One of our favourite yearly pursuits is to sit down and glance over everything the past 12 months have given us. As our eyes scroll past chart-toppers, big-budget exclusives and indie darlings, it always becomes apparent there are numerous critically acclaimed titles many have overlooked.
A lack of marketing is usually the reason – indie developers often have little to no budget. There‘s also a worrying trend of gaming sites ignoring games that head straight to Game Pass. This seems to be a combination of publishers declining to send out code for something most Xbox owners will have access to, and gaming sites believing nobody will be interested in something Game Pass subscribers can try out for themselves. Make your own minds up, eh?
As always, we want to give shout-outs to some honourable mentions. These come in two forms – games we‘ve played and reviewed, and games we haven‘t been able to experience for ourselves yet but are well-aware of their acclaim. You won‘t have to look far to find positive reviews.
Let‘s doff our caps to The Forgotten City – a former Skyrim mod giving the chance to relive the last days of a Roman city, complete with a time loop mechanic. It even gained a cloud release on Switch. Lost in Random, meanwhile, came from industry giants EA but gained no promotion whatsoever. It‘s a gothic fairy-tale that should please fans of Alice: Madness Returns. Chicory: A Colorful Tale (PS4, Switch and PC) gained a handful of 10/10s at launch, being a creative puzzle adventure with painting at its core. The Pedestrian meanwhile offered a different take on puzzle solving, launching on PS5 during the dry month of January, starring a stick man leaping from signposts and other environmental backdrops to manipulate them in surprising ways.
The following four games we reviewed ourselves, each garnering an 8/10. Jake found the Switch‘s Haven Park to be a relaxing time, gaining a comparison with A Short Hike. Open-world puzzle adventure Omno – available on Xbox Game Pass – dazzled with its luscious alien landscapes. At around 4 hours, it‘s ideal for a dull Sunday. Narrative driven Switch tale Sumire turned out to be slightly bleaker, in a thought-provoking way, than its anime-style exterior let on. Matt was also briefly obsessed with Jeff Minter‘s Moose Life on PS4 – a chaotic and demanding psychedelic shooter set in a looping 3D corridor. It definitely wasn‘t Tempest again.
With those honourable mentions out of the way, we‘ve gathered six titles below that deserve far more attention than they gained at launch.
Alba: A Wildlife Adventure – PS4, Xbox One, Switch, PC
The word ‘ wholesome‘ has been bandied about a fair bit this year, suggesting numerous indie developers set about creating morally rich and virtuous projects following 2020‘s global events.
We‘d argue Alba: A Wildlife Adventure is the most wholesome of all. After arriving on a small and picturesque island, ready to spend a week with her grandparents, Alba soon discovers that the dilapidated nature reserve is about to be flattened and turned into a luxury resort. What then ensues is a quest to gather 50 signatures by performing good deeds, including restoring the nature reserve, while photographing and cataloguing the island‘s native creatures via a phone app.
The storyline is spread across a week, with each day having a major event to partake in or a new area to explore before tucking in for the night.
The Mediterranean isle is full of picturesque views and relaxing sounds, both of which can be enjoyed with an alluring sunset. The sound effects are so refined that it‘s possible to track individual bird calls. A smattering of cute details, such as bird feeders made from old bottles and pencils, round this delightful package off perfectly. If you‘re looking for something for younger gamers, this is ideal. Adults looking for an escape will find much to enjoy too.
Song of Horror – PS4, Xbox One, PC
This chapter-based horror adventure surprised us in many ways. It‘s far from a casual experience, requiring a degree of commitment due to its long length – a 20-25 hour runtime – and tricky puzzles that may call for a notepad and pen.
There‘s no handholding whatsoever, which is noteworthy considering that each chapter spans multiple environments, almost feeling like its own self-contained game. Not only are locations vastly different from one chapter to the next, but there are also dozens of characters to play as, and each has their strengths. They all carry a unique light source too, illuminating the richly detailed environments differently. Rooms feel genuinely lived-in, full of clutter.
Here‘s the clincher – Song of Horror doesn‘t feature zombies, or indeed any kind of overused monstrous adversary. Instead, you‘re up against The Presence – a demonic invisible entity that uses advanced AI to track your location. Aggravate it, and your chosen character will feel their wrath through hallucinations and panic-inducing chase sequences. You always know The Presence is there, but you‘ll never know when it‘ll strike.
Song of Horror marks the return of the thinking man‘s horror adventure, and that means it won‘t please everyone. If you‘re expecting to find a dusty shotgun and put it to good use, this probably isn‘t for you. If you‘re up for giving your brain a good workout, with a few heart-pounding experiences along the way, this comes highly recommended.
Xuan Yuan Sword 7 – PS4, Xbox One, PC
A full-price (£40) Chinese role-playing game with the number ‘7’ in its title and a difficult to pronounce name â€“ now thatâ€™s the very definition of off-putting. Indeed, it isnâ€™t clear why publisher eastasiasoft didn‘t consider a rebrand for its western release.
All the more surprising, then, to find that Xuan Yuan Sword 7 is remarkably accessible. It‘s a hack ‘n’ slash RPG with straightforward, easy-to-follow quests, and the ability to skip puzzles should they prove too taxing. Combat isn‘t particularly tactical, but it does allow for some stylish execution animations and a capture system based around trapping enemies in ominous portals.
A welcome sprinkling of fantasy elements is present, such as magical spells and clockwork beasts. Primitive Zoids, if you will. It doesn‘t take itself too seriously either – one character owns a talking parrot, while comical bulbous-headed ‘Kappa‘ creatures occasionally show up during battle.
Rich and detailed visuals help to further the sense of wonder, using the Unreal Engine to good effect – forests are teeming with flora, indoor locations are realistically lit with torches and candles, and the character models are coated in detailed clothing. It‘s possible to craft and upgrade new items, lending a degree of resource management – characters carry the same weapons throughout, which is an odd decision, although it‘s possible to upgrade key weapon components individually.
Xuan Yuan Sword 7 has all the thrills of Nioh but with none of the hardships. While this does come at the cost of a linear game world and a combat system that‘s too easy to master, it‘s the easy-going nature that makes this RPG pleasurable to play. For those just looking for a mystical tale that isn‘t too demanding and doesnâ€™t overstay its welcome (expect a 12-hour runtime), you‘l likely find this adventure full of eastern promise.
I Am Fish – Xbox One, Xbox Series, PC
Around once a year, a game comes along that we‘re convinced will be a hit. This year it was I Am Fish – a physics-based adventure sporting visuals approaching CGI quality. Finding Nemo and Finding Dory are the obvious comparisons. The plot could‘ve come from a Finding Nemo tie-in too, focusing on four aquatic acquaintances – former pet store tank buddies – trying to regroup in the ocean.
This journey takes them through sewers, rivers, crop fields, village squares, swimming pools, and other unlikely locations such as a nightclub and an airport terminal. It really is quite the journey -levels last around 20-30 minutes, seamlessly transitioning from indoor to outdoor locations, crossing great distances in the process.
Methods of travel vary wildly, going from small fishbowls – inviting comparison to Super Monkey Ball – to janitors’ wheeled mop buckets. That aforementioned nightclub stage also involves leaping from one pint glass to another. There‘s no prize for guessing what happens next.
Each fish also harnesses a talent of sorts, with the pufferfish able to expand and roll, the piranha able to chew and destroy, and the flying fish capable of soaring through the air. This makes each character’s set of stages feel suitably different. They can be ‘tackled‘ in any order, and if things get too tough (there are some unexpectedly tricky obstacles later) it‘s possible to skip sections.
I Am Fish is visually slick, surprisingly clever, and constantly surprising. I was hooked (no pun intended) for the 10 hours or so it lasted, and just when I thought I was done, it reeled me back in (pun intended that time) for a colossal final challenge.
The Eternal Cylinder – PS4, Xbox One, PC
Now here‘s a game tricky to pigeonhole, being a story-driven survival adventure with evolution at its core. Spore and Impossible Creatures are valid comparisons, but even then, they are almost polar opposites due to a darker tone and it being set on an alien world filled with bleak and twisted imagery.
This adventure starts with a single creature – known as a Trebhum – at your control. They are goofy and gormless, while also lacking size and stature. Their key to survival is the ability to evolve, allowing for traversal across various hazardous and rugged environments. By consuming various plants and minerals, they can sprout longer legs to leap through the air, develop suction cup feet for climbing, grow thick fur to withstand the cold, and even inflate themselves like balloons. After just an hour or so of play, your default Trebhum becomes almost unrecognisable. More Trebhum can be found and freed, allowing for sets of skills to be mixed and matched.
The Trebhum aren‘t just faced with surviving harsh environments and oddball adversaries, however. The titular Eternal Cylinder is a colossal, world-spanning, metal drum that rolls across the landscape, crushing and flattening everything in its path. It can only be stopped by activating colossal magical towers, and even then, only temporarily. After exploring each segment of land, it‘s a case of hot-footing it to the next tower before the cylinder catches up. The skies turn red and ominous music plays, inducing panic.
Believing there is a way to stop the cylinder, the Trebhum seek their elders’ wisdom, discovering secrets to their survival and unlocking collective memories along the way. It‘s likely you‘ll soon grow attached to your custom-made critter, which makes it all the more devastating when they die. Worry not, as they can be brought back to life at shrines, providing you‘ve gathered enough valuable gems.
While a little unrefined in areas – death can come swiftly and unexpectedly – The Eternal Cylinder is like no other game released this year, earning a place on this list.
The Artful Escape – Xbox One, Xbox Series, PC
It‘s 1972 and Francis Vendetti is feeling the weight of the world on his shoulders. His late uncle was a famous folk singer, and by sharing a passion for music, everyone expects him to follow in his footsteps. Francis’s first gig is a mere day away, and the local town is awash with tourists eager to hear a mixture of new and classic tracks. Although he doesn‘t want to disappoint the community, he can‘t help to think this path is being forced upon him. Francis has far bigger dreams, wishing to usher in a new wave of raucous electric rock – the kind the world has never heard.
The night before the concert, the timid teen has a realisation – what if he reinvents himself? A new persona, a fresh image. These thoughts dwell as he begins to drift off to sleep. What then ensues is an intergalactic voyage of self-discovery, filled with psychedelic colours, alien worlds, and plenty of chances to shred along to space-age jams. You‘ll soon take a shine to Vendetti – his struggle feels real, and his mind seems genuinely blown by what the universe has in store.
It essentially boils down to a story-driven adventure comprising of 2D platforming and rhythm action sequences, with choice-based dialogue peppering the path along the way. A challenging game this isn’t – the platforming is straightforward, and the rhythm action scenes have no grounds for failure. It‘s more focused on letting you carve out your own path to discover your place within the universe.
The Artful Escape only takes a few hours to play through but it‘s the kind of game that resonates long after it‘s finished. Weeks, months, possibly even years.