2016 was a great year for big games. There were fantastic sequels like Uncharted 4 and Final Fantasy XV, long-awaited adventures like The Witness and The Last Guardian, along with fantastic indie gems like Firewatch and Inside. But amidst all of the big names, the year was also filled with many smaller, yet equally enticing experiences that you may have missed. There’s everything from cute horror games to futuristic puzzle boxes to heartbreaking true stories. Here are 10 of my favorite hidden gems from 2016.
Yomawari: A Night Alone (PC, PS Vita)
Yomawari is a deceptive game. It looks cute, starring an adorable schoolgirl with a big red bow in her hair. But from the very beginning, when she decides to take her dog for a walk in the middle of the night, things feel amiss. Despite its adorable visuals, Yomawari is terrifying, and a lot of it comes down to sound. You can hear the little girl’s heart thumping when a monster gets too close, and the game uses silence to create incredible moments of tension.
Virginia (PC, PS4, Xbox One)
Virginia is a game that often feels like walking through a movie. Unlike most games, which follow the player around in real time, Virginia makes liberal use of cinematic techniques like quick cuts, flashbacks, and montage to create an interactive experience that feels unlike any other. Its strange story about an FBI agent’s search for a missing boy only makes it that much more surreal.
I Am Setsuna (PC, PS4, PS Vita)
2016 had no shortage of great RPGs, with the likes of the epic Final Fantasy XV and the satisfyingly streamlined Pokémon Sun and Moon. But none had quite the old-school charm of I Am Setsuna. The first release from Square Enix’s new Tokyo RPG Factory studio, I Am Setsuna was created to evoke the classic charms of games like Final Fantasy IV and Chrono Trigger. And with its sweeping soundtrack, lovely visuals, simple-yet-engrossing story, and copious turn-based battles, it managed to do just that.
BoxBoxBoy (Nintendo 3DS)
The original BoxBoy was a largely unheralded gem on the 3DS, and its sequel only makes the formula better. Part puzzle game, part side-scrolling platformer, BoxBoxBoy presents you with tricky levels to navigate, and a main character who can generate boxes and use them to reach new areas. You can make bridges, staircases, and more, and the game manages to add inventive new twists constantly to keep things feeling fresh. Plus, you can dress Boxboy up in all kinds of cute outfits.
Oxenfree (PC, Mac, PS4, Xbox One)
I’m not usually a fan of listening to teens chatter away, but Oxenfree manages to make this annoyance into a fun and integral part of the game. Oxenfree tells the story of a group of kids stranded on a haunted island, and much of the time you’re simply listening to people talk, chiming in when it’s time to make a decision. The dialogue-focused gameplay meshes well with the spooky ‘80s-style horror vibe. Basically, if you like Stranger Things, you’ll love Oxenfree.
Mini Metro (iOS, Android, PC)
Subway-line building game Mini Metro isn’t exactly new — the PC version came out last year — but its 2016 mobile release feels just about perfect. Touchscreen controls make creating and changing new lines simple and intuitive, and it’s a lot of fun dragging trains to new spots. There’s also a certain joy that comes from playing the game while you’re riding an actual subway.
Really Bad Chess (iOS)
I’m terrible at chess, yet I can’t stop playing Really Bad Chess on my phone. The game takes the fundamentals of chess and reimagines them, giving you a completely different board setup each time you play. It’s a structure that lets you learn the rules as you go, without the harsh restrictions of the real board game, making it perfect for chess newbies. And once you get hooked, the daily challenges will keep you coming back.
That Dragon, Cancer (PC, Mac, iOS)
It’s hard to imagine what it’s like to be the parent of a dying child, but That Dragon, Cancer comes hauntingly close. The game is a true story about a young boy and his family, and how they come to grips with his struggle with the deadly disease. A series of beautiful-yet-harrowing interactive vignettes give you a small window into the experience, and it’s just as heartbreaking as you’d imagine.
Alone With You (PS4, PS Vita)
Alone With You feels like a dating sim smashed together with an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation. While marooned on a desolate alien world, you become close with a series of holographic projections based on real — but dead — people, as well as a clingy AI that seems to be always listening. While your ultimate goal is to get off the planet, there’s a good chance you’ll stumble upon some virtual love along the way.
The Room trilogy managed to show just how cool puzzle boxes could be on a touchscreen device, and Prism takes that idea and sends it to space. With its abstract, futuristic visuals, the game gives the impression that you’re exploring some kind of alien object, rather than simply solving a puzzle on your smartphone.