With the impending arrival of the Playstation 5 and Xbox Series X/S this week, it’s time to bid farewell to the last generation of game consoles.
It’s been an exciting time in the games industry. Graphical boundaries are being pushed every year. Virtual reality gaming is beginning to hit its stride. Cross-platform online means Xbox, Playstation and Nintendo fans can play one another in their favourite games.
It was hard to put together a list of just my ten favourite games. My initial long-list blew out to over thirty games. Honestly, there’s just more good stuff to play than there are hours in the day and I say that as someone who plays zero PC games and zero online games (which is probably where the vast majority of gamers spend their time nowadays).
But here we go: these are my ten personal favourite games from the Xbox One and Playstation 4.
Slay the Spire
Mega Crit Games | 2017 | Playstation 4, Xbox One
MegaCrit’s insanely addictive rogue-like deck builder Slay the Spire will probably end up as one of the games I put the most hours into on the Xbox One and PS4.
The gameplay loop works something like this. The player begins with a handful of cards, a health meter that carries over from battle to battle, some gold coins and a randomly assigned relic that offers a unique ability. As the player battles and defeats creatures using their cards, they need to manage their deck by acquiring powerful new cards, shedding less useful old ones, investing money in upgrades and making sure they stay healthy. As each creature is defeated, the player ascends the spires and once they die, it’s right back to the bottom to start all over again. There aren’t any experience points and no cards or items carry over. You learn lessons from how best to manage your hand and start again.
It’s a simple game but the quick and efficient learning curve and the compelling “just one more go” gameplay really got its hooks into millions of players. No manner of describing the mechanics of the game can do it justice. MegaCrit’s developers clearly have a knack for understanding how to design a deck-building game with late stage cards and relics that make the player feel powerful, but never invulnerable.
At $30 bucks, its one of the best value games of the generation. I expect most players will end up pouring countless hours into Slay the Spire. It is concentrated video gaming crack.
Dragon Quest XI
Square Enix | 2018 | Playstation 4
I love JRPGs. Well, I say I do, but if I’m honest, I mostly love Super Nintendo era JRPGs. Final Fantasy VI, Chrono Trigger, Secret of Mana. The classics. There was something about the later Final Fantasy games that lost a lot of the charm and mystique of those titles. As it turns out, I was simply playing the wrong games. Despite being a three decade old series that is revered in Japan, it somehow took me until 2019 to play my first Dragon Quest game.
Dragon Quest XI is very obviously a game that traces its lineage back to the NES/SNES era of JRPGs. The game has a bright, vividly-realised open world but it paints its heroes, villains and creatures in the same broad brushstrokes that stir the imagination the way Chrono Trigger or Final Fantasy IV does.
The game is an almost perfect distillation of what made those old games so great and is also sprinkled with modern quality of life improvements (skill trees, fast travel, checkpoints) that make it hugely enjoyable to play. It’s one of those titles where everything just clicks. The cast is awesome, the storyline is engrossing and the art style is a delight.
A modern day JRPG classic.
Astro Bot: Rescue Missions
SIE Japan Studios | 2018 | Playstation 4 – Playstation VR
Astro Bot Rescue Mission is a killer app for virtual reality gaming. It is one of the best games on the Playstation VR platform and feels like a peak into what video gaming could be in the future.
Venture Beat games journalist Jeremy Horowitz turned heads back in September 2018 when he announced a teaser that the Playstation VR was going to have its ‘Super Mario 64’ moment.
It seemed like an absurd statement to make and an unfair burden to shoulder on a game. Super Mario 64 is one of the most critically acclaimed and influential games of all time. It established and popularized analogue stick controls and 3D movement as we know it today. It sold millions of copies. What hope did Astro Bot Rescue Mission have to compare?
Having played the game since it launched, I think I understand Horowitz more clearly now. I think he was being much more literal about what Astro Bot Rescue Mission accomplishes and how it compares to Super Mario 64. It is a 3D platforming game that has incredible level design and ridiculously charming character animation. It gets right so many of the little things that make for a memorable experience. The way the Astro Bots interact with the player. The pixel perfect controls. The jaunty music. The visually arresting worlds that you explore.
All of it comes together beautifully and feels like a game that has that Miyamoto touch. The Nintendo magic. After a session with Astro Bot Rescue Mission (particularly stages like 2-2), it’ll feel like you’ve played a Nintendo platformer in virtual reality.
It’s that good.
Let’s be real. Astro Bot probably didn’t even sell a million units. It will only be played by a fraction of the audience that it deserves to reach. Its clear that at the current price point and with the current technology available (wired headsets, limited movement) that virtual reality gaming won’t become a mainstream form of entertainment. Yet.
But when that time comes, I hope Astro Bot is re-released so it can reach that wider audience. It really deserves it.
Monstars Inc. Resonair | 2018 | Playstation 4 – Playstation VR
Tetsuya Mizuguchi is a genuine video game auteur with an impressive resume starting from his early days at SEGA producing Sega Rally titles to his recent work producing interactive music titles Rez and Lumines.
With Tetris Effect, Mizuguchi has brought the Lumines formula to Tetris. In Journey mode, players run through a ‘playlist’ of stages, each bursting with colour and sound. Dropping tetriminos produce a musical note so its possible for the player to provide a beat to the soundtrack as they play. This interplay of music and gameplay will be instantly familiar to anyone who has played Rez or Lumines. Each time the player clears thirty lines, the playlist moves onto a new stage. The soundtrack changes, the visuals shift and the journey continues.
Conceptually, it sounds pretty simple. What makes Tetris Effect such a sensational experience is the ability to play the game in virtual reality and immerse yourself in Mizuguchi’s light and colour show. The man has an incredible talent for composing music tracks that are emotionally engaging and meld with the visuals in a way that is genuinely affecting. Reading player feedback on social media, its not uncommon to find people who have been moved to tears by the Tetris Effect experience.
Just about everyone who has ever picked up a video game controller will have played Tetris at some stage. But you’ve never experienced it like this. Tetris Effect is some kind of genius. One of the greatest video game experiences ever made.
Sega, Ryu Ga Gotoku Studio | 2017 | Playstation 4
I’ve followed the fortunes of Yakuza creator Toshihiro Nagoshi for years. Back when he first made Super Monkey Ball for the Gamecube and wrote a regular column about his whisky habit in Edge magazine over a decade ago. I’ve played and enjoyed each chapter of his storied Yakuza franchise which first arrived on Western shores in 2006.
But every game series will go through its peaks and troughs and after Yakuza 5, a solid but hardly inspired effort, I thought Nagoshi-san had done all he could with the series.
How wrong I was. By going back to where it all started and creating a prequel set in the Eighties, Nagoshi crafted his magnum opus in Yakuza Zero.
Yakuza Zero tells the story of how the “Dragon of Dojima” Kazuma Kiryu came to be. It is an absolutely riveting Japanese crime caper, filled with twists and turns and high melodrama. This is supplemented with an absolute goldmine of gameplay to enjoy. The basic combat is as crunchy and satisfying as its always been (slow motion fists to the face, using your environment as a weapon etc.). The side quests are some of the funniest and most outrageous I’ve ever played in a video game. There’s a real estate management mini game. A cabaret management mini game. Playable arcade Sega games from the Eighties. Collectable cards. A fight club tournament. Mahjong. Karaoke. Dancing. Dating. Whisky drinking. You will never run out of things to do in this game.
But much like Grand Theft Auto: Vice City, one of the best things about Yakuza Zero is the setting itself. No matter what you’re doing, its made all the more enjoyable because its set against the backdrop of the Eighties with its incredible hairstyles, bright neon lights and fantastic outfits.
Everyone has their favourite open world game where the vibe of the setting just clicks for them and you can spend hours there just soaking it all in. I think for a lot of people it’s Grand Theft Auto: Vice City, Sleeping Dogs or The Witcher 3. For me I’d say this is it. Kazuma Kiryu. Kamurocho in the Eighties. Yakuza f’n Zero. It don’t get no better.
Concerned Ape | 2016 | Xbox One, Playstation 4
A four year project built and designed by a single person, Eric Barone’s Stardew Valley absolutely hooked me in when it released on PS4 and Xbox One four years ago. I got it first on Xbox One and poured a hundred hours into. I ran into a game breaking bug in Year Three that was a unique issue with the Xbox version so I bought the PS4 copy and poured another hundred hours into that.
Inspired by the popular Harvest Moon series, Stardew Valley tells the tale of a glum jobsworth working a dead end office job who inherits a farm from their late grandfather. The player moves to Pelican Town where they spend their time growing crops, tending to livestock, fishing, exploring caves and socializing with the locals.
Conceptually there are plenty of games that offer a similar experience to Stardew Valley but I can’t think of any that are as well honed and compulsive to play. The games oozes charm and personality, with the 28 denizens of Pelican Town each having a distinct personality and story arc to follow.
The day-to-day gameplay loop in Stardew Valley never gets old. Waking up, feeding the chooks, harvesting bok choy and kale, brewing pale ales, making goats cheese and then fishing at the nearby lake. Maybe some cave spelunking in the afternoon and then catching up with the mayor’s daughter Penny in the evening on horseback. That’s a typical day in Stardew Valley. When you factor in the additional variety that the game introduces by changing weather patterns, different seasons, time-specific festivals and events, constantly developing storylines with the residents of Pelican Town…the game is absolutely packed with content to keep you coming back. Which – it bears repeating – is an extraordinary feat considering that this is the work of a single person.
Stardew Valley was an incredible game when it first launched. It’s an even better game with loads more content in 2020 thanks to Eric Barone’s incredible ongoing, free support of the game.
The Witcher 3
CD Projekt Red | 2015 | Playstation 4, Xbox One
It’s arguably the greatest video game in the Western fantasy genre. The Witcher 3 has sprawling landscapes, a vast array of demons and dragons, and an absolutely cracking story featuring a cast of characters as good as you’d get in Lord of the Rings or Game of Thrones. No wonder it sold roughly a bajillion copies.
The final chapter in the story of Geralt of Rivia sees the silver-haired witcher at his very best, navigating his way around the enourmous and densely packed city of Novigrad as well as the surrounding farmlands and islands.
The game is ridiculously generous with the sheer volume of content it contains. There are hundreds of missions, side quests and bounties for the player to explore and experience. Better still, the game’s storyline and dialogue is consistently of a high standard and a cut above the usual fantasy RPG fare. Even the most inconsequential sidequest or bounty taken off the beaten path still has interesting characters, an uncommon eye for detail and often a clever plot twist to keep players on their toes. No game has been as ambitious or successful in its world building than The Witcher 3.
The Witcher 3 is one of the most impressive open world games in recent memory, rivalling the likes of Red Dead Redemption and Grand Theft Auto V with its enormous depth and quality. CD Projekt have been amassing a following of admirers ever since their first Witcher title but there’s no doubt that Witcher 3 is their crown jewel marking them as one of the premiere game developers in the world today.
Super Massive Games | 2015 | Playstation 4
An under-appreciated gem from 2015 was Super Massive Games’ teen horror game Until Dawn. Eight unsuspecting kids spend a weekend at a remote holiday retreat up in the mountains and find themselves under attack from a deadly masked killer with a vendetta.
Until Dawn is a cut above most ‘interactive movie’ style games thanks to its canny script, tight play mechanics and flexible storytelling which can potentially see the story play out with no survivors, everyone surviving or somewhere in between.
I had a blast with Until Dawn. The teenagers (including a pre-Oscar game Rami Malik) each represent some fun and recognizable genre staples – jock, nerd, preppy rich asshole, cheerleader – and subsequently I found myself really rooting for certain individuals to survive and almost wilfully endangering others so they’d get their come-uppance. It’s genuinely scary in parts and also unexpectedly funny a lot of the time. The supplementary Making Of material shows the developers really have an appreciation of the craft that goes into creating a good teen horror movie and they’ve translated that into an interactive experience marvellously.
As modern game consoles continue to push graphical boundaries I suspect these “interactive movie” experiences will only grow in popularity. As it stands, Until Dawn is one of the best of the bunch.
The Banner Saga Trilogy
Stoic Games | 2014 – 2018 | Xbox One, Playstation 4
The Banner Saga series remains criminally overlooked in my opinion. A tactical turn-based RPG that was originally produced off the back of a Kickstarter campaign, Stoic Studio’s series draws the player into a gorgeous fantasy world with incredible Ralph Bakshi inspired artwork and a sprawling narrative that is filled with interesting creatures, cultures and landscapes.
In the original game, the player would lead a caravan of villagers and warriors, desperately trying to guide them to safety away from the marauding Dredge. The play mechanics involved battling hostile enemies, deciding on food rationing, making choices on when to stay on the road and when to make camp, and lastly, juggling diplomacy with the various races and species that your troupe would come across.
In the sequels, the size and scale of the game shifted to adapt to the ever-expanding narrative. There are multiple heroes, multiple caravans, intertwining stories and all new creatures and species to play as. It’s a fine continuation of the foundations built in the original.
I can’t quite put my finger on why The Banner Saga series doesn’t have a bigger following. It plays like Final Fantasy Tactics. It looks like The Lord of the Rings animated film. It’s one of the best fantasy games going today.
Red Dead Redemption II
Rockstar Games | 2018 | Playstation 4, Xbox One
Rockstar Games’ long anticipated sequel to Red Dead Redemption is an epic in the truest sense of the word. It has been eight years in the making. It is rumoured to have cost over a quarter of a billion dollars to make and has over three thousand names in the credits. The fruits of this labour is an enormously detailed open world environment the likes of which has never been seen before. Even ignoring the hundreds of activities, side quests and hours of exploration you could do in Red Dead, the main story will take most players somewhere north of fifty hours to complete. This thing is absolutely gargantuan.
I was very much in awe of Red Dead Redemption 2 right from the opening chapter. The production values are absolutely astounding. The wide variety of different environments – the snowy mountain peaks, the arid desert, the dense forests, the foggy bayou – all look extremely impressive running on the Playstation 4 Pro. Rockstar Studios are now well versed in creating convincing, cohesive open world environments and Red Dead is no exception.
Once the game loosens the reigns on the player and lets you begin exploring in Chapter 2, it really is a joy to just get out and immerse yourself in the world. I quickly realized that a lot of the game’s systems – your hygiene, camp morale, bonding with your horse – are generally window dressing features that encourage role-playing life in the Wild West. Nothing in the game will actually break if you decide to completely ignore these trimmings. Its all there to provide the player with a sense of place. When I made that discovery, I found even though they weren’t a necessity, I still enjoyed making time for Arthur to do these optional activities – fishing, gambling, singing around the camp fire – because I so enjoyed that feeling of immersion.
One of the high points of Red Dead Redemption 2 is that not only does Rockstar have the ambition to tell a meaningful tale with genuine emotional weight and grativas about it, we have arrived at a point with technology that these characters are able to communicate subtle, nuanced expressions to the player. Just look at Arthur’s eyes as it begins to dawn on him the type of man that Dutch Van Der Linde is. Or revisit a scene when John and Abigail Marsden exchange verbal spars about his choice to remain an outlaw. We can see they have a heated but loving relationship not because they say so, but in their body language.
When this game hits its highs, it is unmatched amongst its contemporaries. Arthur Morgan is one of video gaming’s most brilliantly conceived protagonists and the grand adventure that he goes on – which explores themes of greed, corruption, family and of course redemption – is told to the player with a level of cinematic flair and sophistication that is finally beginning to rival its contemporaries in film and television. Maybe this isn’t the video games industry’s Gone With The Wind but its not far off it.
Horizon Zero Dawn
Super Hot VR
God of War
The Last of Us II
Wolfenstein, Wolfenstein II
Resident Evil 2
Yakuza 6: Song of Life
Life Is Strange
Ghosts of Tsushima
Metal Gear Solid V