What games we're playing on gaming handhelds this April: Steam Deck, ROG Ally, and Legion Go

Steam Deck and ASUS ROG Ally
(Image credit: Rebecca Spear | Windows Central)

It's that time again! Practically everyone at Windows Central has become an enormous handheld gaming enthusiast, either from the early days of the Steam Deck or because we relentlessly bug each other to try the latest ASUS ROG Ally or Lenovo Legion Go updates.

We can at least agree that gaming handheld is fast becoming the best way to play PC games from the comfort of our sofas, beds, or during travel. Here's a roundup of the games we loved in March and continue to play into April 2024.

Balatro (Steam Deck LCD)

Going up against the last foe comes with negative effects that make your poker-playing life harder. (Image credit: Ben Wilson | Windows Central)

I'm always a little slow to jump on the hype train for games, mainly because the titles with the most excitement are often expensive. That was the case for Helldivers 2, though I still bought that anyway. However, defending Super Earth on the Steam Deck is practically pointless, as the handheld is pushed to its limits on the lowest settings and gets far too hot for my liking. For the second half of March and into April, I caught up on this quirky-looking poker game with a twist.

Balatro is, much like Vampire Survivors before it, a relatively simplistic game in terms of gameplay and aesthetics. It opts for a retro style with pixelated graphics of playing cards, covered with a subtle CRT television scanline filter, which I eventually turned off since its novelty wears off after an hour or so. However, like the vampire game without actual vampires, the dopamine-inducing visual effects of playing winning poker hands with score-boosting jokers and magical tarot cards get the blood pumping more than anything else.

Balatro is another perfect choice for Valve's Steam Deck as it barely uses any processing power, averaging around 6W, keeping the projected battery life above 5 hours on a full charge. There is a mild soundtrack, always playing a laid-back tune in the background, but it's not essential for gameplay, so muting your handheld helps further increase the lifespan. I'm only a few hours in, but already I'm seeing the appeal and understanding why so many fans want to see this game come to Android and iOS devices.

Admittedly, I was a little confused for my first few games, mistakenly playing a full hand of 5 cards every time, but that's not how it has to work. Balatro is based on poker hands and their rankings, but that's where the similarities essentially end. You're not playing against a computer player with its own hand of cards, but instead simply trying to raise enough money to 'defeat' the current blind before moving onto a boss of sorts. Beat that, and you'll move onto the next ante, like a stage, and keep going until you bust out.

The CRT filter gets old fast, but pixel art smoothing is worth keeping. (Image credit: Ben Wilson | Windows Central)

A helpful tip I learned from friends is that the game reads from left to right, so stacking jokers that focus on chip bonuses to the left side, with 'mult' (multiplier) cards towards the middle and right side, has the best effect as they count up your score. There are undoubtedly expert meta-levels of professional tactics for Balatro, but I'm still green and learning my way around the game. One thing's for sure, though: it's incredibly addicting, even for a total novice.

Ben Wilson

Loading up on joker and tarot cards give you better score multipliers and the chance to hit the higher scores in later antes. (Image credit: Ben Wilson | Windows Central)

I'm just muscling in here on Ben's post to say that I, too, have been playing Balatro. I originally purchased it on Xbox but loved the game so much that I bought it on the Steam Deck. I had a three-hour train journey ahead of me, and Balatro made it bearable.

It took a few weeks of playing to actually 'win a run' so if you feel like you're never going to get there. Don't fear! The more you play, the more cards you unlock for future runs and it does get easier. My top tip? If you are looking for specific Planet or Tarot cards on your run, for example, Jupiter, to level up your Flush hands, keeping consumable cards you don't want in your top right deck will manipulate the loot pool when you next open a pack. So, in this scenario, you want Jupiter but have Saturn and Neptune? Hold onto them (as long as they aren't immediate use of course) until you next open a Constellation pack. My second tip? You don't have to know anything about Poker; this isn't a Poker game; it's a Joker game. You want to secure a couple of good Jokers early on for real success and high scores and 'build' around them.

Jennifer Young

Recommended Balatro settings for Steam Deck: 

Keep everything at default, and you'll still enjoy 5+ hours of gameplay time, but I'd suggest turning off the CRT filter. Keep pixel art smoothing active to prevent the slight shimmering effect from appearing around sharp edges.

Balatro (PC)

Balatro (PC)

Play all three original Tomb Raider games with expansions and secret levels on modern PC platforms in this definitive collection.

Buy at: <a href="https://cdkeys.pxf.io/c/221109/1566025/18216?subId1=hawk-custom-tracking&sharedId=hawk&u=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.cdkeys.com%2Fbalatro-pc-steam" data-link-merchant="cdkeys.com"">CDKeys | <a href="https://www.anrdoezrs.net/click-100624765-14473387?sid=hawk-custom-tracking&url=https://www.humblebundle.com/store/balatro" data-link-merchant="humblebundle.com"" data-link-merchant="cdkeys.com"">Humble Bundle | <a href="https://greenmangaming.sjv.io/c/221109/1219987/15105?subId1=hawk-custom-tracking&sharedId=hawk&u=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.greenmangaming.com%2Fgames%2Fbalatro-pc%2F" data-link-merchant="greenmangaming.com"" data-link-merchant="humblebundle.com"" data-link-merchant="cdkeys.com"">GMG

Diablo 2: Resurrected (Steam Deck LCD)

(Image credit: Cale Hunt | Windows Central)

Here we go again. It’s the game that I just can’t stop playing, even more so now that I have a reason to start a new solo self-found adventure on a new device. Sure, I could continue playing my online ladder and non-ladder characters from my Steam Deck, but it’s always fun to begin a fresh offline adventure where the only support you have is Deckard Cain and the rest of the Sanctuary residents.

Playing Diablo 2 offline is a completely different experience compared to playing online. You can’t make trades, and you can’t be rushed through acts or difficulties, which means you have to play every part of the game with the gear you find. It’s the same hacking and slashing aRPG greatness that has survived for 20+ years, only more involved.

The solo self-found experience, often shorted to SSF in online discussion, thus can usually take up a lot more time than playing online. We’re talking hundreds of hours to get even one character properly geared (RNG be kind, please), which is a lot of sitting or standing at a PC desk. Even more so if you decide to switch over to Hardcore mode, where death is permanent, and your gear disappears with your dead character, that’s where the Steam Deck really becomes appealing. I can take my offline characters anywhere I go, picking the handheld up and knocking it out of its slumber for a few quick Magic Find runs whenever I have a few minutes.

Recommended Diablo 2: Resurrected settings for Steam Deck: 

The game is strictly available through the Battle.net launcher, which means you can’t just download it through Steam as you can Diablo 4. However, as we’ve laid out in our guide on playing Diablo 4 on Steam Deck, you can install Battle.net on your Steam Deck with the Lutris tool. It only takes a couple of minutes to set up, after which you can download Diablo 2: Resurrected as usual. I highly recommend it.

Cale Hunt

Diablo 2: Resurrected (PC)

Diablo 2: Resurrected (PC)

Experience the ultimate Diablo II experience, now better than ever. Remastered with updated versions of both Diablo II and the Lord of Destruction expansion for an unforgettable demon-slaying adventure.

Buy at: <a href="https://us.shop.battle.net/en-us/product/diablo_ii_resurrected?p=168305" data-link-merchant="us.shop.battle.net"">Battle.net

Back to the Dawn (ROG Ally Z1 Extreme)

(Image credit: Rebecca Spear | Windows Central)

I've recently gotten sucked into Back to the Dawn on my ROG Ally. It's a 2D pixel RPG that has me playing as a fox reporter named Thomas, who was framed and thrown in jail. Now, it's up to me to help Thomas survive prison life and hopefully escape. Each action I take makes time fly, so I have to manage my day wisely by filling it with the most useful decisions.

For instance, I might spend my day working hard to earn a minuscule amount of money by legitimate means or can find shadier practices for grander cash flow. Certain goods are rare, so gathering items and trading them with others can provide new opportunities. Additionally, some inmates are intimidating, but getting them to warm up to me can unlock new in-prison perks. Plus, there are also plenty of other activities to discover as the game progresses. It's a very engaging story that has me coming back for more.

Technically, this game is in early access, but Thomas the fox's story is complete with about 20 hours of playtime. The Metal Head Games devs hope to add another playable character to the adventure from the view point of Bob the Panther. So there's also that replay value to look forward to in the future.

Recommended Back to the Dawn settings for ROG Ally:

Thanks to its 2D-pixel art style, Back to the Dawn isn't a graphically demanding game at all, so I didn't have to make any adjustments in order to play it on my ROG Ally. I assume it plays equally easily on Steam Deck since it is marked as Steam Deck verified. 

Rebecca Spear 

Back to the Dawn (PC)

Back to the Dawn (PC)

You play as a fox who has recently found themselves wrongfully thrown in jail. You only have so many hours to spend in a day. Will you use your time earning money, making friends with other inmates, educating yourself, or maybe finding a way to escape? The choice is up to you. 

Buy at: <a href="https://greenmangaming.sjv.io/c/221109/1219987/15105?subId1=hawk-custom-tracking&sharedId=hawk&u=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.greenmangaming.com%2Fgames%2Fback-to-the-dawn-pc%2F" data-link-merchant="greenmangaming.com"" target="_blank">GMG | <a href="https://www.anrdoezrs.net/click-100624765-14473387?sid=hawk-custom-tracking&url=https://www.humblebundle.com/store/back-to-the-dawn" data-link-merchant="humblebundle.com"" data-link-merchant="greenmangaming.com"" target="_blank">Humble Bundle

The Outlast Trials (Steam Deck LCD)

The Outlast Trials is available on Steam and Xbox (Image credit: Jennifer Young - Windows Central)

The Outlast Trials is a prequel to Outlast and Outlast 2, set in the Cold War period in one of The Murkoff Corporation's test facilities. If you've played the Outlast games before, you may already know what kind of gameplay to expect such as running for your life, hiding in lockers and under beds with only the light of a night vision camera for comfort. And gore, lots and lots of blood and gore. The difference with The Outlast Trials is it's Red Barrel's first-ever multiplayer experience, and you can play with friends or random players online to share the fear. 

I originally played The Outlast Trials on Xbox when it launched out of Early Access in March. In fact, I had the pleasure of meeting the developers and hearing about their thought process in crafting a multiplayer Outlast. While I had a hell of a time running around with friends on Xbox, I actually purchased a copy on Steam Deck to enjoy trying to complete the game as a solo adventure, and it's a lot more terrifying.

You wake up in a daze, held prisoner in a facility that has questionable sanitization, and are promptly injected with drugs to keep you obedient. You're then tasked with completing 'Trials' of varying difficulty while trying to stay alive and not upset any of the other very angry test subjects, all while being observed. Klaxons sound periodically throughout the game just to put you under even more stress, and more enemies are released into your Trial for you to deal with. And by deal with I don't mean you actually get weapons, you have to run, hide and dodge.

Of course, not to leave you completely helpless, but The Murkoff Corporation will reward you as you complete Trials with items to aid you in your survival. These include slippers to make softer footsteps and X-ray vision to see through walls and better predict your enemy's next move. It's a game that can be played with friends for pure chaotic fun or alone, as I've been doing on my Steam Deck. It's not a game for the faint-hearted, the horror being more grotesque than the prior games combined, but you almost become desensitized to the sound of chopped flesh when you're running around trying to find the next objective.

Settings-wise, The Outlast Trials is optimized incredibly well for the Steam Deck, so you don't need to mess with the settings at all.

Jennifer Young

The Outlast Trials (PC) | $44.79 now $29.39 at CDKeys

The Outlast Trials (PC) | <a href="https://cdkeys.pxf.io/c/221109/1566025/18216?subId1=hawk-custom-tracking&sharedId=hawk&u=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.cdkeys.com%2Fpc%2Fthe-outlast-trials-pc-steam" data-link-merchant="cdkeys.com"">was $44.79 now $29.39 at CDKeys

Journey into the darkness with The Outlast Trials, the ultimate test of survival horror. Uncover the secrets of the Murkoff Corporation's secret testing facility, armed only with your wits and a desperate will to survive. With heart-pounding gameplay and an immersive multiplayer experience, The Outlast Trials awaits. Are you ready to face your nightmares? 

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Portable PC gaming stays winning

There are plenty of options if you're looking for the best gaming handhelds, with rivals first popping up to take on the Steam Deck, triggering a category all of its own. An entry-level Steam Deck LCD costs $349 and still plays a wide variety of games without much stress, only needing some community tweaks to handle the higher-end modern titles, so it's not entirely expensive, either.

Some of us like the raw performance boost of an ASUS ROG Ally or Lenovo Legion Go, with the MSI Claw yet to become a mainstay in our team, but the benefits of portable PC gaming are clear no matter which device you choose. Come back in May to see which new games are destroying our social lives and free time, as this monthly series keeps rolling.

Rebecca Spear
Editor and Reviewer

Self-professed gaming geek, Rebecca Spear, is one of Windows Central's editors and reviewers with a focus on gaming handhelds, PC gaming, and laptops. When she isn't checking out the latest games on Xbox Game Pass, PC, ROG Ally, or Steam Deck; she can be found digital drawing with a Wacom tablet. She's written thousands of articles with everything from editorials, reviews, previews, features, previews, and hardware reviews over the last few years. If you need information about anything gaming-related, her articles can help you out. She also loves testing game accessories and any new tech on the market. You can follow her @rrspear on X (formerly Twitter).

  • fdruid
    Agreed that Hollow Knight is great on handheld, I play it on Steam Deck.
    Somehow the sprites are done in the right proportion for a small screen, and the graphic style works really well there.