The first few months of a new year are always lousy with new video games. Developers who can’t meet the deadline for the holiday season often cut bait and shunt the fruits of their labor into January or February to buy crucial time for some extra polish. Still, I don’t think I’ve seen anything quite like the beginning of 2022. The COVID bottleneck is loosening up, studios are operating at full capacity, and suddenly Namco and Sony are somehow releasing two of the biggest games on their respective dockets in the same week, long before the prime real estate of autumn. To follow the gaming industry is to constantly contend with an overflowing backlog lingering in your Steam library, but rarely has it gotten this dire this quickly. That’s a good problem to have, obviously. I much prefer our current predicament to the challenges of 2021, when the release schedule dried up entirely. Here are some favorites for what’s already shaping up to be a marquee year in gaming, listed in chronological order by release date.
Core Keeper takes the bucolic charm of Stardew Valley and moves it deep underground. This year’s foremost Steam breakout hit is a satisfying meld of all sorts of other fantasy homesteading simulators (think Minecraft, Valheim, and Terraria) except, this time, your sprightly survivalist is lost in an expansive, procedurally generated network of caverns. Core Keeper strikes a sublime balance between precarious dungeoneering and the cozy chores back home. Yes, sometimes I would like to face off against the monstrosities waiting for me at the abyssal depths as long as I get to tend the garden by torchlight afterward.
Pokémon didn’t necessarily need to change. Over the past three years, we received new editions in the primary series with Sword and Shield as well as remasters of two DS classics in Brilliant Diamond and Shining Pearl. Those games all sold extraordinarily well, proving the Pokémon formula remains lucrative 30 years after Red and Blue. But Pokémon Legends: Arceus provides an alternative timeline in which Nintendo abandoned the Über-simplistic RPG trappings for something a little more substantial. Here you are: a Pokémon trainer alone in the wilds enjoying a crisper, spookier vision of what life among the untamed Pikachus would actually be like. Sneak up on Pokémon and blindside them with a Poké Ball, battle down your prey without being locked into a turn-based slog, and run for your life after angering a giant Electrode. It’s Pokémon meets Bear Grylls, which means I’ve been dreaming about playing this video game since I was roughly ten years old.
Naughty Dog frequently rereleases its back catalogue, so it was no surprise that the great PlayStation developer bundled its PS4 Uncharted games in a package that coincides with the mediocre film adaptation. But if you missed Uncharted 4 or The Lost Legacy when they first arrived in 2016 and 2017, The Legacy of Thieves is absolutely worth a look on the spiffy PlayStation 5. The Uncharted series typically presents Nathan Drake as an unruly man-child who grows weirdly petulant whenever he doesn’t get his way, but the fourth and final game in the narrative was the first to actually scrutinize his selfishness. (It’s also one of the best action games of the past ten years.) And The Lost Legacy, the mini-chapter that focuses on two of the franchise’s most beloved characters, found Naughty Dog experimenting with an open-world gestalt that still has me excited for whatever the company is cooking up next. It will likely be a long time before we get another Uncharted game, and that’s probably for the best. After all, the series went out on top.
As the name implies, Strange Horticulture is a game about looking at plants. Beleaguered customers pour through your door and request specific herbal remedies, and you consult a dusty tome full of botanical theory before delivering the specimen of choice. This may sound boring, but by the time Strange Horticulture hits its groove, you’ll begin to appreciate the deep deduction system animating the design. You’re asked to pore over an encyclopedia of phytologic caveats with just a few clues, slowly narrowing down the exceptions and edge cases until you are sure, without a doubt, that the man in your shop needs the plant with blue flowers and triangle-shaped leaves. At last, a video game that allows us to feel intelligent and bucolic at the same time.
Rainbow 6: Extraction feels like a generous expansion pack. The game includes the same arsenal and characters as Ubisoft’s venerated first-person shooter Rainbow 6 Siege, but it trades the squad-based multiplayer for a horror-flick romp through an obscene, viscerally unsettling alien apocalypse. The antiseptic halls and corporate antechambers crucial to the franchise’s muted aesthetic have been overrun by oozing pustules, curdled zombies, and infectious muck — think John Carpenter’s The Thing with SWAT teams — as you and two friends attempt to complete a trio of challenges before succumbing to the horde. I went into Extraction with exceedingly low expectations, and I found a game that evoked the morbid, white-knuckle thrills of the best high-stakes XCOM missions. Did you leave behind one of your friends in the churn? Next mission you gear up to free them from the clutches of the parasite, or else they’ll suffer a punitive progression tax. After so many co-op experiences that treat us with kid gloves, you remember what it’s like to truly fear death in Extraction.
Nobody Saves the World (Windows PC, Xbox One)
In most RPGs, your character’s destiny is set in stone by the second or third time you’ve leveled up. We allocate some talent points into strength and dexterity and become resigned to the fact that if we ever want to roll a mage, we’ll have to start the game over someday. But Nobody Saves the World is specifically designed to solve that problem. The protagonist, named Nobody, can morph into 15 different forms running the gamut of every blasé fantasy cliché (a dragon, a warrior, a ranger). Each form has its own set of abilities to unlock, and forms can be swapped in and out of different move sets across the board. The results are sacrilegious in the best way possible; suddenly, your puny spell caster is wielding some of the tankiest cooldowns in the game. Nobody Saves the World shows you everything it has to offer by the time you’re done with it. Because, honestly, is there anything worse than realizing you chose the wrong character at the 20-hour mark?
Elden Ring (PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Windows PC, Xbox One, Xbox Series S/X)
FromSoftware spent the past ten years creating some of the greatest single-player action games ever made. Dark Souls, Bloodborne, and Sekiro turned us loose in fascinating universes replete with devastatingly difficult bosses and a teeming underbelly of secrets, Easter eggs, and branching paths that continue to prod at your imagination long after the credits roll. Elden Ring is the company’s boldest evolution yet. With the game’s world map that rivals the scale of Grand Theft Auto’s Los Santos, FromSoftware throws its conservative linearity out the window and deftly extends its mythic, Souls-ian grandeur in every direction. This is an open-world game built to the most exacting standards possible — every inch of the atlas glows with bespoke authored adventures, excising the repetitive simulacra that gum up the average Assassin’s Creed journey. It’s a remarkable game and a watershed moment for environment design in the industry.
orizon Forbidden West (PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5)
It’s tough to wrap your mind around the setting of the Horizon series. You’re a neolithic cavewoman in a prehistoric America that happens to be populated by hulking cybernetic dinosaurs. You’ll fight them off with a spear built from serrated silicon chips. Oh, and you explore underground ruins that appear to be the abandoned laboratories of a much more modern human race. The original game, which arrived in 2017, did a fantastic job of spindling together all of these wild plot threads, and that diligence continues in Forbidden West. Gameplay-wise, this is still a competent open-world adventure that’s at its best when you’re facing off against one of those aluminum-plated T. Rexes, but you’ll stick around for the story, which tactfully unravels more of the mysteries lingering in this post-post-postapocalypse. The question at the center never changes: Does humanity really deserve a second chance?
Total War: Warhammer III (MacOS, Windows PC)
Total War was once a franchise consumed with historical dogma. We wreaked havoc from Napoleon’s front lines to the Oda clan of feudal Japan, forever bound by the limits of planet Earth. But developer Creative Assembly pivoted to orcs, elves, and demons with 2016’s Total War: Warhammer, and six years later, we have received the conclusion of the trilogy. Like the previous games, Warhammer puts you at the helm of a marauding army eager to meet its rival force on the open field of battle. There is plenty of positional strategy to calculate, yet Total War is more about sitting back and enjoying the grand viscera when your cavalry executes a perfectly timed flank. Warhammer differs from its forebears with its emphasis on narrative. Creative Assembly is free of the analects here and has carte blanche to dream up gristly scenarios involving the many putrid creatures that populate the Warhammer canon. If you’ve always been curious about this grimdark universe but never felt the urge to paint those expensive pewter statues, Total War is a fantastic jumping-off point.
The beat-’em-up is dead. We aren’t getting a new Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles game anytime soon, and you still need to drive to your local Six Flags if you want to drop quarters into the Simpsons arcade game. Sifu was born in that void, and it resurrects one of the most primal joys of video games: knocking out a bunch of dudes in a dive bar. Sifu has no plot other than a warmed-over collection of kung fu tropes, and its gameplay never deviates across a seven-hour running time. (Angry men want you dead. Show them no mercy with your fists.) But that doesn’t matter because meshing together a package of punches and kicks on some nameless heavy leaning on a pool table feels as good as it did in 1993. For those of us who love getting lost in an intuitive combat system, Sifu is close to heaven on earth.
OlliOlli World (Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Windows PC, Xbox One, Xbox Series S/X)
We’re in the midst of a minor skateboarding-game renaissance, which is unsurprisingly peaking right alongside a wave of early-aughts Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater nostalgia. OlliOlli World doesn’t take much inspiration from those classics. Instead, it brings skateboarding to a two-dimensional plane where forward momentum is king. Each level puts you into a hellacious obstacle course bracketed by ramps, rails, and half-pipes; your core goal is to make it through the checkpoints in one piece. In practice, that means you’ll be blending wall rides and 5-0 grinds like clockwork, creating a rhythmic, almost parkour-like cadence with your repertoire of tricks. But what makes OlliOlli World uniquely memorable is its slacker-utopia aesthetic. Who wouldn’t want to live on a planet that can be navigated only by kickflips?