Head in the clouds
I’m not sure why I keep going back to Cloudpunk (PS4, Xbox, PC, Switch). The sprawling, dystopian city of Nivalis is every bit the future imagined by the cyberpunk fiction of the 1980s, a technocracy full of staggering inequality and endless skyscrapers rising into the clouds, embroidered with neon. I finished the game, in which you play a driver delivering packages in a flying car, months ago. And yet I keep returning to race aimlessly across its gleaming airborne highways and luxe high-rises, soothed by the hum of my engine.
It’s oddly comforting to be here in the middle of a pandemic, in a place of obscene wealth, crushing poverty and technology that does little to change either. Nivalis glitches, sometimes, pieces of its decaying husk falling into the sea while the streets bustle on in dense clusters of colour and light, indifferent yet defiant. There is nothing left to do here but keep going, to ride the ellipsis of disintegration to the end – to keep driving through the endless night and try to see what is still beautiful as it falls apart.
Then there’s Bird Alone (iOS/Android), an app about a bird who has been alone for a very long time. Maybe you know the feeling. The bird would like to be your friend, to check in now and then to see how you’re doing. If you’re having a bad day, it’ll try to cheer you up, or let you be sad if that’s what you need. The bird will understand; it has bad days, too. Laura Hudson
A pastoral escape
This winter I’ve thrown in my Animal Crossing island life and gone back to Stardew Valley (PS4, Switch, Xbox, PC) for another round of crop rearing, livestock tending, low-stakes dungeon crawling and intense emotional situations with my neighbours. The game has expanded in the years since I last played, adding a new island to explore and start a secondary farm on, ostriches, and new friends. What a rare joy to have a game you know so well double in size, offering itself to you all over again. The dialogue is buzzy and cheeky enough to lay waste to the anodyne repetitions of Sprinkles, Dom and the gang back under Tom Nook’s watchful eye.
When I’m not gathering truffles from my pigs or going on long moody dates with Sebastian and his motorbike, I’ve been resurrecting games on my Nintendo 64, repatriated to me over Christmas from my family home. I’ve been taking a lot of joy from Banjo-Kazooie (N64, Xbox), an unrivalled platformer from 1998. Playing it with the old controller and soft-focus polygon graphics was such a treat. There is very little like the feeling of a good jump in a 90s platformer – a split-second of true freedom. Sarah Maria Griffin
Most years, I spend Christmas at my nana’s house. This year, I spent it in Harlem, with Spider-Man: Miles Morales (PS4, PS5). The spinoff-slash-sequel to 2018’s Spider-Man has you slipping into Miles’ sticky shoes, while he’s figuring out what it means to be a superhero. It’s short but rich, focused on Miles’ identity, a community spirit and the diversity of New York City.
It is also – and this is rare for a video game – set at Christmas. In a year where we’ve missed out on regular Christmas experiences, Miles Morales was the next best thing. Underneath the web slinging and electro-charged fist fights, Spider-Man: Miles Morales is a warm game I keep wanting to return to. I’ve saved the city twice, taken loads of photos and tracked down everything in it – even those irritating soundscape samples. But I can’t escape its web. I love seeing Miles hug his mother, and swing around town with his inexperienced, carefree swagger. It feels as if I could stay here forever. I think I might.
And though in real life my football team (Newcastle United) might be dreck, in Fifa 21 (PS4, PS5, Xbox, PC), I can shrug off the spectre of Steve Bruce with the grace of Allan Saint-Maximin dropping the shoulder and ascend the Premier League table with ease. Stacey Henley
I missed the otherworldly whodunnit Paradise Killer (PC, Switch) when it released last year and, in retrospect, I’m glad I didn’t play it until now. I can’t imagine a more original and invigorating game with which to kick off 2021, and the joy of freely exploring its fascinating city was the perfect antidote to the stress of being cramped in my apartment as California weathers the Covid crisis.
It might not look like there’s anything revolutionary here. You play an investigator tasked with getting to the bottom of a brutal murder, and you do so by inspecting crime scenes and interrogating suspects. But what suspects they are! Paradise Island is an alternate reality where a group of immortal syndicate members with names such as Crimson Acid and Doctor Doom Jazz exploit the mortal masses to maintain a status quo that keeps them comfortable. The truth is so twisty and far-reaching in its repercussions that it’s genuinely exciting to put the pieces together and then try to hold the guilty accountable at trial.
The vaporwave-influenced architecture of Paradise Island creates an atmosphere that’s as breezy and hollow as the syndicate’s ethical standards. There’s pleasure in being in a place of such grandiose material excess, but there’s also an intriguing emptiness to all of its displays of wealth and iconography. It’s not unlike the feeling one might get wandering an empty shopping mall, or browsing long-abandoned websites of the 1990s.
My runner-up is art of rally (PC), a racing game with a minimalist aesthetic that encourages you to let all your troubles fall away as you focus with zen-like clarity on the beauty of perfectly navigating its turns. Carolyn Petit
Passport to murder
The clue to the Hitman (PC, PS4, PS5, Xbox) trilogy’s lockdown appeal is in its tagline: A World of Assassination. As our borders close, IO Interactive’s are open, offering virtual holidays. Across three games you’re whisked from Dubai’s spires to a mountainous Hokkaido spa, stopping at Paris, Mumbai and Miami along the way. Fans of the British staycation can even visit Dartmoor, and this is one National Trust house mercifully bereft of shrieking families. Well, until the bodies are found.
What a rush of nostalgia this game is. Remember disgusting night club toilets? Remember barbecues? Remember checking into hotels and then knocking out room service to steal their trousers for a disguise? OK, eventually the specifics of Agent 47’s grisly profession veer away from our holiday snaps. But even in the shoes of a killer this remains a love letter to social spaces and hives of industry. It’s a celebration of routine; glorious, boring routine, and your role in all this is to turn that clockwork behaviour against its cast. The sheer number and ingenuity of the murderous options available to the bald butcher are what keep me playing long after the thrill of tourism wears off.
For less sinister globetrotting, Microsoft Flight Simulator (PC, Xbox) returned in astonishing form in 2020. Pairing Bing maps data with Microsoft’s Azure AI gives you a fine facsimile of Earth to fly around; yes, you can even see your house from here. Whether dabbling with arcade controls or going the whole hog with a flight stick peripheral, this is freeing stuff. And there’s no limitation on legroom. Matthew Castle
I remember the first graphics-based “desktop” computer operating systems as objects of wonder and excitement. World of Horror (PC) recalls them rather differently. In this accursed blend of 1-bit Macintosh aesthetics and virtual boardgame, your plucky high schooler must thwart the rise of an ancient god by solving five randomly selected multiple-ending mysteries, scattered across a collapsing Japanese town. To advance each investigation you search areas for clues, which hits shuffle on a playlist of cosmic horror encounters modelled on the petrifying visions of manga artist Junji Ito.
On a good day a strange man might insist on buying some of your blood. On a bad day you might bumble into a parallel dimension or get into a punch-up with a jar of flesh. On a really bad day you’ll suddenly notice that your character no longer has a face, which makes chatting up potential allies tricky. Some encounters involve a combat system, in which you scientifically queue up a salvo of kicks and swings then watch in despair as they all miss and whatever abomination you’re fighting takes a big, squelchy bite out of your health and/or sanity.
The variety and inventiveness of its chills aside, World of Horror is a great lockdown game because it is a potent love letter to the benefits of staying indoors. Back home in your apartment between cases, all you have to worry about is changing your clothes. You can take baths to restore a sliver of vitality, glance at dire events on TV and fiddle with the drawers in your living room. Your apartment door also has a peephole, which you should on no account look through if you enjoy sleeping at night.
For something a little less terrifying, Capcom’s oddball fantasy Dragon’s Dogma (Nintendo Switch) is incredibly charming, with its stirring campfire ambience and swish combat. Edwin Evans-Thirlwell
Lawyers and laughs
For many of us, gaming during the pandemic is about comfort. Some people find it in maintaining a connection to their friends via online games, others escape the harsh reality we’re facing with something wholesome. I’m replaying the entire Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney (PC, Xbox, PS4, Switch, smartphones) series, games about a hapless attorney who takes on even the most hopeless cases out of an unwavering belief in the innocence of his clients. These are games that genuinely make me laugh, and being told the same joke twice hasn’t changed that. While I may not remember the solution of individual puzzles, I take enormous comfort from knowing what happens next, especially at a time where nothing I took for granted seems certain any more.
At a time where some people need pastel-coloured games with calm environments, I revel in the drama of court cases that thrive on last-minute interventions and the antics of overdrawn criminals. As a visual novel, Ace Attorney also demands very little skill from me. Its episodes are stretched over several in-game days that I can play in short sessions, and all I really do is click though pictures and read dialogue – these days, that’s pretty much all I can muster. What I get in return is the satisfying familiarity of interacting with characters I know and love, and some really goofy jokes.
Grindstone (Switch) is a nice twist on colour-matching, where the colours are little creepy monsters who fight back. It doesn’t take a lot to finish a round, but it can be pleasantly tricky, thanks to an interesting variety of fiends. Malindy Hetfeld