions are strong mixes of trad fantasy archetypes and oddballs like the beloved ratmen called skaven, who are easily set against each other on a big map. Meanwhile, the abstract scale of Total War seems less odd when removed from recognizable historical events. It's the best of both worlds. There's a campaign where each faction races to control a magical vortex by conducting a string of rituals, each providing a significant boost when performed, but if you want to slow the pace you can spring for both this and the previous game, then combine their maps together into a gigantic life-consuming war for domination called Mortal Empires.
More strategy games
Lead a scrappy mercenary company across a half-scripted, half-procedurally generated singleplayer campaign as you complete escort, assassination, base capture, and other missions for cash, salvage, and faction reputation. In the style of XCOM, BattleTech is about sending roster of mechs (and to a lesser extent pilots) into planetary combat, then managing the monetary and mortal aftermath of that spent armor, broken mech legs, dead pilots, and plundered parts of your enemies in the comfort of your spaceship base.
Unlike XCOM, the turn-based combat is a wonderfully granular game of angles and details: mechs have 11 different armor segments, and weapons and ammo are housed in these individually destructible locations. The orientation, heat level, speed, and stability of your mechs matters, and fights between the durable walking tanks play out like heavyweight boxing matches.
On the next page: Puzzle games, great stories, simulations and city-builders...