If you're looking to dive into the latest and greatest big-budget AAA titles from some of the biggest developers in the world, you'll enjoy the feast that 2023 put on the table. The rich cinematic and narrative brilliance of Remedy's Alan Wake 2; the unbelievable scale and depth of the RPG systems in Larian's Baldur's Gate 3; the fast, furious, and explosive mecha action in FromSoftware's Armored Core 6. These are only a few of the many incredible games that blew our minds last year, with plenty of others like DIablo IV, Star Wars Jedi: Survivor, Starfield, Final Fantasy XVI, the Dead Space and Resident Evil 4 remakes, and more that are unquestionably worth a pickup.
But while the industry's biggest games have dominated much of the spotlight, it's important to recognize that 2023 was an amazing year for smaller and independent projects as well. Some of these, such as Lethal Company and Dredge, have garnered plenty of attention and accolades; others, though, haven't reached that level of popularity despite their excellent quality and polish.
Now that 2024 is upon us, I'd like to shoutout seven of these hidden gem games that I played and loved last year, and that you shouldn't miss as we head into the new year.
Ever since I played through the Hotline Miami games, I've been searching for other ultraviolent top-down shooters that can get me addicted to their brand of high-octane carnage like Dennaton's classics did all those years ago. For the longest time, nothing really gave me what I was looking for...until I came across OTXO. This noir action shoot 'em up was put together entirely by solo dev Lateralis, and it's exactly the type of spiritual successor I've been yearning for.
OTXO trades Hotline Miami's vibrant, psychedelic colors for a black, white, and red palette that's reminiscent of PlatinumGames' MadWorld, but beyond that, the game wears its inspiration on its sleeve — and at a glance, its gameplay could even be mistaken for a third installment in Dennaton's series. But once you dig into it, it becomes clear that OTXO takes the Hotline Miami formula and elevates it excellently in several ways.
For starters, OTXO cranks up the thrill of the action to 11, with a ridiculous number of bullet trails, kicked-up dust particles, blood spatters, and subtle screen-shake effects that sell the mayhem of its combat better than any other top-down shooter I've played before (oh, and the soundtrack is incredible, too). Then there's the game's highly replayable roguelike structure, which makes it possible for players to come across any eight of OTXO's 150 handcrafted rooms during their runs and put together unique builds with the game's many different weapons and upgrades. These are acquired or unlocked over time as players blast their way through the mysterious mansion that serves as the canvas you'll be soaking with the blood of your foes.
OTXO also lets you actually get hit a few times before you go down and gives you limited bullet time slo-mo to play with; the former balancing decision gets rid of Hotline Miami's frustrating one-shot kills, and the latter mechanic feels awesome to use without being overpowered. All in all, it's a stellar action roguelike shooter that I can't recommend enough. You can get it for Windows PC via Steam.
OTXO — $14.99 at Steam (PC)
This fantastic roguelike top-down shooter is the spiritual successor to Hotline Miami I've been waiting for, and I'll be playing it plenty in the months and years to come. Between its awesome visual effects and its clever gameplay additions and adjustments, it perfects the formula Dennaton Games introduced in 2012.
If you'd like to experience the brutal and fast-paced action of OTXO in a first-person shooter, Trepang2 is the game for you. It may be named after, of all things, a chill project about a cucumber that the developers whipped up for a game jam, but make no mistake — Trepang2 is an explosive, bombastic FPS that's best played at a breakneck pace.
It puts you in the boots of "Subject 106," a supersoldier imprisoned at a blacksite who gets rescued by a mysterious paramilitary group. From then on, it's up to you and your new allies to intercept a shadowy corporation and their private military and stop them from unearthing supernatural dangers that could threaten the world, slowly learning more about yourself and the factions around you all the while.
In addition to using the game's large arsenal of available weapons, your superhuman abilities allow you to sprint and slide around the battlefield with unrivaled speed, and kick or throw heavily armed and armored mercenaries around as if they were ragdolls. Bullet time and a cloaking device give you some additional ways to deal with waves of soldiers and other threats, too, and you'll need them; Trepang2 has some of the smartest, deadliest shooter AI I've encountered outside of Halo or the original F.E.A.R., with the latter clearly serving as chief inspiration for Trepang Studios here.
Put simply, this horror-tinged FPS is an absolute blast, and its intense techno-metal soundtrack and particle effect-laden visuals are the perfect icing on the cake. It's a must-play for shooter fans, and a game I intend to revisit often for more of its addicting combat. It's available now on Steam, Xbox Series X|S, and PS5.
Trepang2 | was
$29.99 now $19.12 at GMG (Steam, PC)
This high-octane action-packed FPS is basically F.E.A.R. on steroids, and it's a must-play for any shooter fan that loves snappy and brutal fast-paced combat. Between its impressively diverse sandbox, elite enemy AI, and top notch presentation, it's got everything you could want from a hardcore shooter.
In stark contrast to the bloody and grisly ultraviolence of OTXO and Trepang2, Fireplace Games' En Garde! is bright, vibrant, lighthearted, and irresistibly charming. I picked it up right after Christmas after a family member was kind enough to gift me some Steam funds, and despite the game's short four to five-hour runtime, it immediately stood out to me as one of the best indies I'd played all year.
This swashbuckling adventure is best described as a playable Zorro story, with you taking control of its protagonist swordswoman Adalia de Volador. Remarkably dexterous, a master of the rapier, and both quippy and quick-witted, she's a joy to play as — and exactly the kind of panache, revolutionary hero that the people of 17th Century France need.
En Garde! isn't the most mechanically engaging action game, with combat that's ultimately on the simple side. However, it is one of the most stylish I've played in years, complete with plenty of spectacle and flair that's guaranteed to put a smile on your face. You'll primarily be using Adalia's blade to deftly dispatch baddies with flashy combos, but are also strongly encouraged to creatively make use of the environment like the star of an action movie would. Launching crates at people, throwing pots over their heads, or kicking them into tables are just a few of the hilarious you can even the odds against the Count-Duke's armies.
Above all else, it's just pure unadulterated fun, and a wonderful game to play if a short and sweet comedic swordplay power fantasy sounds like a good time to you. You can pick it up on PC through Steam.
Bramble: The Mountain King
My colleague Zachary Boddy wrote that Bramble: The Mountain King may be the best kept Xbox Game Pass secret of 2023, and having played it a few weeks after its late April release last year, I wholeheartedly agree with them. I may not be the type of player that typically seeks out horror titles, but even so, Dimfrost Studio's new game left me speechless for all the right reasons.
I'm not spoiling a thing here, but to set the stage: you play as Olle, a young boy journeying to rescue his sister after she's kidnapped by a fearsome troll. The game's four to six-hour story takes place in Bramble, a forested land lush with wonder and peril in equal parts. Your only hope of survival is to use the gifts given to you by the Spark of Courage, a magical artifact with the power to ward off or defeat the threats that lurk in the dark.
What ultimately got me to check out Bramble was its world, atmosphere, and art direction — all of which draw heavy inspiration from the darker sides of Scandinavian fables and folklore. It's an undeniably gorgeous game, and one that even seems almost gentle at times thanks to the softness of the visuals and the voice of the woman that narrates the adventure. But that tranquility often gives way to heart-wrenching terror when you least expect it, calling both the beauty and brutality of life itself to mind.
Bramble is wholly deserving of a full purchase, even if it's on the short side for something priced at $30. As previously mentioned, though, it's also available through Xbox Game Pass on Xbox Series X|S, Xbox One systems, and PC, so you can play it that way if you're a subscriber. You can get it on PS5, PS4, and Nintendo Switch as well.
Bramble: The Mountain King | was
$29.99 now $12 at GMG (Steam, PC)
This atmospheric horror game creatively draws on Scandinavian folklore for its setting and story, and ended up being one of my favorite titles on Xbox Game Pass last year. Whether you play it through Microsoft's service or by buying it permanently, it's absolutely worth your time.
Few, if any, games I played this year were more moving than Venba, a beautifully stylized cooking indie with an unbelievable amount of heart. Taking place in the household of a South Indian family that immigrated to Canada, the game follows its individual members as they struggle to adjust to the new home, community, and culture they find themselves in. Food and the way it connects people is the story's driving force, with the game prominently featuring authentic South Indian dishes and music.
It's a very short game that only takes two hours or so to complete, but every second of that runtime is poignant and meaningful. Throughout it, you'll get to see the family grow as they go through a number of ups and downs while also uncovering lost recipes and exploring South Indian culture through cooking puzzles and dialogue options.
Venba is nothing short of terrific, and was one of 2023's best Xbox games. Note that like Bramble, it can be played through Xbox Game Pass on Xbox Series X|S, Xbox One and PC, with PS5 and Switch versions available too.
This incredibly touching puzzle-based cooking game tells the heartfelt story of a South Indian family struggling to adjust to their new home after immigrating to Canada. Venba is something everyone should play, especially since it's on Game Pass.
Another lovely Game Pass title I'd like to spotlight is Jusant, the latest project from the Life is Strange and Tell Me Why developer DON'T NOD. Known for its narrative adventure games, the stamina-based, puzzle-driven climbing in Jusant is something new from the studio — and the result of that ambition is the most relaxing game I played in 2023.
Here's the deal: you've got a funny little water creature buddy, and it needs your help to reach the top of a colossal tower of rock. So, with a variety of helpful climbing tools at your disposal, you begin the lengthy journey to the tower's summit, with the skyscraping landmass becoming more and more difficult to scale as you ascend.
It sounds arduous, and in some ways, it can be. But on the whole, Jusant is actually quite meditative, with laid-back gameplay that not only allows, but encourages you to take in the breathtaking sights, explore every nook and cranny, and progress at your own pace. There's no threat of failure to worry about here, and while the game's puzzles are engaging and clever, they're not particularly difficult or overly complex.
Pair this approach to gameplay design with intriguing lore to unravel, a subtle and soothing score, and a smooth, vibrant art style, and you've got one of the finest peaceful games in the industry. It's available now on Xbox Series X|S and PC, and also PS5.
DON'T NOD is known for its narrative adventure games, so the meditative climbing title Jusant was quite a lovely surprise. It's the most relaxing game I played last year, and you should check it out if you're in need of something chill to enjoy.
Slay the Princess
Saving a kidnapped princess is one of the oldest gaming tropes there is, which is why the title of Slay the Princess, a new indie visual novel from Black Tabby Games, made my eyebrows rise. I caught wind of the game when I noticed people raving about it on social media, and it instantly became a favorite of mine after I played through its deeply touching and hauntingly beautiful tale.
The Steam page tries to make things real simple for you with some comically blunt descriptions: "You're here to slay the princess. Don't believe her lies," and "She's very bad and you have to get rid of her for all our sakes." Of course, things are far more complicated than that, but I'm not going to spoil one of 2023's best PC games. Just trust me; it's brilliant, and going into this branching narrative blind is the best way to experience it.
What I will say, though, is that reactivity and responsiveness is baked into every line of Slay the Princess' code. Many games claim that your choices matter, but fail to give them meaningful consequences or do a poor job of showing you the impact they have. What Black Tabby put together here is a rare and special exception to that trend, with almost every single decision made affecting the direction of the story and how it unfolds. It's not at all afraid to push back when you poke and prod at it to see what'll happen, and I love that.
Hands-down, it's one of the smartest visual novels in gaming, and excellent voice acting from Jonathan Sims and Nichole Goodnight as well as an incredible amount of spectacular pencil-and-paper artwork from graphic novelist Abby Howard solidify it as a masterpiece. Don't miss it.
Slay the Princess — $17.99 at GOG (PC)
This remarkable visual novel from Black Tabby Games is chock-full of clever and creative twists, and features a haunting, emotional story that reacts to every choice you make in ways both big and small. It also sports great voice acting and gorgeous hand-drawn art, and ultimately, it's a total must-play.
What hidden gems will 2024 have in store?
2023's grandest and most popular titles understandably get put on center stage whenever people talk about how great of a year it was for gaming. For me, though, hidden gems like the ones I've listed here come to mind just as often as the heavy hitters do when I look back at all the games I played last year. Even though they're not as large, long, or well-known as their AAA counterparts, they're still phenomenal games that I love, and I'm confident you'll love them, too.
I'm also stoked to see the projects that smaller studios and independent developers bring in 2024. Only time will tell what kinds of surprises we can look forward to throughout the year, but between major releases like Avowed and Senua's Saga: Hellblade II, I'll definitely be keeping an eye out for more amazing hidden gems like these ones.
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