It’s no secret that Xbox Game Pass is not only one of the best deals in all of gaming, but also a crucial pillar in Xbox’s strategy going forward. It’s already home to the entire Halo and Gears franchises, as well as great games like the underrated Sunset Overdrive, Cuphead, Ori and the Will of the Wisps, and most recently Call of the Sea. The new addition of EA Play for those who have Game Pass Ultimate has brought even more excellent games, like Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order. And it’s also only going to get better with Microsoft’s acquisition of Zenimax and its array of developers, as well as the surge of Xbox Studios games coming in 2021 and beyond, including the recently revealed Fable and Perfect Dark.
However, one of my favorite elements of Game Pass is its constant string of incredible indie games, many of which hit the service the same day they launch. Whether you’re a newcomer to Game Pass or have been using the service for years and want to dig a bit deeper, here are 10 smaller, wonderful games that you should absolutely check out.
Note: Microsoft adds and removes titles from Game Pass at regular intervals. This list reflects the lineup currently offered as of Jan. 10, 2021.
Carrion is probably the best monster movie I’ve ever played. Developed by Phobio Game Studio, it places you in the role of a small creature who breaks out of its secret government lab, and proceeds to run amok on the folks who were experimenting on it. As you slowly gain power and begin to transform, it takes the core mechanic of Evolve, deconstructs it to an atomic level, and ultimately makes for a much tighter and more effective horror experience around it.
Drawing inspiration from stuff like The Blob, The Thing, the Xenomorphs from Alien, and even the smoke monster from Lost, Carrion made me feel like a movie monster in ways few other games have ever accomplished. The skill progression, fluid movement, genuinely disgusting sound design, and clever AI all make for a tight and entertaining twist on the horror genre. In fact, given that you play as the thing that goes bump in the night, it feels like one of the first great reverse-horror games.
As someone who’s spent a lot of time during quarantine doing jigsaw puzzles (don’t judge me), Carto is built around a familiar, but very smart core mechanic. The entire colorful top-down world is built of pieces that can be rearranged on the fly. In order to solve the environmental puzzles, you need to literally shift, rotate, and move elements of the world to meet certain requirements. Heading east until you hit a river with no way of crossing? Simply take the plot of land that houses the river and move it to your west. Congrats, you’ve effectively forded the river.
Carto encourages a lot of neat out-of-the-box thinking in terms of how to take the pieces you have and use them to solve the challenge at hand. It’s made even better as the actual shape of the individual pieces evolve throughout the game, going from simple squares to more advanced Tetris-like structures. When you finally figure out the solution to a particularly tricky puzzle, it comes alongside that excellent “a-ha!” rush that only the best puzzle games can provide.
Throw a rock in any direction, and you’re bound to hit a game that’s been inspired by From Software’s Soulsborne games. But none exude the same level of atmosphere, environmental storytelling, and tough-but-fair combat quite as well as Hollow Knight from Team Cherry. And while this 2D Metroidvania obviously owes a lot to Dark Souls, it also brings so many of its own fantastic ideas to the table — including its smart charm system, which really allows you to tailor your abilities to your own personal play style.
Even if you played Hollow Knight back at its launch in 2017, it’s worth revisiting thanks to the healthy set of updates and expansions that have peppered the game over the past few years. It’s also a great time to play Hollow Knight for the first time, because we’re finally getting some information regarding the much-anticipated sequel Silksong, which has the pedigree to be one of the best games of 2021.
Hypnospace Outlaw is unlike anything I’ve ever played, and I loved it for that. It’s a fantastic and nostalgic trip back to a fictional version of the Y2K-era internet, including low-res videos, janky Geocities webpages, and annoying gifs that pepper the deep recesses of forums. This version of the internet, called Hypnospace, is one visited by folks in their sleep, and it’s one of the strangest and most interesting settings for a game in recent memory.
Hypnospace Outlaw is ultimately a puzzle game, placing you in the role of an Enforcer for the company who created this internet. You browse the breadth of its websites in the name of combating viruses, copyright strikes, and cyberbullying. A bit like Her Story or Telling Lies, it makes you feel like a detective by giving you the keys of a small kingdom, and trusting you to piece it all together. If you have even the slightest bit of interest in the bad old days of the internet, Hypnospace is a game for you.
At first glance, it would be easy to simply write off Katana Zero as a game clearly inspired by the success of Hotline Miami. After all, it’s a tough, stylish, neo-noir action game where a single hit kills you, all set to a fantastic soundtrack. No matter how many times I died (spoilers — it was a lot), the immediacy of jumping right back into the stage and trying again made for such a satisfying feeling when I finally cleared a particularly tough screen.
But despite these similarities, Askiisoft’s game goes above and beyond its inspirations thanks to its really wonderful storytelling. A combination of great writing, a smart dialogue tree, and some neat fourth-wall breaks kept me guessing right up until the credits rolled, and long after thanks to upcoming DLC that will resolve some of the lingering questions.
There’s no game on this list that I recommend more than Outer Wilds. And honestly, not only was it my favorite game of 2019, but it’s also the game I’d recommend most of everything offered on Game Pass, AAA included. Developed by Mobius Digital and published by the can-do-no-wrong Annapurna Interactive, Outer Wilds starts with you waking up at a campfire, leaving your home planet, and exploring the unknown galaxy for the first time. The Majora’s Mask-esque catch is that the sun’s about to go supernova in 22 minutes, and once it does that, you wake up back in front of that very same campfire.
While your progress in the galaxy resets after every death, the information you gather is retained. On each run, you gain a bit of enlightenment as you piece together the clues of an ancient civilization, stumble upon other lonely cosmonauts, learn to understand the various planets and celestial bodies, and ultimately try to figure out why the sun keeps exploding. The soundtrack is beautiful, the story is evocative, and figuring out the puzzles make you feel like an absolute genius. No game has ever felt so impossibly larger, while also being so intimate in its storytelling. It’s truly one of the classics of the past decade.
Oxenfree is a point-and-click adventure game that combines so many things I love. Equal parts Freaks and Geeks, Poltergeist, and Lost (yes, a second Lost reference), it pulls inspiration from all these and much more, and draws them into a compelling coming-of-age story. The characters are fantastic, the music is top-notch, and the branching story makes it feel like you’ve authored your own tale by the time you reach your specific ending.
Perhaps the most impressive thing about Oxenfree is just how natural and fluid its dialogue system is. You’re not locked in place while a conversation is going on, instead, you’re free to wander about the scene. Imagine an interactive Aaron Sorkin walk-and-talk — saunter too far away, and a character will be annoyed that you just wandered off. Come back closer, and they’ll give an exacerbated sigh before picking back up where they left off. All of this helps its wonderful cast of characters shine throughout this spooky adventure.
I’m continually amazed at how well Spiritfarer takes so many disparate elements from some of my favorite games ever made, and melds them into a perfect union of rewarding gameplay and devastatingly personal storytelling. You play as a spiritual guide who sails the seas exploring the world of limbo, gathering up new crew members, and building up your nautical vessel. All of this includes a great mixture of the kind of town-building and resource management you’d find in Stardew Valley and Animal Crossing, with some light platforming and Metroidvania-style upgrades that make revisiting earlier locations a treat. Also, it features some of the absolute best music of 2020.
But the core of Spiritfarer involves bonding with your crewmates and deepening your relationship until you reach a point that they’re ready to leave this limbo and journey into whatever might come next. It’s here that you personally take them to the Everdoor, a gateway to the after-afterlife. And it’s here that the game displays its incredible thoughts on life, death, and whatever might come after. Some characters are excited for what comes next, others are afraid of the unknown, and some are so numb to the pain of life that they can’t muster up the energy to care. Spiritfarer is truly a singular experience, and one of my favorite games of 2020.
What Remains of Edith Finch
I’ll never get tired of recommending What Remains of Edith Finch, which contains one of the most heart-breaking scenes in video game history. A first-person exploration game (Just don’t call it a walking simulator.) in the vein of Gone Home and Firewatch, Edith Finch sees you exploring a massive and sprawling seaside home and parsing through the belongings of several generations of the Finch family, all of whom met untimely deaths at the hands of what many feel was a familial curse from centuries ago.
Each room you enter belongs to one member of the family from throughout time. Through the items that meant most to them, you’ll enter a series of vignettes that chronicle the final moments of their respective lives. Each short story has a unique and wonderfully-melancholy tone of their own. And despite the fact that you’re ultimately playing through a series of deaths, the magical realism of it all gives the whole thing such a strong feeling of life.
Yes, Your Grace
If you’ve ever wanted to be the ruler of a small kingdom where there are no easy decisions and any choice you make will ultimately piss somebody off, Yes, Your Grace is the game for you. This pixel art, choose-your-own-adventure version of Game of Thrones from developer Brave at Night is part management sim, part RPG mostly set around a constant string of binary choices that have tons of rippling effects on how the story progresses.
Do you wed your daughter off to a man she’s never met in order to gain an army big enough to defend your walls? Do you try to help out every citizen who needs a bit of your dwindling gold, or save the money and risk losing favor with the people? Do you send your generals out to explore the neighboring realm, or keep them inside your kingdom in the case that an emergency should arise? Yes, Your Grace delivers these sorts of grey choices one after another, and despite never being sure if I was making the right decision, the ending I ultimately reached felt very much like the creation of my own actions.
These 10 games, which stretch across so many different genres, are an excellent place to start if you want to dig deeper into the excellent Game Pass library. And given how 2020 indie games launched day and date on the service, there are plenty more coming to Xbox in the near future.